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Tracing the Evolution of Documentary

By Ray Zone

Introduction to Documentary
By Bill Nichols
Indiana University Press
226 pps. (paperbound), $19.95
ISBN #0-253-21469-6


Bill Nichols is a leading film theorist and a professor of cinema at San Francisco State University. With two previous books from Indiana University Press—Representing Reality, Issues and Concepts in Documentary (1992) and Blurred Boundaries, Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture (1995)—Nichols authored two of the most conceptually complex books of film theory about documentary ever written. Taking advantage of advances in film theory from the 1970s and 1980s, Nichols used an array of rhetorical tools for the documentary that are usually reserved for the fiction film.

Rather than a general survey, Representing Reality was an attempt to create a conceptual overview of the documentary by examining its styles, strategies and structures. "The pathologies of scopophilia may not organize the representation of women quite so relentlessly as in the work of Hitchcock," Nichols writes. "But the camera's gaze can still be treated as gendered and fully implicated in questions of desire as well as control. Little, though, has been done to spell out how this might be so or in what ways a documentary gaze may raise questions quite distinct from those of a fictional one."

Blurred Boundaries, focusing on televised reportage of the Rodney King case, ethnographic films and Eisenstein's Strike (1924), continued Nichols' exploration of the tenuous relationship between signifier and referent in visual media. Post-structural linguistics have done much in recent years to eliminate the referent that the nonfiction film has always inherently presented. In Blurred Boundaries, Nichols poses a series of questions that strike at the heart of the phenomenological presumptions underlying nonfiction film.

Though both Representing Reality and Blurred Boundaries continue to sell strongly, Nichols acknowledged in an email to this reviewer that "The RR book gave beginning students trouble, if not fits." As a result he was prompted to write his new book, Introduction to Documentary, "as a way to complement conceptually what [the late documentary theorist Erik] Barnouw had done historically."

Nichols is referring, of course, to Barnouw's book Documentary, A History of the Non-Fiction Film (Oxford University Press: 1974), a standard text for film students today. Barnouw identifies the genesis of documentary film in early cinema from 1895, with the films of the Lumiere brothers, initially made to test the workings of their cinematographe camera.

With his Introduction to Documentary, Nichols has written an overview of the issues, qualities and concepts that inform documentary and video production. He specifically locates the "origin" of the nonfiction film in the 1920s, unlike Barnouw, "whose book is really wonderful, but done before a lot of more recent work," says Nichols. 

To be a documentary, Nichols argues, four theoretical "legs" are necessary. Display and Documentation, as with the Lumiere actualities, is the first leg. The other three legs are Poetic Experimentation, Narrative Storytelling and Rhetorical Oratory.  "A direct line does not exist from Louis Lumiere's train arriving in a station to Hitler arriving at Nuremberg (in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, 1934), nor from the fascination with movement itself to fascination with moving audiences to action," writes Nichols. "If there were a linear path...we would expect documentary to develop in parallel with narrative fiction through the 1900s and 1910s rather than gain widespread recognition only in the late 1920s and early 1930s."

The evolution of documentary as a distinct form, Nichols contends, is not a question of the origin of the different elements comprising the four legs, but rather their coming together at a specific historical moment that arrived in the 1920s and 1930s. It was also not Nichols' intention to enumerate a "canon" of nonfiction film, so much as to elucidate the distinguishing characteristics of documentary. 

Each chapter in Nichols' book addresses a distinct question such as "Why are ethical issues central to documentary filmmaking?" or "How did documentary filmmaking get started?" In a chapter titled "What Types of Documentary Are There?" Nichols states, "Documentary, like the avant-garde, begins in response to fiction," and he sets forth six "modes" for the nonfiction form. These modes are the Poetic (fragmentary reassembly of the world), Expository (directly addressing the historical world), Observational (eschewing commentary and re-enactment), Participatory (interviewing and interacting with subjects), Reflexive (questioning documentary form) and Performative (stressing subjective aspects of objective discourse).

By titling each chapter with a question, Nichols frames historical subject matter, in the absence of a canon, within a theoretical construct. The questions posed "are not intended to allow us to decide whether or to what degree fabrication has taken place," writes Nichols, but "are designed more to ask how it is that we are willing to trust in the representations made by moving images, when such trust may be more, or less, warranted, and to examine what the consequences of our trust or belief might be for our relation to the historical world in which we live."

As a compact and fundamental restatement of the highly developmental thinking of his two prior books on nonfiction film, Nichols' Introduction to Documentary makes an excellent companion volume to Barnouw's standard history.


Ray Zone can be reached at