Reel Life Stories:

Documentary Film/Video in the UC Berkeley Media Resources Center

Photography courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films

From their early nickelodeon days onward, the impulse of motion pictures has been to tell stories. In the past hundred years, these stories have taken a multiplicity of forms and styles. The feature films that we know and love-the stuff of popcorn afternoons, fantasy and desire-tell their tales with scripts, actors, sets, and other increasingly dazzling artifice. But over the course of the Cinematic Century, the movies have had other kinds of stories to tell as well. Before editing, before film acting, and well before the rise of Hollywood, pioneering moviemakers took their boxy cameras into the streets to simply record life teeming in front of the lens. While the Hollywood Dream Machine and its fictional confections eventually grew out of these early experiments, the motion picture camera also continued to be wielded as a way of framing and commenting upon the workings of the real world. As film aesthetic and film technology evolved, this "documentary" form of storytelling-of "showing life"-became more sophisticated, more pointed in its methods, intent, and use. Documentary filmmakers learned the power of the form to capture or reveal personal, political, or historical "truths" behind the images on the screen. They learned to engage the viewer with these images and truths in new ways. The documentary form itself has continued to evolve over the past century, but the documentary impulse has remained fairly constant over the course of the genre's history. John Grierson, the grandfather of modern documentary, defined this impulse simply: "… a desire to make a drama out of the ordinary…to bring the citizen's eye in from the ends of the earth to the story, his own story, of what [is] happening under his nose."

The Media Resources Center Documentary Collection

For scholars and students in a wide variety of disciplines, documentaries and feature films have become among the most important and revealing primary "texts" of this century; both are studied intensively for what they tell us about our culture, our history, and ourselves. The Media Resources Center (MRC) in Moffitt Library was established in 1979 to collect and provide media materials for use in the classroom and for individual study and research. The Center currently houses one of the largest collections of documentary films on video in the United States-close to 10,000 titles. This extraordinarily rich collection includes key works in the history of international documentary film, as well a large number of notable works by contemporary independent documentary filmmakers and videomakers. This exhibit highlights a small, representative sample of MRC's holdings.

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Media Resources Center
Last updated 5/5/03.