Early experiments in the late 19th century by the Lumière brothers, called 'actualities', attempted to record reality with unedited slices of life – a train arriving at the station and workers leaving the factory. As the form evolved, filmmakers started to tell stories through cinematic devices such as camera choice and positioning, editing and transitions as well as characterisation – instigating the questions that have haunted documentary ever since: What is real? What is truth? And what is authenticity? John Grierson’s 1929 definition of documentary as the "creative treatment of actuality", while certainly limited, remains useful in that it foregrounds documentary as a creative form, not the cool objective recording of events.
Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), which documents the life an Inuk man and his family in far northern Canada, is considered the first documentary film. However, it's also widely known that the eponymous character was cast from a selection of contenders living in a nearby town, his name wasn’t Nanook, and much of the film was a dramatised account a life that many Inuit people in this region no longer lived. Nanook’s igloo was famously twice its usual size and had a wall cut out to allow for the camera and lights. Yet, the film did also serve to capture and preserve something of the traditional customs of a culture that was rapidly disappearing.
Alongside documentary’s anthropological history of recording life to preserve a culture, if only on-screen, there has also been a history of radical experimentation and reflexivity as another means to reveal “truth”. Made a short seven years after Nanook, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) doesn’t hide the filmmaking process and the construction of reality, but rather exposes it as an integral part of documentary making. Full of inventive special effects such as the dissolve, slow motion, stop motion and split screen, the Soviet film was considered obtuse at the time and under-appreciated. Since then, it has proven to be an ongoing source of inspiration for filmmakers, often appearing in top ten lists of documentary films and inspiring a participatory global remake project, where fans could replicate the original shots and upload them to a database to appear alongside the original film.
Dziga Vertov was a visionary and held a deep fascination with technology and what it could do. Born David Kaufman (also known as Denis), the filmmaker changed his name, taking on the more dynamic moniker of Dziga Vertov – a play on the Ukranian translation of 'spinning top’. Vertov recognised the potential of the machine to far exceed the limitations of the human eye. Aided by the machine, the human was able to transcend its limitations:
I am an eye. A mechanical eye. I am the machine that reveals the world to you as only the machine can see it. I am now free of human immobility. I am in perpetual motion. I approach things, I move away from them. I slip under them, into them.
Vertov believed that fusing human and machine created a form that could fully explore the notion of Kino Pravda, or 'cinema truth'. For Vertov, who claimed that “film drama is the opium of the people”, non-fiction was the only path to truth. Man with a Movie Camera celebrates modernism’s march towards the future through a dizzying parade of machines and industry. Shot in Moscow in 1923, the audience is treated to observations on work and leisure, childbirth and old age. The film opens in a cinema with the projectionist setting up and curtains being drawn, and ends with a frenetic montage that cuts between cinema, streets, transport and camera. This culminates in the final shot – a close-up of an eye superimposed with a camera lens.
Vertov not only captures life being lived, but also the act of filmmaking, revealing how truth can be manipulated, organised and re-presented. We see the cameraman, Vertov’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman, moving about the city setting up shots – on the train tracks, in the ocean, and later in a glass of beer. We also see Vertov’s wife and editor Elizaveta Svilova looking at the rushes and cutting the film.
Showing a film within a film, or the process of making the film that we are watching, has become a strategy used in documentary to highlight the performative nature and subjectivity of documentary. The French movement of cinéma vérité, or cinema truth, drew heavily on Vertov’s legacy in its attempts to reveal how documentary is constructed. Emerging in the 1960s, cinéma vérité made use of the technological advancements in cameras and sound recording equipment, which had become more portable and accessible. In Paris, ethnographer Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin trained up some collaborators who took to the streets to ask the questions: “How do you live?” and “Are you happy?” These simple questions form the basis for Chronicle of a Summer (1961) and unearthed mediations on the aftermath of WWII and the Algerian War, politics, hopes and dreams. Throughout the film, the filmmakers appear on-screen, visibly shaping the process, discussing the approaches and prompting certain conversations. For the filmmakers, the vérité, or truth, came from not only revealing the process, but also through how the camera facilitated an intimacy.
At the end of Chronicle of a Summer, Rouch and Morin gather all participants to watch the film and reflect upon their experience of what they see. The audience responds to the finished film in varying ways; either the subjects of the film were “not real enough”, or they were “too real” – as though they were acting for the camera.
Questions of "the real" and “truth', or even what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” – the appearance of truth based on a feeling rather than facts, will always be part of documentary making. Revealing the filmmaking process with the film in self-reflexive documentaries such as Man With a Movie Camera, Chronicle of a Summer and countless other more contemporary examples, reminds us that what we are watching is always construction and can therefore better equip us to interrogate what is "real".
Kim Munro is a lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University and the Conference Programmer at the Australian International Documentary Conference. Her writing on documentary has appeared in academic journals and books as well as Metro Magazine and The Conversation.