ABSTRACT

But what exactly is a documentary? There is no set, universally agreed-upon defi nition of the term. We might say that a documentary is intended to be nonfi ctional and therefore factual. Documentaries are also inherently propagandistic, in that they seek to convince the audience of some “truth.” They can even support activism by educating viewers on a particular, often politically charged topic and urging a specifi c form of action to take. The recent history and success of documentary fi lmmaking challenge even these basic descriptions. Documentaries can be as entertaining and cinematic as narrative fi lms and formally more daring. Film critic Eric Hynes says, “The truth is that docs can and should be as varied and unruly as the world they capture.” 1 A.O. Scott asserts, “Documentary is, at present, heterogeneous almost to the point of anarchy.” 2

Many of the earliest movies were in essence documentaries, as fi lmmakers simply turned their cameras on anything that was happening-before the conventions of fi lming fi ctional pieces had been developed. Called “actualities,” these early cinematic images, like “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” and “Workers Leaving a Factory,” captured daily life in quotidian moments. Soon, however, documentary fi lmmakers began making documentaries fi lms that, while not untrue, certainly manipulated reality to make their subjects more interesting and compelling. An early landmark documentary, Nanook of the North (1922), contained scenes of Eskimo life that appeared to be real, but were in fact staged by director Robert Flaherty, including sets designed to enable the use of fi lmmaking equipment. Although these kinds of techniques made documentaries more entertaining, they were not commercial successes and were rarely intended to be.