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Documentary Films strictly speaking, are non-fictional, "slice of life" factual works of art

- and sometimes known as cinema verite. For many years, as films became more narrativebased, documentaries branched out and took many forms since their early beginnings - some
of which have been termed propagandistic or non-objective.
Documentary films have comprised a very broad and diverse category of films. Examples of
documentary forms include the following:
Types of Documentaries

Examples or Types

Stephen Hawking - A Brief History of


Time
(1992)
Robert Crumb - Crumb (1994)
'Biographical' films about a living or dead Muhammad Ali - When We Were Kings
person
(1996)
Glenn Gould - Genius Within: The Inner
Life
of
Glenn
Gould
(2009)
John Lennon - Nowhere Boy (2009)

A well-known historical event

Night and Fog (1955, Fr.) - The Holocaust


Shoah (1985) - The Holocaust
WACO: A New Revelation (1999)
The Endurance (2000, UK) - Shackleton's
expedition to the Antarctic

Don't Look Back (1967) - Bob Dylan


Monterey Pop (1968) - Monterey
Gimme Shelter (1970) - Rolling Stones,
Altamont
Woodstock
(1970)
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from
A concert or rock festival (aka Rockumentary) Mars
(1973)
David
Bowie
The Song Remains the Same (1976) - Led
Zeppelin
The Last Waltz (1978) - The Band
Stop Making Sense (1984) - Talking Heads
Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991) Madonna
A comedy show

Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy shows

A live performance

Buena Vista Social Club (1998) - Cuban


musicians
Cirque du Soleil-Journey of Man (2000)

A sociological or ethnographic examination Michael Apted's series of films: 28 Up


following the lives of individuals over a period (1984), 35 Up (1992) and 42 Up (1999)
of time
Steve James' Hoop Dreams (1994)

An expose including interviews

An
Inconvenient
Truth
(2006)
Michael Moore's social concerns films:
Roger
&
Me
(1989)
Bowling
for
Columbine
(2002)
Fahrenheit
9/11
(2004)
Sicko
(2007)
Where to Invade Next (2015)

A sports documentary

The Endless Summer (1966) - Surfing


Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream (1995)
To the Limit (1989), Extreme (1999) Extreme Sports

A compilation film of collected footage from Why We Fight (1943), Frank Capra's
government sources
WWII series
An examination of a specific subject area

Historical Surveys (e.g., Ken Burns): The


Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, or World War II

Nanook
of
the
North
Walt Disney's The Living Desert
Natureor
Science-related
themes
The
Vanishing
Prairie
(Ethnographic, Natural History or Wildlife
Microcosmos
Films)
Winged
Migration
(2001,
March of the Penguins (2005)

(1922)
(1953),
(1954)
(1996)
Fr.)

A 'Making of' Film (or "Behind the Scenes")

Burden of Dreams (1982) - about the


making
of
Fitzcarraldo
(1982)
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's
Apocalypse (1991) - about the making
of Apocalypse Now (1979)

A 'Shock' Travelogue

Mondo Cane (1962)

Mockumentary (or Docu-Comedy)

Zelig
(1983)
This
is
Spinal
Tap
(1984)
Man
Bites
Dog
(1992,
Belg.)
Best
in
Show
(2000)
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for
Make Benefit Glorious Nation of
Kazakhstan (2006)

Pseudo-Documentary

Citizen Kane (1941) - The "newsreel" on


Kane
JFK (1991) - Mixing fact and fiction

The Earliest Documentaries

Originally, the earliest documentaries in the US and France were either short newsreels,
instructional pictures, records of current events, or travelogues (termed actualities) without any
creative story-telling, narrative, or staging. The first attempts at film-making, by the Lumiere
Brothers and others, were literal documentaries, e.g., a train entering a station, factory workers
leaving a plant, etc.
The first documentary re-creation, Sigmund Lubin's one-reel The Unwritten Law
(1907) (subtitled "A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Tragedy") dramatized the truelife murder -- on June 25, 1906 -- of prominent architect Stanford White by mentally unstable
and jealous millionaire husband Harry Kendall Thaw over the affections of showgirl Evelyn
Nesbit (who appeared as herself). [Alluring chorine Nesbit would become a brief sensation,
and the basis for Richard Fleischer's biopic film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955),
portrayed by Joan Collins, and E.L. Doctorow's musical and film Ragtime (1981), portrayed
by an Oscar-nominated Elizabeth McGovern.]
The first official documentary or non-fiction narrative film was Robert Flaherty's Nanook of
the North (1922), an ethnographic look at the harsh life of Canadian Inuit Eskimos living in
the Arctic, although some of the film's scenes of obsolete customs were staged. Flaherty, often
regarded as the "Father of the Documentary Film," also made the landmark film Moana
(1926)about Samoan Pacific islanders, although it was less successful. [The term 'documentary'
was first used in a review of Flaherty's 1926 film.] His first sound documentary feature film
was Man of Aran (1934), regarding the rugged Aran islanders/fishermen located west of
Ireland's Galway Bay. Flaherty's fourth (and last) major feature documentary was his most
controversial, Louisiana Story (1948), filmed on location in Louisiana's wild bayou country.
Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, better known for King Kong (1933), directed the
landmark documentary Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925), the first documentary epic,
which traced the travels of the Bakhtyari tribe in Persia during their migrational wanderings to
find fresh grazing lands. The filmmakers' next film was the part-adventure, travel documentary
filmed on location in the Siamese (Thailand) jungle, Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness
(1927), about a native tribal family.
Other European documentary film-makers made a series of so-called non-fictional city
symphonies. Alberto Cavalcanti and Walter Ruttman directed Berlin - Symphony of a Big
City (1927, Ger.) about the German city in the late 1920s. Similarly, the Soviet Union's (and
Dziga Vertov's) avante-garde, experimental documentary The Man with a Movie Camera
(1929, USSR) presented typical daily life within several Soviet cities (Moscow, Kiev, Odessa)
through an exhilarating montage technique. And French director Jean Vigo made On the
Subject of Nice (1930). Sergei Eisenstein's October (Oktyabr)/10 Days That Shook the
World (1928, USSR) re-enacted in documentary-style, the days surrounding the Bolshevik
Revolution, to commemorate the event's 10th anniversary.

