What is documentary cinema?
Films that portray the world in which we live, not one created by filmmakers. What
constitutes documentary cinema changes over time. Think about how realism changes
with time. Battleship Potemkin…Umberto D…Citizen Kane…The Blair Witch Project…
even Gravity. Films that exploit the idea that they are revealing something about our own
lived experience. A faithful representation of reality.
We hear about Reality television. Things like COPS, Big Brother, Real Housewives NY
and LA Million dollar listing…exploiting – each in their own ways – a form of
authenticity, of truth, of immediacy.
To witness the lives of people who share the same world, culture that we do.
Some documentaries use conventions and techniques from narrative cinema. Re
creations, staged events, nondiegetic music. Like our film this week, The Thin Blue
Line. And some fiction films use documentary techniques like location shooting, found
footage, nonprofessional actors.
Images can be used to convey a sense of authenticity that is entirely constructed.
Impression of authenticity can be achieved by mimicking certain techniques, like rough
camerawork, offthecuff lighting, grainy film stock.
Documentary depends on the audience feeling a sense of authenticity, to make us connect
to images and ideas that are immediate and “real.”
That’s why fiction filmmakers often use socalled documentary techniques to bring
audiences into a world that is made to be “authentic.” Saving Private Ryan Omaha beach
landing, All the President’s Men.
That’s how we get things like mockumentaries like This is Spinal Tap.
Nichols outlines 6 types of documentary films. These are transhistorical texts that inform
and shape how documentary films make meaning.
Expository, Poetic, Observational, Participatory, Reflexive, Performative
Expository: “the voice of God” tradition. Uses commentary and verbal argument to build
meaning. Use of a narrator to tell a story in factual, dry manner. Assumes a correct
answer using “logic” and “reason” through direct address to audience. Television news.
Citizen Kane newsreel.
Poetic. The poetic mode of documentary moves away from the "objective" reality of a
given situation or people to grasp at an inner "truth" that can only be grasped by poetic
arguments. Codes emphasizes visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, descriptive passages,
and formal organization favors mood, tone and texture. Abstract images. Create, suggest
myth through metaphor and symbolism.
Leni Riefenstahl’s work during the Third Reich: Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia (1938)
presents a glorified view of (Aryan) athletes during the 1936 Olympic Games
celebrating power and beauty of the (Aryan) human form – particularly German athletes.
Observational mode: Observational (objective) mode is best exemplified by the Cinema
Verite or Direct Cinema movement which emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s it
attempted to capture (as accurately as possibly) objective reality with filmmaker as
Cinema Verite – French; Direct cinema – American. Verite provokes to reveal; Direct
cinema uses the camera as a fly on the wall to reveal without intrusion.
The filmmaker remains hidden behind the camera, ignored by the surrounding
environment he/she neither changes nor influences the actions/events being captured.
Since nothing is staged for the camera, the camera rushes about to keep up with the
action resulting in rough, shaky, often amateurlooking footage.
Primary, Chronicle of a Summer
Participatory Mode: Unlike the observational mode, the participatory mode welcomes
direct engagement between filmmaker and subject(s) the filmmaker becomes part of the
events being recorded.
The filmmakers impact on the events being recorded is acknowledged, indeed, it is often
The Reflexive Mode: The Reflexive Mode acknowledges the constructed nature of
documentary and flaunts it conveying to people that this is not necessarily "truth" but a
reconstruction of it "a" truth, not "the" truth
The artifice of the documentary is exposed the audience are made aware of the editing,
sound ▯movies are a construction
Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera – the physical construction of film by people
who make decisions. Those decisions are exposed, highlighted. The Performative Mode: Filmmaker as subject.
This mode of documentary emphasizes the subjective nature of the documentarian as well
as acknowledging the subjective reading of the audience notions of objectivity are
replaced by "evocation and affect"
This mode emphasizes the emotional and social impact on the audience. Morgan
Spurlock, Super Size Me
Subjectivity is made obvious with filmmaker as subject.
These modes can be combined together in a given film. In fact, what unifies them all is
the context that unifies all documentaries. All documentaries involve presenting an
argument. Fiction films are, for the most part, about presenting a story through a plot
using fictional characters and situations to illustrate that plot.
But documentaries tell a different kind of story. They are composed of scenes, voices,
places, and objects that drive towards one goal: the argument.
Of course, documentaries, like fiction films, structure themselves as narratives. Why?
Well, stories offer us – as a culture – a lens through which to understand ourselves and
There are documentaries that aren’t interested in narrative form, and choose a non
narrative type of storytelling. This is called Categorical Form. Where information is
categorized into groups, Can be part of a larger narrative.
Often, docs are categorized into groups of similarly themed topics or sections. A way to
organize and arrange a lot of footage. Olympia is designed to showcase different Olympic
events, categorized by event.
