Documentary films are meant to take us into the past, the future or the stark reality – we may not even notice, that surrounds us every day. Based in non-fiction, there is generally not a lot of wiggle room to interpret the story as it unfolds for the viewing audience. Science, history, facts and educated speculation are the cornerstones of a good documentary production.
On set for the filming of The Return of The Monarch, A Butterfly’s Tale, I was impressed by the number of consultants and scientists used to assure the authenticity of the information being documented. For example, my uncle is a great chef providing the best event catering in town, yet it is not his job to supply anything other than a good meal for clients. He sticks to what he does best, delivering the goods while taking all other input with a grain of salt. The same is true for good documentaries, they should deliver only the facts.
Documentary film making is not a stagnant art form. It will never run out of plot lines. The fluidity of life gives way to many an untold story. There are no limits to subject matter, only in the way it is comprised and told through the script and the lens. With time documentary films have entered into the world of legitimate film production. Not just the much respected historical renditions and nature films but also peeks into the struggles of people facing challenges all over the world. Documentaries provoke opinion. They don’t necessarily leave a viewer satisfied with a happy ending.
It wasn’t until 1926 that “actuality” films became known as documentaries. Initially made up of stacked still shots the actuality was considered a documentation of events and thus the term documentary was born. The history of this type of filming dates back before the 20th century. As early as 1869 still shots were being looped together to present a point of view. It could be dubbed the first “reality show” designed to entertain an audience with factual content.
There are dozens of well-known, named professional in this field, but one of the earliest was Joris Ivens. Born into a wealthy family in 1898 he made his first film at the age of 13. He was especially moved by the class distinction he observed to be very prevalent from his seat in society. He contributed greatly to the art form with notable films like: A Tale of the Wind, The Spanish Earth, Rain, 17th Parallel: Vietnam in War, The Seine Meets Paris, Far from Vietnam and How Yukong Moved the Mountains. Any aspiring movie maker studies these documentaries and learns the pricelessness of true artistry in telling a real life tale.
We are not lacking for great artistry in this arena these days. Along with the changing times, the world of digital has brought more creative talent to the forefront. Even venues like Youtube have given a stage to those who dabble as amateurs to those who hope to get over a million views and become famous for their work. If talent wants to be recognized there is an open playing field like never before.
With the world filled with the need to be heard and seen, documentary film producers can pick and choose between the horrible or the sublime and leagues of middle ground. It’s open showing for artists to express their talent and get a point of view in front of millions of eyes.
Never has the human spirit been squashed and documentary film making will be ever vigilant in telling our stories.