The Start of the Documentary Tradition

Discussion Starter #1 – The First “Documentary” Filmmaker
Robert Flaherty is often called the founder of the Documentary. As we discussed last week in class, documentary has it’s roots at the dawn of film itself. Flaherty finished NANOOK OF THE NORTH in 1922 – 30+ years after the dawn of film – and he is considered the founder? What did he do that made that much of an impact to the documentary world?

The answer is NANOOK OF THE NORTH. Nonfiction films before this tended to have no structure, or were structured as newsreels. What made NANOOK different? Simple: a narrative structure very similar to fiction films of the day.

Robert Flaherty created a narrative out of what seems everyday life for the Inuit. These people allow their lives to be recorded openly and honesty… as much as audiences of the day could tell.

Of course one of the things that we don’t know is that the film known as NANOOK OF THE NORTH actually was the 2nd film made about the Inuit. The first film, which Flaherty thought was bad, actually was lost in a fire.

In Flaherty’s own words:
“My wife and I thought it over for a long time. At last we realised why the film was bad, and we began to get a glimmer that perhaps if I went back to the North, where I had lived for ten years and knew the people intimately, I could make a film that this time would go. Why not take, we said to each other, a typical Eskimo and his family and make a biography of their lives through a year. What biography of any man could be interesting? Here is a man who has less resources than any other man in the world. He lives in a desolation that no other race could possibly survive. His life is a constant fight against starvation. Nothing grows; he must depend utterly on what he can kill; and all this against the most terrifying of tyrants – the bitter climate of the North, the bitterest climate in the world.

… The urge that I had to make Nanook came from the way I felt about these people, my admiration for them; I wanted to tell others about them. This was my whole reason for making the film. In so many travelogues you see, the filmmaker looks down on and never up to his subject. He is always the big man from New York or from London. But I had been dependent on these people, alone with them for months at a time, travelling with them and living with them… I couldn’t have done anything without them. In the end it is all a question of human relationships.” (Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. “Robert Flaherty Talking.” 1950. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. Print.)

Discussion Starter #1 – Flaherty clearly manipulates in NANOOK OF THE NORTH. Defend or criticise Flaherty’s decision to do this.

Discussion Starter #2 – “I am Kino-Eye”

“Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Denis Kaufman – better known as Dziga Vertov – was the eldest of three brothers who all had an impact on cinema history, but it is Vertov’s imprint that is most impressive.

Vertov believed that the camera (hand in hand with editing) could reveal truth that the human eye would usually miss. The kino-eye (cinema-eye), in Vertov’s opinion, was much superior to the human eye. The kino-eye could capture images over a huge distance, in slow motion, etc. Editing could allow people to see one scene from a multiple of perspectives. His kino-eye theory was central to all of his work.

His most important work, MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, which falls into the classic “city symphony” films popular during the time, is essentially a film about the making of a film. Vertov’s cameraman (his brother Mikhail Kaufman) experiments with his camera to obtain some of the most fascinating film footage seen at the time. Vertov’s wife, Elizaveta Svilova, is seen in the film – furiously working away creating the very montages that we are watching. The camerawork and the editing is all brought to the forefront in the film.

In Vertov’s words: “Until now, we have violated the movie camera and forced it to copy the work of our eye. And the better the copy, the better the shooting was thought to be. Starting today we are liberating the camera and making it work in the opposite direction – away from copying.

The weakness of the human eye is manifest. We affirm the kino-eye…

I make the viewer see in the manner best suited to my presentation of this or that visual phenomenon. The eye submits to the will of the camera and is directed by it to those successive points of the action that, most succinctly and vividly, bring the film phrase to the height or depth of resolution… The camera ‘carries’ the film viewer’s eyes from arms to legs to eyes and so on, in the most advantageous sequence, and organises the details into an orderly montage study.”(Cousins, Mark, and Kevin Macdonald. “The Council of Three.” 1923. Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber, 2006. Print.)

Discussion Starter #2 – Comment upon Vertov’s Kino-Eye theories. Does he have a point?

Here is the entire film on Youtube. We stopped watching at the 52:00 minute mark.

