The evolution of documentary by Paul Rotha[*]

What we have come to call “documentary” did not
appear as a distinct method offilm making at any given
moment in the cinema’s history. It did not suddenly
become manifest as a new conception of film in
any particular production. Rather has documentary
evolved over a period of time for materialist reasons;
partly as the result of amateur effort, partly through
serving propagandist ends, partly through aestheticism.
We have already observed that the major portion of
the Industry’s time has been spent in perfecting the
production and sale ofone kind offilm—the illustrated
story made largely in the studio. Relatively little
thought has been given to the potentialities of other
methods of cinema (except in such rare cases as the
advent of a Disney and, even then, we may recall
Disney’s struggle before he gained commercial success),
or to the possibility that the mass audience might be
comprised of many different kinds of persons with
a variety of outlooks.
As a direct consequence, the machinery of the film
factories and the elaborate, sometimes efficient,
system of salesmanship have been developed to deal
with one type of film and only one. It might be
extremely difficult for a film of a different type, should

the public make apparent its desire for such, to receive
adequate treatment from the Trade. Thus it is in no
way surprising that when, on various occasions, new
kinds of films have appeared, the Trade has not always
been able to give them capable handling even though
they may have possessed money-making possibilities.
For this reason, although they have frequently made
their appearance, pictures dealing with natural subjects
have seldom received the vigorous support of the
Trade, nor has any really serious attention been paid
to short pictures ofan c interest ‘ type for their own sake.
Short films have been regarded much as the proverbial
gift with a packet of tea, as fill-ups and make-weights,
often given away in handfuls with a major story-film.
They are often issued in a disgraceful state ofabbreviation.
The copies are frequently mutilated or in a bad
condition. They are seldom given the dignity of a
press presentation. Not only this, but there are even
cases when exhibitors, desiring to book certain short
pictures, have found it almost impossible to do so. Most
of the initiative for travel films has come from persons
outside the Trade. It has resulted from individual
amateur effort. There is no exaggeration in saying
that two-thirds of the attempts to employ cinema for
purposes other than fictional story-telling have come
about from sources quite apart from the Film Trade.
Nevertheless, from quite an early date in cinema,
such films have found their way into production. In
face of the indifference of producing companies and
renting concerns, the desire to use the film camera for
wider aims than story-telling has increased and since

the War there has been a steady growth in public
enthusiasm for them. 1 The fact that the film camera
and cinema screen have it in their power to show one
half of the world how the other half lives has given
birth to numerous simply-made travel pictures—such
as the current FitzPatrick Traveltalks and the Fox
Magic Carpet series—yet, until to-day, there has been
little attempt to classify and analyse their respective
virtues. But it was clear from these humble efforts that
the film had every possibility of expressing something
beyond fictional stories conceived and put on the
screen by departmental methods.
By virtue of the camera’s ability to record a reasonably
faithful image, pictorial description was—and
still is—the primary intention of these documentaires, as
the French called them. Their real appeal lay in the
obvious attraction ofscenic material gathered from all
parts of the world, interpreted by the academic skill of
their photographers. Although a decided advance on
the magic-lantern lecture, these Voyage au Congo’s and
Everest’s and Pamyr’s can hardly be said to add greatly
to the film as a medium of creative power but at least
they had the merit of exploring fresh territory.
The news-reel, of course, was also making use of the
camera’s reproductive capacities by building up an
ever-changing panorama of daily events; not with
much skill it must be confessed, for its value lay in speed,
hazard and impudence. Nevertheless, its basic appeal

again rested in presenting actual events in their actual
surroundings. It was a method, albeit a crude one, of
Many other subjects crept into this growing field
of non-story cinema, exploring the fascinating possibilities
of the camera as fast as the necessary resources
could be found. Cinemagazines of the Buchanan
brand carried into celluloid the style and method of
popular periodicals ; sport was approached in personal
interviews and skilful demonstrations ofthe underlying
sciences, such as the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer series;
microscopical cinematography investigated the phenomena
of natural history and biology, notably in Percy
Smith’s Secrets of Nature and in Jean Painleve’s
beautiful fish films ; events ofthe World Warwere made
to live again with suitable injections of patriotism, as
in Bruce Woolfe’s £eebrugge and Battle of Falkland and
Coronet Islands; experiments in science and medicine
were recorded for the benefit of posterity, as in Canti’s
cancer film : all humble efforts at utilising cinema for
more ambitious purposes than mere story-telling.
But the limits to which these pictures reach are
scarcely sufficient for us to regard them as anything
more than recorded facts, with no further virtue than
their frequent use of naturally existing material and
subjects in preference to the artificial conceptions of
the studios. They make no effort to approach their
subjects from a creative or even dramatic point of
view, no attempt to govern the selection of images by
methods other than those of plain description, no
endeavour to express an argument or fulfil a special

