A New History of Documentary Film

As I’ve immersed myself in documentary films over the past 3 months, I’ve gotten more curious about the history and tradition that informs the films being produced today. I found myself wondering, who made the first documentary film? Where did cinema verite come from? How come Canada has a national film board that supports documentary filmmakers and we don’t? So I picked up a used copy of A New History of Documentary Film, which is written for classroom use, by a pair of academics, Jack Ellis and Betsy McLane.

After reading this book, I’ve got a solid picture of where documentary film came from, who the major figures were and are, and why documentary developed differently in Canada, Great Britain and the US. It’s a young medium, really, when you consider the first feature-length documentary ever made, Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty, was released in 1922. What’s really cool, is that very first film is still in print – I was able to request it on Netflix and I’ll be screening and reviewing it next week.

I also picked up a raft of new names that I’ve added to my “must see” list: filmmakers like Dziga Vertov, John Grierson, Pare Lorentz, Colin Low and Wolf Koenig, Robert Drew, Jean Rouch, Pennebaker and Al and David Maysles. I’m also now planning to screen films by Frederick Wiseman, Ricky Leacock, Les Blank, Nick Broomfield, Rob Epstein, John Else, and many others.

It was fascinating to discover just how much successive generations of filmmakers have been influenced by each other’s work. For example, Michael Moore was influenced by filmmaker Tony Buba, who began making films in a similar personal style about similar subjects as Moore, in similar part of the United States (and in fact Moore hired Buba’s editor to work on his first film Roger and Me).

The book reads like the college textbook that it is, so you won’t find particularly colorful or impassioned or entertaining descriptions of anything – it’s just the facts, presented simply and briskly. It’s a fantastic jumping-off point for further reading, with additional books referenced at the end of every chapter. Further, there’s a fantastic suggested viewing list of films at the end of each chapter as well.

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