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.

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