Doc Beginnings


When Pierre Jules César Janssen wanted to record Venus passing across the sun in 1874 he demonstrated a natural human impulse for freezing time, the desire to keep the images our eyes are recording and take them out for others to see. Humanity started to document reality since he was living in caves, as seen in the early prehistoric murals, with the materials available man tried to represent his reality and put it out for others to see.

The dictionary definition of document is a piece of written, printed, or electronic matter that provides information or evidence or that serves as an official record. According to this definition, we can say that documentary can be traced to the beginning of history, when man started to record its activities and the desire to provide a record evolved and branched out to many forms of art.

To understand what a documentary is, we should consider the etymology of the word document who has its origins in the Old French, from Latin documentum ‘lesson, proof’ (in medieval Latin ‘written instruction, official paper’), from docere ‘teach.’ What the first filmmakers wanted to do with the new found medium was to teach, to prove a point. As seen in the experiment performed by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge who with a succession of cameras proved that when horses gallop there is an instance when none of their legs touch the ground. In a similar manner, Étienne Jules Marey captured the movement of birds and also invented the Fusil photographique, the photographic gun, in which the term “shooting” when talking about capturing moving images,was more literal than it is now.

Although many illustrious minds contributed to the creation of the cinematograph, the man behind the machine that opened the world to the miracle of moving images was Louis Lumiére who managed to create a light, portable camera that served as a printing machine and projector at the same time. It was thanks to the Lumierés and the cinematograph that the audiences had “an unprecedented sense of seeing the world”

The conflict when trying to define documentary comes with the fact that it’s not only the document but the voice what matters the most. The document itself in its ability to record the world with fidelity gives us the appearance of truth because we are prompt to believe in what we see thus the document is not what makes the documentary, but the combination of document and voice as Bill Nichols said: “Documentary flourishes when it gains a voice of its own” to understand how documentary gains a voice of its own, Nichols talks about the film Nanook of the North (1922) and how he recreated the life inside of an igloo by having their subjects reenact the life inside of a half oversized igloo which gives the camera crew the commodity and the light necessary to shoot a scene that in that time would have been impossible to film inside of a real igloo.

Nichols gives four elements that form the basis of Documentary and it is only when all of them converge that the documentary comes into being:

  • Indexical Documentation (Shared with scientific images and the cinema of attractions)  
  • Poetic Experimentation
  • Narrative Storytelling
  • Rhetorical Oratory

Considering the origin of cinema, both the process of photographing moving images and the filmmaker as a creator who decides how to capture them. We can get closer to a definitive definition of documentary filmmaking,the line between fiction and nonfiction can be blurred at times but in the end, documentaries open the windows of our own world.

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