“Documentary is a clumsy description, but let it stand.” Reading this first sentence of Griersons work caught my attention immediately. Those words alone explained something that has been on my mind since our first discussion of what a documentary is some time ago. I was never truly able to grasp what a documentary really is but this helped me understand it much better. A documentary, as it stands, is the complete opposite of what Hollywood refers to as ‘film’. Grierson compares documentary filmmaking to the unrealistic premise of big Hollywood productions, complete with actors, special effects and a script. Even if a film is “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events”, is not a documentary. Documentaries have a style of their own, similar to a big Hollywood production, which he goes on to describe later on in the essay.
Once he establishes what he believes should make up a documentary film, he starts to describe the work of a filmmaker named Flaherty. He believes that Flaherty is the example of what documentary is and that he knows home to make one properly. Flaherty makes his films by metaphorically putting himself in the film, familiarizing himself with his surroundings a making it in real life. He goes on to describe that Flaherty does not make documentaries for the sake of making them. He makes them out of fact, meaning what he knows is real and based off of what he (Flaherty) see’s.
Based on the reading, this is my final interpretation of what a documentary should be. The point of a documentary is to convey to an audience what is happening in real life and that its happening in real time, using what he calls “natural materials.” These “natural materials”, he points out, could be everyday things that we see such as a newsreel or magazines. And it’s in these elements that we get different types of information that we observed.

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2 Responses to “First Principles of Documentary”

  1.   Kevin L. Ferguson Says:

    “Documentaries have a style of their own”: what would make up this style? It seems like documentaries today look more and more like “regular” films (they have title sequences, graphics, famous people in them, big releases). Maybe the unique thing is what you said about “natural materials”? I’m wondering if there is such a thing as “natural materials” any more today, or if everything isn’t seen as being staged and false?

  2.   Stephanie Shiwram Says:

    I totally agree with you. I like how you stated that “Even if a film is “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events”, is not a documentary.” Most of the films today are “based on a true story” and scenes from real life are reenacted with actors and sets. I also agree with your closing statement about how documentaries should be portrayed in real time about real events. Newspapers and magazines are considered the “natural materials” that are needed to make a great documentary.

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