Cinema started as a curiosity, a novelty. It’s hard to believe that that this invention is capable of changing the world, but in many ways, cinema has been an influence in some of the most important events that shaped the world as we know it.
When we hear the world time travel it sounds like something that is only possible in science fiction, but humanity has achieved a way to look through a window to the past, almost as if being there in person. Documentary filmmaking serves as this window that lets the spectator see the life in a different time and a different place, this window however is shaped by the filmmakers, they decided the angle, the timing and the order of images that we are going to look at. The thought of film as a window can be very powerful because when juxtaposing images and sounds the filmmakers can evoke feelings and thoughts that the audience will believe are true.
Just by separating film as Fiction or Nonfiction, the audience is already predisposed to see either the treatment of reality or a fictional story that has been staged for their amusement. The power of Documentary filmmaking lies in the fact that the audience is already expecting to see “reality” or at least something very close to it. Because of that power, non-fiction films become convincing advocates and the ultimate weapon for propaganda.
There are many examples of films being advocates, Coal Face (1935) shows the efforts of workers in the mining industry and the rise of machines that facilitate their work, and Night Mail (1936) follows the train that delivers mail to Scotland. Those British documentaries follow the lead of previous Soviet Documentaries like Turksib (1929) that gives voice to the working class and features the progress of the country thanks to the combination of manpower and machine.
The power of film as propaganda is clearly exemplified by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) which, if seen without having any knowledge of Nazi Germany or Adolf Hitler, is a powerful portrayal of a hero that comes from the skies to unite and save Germany. Riefenstahl achieved something that hasn’t been done before, with full government support and almost unlimited budget, the film became an awe-inspiring piece of cinema. A text attributed to Riefenstahl on the arrangements made for the film says: “That the Fuhrer has raised film-making to a position of such pre-eminence testifies to his prophetic awareness of the unrealized suggestive power of this art form.”
Triumph of the Will stands as a witness of Germany’s infamous past and a testimony of the power of documentary filmmaking. The footage of Riefenstahl’s film was also used by the opposition to show the demonic power of Nazi Germany, proving that films are not completed by the filmmaker but by the audience.
Cinema stands as a witness of our history, it shows the human potential for good and evil as seen in films such as Resnais’ Night and Fog (1956) or Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) documentary filmmaking puts in perspective the nature of humanity, it observes and guides the audience to a point of self-discovery and analysis. No other media can evoke empathy with such beauty and power.