Or a documentary filmmaker may want to convince you of something in a more overt
fashion – making the argument the central thrust of his or her narrative. This is called
The goal of a rhetorical argument is to convince the viewer of an idea or perspective.
How does a filmmaker go about trying to convince you of his or her cause?
Arguments from source – talking heads, authority figures, voiceover narration,
Subjectcentered arguments – arguments that support the subject matter using statistics,
poll results, research findings, eyewitness testimony. Viewercentered arguments – Emotional appeals: patriotism, family, religion.
Classical Style: Formation of an Industry
The Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC)
Formed in 1908
A peace settlement between Edison and American Mutoscope & Biograph (AM&B)
A patent pool comprised of various allied production companies:
Edison, Selig, Kalem, Vitagraph, Lubin, Biograph and Essanay
Provided stabilization of production/distribution/exhibition that would be needed to later
The Trust controlled:
1) Production of raw film
2) Manufacture of films
3) Manufacture of projection equipment
4) Film distribution
Licenses were issued to production companies to produce pictures.
Raw stock had to be purchased from Eastman Kodak.
The Trust controlled the market at all levels, including film supply to American
filmmakers, which resulted in a fixed price structure.
Twothirds of all theaters were fed MPPC films (approximately 6000 nationwide).
This sizable gap provided independent producers with an opportunity.
William Fox, an independent distributor, brought suit against the Trust for monopolizing
the film industry.
The 1913 decision ultimately led to the dissolution of the MPPC, and opened the door to
independent producers and distributors. The independent movement began when the MPPC formed. By 1912, the independents
were strong and well organized, and worked to supply theaters with full programs in
order to keep the Trust out of business in those theaters.
Early in 1911, Eastman Kodak felt their relationship with the Trust was politically
dangerous and placed their film stock on the open market.
Dozens of independent exchanges, but two emerged as dominant forces in the industry:
Mutual and Universal
Each company had at least 12 producers aligned with them.
They also lured talent away from the Trust, kept in tune with audience tastes, and gained
a stronger foothold on theater realestate.
This is still during the era of onereelers.
By 1914, features were growing in popularity, but an efficient distribution system was
W.W. Hodkinson, a former Trust, joined with 11 other exchanges and formed the
Paramount Pictures Corporation, the first national distributor of feature films.
This merger ensured a steady supply of films to theaters.
Within a year, others joined Paramount, including:
Adolph Zukor of Famous Players
Jesse Lasky’s Feature Play Company
Exhibitors would be contracted for an entire seasonal program.
This practice would later become known as Block Booking, selling poor films on the
strength of popular ones.
Paramount created a “run” system that graded theaters.
Theaters were graded from 1st run to 5th run depending on size, condition, and location.
Large, urban theaters were reserved for 1st run shows, while smaller, rural theaters (or
rundown urban ones) were designated as 2nd5th run.
Soon, other national distributors emerged to compete with the Paramount exchange. Essanay
To maintain a stronghold, Zukor’s production company, Famous Players, merged with
Jesse Lasky’s, Feature Play Company, to become Famous PlayersLasky.
Paramount, therefore, became the distribution arm of the largest film production company
in the world. First vertically integrated company in charge of production, distribution,
By 1918, 220 films per year were being produced and distributed under that banner.
In 1920, Marcus Loew, who owned 100 independent theaters, bought Metro Pictures
(distribution/exhibition). In 1924, Loew acquired Goldwyn Pictures with Louis B.
Mayer’s production company.
In 1922, First National adds production to its distributionexhibition network.
By 1925, the skeletal framework of the studio system was in place.
The major players included:
Warner Bros. and RKO rose quickly with the advent of sound.
Fewer companies with more power.
Having no exhibition wing of their own, the Little Three relied on the Big Five for screen
The Majors were willing to exhibit their films for a percentage of the revenue.
Competition among the studios was minimal. They vied for story ideas and new talent.
95% of all film rentals was paid to the national distributors, virtually shutting out
independent producers and distributors.
By 1945, there were 18,000 theaters in operation in the U.S.A. The Big Five operated 3,000.
These represented the largest and most profitable houses in the country, generating 70%
of the nation’s box office receipts.
It was common practice for the Majors to play each other’s films in noncompetitive
areas to generate more revenue for theaters.
19171960 a homogeneous style dominated American studio filmmaking – a style whose
principles remain constant across genres, studios, practitioners, and decades.
What are the conventions of Hollywood style?
Internal rules tell the story: limited individual innovation; realistic (probable and
historical); concealment of artifice through techniques of continuity; unambiguous
storytellingn; emotional… this defines the classical.
A system larger than the sum of its parts: Bazin wrote, “The American cinema is a
classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable, i.e., not onl