Depression-Related Documentaries
Pare Lorentz' The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) documented the deprivations and
suffering of the Depression-Era Dust Bowl farmers. The film was subsidized by one of
President Roosevelt's New Deal organizations. Lorentz' follow-up film was The River (1937),
arguing that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) aided ecological efforts in the area. Years
later, Philippe Mora's Brother Can You Spare a Dime? (1975) compiled newsreel footage,
film clips and music from the 1930s to capture the cultural and historical forces that existed
during the decade. Michael Uys' and Lexy Lovell's Riding the Rails (1997) presented stories
of train-hopping by Depression-era hobos, accompanied by Woody Guthrie's folk songs.

Documentaries of The War Years


Documentaries during the Great War and during WWII were often
propagandistic. Innovative German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl's pioneering
masterwork epic Triumph of the Will (1935, Germ.) was explicitly
propagandistic yet historical in its spectacular yet horrifying documentation of
the Nazi Party Congress rally in Nuremberg in 1934. It was a revolutionary film
combining superb cinematography and editing of Third Reich propaganda. She
also documented the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the stunning film Olympia (1938,
Germ.) - with graceful and beautiful images of 'Aryan' athletes in competition.
To respond to the Nazi propaganda, Frank Capra was commissioned by the US
War Department to direct seven films in a Why We Fight (1943) series of narrated WWII
newsreel-style films. The first in the series, "Prelude to War," a look at the events from 19311939, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1942. David Lean's and Noel
Coward's In Which We Serve (1942, UK) was not a pure documentary film, although it
boosted the wartime morale of the beleaguered Britishers.
The Oscar-winning wartime documentary The Memphis Belle (1944),
directed by famed William Wyler (then a Lieutenant Colonel) and released
by the War Department, presented real-life footage of dozens of Allied
bombing missions by the Flying Fortress' B-17 bomber during the war. A
Hollywood-style, sentimental version of this documentary, Memphis Belle
(1990), starred Matthew Modine and Eric Stoltz.
Director Alain Resnais' Night and Fog (aka Nuit et Brouillard) (1955,
Fr.) harshly judged the Nazis for inflicting the horrors of the Holocaust on
the world. Marcel Ophuls' four-hour epic The Sorrow and the Pity (1971)
(aka Le Chagrin et La Pitie), mentioned in Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977), used an
interview technique and archival footage to tell the story of the Nazi occupation of France and
subsequent French collaboration. Claude Lanzmann's unforgettable, eloquent 570-minute
epic Shoah (1985) (Hebrew for 'annihilation') documented the personal experiences of several
death-camp survivors of the Holocaust through interviews.

Rock Concert/Music-Related Documentaries

Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock - 3 Days of Peace & Music (1970) provided a definitive look
at the three-day counter-cultural rock concert held in upper-state NY in 1969 - it was the
Academy Award winning documentary film of its year. Other lesser known rock-and-roll and
other music-related documentaries included:

D. A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1967) - a behind-the-scenes, riveting look at


Bob Dylan's British concert tour in the mid-1960s, and Monterey Pop (1968) - a record
of the international pop festival held in June 1967

the disillusioning, nightmarish and fateful Gimme Shelter (1970) - filmed by Albert
Maysles and David Maysles in 1969 during the Rolling Stones' US tour at San
Francisco's Altamont Speedway, most notorious for having the Hell's Angels as
security and crowd controllers - and concluding with the stabbing death of black
concertgoer Meredith Hunter caught on film as the Stones played Under My Thumb

Let It Be (1970), the last film starring the Fab Four; this effort chronicled the Beatles
recording their last-produced Apple studios album - a comeback attempt that actually
led to their breakup

