Robert J. Flaherty and Dziga Vertov – The Rise of the Documentary

Robert J. Flaherty has often been called “the father of the documentary.”  Indeed his “Nanook of the North” (1922) is the first full length film that we would recognize today as a documentary.  Flaherty’s tale of an Inuit hunter whom he calls “Nanook” (that was not his real name), was presented to audiences as a window into the day to day lives of the Inuit people during the early 20th Century.

While the resulting film greatly impacted the history of the motion picture, Flaherty’s work contained various elements of fiction.  Many of the Inuit in his film were carefully cast by Flaherty (for example, Nanook’s “wives” were actually Flaherty’s girlfriends), and many of the scenes were carefully staged by Flaherty.  For instance, the Inuit of the time used rifles, but Flaherty insisted that they use spears like their ancestors did.

Flaherty’s staging of large portions of his first film can be excused to a certain extent.  What he was attempting had not been done before and he was largely making it up as he went along.  The casting and staging didn’t end with his first film, however, as many of his later films (Moana (1926), Man of Aran (1934), Louisiana Story (1948)) also contain scripted elements.

Despite the fictionalized elements of his films, Flaherty is still often referred to as “the father of the documentary.”  What he is, however, is the father of a certain kind of documentary, one in which a filmmaker uses carefully chosen subject and re-enactments in order to tell a story or make an argument.  Most political editorial documentaries, such as the films of Michael Moore, and non-fiction cable television programming can be traced back to Flaherty’s work.  But what of the filmmakers of the “cinema verite” documentary – the field in which the camera captures only reality and the filmmaker entirely separates himself from that reality?  Who can their films be traced back to?

The answer I believe is the work of Dziga Vertov, most notably 1929’s “Man with a Movie Camera.”  In the introduction to “Man with a Movie Camera,” Vertov describes his work as an experiment to separate the elements of theater and literature from the artform of film.  Instead of using a script and actors, he filmed “a day in the life of a Russian city” over three years in three different cities.  The result is innovative if only for its shot selection, but I would take that a step further.

Man with a Movie Camera has a single subject, a day in the life of a Russian city, but no story about the people of urban Russia and no particular argument for the audience.  Vertov addresses this subject through the eyes of his camera alone, using editing techniques and various shots to bring the viewer into the bustling life of urban Russia in the late 1920’s.  What the viewer sees is the truth of the city through Vertov’s camera, and they are free to draw their own ideas from what they are seeing.  Vertov, however, has no agenda except to present what he sees and convey to the audience how it feels to see what he sees through shot selection and editing.

Should the documentary filmmaker manipulate his subjects to make his point or tell his story?  Or does she stay entirely apart from her subject and allow the language of film alone (shot selection, editing, etc.) to convey what she is experiencing to the audience?  Both forms of documentary have value.  There are some true stories that would be impossible to tell without some form of reenactment.  Likewise, if a documentarian wants to present an argument, he or she has to film his or her documentary in the most persuasive way possible.  But if the documentarian’s goal is not to tell a story or persuade, but to find truth, it would follow that he or she would have a closer muse in Vertov than Flaherty.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

By D.G. McCabe

I write fantasy/science fiction, plays, and commentary on popular culture.