purpose. Nor do they fully explore the range of the
reproductive properties ofthe camera and microphone
and only occasionally attempt simple editing for a
lucid presentation of facts with commentary to match.
The step that exists between this type of general
‘interest’ picture and the higher aims of the documentary
method is wider than is usually imagined.
Because these ‘interest’, travel and lecture films often
embrace no story and make use of natural material,
it is believed that they fall within the documentary
grouping. The fallacy of this belief will, I hope, gradually
become apparent during our closer survey of the
evolution of documentary.
Without entering into complex technical discussion,
it is nevertheless important to make clear, at this point,
the fundamental distinctions that exist between the two
methods ofusing the apparatus and materials ofcinema.
One hundred years ago, the skill of a craftsman was
the only means by which a pictorial record ofa person,
a place or an object, could be secured for pleasure or
reference. To-day, that craftsmanship has been superseded
by the science of photography.
From the first days of film production until the
present, most story-film technique to have emanated
from Western studios has been based on the fact that
the camera could reproduce phenomena photographically
on to sensitised celluloid; and that from
the resultant negative a print could be taken and thrown
in enlarged size by a projector on to a screen.
In consequence, we find that more consideration is
accorded the actors, scenery and plot than the method

by which they are given screen presence, a system of
manufacture which admirably suits the departmental
organisation of the modern film studio. Thus the product
ofthe scenario, together with the accommodating
movements of the camera and microphone, create
numerous lengths of celluloid, which merely require
trimming and joining in correct sequence, according to
the original scenario, for the result to be something in
the nature of a film. Occasionally, where words and
sounds fail to give the required lapses of time and
changes of scene, ingenious camera and sound devices
are introduced. It is not, of course, quite so simple as
this but, in essentials, the completed film is believed to
assume life and breath and meaning by the transference
of acting to the screen and words to the loudspeaker.
The skill of the artist, therefore, lies in the treatment
of the story, guidance of the actors in speech and
gesture, composition of the separate scenes within the
picture-frame, movements of the cameras and the
suitability ofthe settings; in all ofwhich he is assisted by
dialogue-writers, cameramen, art-directors, make-up
experts, sound-recordists and the actors themselves,
while the finished scenes are assembled in their right
order by the editing department.
Within these limits, the story-film has followed
closely in the theatrical tradition for its subject-matter;
converting, as time went on, stage forms into film forms,
stage acting into film acting, according to the exacting
demands of the reproducing camera and microphone.
The opposite group of thought, however, while
accepting the same elementary functions of the

camera, microphone and projector, proceeds from the
belief that nothing photographed, or recorded on to
celluloid, has meaning until it comes to the cuttingbench;
that the primary task offilm creation lies in the
physical and mental stimuli which can be produced
by the factor of editing. The way in which the camera
is used, its many movements and angles of vision in
relation to the objects being photographed, the speed
with which it reproduces actions and the very appearance
of persons and things before it, are governed by
the manner in which the editing is fulfilled. This
applies equally to sound. Such a method presupposes
that one mind assumes responsibility for the shape and
meaning of the completed film, performs the editing
as well as, in some cases, the photographing; a procedure
which obviously does not fit smoothly into
mass-production methods.
Within these limits, departure has been made away
from the theatrical tradition into the wider fields
of actuality, where the spontaneity of natural behaviour
has been recognised as a cinematic quality
and sound is used creatively rather than reproductively.
This attitude is, of course, the technical basis of
the documentary film.
If dates will help, documentary may be said to have
had its real beginnings with Flaherty’s Nanook in
America (1920), Dziga Vertov’s experiments in Russia
(round about 1923), Gavalcanti’s Rien que les hemes in
France (1926), Ruttmann’s Berlin in Germany (1927)
and Grierson’s Drifters in Britain (1929). Broadly
speaking, documentary falls into four groups, each of

which demands individual estimate because each
results from a different approach to naturally existing


1 The remarks of Captain F. S. Smythe regarding Film Trade
methods in his book Kamet Conquered (Gollancz), 1933, are significant.

[*] Paul Rotha. Documentary Film. Great Britain, NEW YORK:
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY, INC., 1939. Pages 71 – 78.


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