UC Berkeley - Media Resources Center

CHRONOLOGY OF DOCUMENTARY HISTORY

1877: Eadweard Muybridge develops sequential photographs of horses in motion. Muybridge subsequently invents the zoöpraxiscope in 1879, a device for projecting and "animating" his photographic images.

Works by Muybridge in the Media Resources Center (MRC):

1883: Etienne Jules Marey experiments with chronophotography, the photography of people in movement.

Louis and Auguste Lumiere

1895: Auguste and Louis Lumière stage the world's first public film screening on December 28, 1895 in the basement lounge of the Grand Cafe on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris.

Works by Lumière in the Media Resources Center:

Lumiere Camera

1895: Felix-Louis Regnault films a Senegalese woman during Paris Exposition Ethnographique de l’Afrique Occidentale--the beginning of the use of the camera for ethnographic research footage

1914: Photographer Edward Curtis films In The Land Of The War Canoes, a narrative dramatization using Kwakiutl actors (originally entitled In The Land Of The Head Hunters)

Videos by and about Curtis in the Media Resources Center:

Dziga Vertov

1919: Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov issues a manifesto (Kinoks-Revolution Manifesto) calling for a new style of cinéma tic reportage that documents real life. Vertov criticizes the Soviet film industry for relying on the same fictional techniques employed by literature and theater. In his manifesto, Vertov equates contemporary Russian "film drama" with religion, both of which he considers "opium of the masses." Rather than relying on fanciful scripts and artificial acting, Vertov insists that the future of cinéma depends on reporting the truth. In 1922, he begins to produce Kino Pravda (literally "Film Truth"), a series of news reportage films that foreshadows both later newsreels and later documentary styles, including cinéma vérité .

1920’s: Various European experimental filmmakers begin to work in styles that incorporate avant-garde cinéma tic filming and editing techniques (such as fluid camera work and montage) and abstract narratives to create impressionistic, highly poetic quasi-documentary works (or "visual poems"). These works include various "city films," such as Walther Ruttmann’s Berlin: A Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, die Symphonie der Grosstadt) (1927) and Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926).

Nanook

1922: Robert Flaherty films Nanook Of The North, generally cited as the first feature-length documentary. The film employs many of the conventions of later documentary and ethnographic filmmaking, including use of third-person narration and subjective tone, and a focus on an indigenous person as the film's hero.

Videos by/about Flaherty in the Media Resources Center:

1925: Sergei Eisenstein films Battleship Potemkin, a fictional recounting of an abortive uprising again the Czar that combines documentary elements with experimental editing and narrative techniques.

1926: John Grierson (1898-1972), a young Scottish academic pursuing an interest in mass communications in the US, writes a review of Robert Flaherty’s ethnographic film Moana for the New York Sun (February 8, 1926). In the review he coins the term "documentary."

1928: Dziga Vertov films The Man With The Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom). The film uses experimental editing techniques and cinéma tic innovations to portray a typical day in Moscow from dawn to dusk. Vertov’s stated aim is to capture "life caught unawares." Rather than simply recording reality, however, Vertov attempts to transform and enlighten it through the power of the camera's "kino-glaz" (cinéma eye).

Videos by Vertov in the Media Resources Center:

John Grierson

1928: John Grierson joins the British Empire Marketing Board (EMB), a governmental agency, and organizes the E.M.B. Film Unit. In the EMB, and later in his work with the film unit of the British General Post Office, Grierson gathered around him a group of talented and energetic filmmakers, including Edgar Anstey, Sir Arthur Elton, Stuart Legg, Basil Wright, Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt, and Alberto Cavalcanti.

Humphrey Jennings

The British Documentary Movement: Selected Videos in the Media Resources Center:

John Grierson:

Humphrey Jennings

Basil Wright

1930-37: The Worker's Film and Photo League is formed in the US (subsequently transformed into Nykino in 1934, and finally into Frontier Films in 1937) with the purpose of making independent documentaries with a politically and socially progressive viewpoint. Members include Paul Strand, Ralph Steiner, Leo Hurwitz, Willard Van Dyke, and Joris Ivens.

