The documentary film has been around as long as the movies. When the Lumière brothers filmed their workers leaving the factory at the end of the day in 1895, that was a documentary: a depiction of real people engaged in non-fictional activities.
When the Lumières filmed a train arriving at a station, that, too, was a documentary – it was a real train and a real station with no script or actors – but there was a twist: they filmed the train at such an angle that it looked like it was going to crash through the screen and into the theater, causing some to run, according to some accounts, or at least jump in their seats.
The documentary, or non-fiction film, then, often creates the illusion of giving us a glimpse of the truth, of real life, but the Lumières showed that choosing the perspective (literally or figuratively) for presenting the subject involves conscious or unconscious choices on the part of the filmmakers. We easily identify Triumph of the Will as Nazi propaganda, but propaganda comes in many forms. When propaganda happens to promote a viewpoint that you already agree with, it just seems like common sense. And maybe it is. Politically-charged documentaries like those of Michael Moore (Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11) and Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight; Inside Job) lead some to cry foul, while others (myself included) find them rousing indictments of a corrupt system. But one important role of the viewer is to separate facts from opinion and understand that the emotional impact of powerful images can cause us to leave our rational minds behind us.
The techniques of documentary filmmakers are myriad. Some take found footage created by others for other purposes (newsreels, home movies) and fashion them into contemporary accounts of personal lives or historical events. Alain Resnais shaped World War military films into a haunting memorial of the Holocaust in Night and Fog. Some interview participants or others with a personal connection to the facts and present their subjects as ‘talking heads’ (e.g., Errol Morris’s The Fog of War.) Others, as in One Day in September, The Thin Blue Line or Touching the Void, recreate events using techniques ranging from low to high tech. Nature documentaries like Planet Earth, Winged Migration and Microcosmos involve dozens of technicians working all around the globe using the most sophisticated equipment. Personal essay films like Tarnation require only a camcorder and a computer with a movie-making program – plus a willingness to bare your soul and expose all your family members’ deepest flaws. Many documentaries follow some sort of narrative – often chronological – while some, like Man with a Movie Camera, are free-form or even surreal in their structure and imagery. Cinéma vérité filmmakers like the Maysles brothers (Grey Gardens), D.A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back) and Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies) reject traditional documentary formats, eschewing narration and explanatory titles in an attempt to present reality, unadorned and unjudged, for the viewer to interpret. Other documentarists (e.g., Werner Herzog in Encounters at the End of the World), insert themselves consciously into their films to emphasize the subjectivity of the creative process. Essay films like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, where a fictional narrator reads letters from a fictional traveler while we watch documentary images, blur the line between fiction and non-fiction. Of course, many documentaries combine several of these techniques.
The goal of the documentary filmmaker may be to inform, to educate, to challenge, to expose evil, lies and hypocrisy, to speak truth to power, to amuse and entertain, to celebrate, to warn, to question, to present the artist’s personal creative vision. Rarely do the best documentaries simply document reality. The conscious and unconscious choices of these filmmakers inevitably shape that reality, creating art in the process.
Here, then, are my documentary lists: