The Annals of Nonfiction
A New History of Documentary Film, Second Edition
by Betsy A. McLane
Continuum International Publishing Group 2012
One might expect that a director emerita of the International Documentary Association would have a lot to contribute to the telling of documentary history, and Betsy A. McLane does not disappoint in her expansive second edition of A New History of Documentary Film. The amount of information—not only about documentary film, but about the history of the Western world—is impressive. The fact that McLane propels you along with tantalizing details sprinkled throughout makes for pleasurable reading from start to finish-a rare feat for what could have been a rather dry academic subject.
We are informed that the geographic focus of the book will be the UK, Western Europe and North America, and the films considered are English language-based, as this is the wellspring from which sprang the genre, one that has only recently been explored by filmmakers in the Middle East, South America, Asia and Africa. The structure of the book is generally chronological but not rigidly so, as this leaves the author the freedom to explore the intertwining of documentary with the avant-garde, as well as to look at the ways that money, technology and artistry dictate what films get made and seen.
The rich and detailed references to key individuals from an older generation of filmmakers—including Joris Ivens, Fred Wiseman, DA Pennebaker, Al Maysles, Robert Drew, Mel Stuart and George Stoney—enliven the narrative, while a frequent touchstone for McLane appears to be the work of John Grierson, who was a great friend of Robert and Frances Flaherty. The author reminds us that there is a human connection in documentary history, as well as a film record that ties it all together.
McLane is sensitive in appealing to readers who may know little about documentary film. In the first chapter, she helps to ease us into the material by providing "Some Ways to Think About Documentary," laying the groundwork by describing "pre-documentary origins" as well. While the entire second chapter is devoted to the work of the Flahertys, she comes back to them in the fifth chapter, where she engages us with a compare-and-contrast analysis of Flaherty and Grierson, who "represent two poles in the documentary tradition between which any documentary filmmaker still has to find a place."
Her colorful anecdotes (Grierson once described the Irish-American Flaherty as "a sort of handsome, blond gorilla"; both filmmakers had considerable personal magnetism and charm) pull the reader in, and enable us to see these icons of the documentary as men, and entirely human. "How extraordinary...that these two should have become friends and antagonists, loving each other while hating each other's ideas," McLane writes. Her insights into the truth of human relationships, as well as the scope of her sense of history, are seamlessly woven together and help make this history real.
The format of the book is wonderfully pragmatic. Each chapter includes a summary, as well as specific, chapter-related films and chapter-related books, so you don't have to flip back to an appendix or index to find resources for further reading. If you do go to the appendix, you will find not one, but two: first, a list of Academy Awards for Documentary Feature going back to 1942, and second, a list of all the films preserved by the National Film Registry. Both lists provide an interesting guide to test your knowledge of what was popular in its day, compared to what had lasting historical value.
In this edition of A New History of Documentary Film, McLane expands on women documentarians. While she informs us that there are about the same number of women as men making English-language documentaries in the 21st century, the reason we may not be aware of them is that only a few have sustained bodies of work with films appearing regularly over time, and fewer still have public profiles. Other important female figures, such as HBO's Sheila Nevins, are included, and while they are not themselves documentary makers, they have contributed greatly to the accessibility of documentaries through their broadcast, promotion and support in recent decades.
A treasure trove of individual titles is profiled along with the filmmakers who made them. McLane's observations often border on the poetic. Of Werner Herzog she states, "Herzog is a force, a genre, a mode, a style, a voice, a type all his own. An analysis of his film career would be a psychoanalysis of the man himself; it is a career so long and unique." Other 21st century figures discussed in the book include Steve James, Alex Gibney, Davis Guggenheim, Errol Morris, Stanley Nelson, and Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger.
"The Experimental Documentary" is also an expanded chapter in this edition, and has a longer history than one might think. McLane opens this section with a brief discussion of filmmaker Chuck Workman, whose 1989 short Precious Images was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Directors Guild of America. McLane refers to the film as "this glorious pastiche" that "takes audiences on a whirlwind-of-editing trip through the history of American feature film." She suggests that while it won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject, it is more rightly a documentary, and has had a strong stylistic influence in the arena of the compilation film.
In one of the final chapters dealing with documentary tradition in the 21st century, McLane includes a wonderful photo of Flaherty, wearing his Borsalino hat, near the end of his life, bringing documentary history full circle. But in the end, admittedly, there can be no neat conclusion to this ever-evolving story. The author makes a concerted effort to deal with the complexity of our time, with the glut of images and the fact that documentary has "given voice to both charlatans and truth tellers; it has gathered acolytes and debunkers, shaken up populations, and kept them in line. It has changed the lives of individuals and the course of society." We can agree with McLane that the field has become more fragmented-"more difficult to explain in our post-post-modern world"-and while we are all swimming in a sea extremely rich in data and nuance, we may not be able to see our way to a clear understanding in an increasingly global society. But that is no reason not to try. With the help of such intelligent translators of history as Betsy McLane, we can understand where we were and why, as well as where we are going. This book took me on a journey through a field I thought I knew, and I have a far better understanding as a result.
Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources and currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Festival.