 

Pare Lorenz

1935: During the second half of the 1930's, the United States Government embarked on an ambitious public relations campaign to keep the American people informed about the New Deal and the necessity of its programs. In 1935, the Resettlement Administration, an agency established to provide aid to farmers and other rural populations, decided to produce films as a method of getting its message to a wider segment of the public. The films produced under the auspices of the Resettlement Administration represent the only peacetime production by the United States Government of films intended for commercial release and public viewing. They also heralded a new direction for American documentary filmmaking in terms of cinéma tic style and technical sophistication.

Videos by New Deal filmmakers in the Media Resources Center:

Leni Riefenstahl

1935: German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is commissioned by Adolph Hitler to film the annual Nazi Party rally of 1934. The resulting film, Triumph of the Will, is a landmark both in documentary technique and in the use of film as an astonishingly powerful propaganda medium.

Videos by/about Leni Riefenstahl in the Media Resources Center:

Westbrook Van Voorhis

1935: March Of Time newsreel series is inaugurated, the brainchild of Roy Edward Larsen, a senior executive of Time-Life-Fortune, Inc. In the midst of the competitive newsreel wars of the time, Larsen and his backers see the need for an approach that would grab the public imagination. March of Time accomplished this by mixing dramatic reenactments, high-quality location footage, and forceful narration (provided by Westbrook Van Voorhis). The point was to inform and dazzle audiences with "pictorial journalism"—all in neat, 15-20 minute installments shown between feature films in theaters. The series runs until 1951.

March of Time on Video in the Media Resources Center:

1938: On the invitation of the Canadian Government, John Grierson visits Canada to consult on the possibilities of a national Canadian film organization. In October 1939, he is appointed Government Film Commissioner. Within six years of accepting to head the National Film Board, Grierson gathers a team of more than 800 filmmakers.

The National Film Board of Canada: Selected Videos in the Media Resources Center:

1942-1945: Hollywood film director Frank Capra, enlists as a major in the US Army Signal Corps. During this commission, he oversees the production of the documentary/propaganda series Why We Fight, intended to explain the Government's policy and wartime goals to America's hastily assembled armed troops. Capra enlists notables from the film industry on the project, including Robert Flaherty, Carl Foreman, James Hilton, John and Walter Huston, Lloyd Nolan, George Stevens and William Wyler; composers Alfred Newman and Dmitri Tiomkin. Walt Disney and his staff were responsible for animated map sequences

Why We Fight in the Media Resources Center:

D.A. Pennebaker

1950-60’s: Using newly developed, lightweght, hand-held cameras with synchronized sound, a new generation of young filmmakers in the US and Europe attempts to redefine the nature of the documentary film. Termed variously Direct Cinema (US), Cinéma Vérité (France), and Free Cinema (Canada and England), the films created by these filmmakers strive for immediacy, spontaneity, and authenticity—an attempt to bring the filmmaker and the audience closer to the subject. These films are often characterized by the use of real people in unrehearsed situations, as opposed to actors with scripts. Voice-over narration is avoided, and directorial intervention is kept to a minimum. Sets and props are never used and most films are shot on location.

Documentaries About Cinéma Vérité and Direct Cinema in the Media Resources Center:

Edward R. Murrow

1951: CBS Television inaugurates the first regular news magazine series, See It Now, hosted by Edward R. Murrow. The program also establishes a standard for investigative reporting by tackling large issues of the day, from McCarthyism to racial integration. The series runs until 1957.

1953: National Educational Television (later the Public Broadcasting Service [PBS]) is founded.

1955: Armstrong Circle Theatre is first broadcast on American television. The program is generally considered the first continuing sixty-minute series to utilize the form that would come to be known as "docudrama"—dramatic recreations of real events.

1958: The National Film Board of Canada begins production of The Candid Eye—thirteen half-hour films, many of which demonstrate the new ideas of what will come to be called Cinéma Vérité, or Direct Cinéma .

Richard Leacock

1959: Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, along with Richard Leacock, and brothers Al and David Maysles, joins Drew Associates, a group of filmmakers organized by Robert Drew and Time Inc. dedicated to furthering the use of film in journalism. Drew Associates developed the first fully portable 16mm synchronized camera and sound system.

 

Robert Drew

1960: In 1960 Drew Associates produces Primary, the first film in which the sync-sound motion picture camera is able to move freely with characters throughout a breaking story (John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary). Primary is widely regarded as the earliest example of American "Direct Cinéma ."

Selected Videos by Robert Drew and Associates in the Media Resources Center:

Jean Rouch

1960: Jean Rouch, a veteran of a decade of ethnographic filmmaking in Africa, shoots the pioneering cinéma vérité work Chronique d'Un Eté (Chronicle of a Summer) (released 1962) with sociologist Edgar Morin. The film deals with Parisians' thoughts and feelings at the end of the Algerian war. In the film, Rouch attempts to provoke a "psychodrama" in the people interviewed. His approach to documentary is to place his characters in a situation with dramatic possibilities, let them improvise, and then film them. Rouch states that Chronique is an attempt to combine Vertov's theory and Flaherty's method. He describes this film as "cinéma vérité" in tribute to Vertov—a direct translation of Vertov’s term "Kino Pravda."

Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly

1961: The one-hour documentary Harvest of Shame is aired on CBS TV on November 25th as part of the CBS Reports series. Produced by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, Harvest of Shame provides an investigative look the plight of the U.S. migratory worker and is the first of what one hostile reviewer of the program terms "shame-of-America documentaries" on television.

Lonely Boy

1962: Canadian filmmaker Wolf Koenig produces Lonely Boy, a profile of pop singer Paul Anka, and one of the earliest pop concert films. Unlike Drew, Pennebaker, the Maysles, and other Direct Cinéma advocates, Koenig integrates the filmmakers into the work "in the theory that the process itself was part of the reality of the work."

1963: On November 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder uses an 8mm Bell & Howell home movie camera to film the employees of his clothing company while they wait to catch a glimpse of President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas, Texas. At approximately 12:30pm, Zapruder films the Kennedy limousine and inadvertently captures the assassination of the president on film.

Filmmaker Emile De Antonio (1919–1989) makes Point of Order (1963) dealing with the 1954 Senate Army-McCarthy hearings. The film is the first in a series of documentaries made by him that challenge the presumptions and the working methods of cinéma verité. De Antonio uses his documentaries as a form of unabashed leftist polemic: "Cinéma verité is first of all a lie, secondly a childish presumption about the nature of film. … Only [people without feelings or convictions could even think of making cinéma verité. I happen to have strong feelings and some dreams and my prejudice is under and in everything I do." (as quoted in Rosenthal, Alan. 1980. The Documentary Conscience: A Casebook in Filmmaking)

Selected Videos by Emile De Antonio in the Media Resources Center:

1965: Sony introduces the first consumer 1/2-inch video tape recorder. Philips introduces the compact cassette for consumer audio recording and playback on small portable machines.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) are established as an independent federal agencies. NEH and NEA grants would fuel a large part of the documentary filmmaking in the US throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Bob Dylan and D.A. Pennebaker

1967: D.A. Pennebaker shoots Don’t Look Back, an early portrait of a contentious, arrogant, but always intriguing Bob Dylan. This film, together with Pennebaker’s concert film Monterey Pop (1967), were two of the earliest films using real life drama to have a successful theatrical distribution.

Selected Videos by D.A. Pennebaker in the Media Resources Center:

Frederick Wiseman

1967: Frederick Wiseman, a lawyer turned filmmaker, makes Titicut Follies, the first in a long series of documentaries made by him casting a critical, socially-alert eye on social and governmental institutions. Titicut Follies offers an unflinching look at the harsh life and treatment of the criminally insane inmates at Bridgewater Correctional Institution in Massachusetts. The film was banned for 25 years by the State of Massachusetts, on the charge that it violates the privacy of the subjects.

Selected Videos by Frederick Wiseman in the Media Resources Center:

Albert and David Maysles

1968: Brothers Albert and David Maysles film Salesman (with Charlotte Zwerin), a look at the activities of four down-at-the-heels door-to-door bible salesmen on their routes in the suburbs of Miami. "More than simply a documentary chronicling a bunch of facts, Salesman has all the power of great American literature, showing us the complex struggles and desperate humor of ordinary people trying to get by." (Garry Morris, Bright Lights, 31 [2001])

Selected Videos by/about Albert Maysles in the Media Resources Center:

1968: Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) established

1960’s and 1970’s: In the late 1960’s, many filmmakers turn away from the coolly distanced approach of earlier cinéma vérité filmmakers and embrace a more passionately partisan and openly polemic approach to filmmaking. Civil rights, anti-war movements, and the women’s movement provide the impetus for much of this cinéma tic activism. The socially and politically charged atmosphere of the 1960’s and 1970’s and the rise of political, social, and sexual activism also provide historically marginalized communities—among them, women, people of color, gays and lesbians--with unprecedented opportunities for presenting their views of themselves and the world to larger and more receptive audiences.