Leave a comment


  1. I could not even follow “Vertov” in this film. I am a visual person BUT this was everywhere real fast.
    I thought at the beginning, okay maybe this is about opening and closing or back and forth. I was “lost” through the whole movie. Maybe if there had been some text to help along the way or some hint of what the director was thinking…

    • That is exactly what Vertov did not want to do – give you more than what was needed. Yeah, “Man With A Movie Camera” is not what most people are used to watching, but what Vertov was focused on was the language of cinema. Most of us are used to watching Hollywood style movies. These movies are not a challenge to watch – in fact they do not require much, if any, participation on our part. Vertov wanted to interact with the powerful medium of cinema, not just be entertained by it. He was decades ahead in the world of film theory. The name Vertov will be discussed later in the semester… but don’t worry – the films that use Verov as inspiration are not as hard to follow!

  2. Vertov’s “Kino-Eye” theories hold much truth. The combination of the cameras eye and editing can reveal many “truths” that we cannot see with the naked eye. For instance, humans can not view in slow motion whenever they feel like it, only through the Kino-Eye is this possible. I understood the point of the movie, “Man with a Movie Camera” and the point that Vertov was trying to make, there was just no entertainment in it for me. I view this movie as more of a piece of art rather than a “movie”. Nowadays, like has been said, we aren’t trained to watch movies such as these.

  3. I have to agree with most of the class Vertov’s film set out to show us the truth in everyday life, and that humans are creatures of habit . there are other subtle stories through-out the film , such as the references to the city, that the city wakes , and sleeps with the people who inhabit it . there was also many references to the man with the movie camera, its almost like he means to include himself in the film, as far as i am concerned . i wouldn’t classify this as a documentary, i would have to classify it as a parody of the human race, and it to me it showed one truth that people are not as diffrent as we might think, we all work , eat sleep, live , and die

    • So what traits make a documentary if this is not one? Also where do those trait originate from?

      • like we discussed befor i see a lot of traits from french new wave and cinema verte( hope i spelled that right) i am not quite sure who inspired who, but the art of capturing life as it is, and using minimal camera effects , and using to kind of overload you brain with a bunch of information at a high speed. is something he pioneered, it was like he was trying to show us everything about humanity all at once.

        also i take back what i said about this not being a documentary, in my opinion a documentary should have a story. though the story in this movie was not apparent, it was still there , i guess what threw me for a loop was the way it was presented. People now a days process the story a lot slower then vertov was showing us. If you think about it he was showing us a story we are used to seeing told in hours in a matter of minutes, and at the end of it all, all these little stories combine to tell a story about humanity as a whole , and how we are all apart of a bigger picture we are all cogs in the machine known as life. or at least that’s what i took from it

  4. Vertov’s film doesn’t feel like a documentary because it is more abstract. Nanook was easier to follow, so it was easier to accept as the truth. And yet Vertov’s movie contained mostly candid reactions, so it was the more “truthful” of the two. Most viewers associate abstraction with subjectivity, and truth be told I had a hard time following this piece. I think that is what Vertov was going for. He is not only trying to show the importance of everyone in a society; of filmmaker and editor; but of audience as well. In trying to connect the dots of this film, the audience becomes the final piece of the creative process. Throughout the movie he shows what incredible lengths the filmmaker and editor must go through to create the footage, but it is the audience’s duty to analyze it’s meaning. That is why Vertov goes out of his way to say “A Film Without Intertitles!”, because he wants us to reach the message of this movie without his narration.

  5. OK, Vertov did really made his words “I am kino-eye”. The movie made me dizzy. I couldn’t even follow what was going on. Many faces and many scenes swift changed, he seems like that he do not care about the feeling of viewers, but his. “I want you guys see everywhere around you…at…at the same time!” The truth he didn’t ask is if we would like to see everything. lol

  6. clintwinters

     /  January 25, 2012

    The “Kino-eye” is an interesting concept, and it holds at least some merit in the sense that the camera can see things that the human eye can’t, but I’m going to have to disagree with his wording of revealing truth. Slow motion isn’t truth, it’s a skewing of the truth. The runner can’t stop over the hurdle in mid air for as long as you want. The Kino-Eye isn’t telling truth, it’s just showing us things in a way different than what actually happened. Can it show us something true that we missed? Sure. but that data comes at the cost of the truth of how fast the runner was going. I don’t want to call it the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle but I just did. when we gain one bit of truth from the kino-eye, we lose something else. It doesn’t show us more truth, just different truth.

    That said I think it’s still a valid method to use if you can live without the bit of the truth you sacrifice.

  1. Dawn of a New Cinema « History of Documentary

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