Documentary film, a new history

This video is called A Brief History of Film– Animated Documentary.

By Steve Richards in Britain:

A New History Of Documentary Film

by Betsy A McLane, Bloomsbury, £16.99)

Sunday 20 January 2013

Any discussion of documentary film can potentially lead to some prickly issues, particularly on the subject of realism.

Critics have accused some of its practitioners as being simply illusionists who manipulate their subjects in order to create drama and box office profit.

So if you are looking for a book which tackles contentious theoretical issues like this, best look elsewhere. While A New History of Documentary Film is content to occasionally mention these sorts of arguments it remains largely detached from them.

This is probably a sensible move as the purpose of Betsy A McLane’s book is to chart the progression and diversification of the documentary film rather than become bogged down in debates about authenticity or impartiality.

And McLane proves there is more than enough interest in examining the style and content of documentary films themselves and the changing political, financial and social factors that have shaped them historically.

Her book demonstrates too how documentary film has affected society as a potent tool for social change.

It’s hinted that Britain’s wartime documentaries, which explored the potential of post-war opportunities and social improvement, contributed in no small way to Labour’s historic 1945 election and the public reforms which followed.

While taking an objective view on the value of political issues like this, the book remains mostly politically neutral.

But it does have an agenda – that of the gradually diminishing artistic quality of documentary filmmaking. There is an anxiety that the visually inventive and poetic “art of the documentary” as fostered by such pioneers as Robert J Flaherty, Humphrey Jennings and Pare Lorentz, is being lost in the homogenised and commercialised world of TV and the conversion to cheaper but lower quality technology like video.

McLane implies that all too often documentary filmmakers are sacrificing style in favour of content – interestingly, the criticism is frequently levelled against their counterparts in fiction films – and that artful execution and the skilful use of film technique are qualities which are quickly fading into the background.

This intriguing argument is reinforced by McLane’s obvious passion for and masterful knowledge of her subject.

But the book isn’t without flaws, the most immediately visible being the low quality of the stills reproduced.

More problematically, it occasionally falls into the trap of simply listing filmmakers and their work.

Perhaps this is to be expected because while the book limits itself to recounting the history of predominately English-language documentary films, the author is still faced with a potentially overwhelming amount of source material.

Luckily McLane’s breezy but articulate prose means these segments aren’t too much of a chore and her evident enthusiasm will leave readers not only better informed about the subject but also raring to locate and watch the films she’s discussing.

As such the book is a fine testament to a fascinating, diverse and unfairly marginalised strand of filmmaking.

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