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Tracing The Footprints Of Documentary Film Making

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

An art form which has over a hundred years depicted the serendipitous romanticism, surrealism and activism of the journey of life. Extreme naturalism is the key; transcending the quandaries of human existence, documentary films go beyond the archetypal perception, unraveling the psychedelic mysteries of life, always giving a “voice to the voiceless”.

The art of documentary film-making traces its roots to pre-1900s when the French coined the term to depict any non-fictional film with an informational purpose. Often referred to as “actuality films”, these would include very short stretches of filming often a minute or less in length. There was no form of conceptualization of a real-life event or depiction of consciousness in these creations, primarily due to the technological limitations of the days. Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar (Save Dada) who in 1899 shot a wrestling match was probably the earliest traces of “topical” films in the Indian film industry. He is also accredited to have made the first Indian newsreel in 1901 filming the public reception of Raghjunath P. Paranjpye who had won a special distinction in Maths at Cambridge. Chitrapat Kaysa Taya Kartat (How films are made) (1917) directed by Dadasaheb Phalke, the “Father of Indian fiction film”, is another significant milestone in the genre of Indian “actuality” films.

The Czech filmmaker and theoretician Vit Janecek was one of the first few individuals who improvised the term “documentary film” to replace a “documental film”, to dramatize the camera shot on the spot, to depict discursive interests of a cultural-social domain. The first few such attempts were by the Lumiere Brothers which showed short clippings of a train entering a station, factory workers leaving a plant, etc. Romanticism found its way into the first official documentary film, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), a contemporary look at the life of Canadian Inuit Eskimos living in the Arctic. However, the term “documentary” was first used in a review of Flaherty’s (also referred to as the “Father of the Documentary Film”) Moana in 1926. Over the years with the availability of cheaper 16mm film stock and the rising political movements in Russia and UK, documentary films gradually became an avenue to reach out to the masses. Films were projected on to factory walls and screens set up in church halls trying to raise awareness about unemployment, poverty and fascism. Thus we see the birth of the “alternative newsreels” in the 1930s, a generation of left-wing film makers motivated to guide the people from apathy to activism. The genre of “newsreels” was also sometimes staged, re-enacting some of the actual events which occurred. Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Pravda (literally translated as “film truth”) newsreel series depicted the everyday lives of bourgeois, trying to send a deeper message through a metaphorical montage of real-life recordings – often even using hidden cameras. This creation inspired the birth of cinema verite as another form of documentary, which utilized Vertov’s technique of juxtaposing scenes and non-intrusive filming techniques. This form of documentary film stressed on retaining the pristine form and authenticity of naturalism. John Grierson was the first documentary film maker and critic who coined the term “documentary” in writing a review for Flaherty’s Moana. He also extended the idea portrayed by Vertov, defining the art form as a “creative treatment of actuality”. This decade also saw the birth of documentary film-making in India with the creative acumen of Dr. P.V. Pathy, K.S. Hirlekar and D.G. Tendulkar.

Later into the 1930s and 1940s, documentary films became more propagandistic in nature stressing the marginalized and laboring majority of the Years of Depression and War Years. This form of media took up an activist role in its efforts to comprehend the reality and an ethical responsibility. Triumph of the Will (1934) was a masterpiece from Leni Riefenstahl, very much controversial and propagandistic in its horrifying depiction of the Nazi Part Congress rally in Nuremberg. In spite of the controversy surrounding the creation, in the realm of cinematography, this creation has earned laurels beyond par from critiques. The year 1940 is a significant milestone in Indian Documentary film making, wherein the British Government created the Film Advisory Board (FAB) to provide the infrastructure to boost the war propaganda effort. In 1943, the Information Films of India (IFI) and the Indian News Parade (INP) were formed to expand and consolidate film production and distribution units. Between 1940 and 1946, the FAB and the IFI produced more than 170 films apart from the INP newsreels. Unfortunately in the year 1946, government grants to these institutions were drastically reduced and there was no official film unit to record Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’ speech on the auspicious first Indian Independence Day. The efforts were revived in 1948, through the formation of Films Division, the official vehicle of the Government of India to promote production and distribution of information films and newsreels. The Documentaries were to be released under the banner of ‘Documentary Films of India.’

The 1960s and 70s perceived a theme of protest against neocolonialism. La Hora de los homos (1968), The Hour of the Furnaces, directed by Octavio Getino and Fernando E. Solanos, is a four-hour long manifesto inciting a sense of revolution against imperialism and the disasters it brought in Argentina. In addition to portrayal of social and political issues, biographical, rock concert/music-related and nature-related documentaries were also finding their way into the mainstream during these years. Filmic stylization and informational reportage in documentary films has reached newer echelons of success with the advent of hi-tech digital photographic equipments. Director/Cinematographer Ron Ficke’s, Baraka (1992), depicts the “the essence of life”, transcending the limits of nature and time. Without a single word narrated in the film, it is often referred to as have delivered a “message without words” with its scintillating visuals accompanied with pristine musical scores.

Documentary film-making started off for informational purposes but graduated over the years through to reflect the persuasive creative ambition of the film-makers. Along with the aesthetic hues of romanticism and surrealism, the films have become more diaristic, self-reflective and experimental. The infant “actuality” art form of the yesteryears soon became the energetic activist threatening to topple the hegemonic powers of oppression. The film genre has extended much beyond the etymological sense of the term and had been visualized as doing so in a more than seventy-year old futuristic article by one of its founding auteurs and theoreticians, John Grierson as “Documentary is a clumsy description, but let it stand”.

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