The Song Remains the Same (1976) regarding Led Zeppelin's Madison Square
Garden concert stand in 1973

Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978), an historical documentary about The Band
led by lead singer and songwriter Robbie Robertson

Say Amen, Somebody (1980), about gospel music in a black church and the life of
gospel great Thomas A. Dorsey

Murray Lerner's 1980 Oscar-winning From Mao to Mozart - Isaac Stern in China
(1979) and Message to Love - The Isle of Wight Festival (1997)

Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) documented the


nihilistic, late 70s punk-rock scene of Los Angeles with black humor

Stop Making Sense (1984), director Jonathan Demme's first feature-length film, a
concert film featuring The Talking Heads and their frontman David Byrne

Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)

Canadian director Ron Mann's Twist (1993) - about the dance craze known as 'the twist'
in the mid-60s, popularized by stars Chubby Checker and Joey Dee

Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club (1998) followed guitarist Ry Cooder to Cuba
to present the music of various legendary, long-forgotten soneros musicians.

Famous Documentary Film-makers


Errol Morris -Errol Morris' unique contributions to the documentary film category were
significant with many examples of weird or investigative films with offbeat and unusual
subject matter:

the looney Gates of Heaven (1978), Morris' first film, a tragi-comedy about the
closing of a bankrupt N. California pet cemetery and the reactions of its devoted petowners

Vernon, Florida (1981) about the quirky inhabitants of a backwater Floridian town

the controversial thriller The Thin Blue Line (1988) that helped free accused and
convicted murderer Randall Dale Adams on Texas' death row for a 1976 murder that
he didn't commit

the biographical A Brief History of Time (1992) with ALS-afflicted and wheelchairbound cosmologist Stephen Hawking discussing quantum physics

the fascinating Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) composed of clips from
oddball B-films, about four eccentric individuals with unusual jobs (a topiary
gardener/sculptor, a lion tamer, a mole-rat expert, and a robotics scientist/inventor)

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (2000), about a caffeineaddicted specialist who designed execution equipment

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003),
composed of interviews with 85 year-old former Secretary of Defense Robert
McNamara who served during the Vietnam War (the film won the Oscar for Best
Documentary Feature)

Standard Operating Procedure (2008), including the staging of reenactments of


scandalous prisoner torture and abuse at Iran's Abu Ghraib conducted by US military
police

the bizarre yet gripping Tabloid (2010), the story of crazed and obsessed Southern
belle Joyce McKinney, who stalked Mormon lover Kirk Anderson in the late 1970s,
abducted and chained him to a bed in an English cottage where she had sex with him
for three days, to de-program him and save him (aka "The Mormon Sex in Chains
Case")

Barbara Kopple Director Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA (1976), another Academy Award winner
for Best Documentary, documented a Kentucky coal miners' strike in the early 1970s against
the Eastover Mining Company. She also directed a second Oscar-winning documentary film
on labor struggles, American Dream (1990), about striking employees at a Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin, Minnesota. In addition, she filmed an in-depth documentary on

comedian/musician/director Woody Allen and his 1996 jazz band tour of Europe, titled Wild
Man Blues (1997).

Michael Moore Iconoclastic, sardonic, independent film-maker/journalist Michael Moore has had varied
success with his personally-made films about the excesses and abuses of corporate America,
social issues and politics, including The Big One (1997) filmed during a 1996 promo tour
for his own first book Downsize This!, and the darkly humorous Roger & Me (1989) Moore's first documentary, and the most successful documentary film up to its time in film
history (Moore broke his own record 15 years later). With scathing commentary, it examined
the devastating effects of the 1986 closing of auto factory plants in Flint, Michigan (Moore's
hometown) by GM's unavailable former CEO Roger Smith.
Moore's next film, Bowling for Columbine (2002), the Best Documentary Feature Academy
Award-winner, presented the US' trigger-happy obsession with gun rights, violence, and the
American culture of fear, including a remarkable interview with NRA spokesman/actor
Charlton Heston. The film was the first documentary to compete in the Cannes Film Festival's
main competition in 46 years, and was the unanimous winner of the festival's 55th
Anniversary Prize. It was also the firstdocumentary film to be nominated and then win the
Writers Guild of America (WGA) Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2003. It was also
the highest-grossing documentary of all time, soon to be surpassed by Moore's
own Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).
Another critical expose, Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) provided a scathing indictment of
President George W. Bush's handling of the terrorist crisis and his alleged connections to AlQaeda leader Bin Laden's family. It was a controversial tirade against the Bush
administration, its 'war on terror', and government corruption. The documentary film was
included among the Cannes Film Festival's main competition (only the second time in 48
years for a documentary) - and won the top prize Palme D'Or - the first for a documentary in
nearly 50 years. The controversial film had earlier gained further publicity and notoriety
when Disney opted not to distribute the film through its Miramax subsidiary unit, and Moore
accused the company of censorship. [Supposedly, Disney feared the film might endanger tax
breaks Disney received in Florida where its theme parks were located, and where the
president's brother, Jeb Bush, was governor at the time.]
Moore's film set box-office records as the highest-grossing non-concert, non-IMAX
documentary film of all time - and at the time was the only documentary ever to win a boxoffice weekend during its debut showing. It established a significant precedent for a political
documentary by being the first ever documentary to cross the $100 million mark in the US
(eventually earning $119 million). However, the film's diatribe against President George W.
Bush wasn't able to prevent his re-election in 2004. His next film was the searing look at the
American health care system, Sicko (2007).

