The documentary tradition

Authored by: Peter Lee-Wright

The Routledge Companion to British Media History

Print publication date:  September  2014
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415537186
eBook ISBN: 9781315756202
Adobe ISBN: 9781317629474


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‘Documentary’ is a term used prolifically without much agreement on its meaning. The film historian Bill Nichols called it “a fuzzy concept” (Nichols, 2010: 21). It means different things to different people, fulfilling different functions at different times. The English filmmaker John Grierson coined the term in a review of the Canadian Robert Flaherty’s film about the natives of Samoa, Moana (1926), and went on to define it as the “creative treatment of actuality” in an article in Cinema Quarterly (Grierson, 1933: 8). The definition remains unimproved upon, though the debate continues on how much license should be extended to the ‘creative’ aspect, and what constitutes ‘actuality’. Significantly, Flaherty directed his subjects, for example the Inuit in Nanook of the North (1922) and Irish fishermen in Man of Aran (1934), to do things for the camera that they would not do in everyday life. Nanook was forced to hunt with the harpoon he had long since replaced with a rifle; the fishermen were made to put to sea in the face of a coming storm they would never have braved had Flaherty not insisted. In Moana he made the Samoan women wear grass skirts.

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