Reel Life Stories: Documentary Film and Video Collections
in the UC Berkeley Library's Media Resources Center

The Origins of Documentary Film:
The Lumière Brothers

Filmed between 1895 and 1897, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière produced a series of short (50 second) films that represent, in the words of film director Bertrand Tavernier "the point where "the history of invention stopped ... and the history of filmmaking began." These early cinematic efforts (termed "actualitiés by the Lumière) focused on the unadorned workings of the real world: trains arriving and departing from depots, factory workers departing from their job; parents playing with their children, and other domestic scenes.

On December 28, 1895, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière staged the world's first public film screening in the basement lounge of the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The program consisted of 10 short films and lasted only twenty minutes. The films were primarily recordings of scenes of everyday life (actualitiés). Ironically, the Lumière Brothers believed motion pictures to be a medium without a future because they suspected that people would tire of images that could just as easily be seen by walking out into the street. Nonetheless, their film sequence of a train pulling into the station reportedly caused audiences to run out of the café, screaming and ducking for cover as they believed that the train itself was about to plow into the theater. The Lumière films represent what film director Bertrand Tavernier has called the point where "the history of invention stopped ... and the history of filmmaking began."

Lumière works in the Media Resources Center:

  • The Movies Begin: The European Pioneers. Media Center: DVD 1097
  • The Lumière Brothers' First Films. Media Center: VIDEO/C 999:1678

Commentary by
Jean Epstein in
Bonjour Cinema,

A peine commence-t-on à s'apercevoir qu'il s'est produit un art inspiré. Simplement tout neuf… Le livre, l'automobile furent un étonnement mais pourvu d'ancetrês… Le cinéma est vriai… Il n'y a pas d'histoires. … Il n'y a jamais eu d'histoires. Il n'y a que des situations, sans queue ni tête; sans commencement, sans milieu et sans fin; sans endroit et sans envers; on peut les regarder dans tous les sens; la droite devient la gauche; sans limites de passé ou d'avenir elles sont le présent…

La philosophie du cinéma est toute à faire. Le ciné nomme, mais visuellement, les choses, et, spectateur, je ne doute pas une seconde qu'elles existent. Toute ce drame et tant d'amour ne sont que lumière et ombre. Un carré de drap blanc, suele matière, suffit à repércuter si violemment toute la substance photogénique. Je vois ce qui n'est pas, et je le vois, cet irréel, spécifiquement… Bien mieux qu'une idée, c'est un sentiment que le ciné apporte au monde.

One barely begins to notice that an inspired art form has been produced. Simply all new…The book, the car were surprises, but they had ancestors…The cinema is true…There are no stories…There never were any stories. There are only situations, with neither tail nor head; without a beginning, without a middle, and without an ending; without location and without direction; they can be looked at from any direction; the right becomes the left; without the limits of the past or the future, the situations are the present…

The philosophy of cinema is yet to be created. Cinema names things, but visually so, and, I as spectator do not doubt for a second that they exist. All this drama and so much love are only light and shadow. A square of white sheet, the only material, is sufficient to make the whole photogenic substance reverberate so violently. I see what isn't, and I see it, the unreal, specifically…Much better than an idea, it's a feeling that cinema brings to the world.

From: Les Lumières by Bernard Chardere, Guy Borgé, Marjorie Borgé 1985 (TR140L86C481 Main Library)

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Last updated 5/5/03.