Stacy Peralta Life and culture in Southern California were the subject matter of documentary films
produced by youth-oriented TV producer and skateboarding icon Stacy Peralta: Dogtown
and Z-Boys (2002) surveyed the growth of skateboarding since the late 1960s by following
a group of skaters off Venice Beach and their subculture, and Riding Giants (2004) was an
engaging and exciting film about the evolution of the big-wave surf culture as seen through
the experiences of legendary, thrill-seeking surfers. It credited blonde pre-teen star Sandra
Dee and her Gidget (1959) film with the explosion of surf culture in the early 1960s.

The Prelinger Films Archives Prelinger Archives, founded in 1983 by Rick Prelinger would grow over the next twenty
years into a collection of over 48,000 "ephemeral" (advertising, educational, industrial, and
amateur) films. Included were films produced by and for many hundreds of important US
corporations, non-profit organizations, trade associations, community and interest groups,
and educational institutions. Some of the films were outrageous and sometimes bizarre
examples of 40's and 50's US propaganda that were aimed at influencing the public. They
ranged from social guidance films like Are You Popular? (1947) (which warned that only
'bad' girls park with boys in cars at night) and 'mental hygiene' films on how to engender
family courtesy and etiquette like A Date with Your Family (1950). Other subjects were
Cold War films like the cartoon Meet King Joe (1949) produced to convince American
workers of their good fortune, and Why Play Leap Frog? (1949) that also attempted to
convince workers to increase their productivity. Others were Don't Be a Sucker
(1947) and Make Mine Freedom (1948) which warned against the dangers of Communism,
and Brink of Disaster (1972), a Nixon-era film decrying the evils of 60's activism, and how
it threatened American moral, religious and ethical principles.

Biographical Documentary Films:


The Oscar-winning documentary by Richard Kaplan, The Eleanor Roosevelt Story (1965),
was a tribute to one of the most influential First Ladies in US history. Bruce Weber's Let's
Get Lost (1988) was a biographical account of the life of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Marcel
Ophuls' riveting Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988), with an
extensive examination of the exploits of the infamous Nazi 'Butcher of Lyon,' won the Best
Documentary Feature Oscar in its year of competition.
Terry Zwigoff's intriguing Crumb (1994) provided a bizarre portrait of
the underground comic book artist/writer Robert Crumb (famous for Fritz
the Cat, Mr. Natural, and the 'keep on truckin'' slogan). When We Were
Kings (1996) provided powerful insight into Muhammad Ali during the
time of his pursuit of the heavyweight world championship ("Rumble in
the Jungle") against challenger George Forman in Zaire in the mid-70s.
[The film inspired Ali (2001) with Will Smith five years later.] An
exploration of the life and writings of the controversial

playwright/novelist was found in Michael Paxton's Best Feature Documentarynominated Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997). Filmmaker Estela Bravo chronicled the life
of the famed revolutionary Cuban leader in Fidel: The Untold Story (2001). In the dreamlike, self-consciously narrated documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002), the life of
high-living showman Robert Evans - famed egotistical Hollywood producer at Paramount
Pictures (responsible for hits that included Rosemary's Baby (1968), Love Story
(1970), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather, Part 2 (1974), and Chinatown (1974)),
was revealed.
Two rock music documentaries concentrated on folksinger/songwriter Bob Dylan: D.A.
Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1967) followed a young Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of
England. And then Martin Scorsese's epic documentary No Direction Home (2005) was a
3-and-a-half hour portrait of the first six years of Dylan's career.

Documentary Films on Filmmakers:


A number of documentary films have turned the cameras on filmmakers themselves:

Eleanor Coppola's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse


(1991) provided a behind-the-scenes look at the disaster-ridden making of Francis
Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979)

Les Blank's on-location Burden of Dreams (1982) traced the grueling making
of Fitzcarraldo (1982) by director Werner Herzog

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) provided an insightful retrospective of


the films of the famed director

Time
Magazine's
film
critic
Richard
Schickel's
Turner
Classic
Movies documentary Woody Allen: A Life in Film (2002) was composed of film
clips and on-camera interview material, gave a revealing view of the revered
director's films

Schickel's next film was a definitive biographical tribute to comedic genius Charlie:
The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin (2003), featuring interviews (with noted
directors such as Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen), film clips, and a look at
Chaplin's life and career; in the following year, Schickel also completed the 90minute Scorsese on Scorsese (2004), a revealing portrait of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time

