· Reviews ·

10 Classic Documentaries

These 10 documentaries from Germany, Russia, the UK and USA greatly influenced documentary filmmaking.

Nanook Of The North (1922)

Nanook (father), Nyla (mother) and Cunayou (child) are an Inuit family living in the Arctic of Northern Canada. Although many of the scenes and the storyline are constructed, and the family is fictional, it nonetheless achieves a semi-accurate portrayal of the Inuit way of life.

‘Nanook of the North’ is a fictional documentary narrative and although it is considered (one of) the first documentaries it already pushes the limits of what one would call ‘a documentary’. Many of the scenes are elaborately staged and in some cases may clearly be unrealistic. Often they may instead be serving an artistic purpose. For example in the scene where people keep coming out from inside of the canoe, it seemingly has an endless capacity – this has a humorous effect.

‘Nanook of the North’ has similar characteristics to Dziga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Camera made some seven years later in the respect that it is greatly enhanced by the use of symphonic background music. Having seen the film with two different scores the feeling was entirely different in each viewing, with the latter version offering a more complete experience.

The director of ‘Nanook of the North’, Robert J. Flaherty was at first an iron ore prospector in Northern Canada but eventually abandoned his work to become a filmmaker and the inventor of the documentary cinema genre. Although his style was unorganized and some of his film remained uncompleted or were complete by other filmmakers, his single-minded dedication to film and his method of living together with the subjects of his films created insights that one could argue remain unsurpassed even in many modern documentaries.

After completing Nanook he took on another movie Moana for which he had to travel to the island of Samoa. He had planned to spend a year living with the islanders which made some of his investors uneasy. Perhaps it was because his method required so much time that his first ‘Nanook of the North’ remained his most successful film.

Released: 1922, USA, Length: 79 min, Director: Robert J. Flaherty. Reviewed: December 6, 2007.

Berlin – Symphony Of A Great City (1927)

An independent camera follows a day from early morning till late night in the life of the city of Berlin. The film is divided into three parts with each one having a specific feeling to it.

"Berlin – Symphony of a Great City" is similar in many ways to two other famous films – ‘Man with a Movie Camera’, and ‘Naqoyqatsi’. They are similar because they all deal in one way or the other with technology and the place of man amongst it. They are all also created in an impressionistic fashion. Like in the other two films, in Berlin the camera takes on sort of a god viewpoint and paints with fairly large brushstrokes creating grandiose views of reality. Berlin has a distinct lack of freshness, at times it becomes a bit deadpan, and in general the pace is slower than in Vertov’s work. Of the three films Berlin certainly feels the most sinister. Because the editing seems sloppier some of the scenes feel out of place.

The film is broken into acts which feel unnatural and break continuity. In real life one does not feel any breaks in the continuity of time and therefore in the movie they draw undue attention to the artificiality of the film-making process. Although they do provide structure which helps to understand the change in the time of day it feels unnatural.

Original title: Berlin: Die Symphonie der Großstadt. Released: 1927, Germany. Length: 65 min. Director:  Walter Ruttmann. Reviewed: October 22, 2007.

Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

The all-seeing eye of the movie camera follows people around the different Soviet cities from early morning till late at night.

The urban stories of people among the great machines that drive the economy give the film more humanity than its predecessor the Berlin City Symphony. Although notably influenced by that film released only two years earlier Man with a Movie Camera is superior in almost all respects.

The film is highly entertaining in an almost playful and childish manner. This may because it seems to have been motivated by a true passion for filmmaking. This less severe and lighter mood seems more flattering to the contemporary audiences.

Because the film was originally released as a silent movie it was accompanied by a live orchestra. Later the film has been greatly enhanced by the use of a soundtrack. The best soundtrack to date has been created by The Cinematic Orchestra in London which gives the film a more uplifting feeling than the previous versions.

In terms of editing the film seems to be years ahead of anything that had been released at the time. The fast cuts, slow and fast motion, tracking and panning are reminiscent of the later MTVstyle and really do justice to the urban lifestyle portrayed in the movie. Although films that have a good script and a storyline that’s easy to follow tend to be better remembered than those that don’t, the advanced camera techniques and effects in this film are successful in creating enough interest in a film which does not have a proper storyline to hold the viewers attention.

