“A documentary does not start from a theme, but from people. To recognize who is capable it takes months to transfer a narrative emotion and build a relationship. And the premise of so much documentary cinema, and part of this exploratory work fails”
The term “documentary” was used for the first time in February 1926, in an article on the New York Sun newspaper, signed by the Englishman John Grierson, about the film Moana made by American director Robert Flaherty. Documentary is a film that documents or attempts to document reality. The documentary is not a fiction film. The subjects shot are not actors.
Sometimes the documentary film is narrated by a voiceover, in other cases there may be no comment and in still others the narrator is the subject that accompanies the viewer of the film, playing the role of “commentator” of the images.
In the past it was called “cinema verita” or film of reality. Modern documentary film often includes testimonials or interviews. In the plausible representation of reality, the documentary is a product audiovisual that aims to carry out a film documentation operation. But it becomes documentary not only the film on the reality shot as it appears to our eyes but also a character of ours days or a historical event can be the subject of our film.
More and more often in the last years we witness a “hybrid” form between documentary and fictional film, defined as docu-film that they include both real images and reconstructed or “scripted” images by actors.
John Grierson in deepening his discourse on the fundamental principles of cinema documentary and, especially around Flaherty’s work, he certainly did not intend propose a definition valid for all non-fiction production as a whole, but all on the contrary, he was anxious to identify a new approach to this form of expression filmic.
And in fact he sees in the documentary form the possibility of “critically reworking e dramatize the natural material “. Therefore to a conception of the film as “pure gaze” yes replaces the idea of the film as “discourse”, in which the images acquire the function of “Document” and fit into a wider, more structured and dramatic context. This is the reflection of Robert Flaherty, the great documentarist, the great poet of cinema.
Free from overwhelming commercial impositions, not pressured by stardom, the documentary was often the “pure” cinema par excellence. Most pre-1900 movies were news topical, however, the first film that can be made long and articulate that it can legitimately be considered a documentary was The Cavalry Academy of Saumur (France, 1897), with a duration of 20 minutes.