Kenneth Bowser's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003) (subtitled: How the Sex, Drugs,
and Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood), based on the book by Peter Biskind,
and A Decade Under the Influence (2003), an original 3-part documentary miniseries by Ted Demme (who died a year before its release) and Richard LaGravenese,
both documented the maverick film-makers (such as Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas,
Mazursky, Altman, Hopper and Spielberg) in the revolutionary 70s who brought a
new spirit of innovation and experimentation to Hollywood

the TV documentary The Blockbuster Imperative (2003) described the sorry state
of modern cinema and its film studios, with bloated budgets, the exaggerated pitching
of movies by marketing divisions, and moneymaking as the biggest imperative

Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate (2004), composed of a
series of interviews (and based on Steven Bach's 1985 book of the same name),
provided a behind-the-scenes look at one of Hollywood's most notorious disasters director Michael Cimino's big-budget epic western Heaven's Gate (1980), that
brought down United Artists

Anglo-Austrian director Frederick Baker's documentary essay on British director


Carol Reed's classic work, Shadowing the Third Man (2004) was an excellent
deconstruction and behind-the-scenes look, including interviews with various
principals, of the film The Third Man (1949) that the BFI voted the #1 British film
of the 20th century

Universal's Inside Deep Throat (2004), a major-studio NC-17 film (the first since
Universal's Henry & June (1990)) with controversial, sexually-explicit scenes from
the original 1972 film, told the story of the most notorious (and successful) porn film
of all time with Harry Reems and Linda Lovelace. It frankly recounted the cultural
phenomenon that resulted, and how it became a rallying cry for both censors and freespeech advocates

A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies


(1995) offered an informal and very personal four-hour documentary with
film-maker Scorsese providing commentary on dozens of carefully-chosen
film clips from some of the greatest examples of US cinema. Scorsese
himself made two notable documentaries: (1) Italianamerican (1974), about
his family life with his parents, Charles and Catherine (who has appeared in
eight of his films from 1967 to 1995), and Italian-American life in general,
and (2) the 246-minute epic documentary My Voyage to Italy (1999), an
inspiring survey of Italian cinema, including Scorsese's own connection to both his Italian
heritage and other great Italian filmmakers (such as Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, and
Vittorio de Sica).
It's All True (1993) (Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles) told about the
difficult struggles Welles faced in 1942 to make a film about South America. [This was the
film project that forced the film-maker to be out of the country during the ill-fated editing of
his masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).] East Side Story (1997), directed and
narrated by Dana Ranga, humorously (unintentionally) documented the rare phenomenon of
socialist musicals produced from the 1930s to the 1970s in the Eastern bloc.
Chris Smith's smash hit American Movie (1999), a Sundance Festival phenomenon,
documented the struggles of independent and aspiring film-maker and Wisconsin film buff
(Mark Borchardt) to direct a 35-minute, low-budget horror film. Director/narrator Vikram
Jayanti's The Golden Globes: Hollywood's Dirty Little Secret (2003) presented an expose
on the Golden Globes Awards, presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and

gave a glimpse of the media's role in marketing Hollywood films. Midnight Movies: From
the Margin To the Mainstream (2005) examined the six most influential lowbudget midnight movies: Night of the Living Dead (1968), El Topo (1970, Mex.), The
Harder They Come (1972), Pink Flamingos (1972), The Rocky Horror Picture Show
(1975) and Eraserhead (1977), and their relationship to the turbulent, anti-authoritarian time
period of their releases.

Expose Documentaries of Social and Political Issues:


Documentarian Frederick Wiseman filmed Titicut Follies (1967), a
controversial expose of the conditions at the Bridgewater, Massachusetts State
Prison for the Criminally Insane. The film was banned and suppressed for 25
years due to legal issues regarding inmate privacy. Wiseman also directed High
School (1968) that presented rebellious teens at Northeast High School in
Philadelphia. [A follow-up sequel titled High School II (1994) visited an
alternative high school in New York's Spanish Harlem.] Spike Lee's first featurelength documentary film, 4 Little Girls (1997), examined the civil rights
struggle and the 1963 hate-crime murder of four innocent victims in an African-American
Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Arnold Shapiro's Oscar-winning documentary Scared Straight! (1978) provided a look at a
prison program designed to scare juvenile offenders from incarceration in a maximumsecurity prison by contact with 'lifers' doing hard time at New Jersey's Rahway facility. The
Farm: Life Inside Angola Prison (1998), made by Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus,
investigated conditions inside the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary. The third
film by anthropological Australian film-makers Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly, Black
Harvest (1992), told a tragic story about Joe Leahy, a half-white/half-aboriginal owner of a
coffee plantation in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, who relied on the Ganiga tribe's
native labor.
A compilation film from Kevin Rafferty, the cult classic The Atomic Cafe
(1982), assembled 1940s-50s footage from US governmental sources about the
atomic bomb to show the falsity, naivete, and absurdity of many of the
statements about radiation danger during the Cold War. Rafferty used the same
style in his expose of the tobacco industry, The Last Cigarette (1999).
Another archival documentary, using black comedy about the Nazi's Third
Reich, was Hitler's Hit Parade (2003), with an edited collage of Hitler-era
propagandistic newsreel footage, advertisements, and movies (to the tune of
entertaining 30s popular music) that effectively and ironically masked the horrors being
perpetrated elsewhere. John Huston's once-banned Let There Be Light (1945), a war-time
documentary on shell-shocked soldiers, was finally released in the early 1980s after the Army
was pressured to declassify the film.
The humorous and eccentric Hands on a Hard Body (1997) explored a Texas car dealership
marathon-competition to win a Nissan pickup truck by becoming the last person left touching
it. Startup.com (2001) followed the entrepreneurial evolution (and ultimate demise) of a

