Documentary film: Foundations in the ideology of the masters

A colleague recently dove into a conversation on the topic of “content”. As a content creator, it made me take a step back and chuckle. Indeed, what the heck is content? It’s “stuff”, sure. The stuff that fills the space. In my work it’s video that goes out on digital channels. Is the relevance of that content, or its substance or value to our targeted audience what makes it credibly definable as content?  Or is it content in and of itself by the pure fact that we created it and put it out there?

Documentary film is a bit the same. At the root of the term itself, there’s the implication that a documentary film documents something, commits a situation, person or action to film. What validates that document or makes it any different than a document of fiction, a creation of someone’s imagination put on film? As documentary film evolves, savvy viewers challenge the level of “trust” we can invest in documentary as a storytelling form. Is it reality? To what extent is it truth, or an alternative representation or even interpretation of truth? Just by slapping the title ‘documentary’ on it, does that mean everything we see on the screen is “true”?

As we start the new year, full of ambition to complete those old projects or finally start new ones we’ve had slated for a while, I’m starting us off with a few quotes from some of the pioneers of documentary film to reflect on what documentary film is, and ultimately inspire us to push onward in the search for the answer through our continued work. If you’re not familiar with the names or the work of the sources quoted in this article, do check them out. There’s a wealth of work and entire film movements to be discovered that have undeniably shaped the face of documentary film. Here it goes…

“I don’t know what truth is. Truth is something unattainable. We can’t think we’re creating truth with a camera. But what we can do, is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth.”

–Michel Brault. Candaian cinematographer and pioneer of hand-held camera techniques, he collaborated with French Nouvelle Vague filmmakers and notably with Jean Rouch, considered to be one of the founders of cinema vérité in France.


I think it’s inevitable that people will come to find the documentary a more compelling and more important kind of film than fiction. Just as in literature, as the taste has moved from fiction to nonfiction, I think it’s going to happen in film as well. In a way you’re on a serendipitous journey, a journey which is much more akin to the life experience. When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you’re really engaged with a person going through real life experiences. So for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”

–Albert Maysles (from “Flies on the Wall With Attitude,” by Anne S. Lewis. (Austin Chronicle, February 16, 2001.) Maysles, with his brother David, was active in the “direct cinema” movement. Developed in the late 1950 and early 1960s direct cinema was considered the North American spin-off of the French cinema vérité. Often confused with “cinema vérité”, the genre that inspired its beginnings, direct cinema similarly sought to bring truth to the screen, but at its foundation sought to have the camera dissolve into the filmscape and not impact the subject or the narrative as it unfolds, contrary to cinema vérité, where the camera takes a much more present role in the narrative, and the audience and character are fully aware of the camera’s presence and are confronted to reflect upon the camera’s presence and purpose in the narrative.


“In documentary we deal with the actual, and in one sense with the real. But the really real, if I may use that phrase, is something deeper than that. The only reality which counts in the end is the interpretation which is profound.”

–John Grierson. A Scottish documentary filmmaker credited with coining the term “documentary” as it regards to film, in a 1926 film review for the New York Sun. Grierson described documentary film as “creative treatment of actuality”, and believed that representing the real and actual had a greater potential to show us a mirror of the modern world than any actor in a fictional ‘mise-en-scene’ ever could.


“We realized that the important thing was not the film itself but that which the film provoked.”

–Fernando Solanas (“Cinema as Gun”). Solanas work was based on what he called a “Third Cinema” in the 1970s – film focused on political and social matters. He often wrote of this form as an alternative to Hollywood cinema and European “auteur cinema”.


“I am eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.”

–Dziga Vertov, Kinoglas. Vertov, a Russian cinema theorist and documentary film director of the first half of the 20th century is best known as the director of Man with a movie camera. He developed and practiced “Kino Pravda” (Truth Cinema) starting in the 1920s, filming everyday scenes from life, involving real people, and often without their permission to film them. It resembled a newsreel form and reflected his background in newsreel photography. His theories and work went on to be a major influence on the Cinema Verité style.


“Every cut is a lie. It’s never that way. Those two shots were never next to each other in time that way. But you’re telling a lie in order to tell the truth.”

–Wolf Koenig. Canadian, also active in the Direct Cinema movement.


“My obsession has been — and is still — the feeling of being there. Not of finding out this and analyzing this or performing some virtuous social act or something. Just what’s it like to be there.”

–Richard Leacock. Canadian, also a pioneer in the Direct Cinema movement.


“The word documentary is problematic for me. Everybody thinks they know what they mean by it but I don’t. It’s a term that masks or clouds the realities of film experience, seeming to deny that fiction can tell useful sober truths and affirming that documentary can do nothing but. When I teach documentary, I use a substitute term, “films of edification,” because I think the best way to describe this group of films is by their stance. All non-fiction films claim to edify. (Whether they do or not is another matter.)”

–Jill Godmilow. Academy Award nominated documentary and fiction filmmaker and professor at the University of Notre Dame.

All quotes take from “Reel Life Stories: Documentary Film and Video Collections” in the UC Berkeley Library’s Media Resources Center