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


Quotes About Documentary Film and Filmmaking

In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.

--Alfred Hitchcock

Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must change.

--Bertolt Brecht

We realized that the important thing was not the film itself but that which the film provoked.

--Fernando Solanas ("Cinema as Gun")

Above all, documentary must reflect the problems and realities of the present. It cannot regret the past; it is dangerous to prophesy the future. It can, and does, draw on the past in its use of existing heritages but it only does so to give point to a modern argument. In no sense is documentary a historical reconstruction and attempts to make it so are destined to failure. Rather it is contemporary fact and event expressed in relation to human associations.

--Paul Rotha (1935)

We believe that the cinema’s capacity for getting around, for observing and selecting from life itself can be exploited in a new and vital art form"

--John Grierson, First Principles of Documentary

We believe that the materials and the stories taken from the raw can be finer (more real in the philosophic sense) than the acted article.

--John Grierson

I think it's inevitable that people will come to find the documentary a more compelling and more important kind of film than fiction. Just as in literature, as the taste has moved from fiction to nonfiction, I think it's going to happen in film as well. In a way you're on a serendipitous journey, a journey which is much more akin to the life experience. When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you're really engaged with a person going through real life experiences. So for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.

--Albert Maysles
(from "Flies on the Wall With Attitude," by Anne S. Lewis. Austin Chronicle, February 16, 2001.

In documentary we deal with the actual, and in one sense with the real. But the really real, if I may use that phrase, is something deeper than that. The only reality which counts in the end is the interpretation which is profound

--John Grierson

I am eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.

--Dziga Vertov, Kinoglas

My road is towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I decipher in a new way the world unknown to you.

--Dziga Vertov, Kinoks-Revolution

I don't know what truth is. Truth is something unattainable. We can't think we're creating truth with a camera. But what we can do, is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth.

--Michel Brault

Every cut is a lie. It’s never that way. Those two shots were never next to each other in time that way. But you’re telling a lie in order to tell the truth.

--Wolf Koenig

My obsession has been — and is still — the feeling of being there. Not of finding out this and analyzing this or performing some virtuous social act or something. Just what's it like to be there"

--Richard Leacock

We are really only successful in finding out anything when we are filming somebody who is more concerned with what he is doing that with the fact that we care filming him.

--Richard Leacock

Of course there's conscious manipulation! Everything about a movie is manipulation ... If you like it, it's an interpretation. If you don't like it, it's a lie — but everything about these movies is a distortion."

--Frederick Wiseman

I look on cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a propagandist.

--John Grierson

If you want to tell the untold stories, if you want to give voice to the voiceless, you've got to find a language. Which goes for film as well as prose, for documentary as well as autobiography. Use the wrong language, and you're dumb and blind.

--Salman Rushdie

The word documentary is problematic for me. Everybody thinks they know what they mean by it but I don't. It's a term that masks or clouds the realities of film experience, seeming to deny that fiction can tell useful sober truths and affirming that documentary can do nothing but. When I teach documentary, I use a substitute term, "films of edification," because I think the best way to describe this group of films is by their stance. All non-fiction films claim to edify. (Whether they do or not is another matter.)

--Jill Godmilow

All art is a kind of exploring ...To discover and reveal is the way every artist sets about his business.

--Robert Flaherty

Sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.

--Robert Flaherty

To the documentary director the appearance of things and people is only superficial. It is the meaning behind the thing and the significance underlying the person that occupy his attention... Documentary approach to cinema differs from that of story-film not in its disregard for craftsman-ship, but in the purpose to which that craftsmanship is put. Documentary is a trade just as carpentry or pot-making. The pot-maker makes pots, and the documentarian documentaries.

--Paul Rotha

Give us adequate images. We lack adequate images. Our civilization does not have adequate images. And I think a civilization is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it doesn't develop an adequate language for adequate images.

--Werner Herzog


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