Vertov greatly emphasizes the filmmaker’s relationship with his camera. Many of the sequences have a poetic feeling which is a remarkable achievement because the camera in use was very noisy and big. Experimenting with everything form of montage known to man Vertov was a blatant idealist seemingly taking his camera everywhere without any restrictions. Vertov was able to show the world what a wonderful machine a camera is and all that can be done with it.

Original title: "Chelovek s kino-apparatom". Released: 1929, Soviet Union. Length: 68 min. Director: Dziga Vertov.

The Drifters (1929)

Fishermen go to the sea, try to find the fish, and spend the whole day hard at work, eventually bringing it to the shore where people can buy it.

Like Vertov and Ruttmann in their documentary films Grierson also has tried to show a day in someone’s life. Choosing a fishing ship instead of a city creates a more specific approach to portraying one day because it is a constrained place on one single ship. Yet as in other films what becomes clear is that there are certain procedures and routines that are recognizable and happen almost in the same way every day.

Although the subject matter is different there is a certain feeling in this film that is very similar, yet perhaps in a less dramatic and very slow sort of way. For example we are shown the machinery that makes the ship work. As in the city films there seems to be a contrast between the modern and the traditional ways of life the distinction becomes quite clear within the film.

Released:  1929, United Kingdom. Length: 61 min. Director: John Grierson. Reviewed: November 2, 2007.

Night Mail (1936)

A night train delivers letters from London to Scotland. One of the most acclaimed British documentaries of that period. Features a modern-sounding poem.

In this British documentary movement film storytelling is mostly visual. Yet the most memorable part of the documentary is the recited poetry at the end of the film which sounds notably like the modern hip-hop lyrics with a beat of the railway wagon. The lyrics concisely verbalize the enormous pride the railway company takes in providing the mail service to so many people.

Detailed views of the technology involved and the factual style with many numbers given makes the film appealing to the male viewer. In some ways the film resembles visual anthropology trying to detail how the overall system functions. Scenes of the divisions and slots where the mail is put, of the machines involved in sorting the postage bundles, and caching and relaying the mail make it seem a bit like a tutorial.

In the tradition of tutorial films this documentary could be used for introducing or socializing the new workers into the culture and workmanship of the company.

Title: Night Mail, Released: 1936, United Kingdom, Length:  29 min, Directors:  Harry Watts, Basil Wright. Reviewed: October 18, 2007.

The River (1937)

Mississippi river is an important lifeline of the American economy.

The film seems to ask the question – how can we protect our children who might face poverty and misery? And in the New Deal political environment the answer surely must be top-down government intervention and social welfare. By using dams to technologically gain control of the whole Mississippi river and its system of tributaries the river is ‘tamed’ to the will and for the purposes of man.

The film makes a heavily appeals to emotions. By showing the degradation of the environment the large-scale felling of trees, the floods, and its effects on the life of the poor people that is to a high degree dependent on the river, the film becomes a sort of a justification for the New Deal government social programs.

Propagandistic tones are especially prevalent in the use music which often seems to lend its grandiosity from the American ‘We can do it’ philosophy.  There is the proud voiceover spoken in a deep voice which is familiar to people who watch American fiction films. This authoritative voice is backed up with lots of facts stating Government achievements.

For a film made as a piece to support Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms, and although the film certainly does have some very propagandistic elements, it supersedes most propaganda in its highly artistic qualities.

Visually many of the scenes are powerful and even iconic. They do a great job at describing the scale of the whole enterprise of taming the river. The film inscribes into memory the image of the mighty Mississippi river and its deep connection to the American people.

Released: 1937, USA. Length:  31 min, Director: Pare Lorentz. Reviewed: November 16, 2007.

Olympia (1938)

Filmed during the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, Riefenstahl likens the German athletes to the Greek athletes from ancient times.

Although we watched only a half an hour excerpt of the film some of the ideas expressed became quite clear in that length of time. There were idealized forms of historical references and allusions to the ideas that the German race has continuity from the Ancient Greece.

We see the strong Aryan man and the beautiful Aryan woman in their proper positions. There are people in unison joining hands for a common goal. The images seen are quite graphic and even geometrical with actors positioned at right angles.

