The Traditions of Documentary

One of the first important books on documentary was Paul Rotha's classic Documentary Film, published in 1935.  In a chapter entitled "The Evolution of Documentary" (pp. 75-104), he discussed what he saw as four traditions of documentary.  The first was the naturalist or romantic tradition of documentary.  Most of his attention in this section is devoted to Flaherty, whom he credited for using the natural environment for more than just scenery or backdrop for a fictional piece.  For Flaherty, the environment was part of the story--as we witnessed in Nanook, Man of Aran, and Louisiana Story.  The next tradition Rotha discussed was the realist or continental tradition.  He contrasts Flaherty's man against nature films with the realists films of man against the street.  Among the films he talks about are Cavalcanti's Rien que les heures, Ivens' Rain, and Ruttman's Berlin.  Although he doesn't mention Vertov in this section, Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera would fall into this category.  Rotha saves his discussion of Vertov for the next tradition, which he labels the newsreel tradition.  In fact, in terms of a "documentary" tradition, he believes Vertov's work is the best example of the reportage style of documentary.  Rotha did not care for Man with a Movie Camera.  He said that although it was a "fascinating exposition of the resources of cinema and a marvelous example of technical accomplishment," it was "totally devoid of dramatic value.  Throughout the film the spectator was constantly being reminded of the camera, for it was continually being brought before the eye on the screen.  The film was punctuated by the interruptions of a close up of the lens of the camera, the camera itself, and the eye of the cameraman.  We travel along watching a cameraman photographing a lady in a carriage.  We see on the screen what the camera of the cameraman is taking.  We see the cameraman as the lady in the carriage sees him.  We are alternately the camera and we see what the camera sees; then we are seeing the camera seeing what we saw before.  At that point, we cease seeing the camera and see what we have just seen being developed and mounted in the studio laboratory.  'Ah,' we say to ourselves, 'that is the Kino-Eye'."  Finally, Rotha discusses the last and perhaps most important tradition of documentary--the propagandist tradition.  He begins by describing the Soviet cinema.  He says Eisenstein's October "undertook the selection and presentation of actual events and persons, not for accurate historical description but for the expression of a definite viewpoint which conformed with a definite political regard for the affairs of 1917."  Although Rotha lumps almost all Soviet films in the propaganda category, today we would be reluctant to think of them as documentaries--maybe docudramas would be a better word to describe them.  As you might expect, Rotha gives a great of attention to the British cinema and the work of John Grierson, his friend and mentor.  Finally, he briefly mentions Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, though he confesses there has been no opportunity to view it in Britain.