Each year at the Academy Awards, two presenters have to conjure new ways of announcing the Best Documentary Feature award without using the words ‘truth’ or ‘honesty,’ and usually fail.
Certainly, documentaries have the Hollywood studios at a disadvantage when it comes to capturing unscripted reality. However, as an independent art-form, the documentary is a fascinating genre with rules of its own, which it constantly rewrites.
Here is a selection of ten of the most vital documentaries of the past one hundred years. Films to move, haunt, shock, amuse and stay with you forever.
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
The start of the ‘Documentary’ movement is often attributed by to John Grierson, the pioneering Scotsman who deduced in the 1920s that cinema, far from being simply a frivolous form of mass entertainment, was a powerful propaganda tool and could be used effectively as a means of observing and documenting life. In Russia, while his compatriot and fellow Marxist Sergei Eisenstein was revolutionising dramatic narrative, Dziga Vertov went one step further by getting rid of narrative altogether. Fiction was suppression to Vertov. “Down with Bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios” was his war cry.
Man With a Movie Camera is Vertov’s towering achievement in his attempt to free cinema from the constraints of story and plot. As he said, “Long live life as it is.” In essence, the good people of Kiev, Odessa and Kharkiv are filmed going about their business in contemporary 1920s Russia, largely unaware that they are being filmed. This is post-industrial Russia and the workforce engage optimistically with the mechanical machinery of modern life. There is no dialogue and there are no titles to explain anything.
Vertov’s belief was that the camera was an unbiased tool that could record uncompromised truth. Yet (perhaps unintentionally) through his artistry and matchless skills as a director, he paints the everyday with brush strokes as individual and recognisable as Hitchcock’s would be a quarter of a century later. Technique-wise, Man With a Movie Camera is a little bag of magic tricks. Starting with the shot of a man filming with a camera…on top of a camera, Vertov lets fly a paint-box of cinematic trickery from double-exposures and animation, sped-up film, sweeping aerial shots and freeze-frames, all drawing our attention to the only main character in the film – the man filming everything. Like the man said, “I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.”
The reputation of Man With a Movie Camera has intensified over the years. The influence of Vertov’s anti-artifice call-to-arms can be felt in the French nouvelle-vague films in the 1960s and in the Dogme 95 experiments of Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Such is its stature that in last year’s critical poll of the Greatest Films of All Time (held every ten years by Sight & Sound magazine), Man With a Movie Camera ranked eighth – by a stretch, the highest placed documentary on the list.