Moreover the film is strongly ideological, and one cannot shy away from making comparisons with its content from Riefenstahl previous Triumph of the Will.

The scenes have a purity that is reminiscent and suitable to the ideals of Hitler.

Released: 1938, Germany, Length:  111 min, Director: Leni Riefenstahl. Reviewed on November 14, 2007.

The Power & The Land (1940)

In this Rural Electrification Administration propaganda film the Parkinson (a poor rural family of dairy producers) gets electricity put in, and their lives are improved by new technologies such as the electric stove and the refrigerator.

Electricity is very important for every modern person and undoubtedly the endeavor of bringing it to everyone was one of the huge undertakings of the 20th century. That is one of the reasons why in many respects this film is similar to other New Deal documentaries such as The River that all have a fixation on grandiose social reforms.

In artistic terms such big ideas spawn movies which are notable for their grandiose and spectacular photography and magnificent musical scores. The film is especially memorable for its voiceover which spews golden eggs such as ‘Milk that makes bones and muscles for the children of the nation’.

Released: 1940, USA. Length: 37 min, Director: Joris Ivens. Reviewed: November 6, 2007.

Don’t Look Back (1967)

Documentary filmmaker Pennebaker follows young Bob Dylan around London and the places where he tours. Pennebaker films in a Direct Cinema style the confrontations with journalists, with fans, and with managers and other industry people, as well one of the concerts.

Young Dylan in London starts off by saying I’m not angry, I'm delightful’. Yet in almost every subsequent scene we see a fervent confrontational young man with strong political ideas and ideals. He says he doesn’t write, he just remembers which suggests that he has a set of principles to which these ideas attach.

One can tell this is a Direct Cinema film because of the truthful way it is constructed. This does not mean that the veracity of every scene isn’t under question, but it does mean that the director has put a lot of thought into trying to convey the characters in a real way. This may be one of the reasons why Pennebaker as a skillful documentary maker has gotten under the skin of many artists including Depeche Mode, David Bowiw, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and others.

In terms of images this is filmed in beautiful black and white photography. Some of the scenes that are very much underexposed don’t bother and force the viewer to listen. This film is really all about listening to something, whether to the political ideas of Dylan, or simply his humanistic longing that is so well expressed in his songs, and most of all of course, it’s about listening to his beautiful music. There is no voiceover telling the viewer how things are, there is just the simple camera following Dylan around his life. Even when Dylan is in concert the filmmaker does his best to capture the whole thing choosing excerpts of the whole. Some of the beautiful songs make the image unnecessary.

The film takes a backseat to the personality of Dylan the 60s. It’s like a window into the age. At some points the film ventures into the areas of management and how music is produced.

It could be argued that for a period film this wouldn’t be necessary but on the other hand it makes the film seem real and less romantic.

Some of the sequences of Dylan behind the piano are the most personal. Dylan is very simple and down to earth and chats with everybody. But at other times though, he gets into arguments and talks back. What's your purpose in the world, he asks and becomes confrontational. In time he gets increasingly tired and angry, starts blaming people; feels confused.
These are the little things that make Dylan come alive.

Released: 1967, USA, Length:  95 min, Director: Don Alan Pennebaker. Reviewed: October 20, 2007.

Koyaanisqatsi (1983)

Celebration of the natural and a warning of the human technological influence of the planet and the environment. A conceptual journey through the landscapes of our world.

This film is an essay on the destructive force of the contemporary societies on the environment.  It’s an apocalyptic vision of the collision of two worlds – urban, technology and capital driven human beings versus the natural environment.

It is an associational formal system as describe by some imageologist, but presents more of a process rather than telling a story with a beginning and an end.

This means there is no temporal order of characters, and the film finds its structure and characters in the essence of its ideas.  The film invokes a mythical natural planet Earth. The Earth has stories and fairy tales, and it is a sort of a personified being; it looks alive. It makes one feel that humans are out of place on this planet.

Although the philosophy behind the film might be not acceptable or interesting for some, after seven years in production, at least visually, in terms of sound, and in terms of feeling, this film is a breathtaking masterpiece.

Released: 1983, USA Length: 87 min, Director: Godfrey Reggio. Reviewed: December 14, 2007.

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