new media company (govworks.com) during the Dot.com era in the first year of the 21st
century.
The BBC's expose Trouble at the Top: The People vs. Coke (2002) surveyed the New
Coke debacle when the Coca Cola Company tested the new drink product with focus groups
in the mid-80s and went ahead to create one of the biggest marketing and business blunders
ever. Morgan Spurlock's dark comedy satire Super Size Me (2004), his debut feature
documentary that won the Best Director award at Sundance,examined the reasons for US
obesity, marketing ploys of fast food companies, and the frightening health after-effects of
his 30-day binge of fast-food eating (at McDonalds). As a result, Spurlock experienced
declining health: he gained 25 pounds, developed chest pains and bad skin, had an increase
in body fat of 7%, an increase in cholesterol of 62 points, loss of sex drive, and the pain of
toxic-shock withdrawal at the end of the experiment. Another expose of the irresponsibility,
exploitation, and lack of accountability of global businesses, and how corporate decisions
have impacted the world was contained in Jennifer Abbott's and March Achbar's The
Corporation (2004).
Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War (2004) examined
what the intelligence community knew about the claims of weapons of mass destruction in
Iraq, and provided a harsh critique of the Bush administration's foreign policy and its singleminded determination to enter into war. Earlier, Greenwald had executive-produced the
disturbing Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (2002) which examined the
voting debacle and court abuses that took place in Florida following the last presidential
election. He also released Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism (2004), which
provided an insightful look at the partisan, 'unfair and unbalanced', conservative political
viewpoints of FOX-News.
Filmmakers Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman won an Academy Award for the emotional
and compassionate Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt (1989) - about five
individuals commemorated on the giant, iconic memorial quilt who battled AIDS,
accompanied by a soundtrack by Bobby McFerrin. [Earlier, Epstein had won the Best
Documentary Oscar for The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) about the political life of the first
openly-gay politician to be elected to office in California - to the SF Board of Supervisors.
Milk was brutally murdered in November 1978 by disgruntled ex-Supervisor Dan White,
who was only charged with manslaughter on a junk food defense. Epstein's firstdocumentary
was the landmark feature Word is Out (1978), which told the stories of 26 gay men and
lesbians from across America.] Epstein followed up with the informative The Celluloid
Closet (1995), based on the 1981 landmark book by Vito Russo, which surveyed sexual
myths and attitudes toward homosexuality (gay and lesbian) in Hollywood's films through
interviews and film clips.
Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning (1991) took a look at Latino and black competitors in
NYC drag balls. Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist
(1997) honestly profiled cystic fibrosis performance artist Bob Flanagan who reveled in
masochistic and S&M acts. And Andrew Jarecki's disturbing Oscar-nominated crime
documentary Capturing the Friedmans (2003) graphically portrayed the issue of child
sexual abuse and molestation within a dysfunctional middle-class Long Island family, while
examining the elusive and conflicting questions of guilt and innocence. Southern Comfort

(2001), a documentary by Kate Davis about the transgender movement in the Deep South,
followed the last year of the life of Robert Eads - a female-to-male trans-sexual who died of
ovarian cancer. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the Sundance Film
Festival in 2001, but was ineligible for an Oscar because it aired on HBO's America
Undercover series.
Two hard-hitting documentaries provided critical, anti-war commentaries on the Vietnam
War: Emile de Antonio's powerful Vietnam: In the Year of the Pig (1968), and Peter Davis'
Academy Award-winning anti-war documentary film Hearts and Minds (1974) questioned
US involvement in the Vietnam War. Writer/director Charles Ferguson's low-budget
documentary No End in Sight (2007), an informational accounting of the bungling of the
Bush administration in the Iraq War, was a well-received factual indictment of failed US
foreign policy in regards to Iraq.

