The Documentary Film
“Hollywood premieres are noted for fancy clothes and phoney congratulations. The first showing of the Department of Agriculture's documentary film, The River, at the little Strand Theatre in New Orleans last week, was marked by plain clothes and sincere praise. What the audience of educators, legislators, literati and plain people saw was a motion picture of startling photographic beauty, sweeping scope and social importance.”
TIME Magazine, 1937
Today the term “documentary” can be used to describe a wide variety of films—some factual, some semi-fictional. In 1948, the World Union of Documentary wrote this precise definition
“…all methods of recording on celluloid any aspect of reality interpreted either by sincere and justifiable reconstruction, so as to appeal either to reason or emotion, for the purpose of stimulating the desire for, and the widening of human knowledge and understanding, and of truthfully posing problems and their solutions in the spheres of economics, culture, and human relations.”
Pare Lorentz had a simpler definition, for him a documentary film was “a factual film which is dramatic.”
The first acknowledged documentary film by an American is Nanook of the North (1920) the life of an native Inuit in frozen northern Canada as photographed and directed by Robert Flaherty. What was significant was the film’s “reality.” Lewis Jacobs in The Rise of the American Film described this phenomenon, “Its fidelity alone made it fresh, honest, and far more moving than any studio-enacted film could have been.” Lessons learned from fictional motion picture techniques and a strong commitment to reality inspired some filmmakers to create powerful and original works.
The effect of Pare Lorentz and other documentary film makers who followed him is profound, as s Robert L. Snyder states in Pare Lorentz and the Documentary Film: “Today the dissemination of information in the United States can best be described as a paradox. The citizen is besieged by more information through more media than ever before, and yet information that concerns him as a citizen often fails to reach him. Through his films Lorentz proved that quality documentaries could break through the mass of messages and communicate to the viewer a real understanding of, and involvement in, the subject.”