The 1960’s see the development of a number of independent, radical film collectives—in 1968 in San Francisco, Boston, New York, and other cities--organized to chronicle current political and social events and to produce films as a form of political protest and resistance.

Examples of 1960’s newreel films in the Media Resources Center:

1970s-- The late 60’s and 70’s and later decades see shifts in the narrative approach of many documentaries. Although cinéma vérité, third-person narrative and other earlier documentary forms continue, first-person video storytelling, fueled by the flood of camcorders into the marketplace in the 1970’s and after, begins to emerge as something of a unique genre. The genre lies "somewhere in between the essay, general reportage and the well-told tale. It is marked not only by the first person voice in testimonial, but also by the bringing of the viewer into the world of the storyteller's experience. Often socially engaged, it is rarely polemical. Indeed, it typically does not make a direct argument, but an implicit request for the viewer to recognize the reality of the speaker, and to incorporate that reality into his or her view of the world." (Aufderheide, Patricia. "Public Intimacy: The Development of First-person Documentary." Afterimage, July-August 1997 v25 n1)

Examples of notable first-person documentaries in the Media Resources Center:

1970: French documentarian Marcel Ophuls films Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitié), an epic inquiry into the response of ordinary French citizens to the Nazi wartime occupation of their country. For Sorrow and the Pity, Ophuls invented a new cinematic language and a new style of synthesizing archival footage and contemporary interviews to challenge the myth of an undivided and universally resistant France under the Vichy government. Ophuls' classic was to move from a single engagement at a tiny Left Bank art cinema in 1971 to international success and acclaim, including an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.

1971: New Day Films cooperative is formed by feminist filmmakers Liane Brandon and Amalie Rothschild to distribute social issue films by independent filmmakers--the first distributor to be run entirely by and for filmmakers.

1973: PBS series, An American Family, the precursor of what would later be called "reality TV" shows, provides a close-up, vérité view of Loud family. Directed by Alan and Susan Raymond, the twelve-episode series captures the most intimate details of the family's life, including the parents' divorce proceedings and the New York lifestyle of their gay son. The series stuns American audiences accustomed to "Leave it to Beaver" television families.

1975: Sony introduces the Betamax consumer videocassette recorder (VCR) (cost: $2295)

1976: JVC introduces the VHS format VCR (cost: $885)

1980: Sony introduces the first consumer video camcorder.

1982: Sony's Betacam, a single-unit broadcast-use camera hits the market.

1984: Release of This is Spinal Tap, a hilarious vérité-style "mockumentary" about a fictional heavy metal band.

Filmmaker Ken Burns eleven-hour documentary series, The Civil War is aired on five consecutive nights on PBS. The series achieves the highest ratings ever for PBS, averaging more than 14 million viewers each evening.

1987: PBS series P.O.V. (Point of View) premieres. The program is dedicated to providing a showcase for independent documentary filmmakers with strong political or social points of view, as well as providing an opportunity for viewers to respond to the issues presented.

1988-1991: Congress passes legislation mandating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to negotiate with a national coalition of independent film producer groups to establish the Independent Television Service (ITVS) to ensure that diverse voices be championed on public television. The board of directors of ITVS are selected by independent producers themselves. In the next decade, ITVS (based in San Francisco) underwrites hundreds of notable documentary works aired on PBS and elsewhere.

1991: On March 3rd amateur videographer George Holliday shoots a twelve-minute videotape of Los Angeles police arresting and beating Rodney King after a high-speed chase. The Holliday tape is shown so often on CNN and other television channels that one CNN executive calls it "wallpaper."

1999: The Blair Witch Project, a faux vérité documentary, grosses over $100 million in the US alone

2001-- An enormous rash of television programs utilizing some of the techniques of cinema vérité hit the network and cable airwaves—so called "reality TV." These include MTV’s Real World and The Osbournes, Survivor, Big Brother, Amazing Race, The Fear Factor, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire, The Mole, and Chains of Love.