Nature-Related Documentary Films:


Disney's first feature-length "True Life Adventures" entry was The Living
Desert (1953) - with incredible nature footage from the desert. Oceanographer
Jacques Costeau's underwater explorations in the Calypso were captured on
film in the Academy Award-winning The Silent World (1956) by filmmaker
Louis Malle. Bruce Brown's thrilling The Endless Summer (1966) with a
great score by the Sandals, was a popularly-received film about an around-theworld search for the 'perfect wave' by two surfers. The Hellstrom Chronicle
(1971), with spectacular close-up photography, was a pseudo-documentary about the world
of predatory insects, including a warning about an impending showdown between humans
and insects.
Other nature-related documentaries included the following: South African film-maker Jamie
Uys' Animals Are Beautiful People (1974), with the tagline "The Secret Life of Wildlife",
provided an entertaining view of the intriguing wildlife of the Namid Desert and how the
animals often mirrored the behavior of humans. (Six years after completing this project, Uys
went on to create The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981).) The groundbreaking French
documentary MicroCosmos (1996) (advertised as "It's Jurassic Park in Your Own
Backyard!") chronicled the world of insects - in close-up, with revolutionary macroscopic
cameras and film techniques (similar to Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (1982)). The
BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs (2000) (with narration by Kenneth Branagh) was a
documentary series of films by Jasper James with incredibly-realistic CGI dinosaurs. The
nature documentary Deep Blue (2003), derived from the BBC's Blue Planet TV series
surveys how creatures from dolphins to penguins live and battle for survival against predators
in the ocean.

The Oscar-nominated Winged Migration (2001) from French director


Jacques Perrin provided a breathtaking documentary about many species
of migrating birds. The highest grossing nature documentary ever made
(up to its time), March of the Penguins (2005), narrated by Morgan
Freeman in the US release, followed the perils of resilient Emperor
penguins in their quest to mate and survive in the most inhabitable part
of the world - deep in Antarctica near the South Pole. Warner
Independent Films originally paid $1 million for this Sundance Festival
hit when it was just a French-language nature documentary with the
original title The Emperor's Journey. It cost $8 million to make and
earned almost $78 million - it was the highest-grossing nature documentary, and the secondhighest gross for a non-IMAX documentary.
The most straightforward, fact-based, troubling and frighteningly relevant film in recent
memory was director Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth (2006), presented by
lecturer, ex-VP and Presidential candidate Al Gore - it clearly exposed the myths and
misconceptions that surround global warming and actions that could prevent it, with lots of
evidence: numerous charts, statistics, graphs, maps, photos, and animations. Its surprising
success during the summer of 2006 was underlined by massive heat waves baking the entire
United States. It grossed $24.1 million - setting a record as the third-highest grossing nonIMAX/concert political documentary ever made (at the time). It was nominated for two
Oscars and won both: Best Original Song ("I Need to Wake Up" by Melissa Etheridge), and
Best Documentary Feature.

Various Other Documentary Films:


Director Mel Stuart's Four Days in November (1964) provided an historical record of the
difficult days surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in late November
1963. Saul Bass' partially-animated Why Man Creates (1968) won the Oscar for Best
Documentary Short - for its depiction of the power of imagination and creativity in problemsolving. The Children of Theatre Street (1977)provided a 'behind-the-scenes' look at the
training of Russia's top ballerinas for the Kirov Ballet in a state-supported school in St.
Petersburg.
The Maysles brothers (David and Albert) directed several documentaries,
including Showman (1963) about film producer Joseph E. Levine, Salesman
(1969) about Bible salesmen, What's Happening! The Beatles in the USA
(1964), and Grey Gardens (1976) about a mother-daughter relationship.
Canadian film-makers Ron Mann and Charles Lippencott directed Comic Book
Confidential (1989) about the hobby of collecting comic books. And Mann also
directed Grass (1999) that surveyed the history of marijuana use in the US and
the government's efforts to control it.
Native Southerner Ross McElwee directed a trilogy of documentaries: the sleeper
hit Sherman's March (1986) - a modern retracing of General Sherman's route through the

