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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.

The function on the director by Paul Rotha*

Paul Rotha


A director goes documentary by choice and not coincidence. In
so doing he seeks to serve his conscience and avoid the cupidity of
story-film as it flourishes under most studio conditions.
Documentary defines not subject or style, but approach.
It denies neither trained actors nor the advantages of staging.
Ir justifies the use of every known technical artifice to gain its effect
on the specator.
Two courses are open to the director of documentary. He may
seek themes and material at the ends of the earth in the manner
of a Flaherty; or he may face the problems of the community around
him in the manner of a Grierson. The choice is personal. These two
names plot the extremities of the dramatised documentary as distinct
from the descriptive style favoured by the lesser lights of the racket.
To the documentary director the appearance of things and
people is only superficial. It is the meaning behind the thing and
the significance underlying the person that occupy his attention.
To the documentary approach every manufacture, every organisation,
every industry, every craft represents at one point or another
the fulfilment of a human interest.
Documentary approach to cinema differs from that of storyfilm
not in its disregard for craftsmanship, but in the purpose to
which that craftsmanship is put. Documentary is a trade just as
carpentry or pot-making. As a trade its technique must be mastered
if the product is to be valuable and have meaning. But technique
alone is not sufficient.
A film must serve a purpose beyond itself if it is to survive. It
may serve entertainment (as the studio producers dictate), it may
serve propaganda (as the publicists demand), or it may serve art
as the highbrows pretend), but it cannot be an end in itself.
Because documentary is in its infancy and because production is
largely (but not wholly) made possible by serving propagandist ends,
the publicist himself is the main enemy of the director. Because
cinema is everyone’s plaything to criticise for good or bad, your
publicist will demand the inclusion of this or the exclusion of that
to the prostitution of your conscience.

Frederick Wiseman – High School

Therefore, three demands must be made by the documentarv
director: the right to theorise, the right to experiment (time and
footage), and the right to attempt to satisfy his conscience. He mav
have to travel to sacrificial lengths to obtain these rights. Becauxhe
must look to the future he will try to satisfy the publicist’s demands,
perhaps produce a bad film thereby, and get kicked in the
pants just the same. It is at present a matter of compromise, of bluff
as bluff can. If he is ambitious he will hope to get away with a
number of second-rate films, goaded on by the belief that one day
he will turn out a top-notcher.
The documentary director must remember that his theme (or
message) alone compels audience interest. There is nothing personal
in a documentary with which an audience can identify itself. Perhaps
there are mass or social instincts, but not individual emotions.
But in story-film the audience can assume a personal interest in
characters or incidents, often projecting itself into the position of a
participant. Because there is a story to divert attention from
realities, the task of making story-film is more simple than that of
documentary. In fact, the audience will accept deliberate misstatements
of truth in story-film, but to lie in documentary demands
infinite skill, perfect craftsmanship and an accurate knowledge of
audience psychology.

Frederick Wiseman – Meat

Unlike the story-film director, the maker of documentary has
yet to gain the full co-operation of the trade. The renter and the
exhibitor do not understand documentary, and I am not sure that
they have tried. They search for established publicity angles and,
finding none, invent them. Yet their habits are retrogressive.
Moana was issued as “the Love of a South Sea Siren.” Documentary
must always go forward. It needs new distributions and new
publicities. These will come.
Meanwhile, production becomes specialised, demanding mentalities
capable of approaching a multitude of treatments, from
the school-film to the dramatic industrial.
But, if it is not to go the way of story-film, documentary musl
be protected against exploitation for commercial profit alone. Its
directors must retain freedom for their ideals.

The famous Everyman Theatre, Hampstead, has been re-opened
with a programme of repertory. J. S. Fairfax-Jones, one of our
London correspondents and a prominent member of the film
societies’ movement, is a director of this new venture. Among the
first films to be shown are Le Million, Tabu, and Cimarron.

*Film Quartely, Vol. 2 no. 2, Winter 1933-34, Pages. 78-79