South during the Civil War, Time Indefinite (1993), and Six O'Clock News (1997) about
the effects of natural disasters on its victims.
Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's first feature-length film was
the dramatic Brother's Keeper (1992) about a mercy killing (or homicide?) within a family
in a small town, followed by an absorbing whodunit, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders
at Robin Hood Hills (1996), about another perplexing criminal case.
Steve James' three-hour documentary character study Hoop Dreams (1994) profiled two
African-American Chicago high-school athletes struggling to escape their inner-city poverty
over a six-year period. Michael Apted's installments of films, Seven Up (1963) (only film
not directed by Apted, although he was an assistant to director Paul Almond), Seven Plus
Seven (1970), 21 Up (1977), 28 Up (1984), 35 Up (1992) and 42 Up (1999), followed the
same group of fourteen individuals over time (at 7 year intervals).
Trekkies (1997) dealt with the morbidly comic (and disturbing) cult of Star
Trek fandom, which featured, among other things, Barbara Adams - who
went to the Whitewater trial as a juror in her Starfleet uniform, a dentist who
named his medical office "Starbase Dental" and had his staff dress up in
Trek uniforms, a man who desired plastic surgery to have ears resembling
Spock's, and a town in Iowa that declared itself the future birthplace of
James T. Kirk. The sequel, Trekkies 2 (2004), focused on the international
cult of obsessed Trek fans and conventions.
Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007) was an entertaining documentary about Walter
Day's Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa, its International Scoreboard, the Video Game
World Championships, and various "all-pro" arcade game players from the "Golden Age of
Arcade Games" reminiscing about the early 80s. Similarly, The King of Kong: A Fistful of
Quarters (2007) was a surprisingly entertaining and compelling documentary (and underdog
story) about Donkey Kong arch rivals playing a video game popular in the early 1980s in
coin-operated arcades, and both on a quest to own the world record score: Steve Wiebe, a
lifelong "loser" middle school science teacher and his evil nemesis, the manipulative,
egotistical, BBQ hot sauce (Rickey's World Famous Sauces) heir Billy Mitchell, who was
named the Video Game Player of the Century in 1999. Second Skin (2008) was an
examination of seven lives affected by the dominant Massively Multiplayer Online RolePlaying Game (MMORPG or MMO for short) in America, World of Warcraft(played within
virtual communities called guilds), which included love and marriage between two gamers.
With incredible footage, Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition
(2000, UK/US) traced the difficult ordeal/journey of explorer Ernest Shackleton across the
frozen Antarctic in the early part of the century. The Century of the Self (2002), an
engrossing group of four hour-long films by British documentarian Adam Curtis and the
BBC, examined and illustrated Freud's theories of the unconscious in the Me Decade of
manipulative marketing, consumer culture, and corporate and political power. Xan
Cassavetes' Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004) examined the short history of the
LA-based premium cable channel (one of the first) that specialized in feature films
throughout the decade of the 80s, and its troubled head of programming Jerry Harvey.

History of Documentary Films


Documentaries have been around since the dawn of film, more than 120 years ago. Prior to
1900, documentaries were simply a way of capturing a moment on film, simple things like a
boat docking or a train pulling into a station. Two French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere
shot many of these short films, most lasting less than a minute since that was all that film
making was capable of at the time. Bolesaw Matuszewski, a polish writer and filmmaker was
among the first to identify and write about the genre back in 1898, but myth has it that John
Grierson was the one who coined the term documentary in 1926

Early 20th Century Documentaries


In the early part of the 20th century travelogue films, referred to as scenics dominated the
documentary landscape. Travelogues gave the public the opportunity to view other cultures
through a camera lens. This was in the era of silent films, so often narrators would introduce
and narrate the film from a lectern within the theater. The film industry as a whole had evolved
and documentaries were no longer short clips, most were roughly 80 minutes long shown on
two rolls of 16mm film with each being up to 1,000 feet long. During this time biographical
documentaries also featured heavily. Path, a French film company that is still around today
was the biggest producer of these types of documentaries in the era.

The Roaring 20s


During the 20-40s film as a whole was coming into a golden age and documentaries followed
along with it. Huge cinematic productions with sound and special effects were created and the
world of film was changed forever. Documentaries embraced romanticism and one of the most
famous documentaries ever, Nanook of the North by Robert J. Flaherty was produced during
this time. The 20s also saw City Symphony films, these were based in major cities and sought
to capture the lives and activities of the city. Most famous of these Berlin, Symphony of a
Great City and The Man with a Movie Camera. Two other documentary styles of the time
were Kino-Pravda which translates literally to cinematic truth Dziga Vertov believed cameras
were more accurate than the human eye and made a film genre out of it. The newsreel tradition
is important in understanding documentaries of the time. Most of the battle footage you see
from documentaries, such as those from WWI were in fact re-enactments. Often film crews
arrived after the battles and recreated scenes for filming.

Propaganda was Born


Just prior to the Second World War and all through the cold war propaganda films flourished.
They were created to persuade the audience of one point of view and often commissioned by
the government. The most famous example of a propaganda film was Triumph of the Will,
commissioned by Adolf Hitler to further the Nazi agenda. The Nazis werent the only ones
who used propaganda, the US and USSR relied heavily on propaganda films during the cold
war. Canada set up the Film Board for the purposes of propaganda and it created films to
counter the propaganda created by Goebbels in Nazi Germany.

Cinema Verit
Once again technology changed how documentary films were shot, Cinema Verit and the
closely related Direct Cinema relied on lighting, reliable cameras and better sound technology.
The ideal behind Cinema Verit was to essentially follow someone around with a camera
during crisis situations in order to capture personal and authentic reactions. The amount of
interaction the camera crew had with a subject varied with the director and their philosophy.
This type of filming used tons of film and the editor became integral to the process, they were
so important that many of them were credited as co-directors.

Modern Documentaries
Modern documentaries have taken cinema verit and combined it with a more narrative style
and they cover a huge range of topics, from politics in Fahrenheit 911, to religion in Religulous
and environmentalism in an Inconvenient Truth. Documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore
have become celebrities in their own rites. They have also enjoyed unprecedented box office
success attracting money from big studios. In comparison to a feature film documentaries are
incredibly inexpensive and because of their popularity they also attract A-List talent, making
documentaries a highly profitable business. With services like Netflix and premium cable
stations documentaries can reach even larger audiences than ever before.