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Documentary Film, History of

Michael Chanan


While scholars of early film have been much preoccupied with the emergence of storytelling and narrative (→  Storytelling and Narration ), the dominant mode of early →  cinema , beginning with the first films of the Lumières in 1895, was the actuality, or what might be called “documentary before documentary” (→  Cinematography ; Cinematography, History of ). An instinct for what Siegfried Kracauer (1960) called “the seizure of physical reality” produced a huge variety of images that, despite their brief and fragmentary character, were not without ideological implications, since they generally reproduced social →  stereotypes unthinkingly and frequently projected and enhanced the iconic imagery of state power and authority. Cinema was born in the “civilized” countries of Europe and North America, and these early films also traded on exotic imagery from every corner of the world, which not surprisingly reflected the colonial ideology of the day. The French at this time used the term documentaire for what in English was called the “travelogue,” which emerged before World War I as one of the most popular proto-documentary genres, along with the wonders of science and expedition films (→  Film Genres ). However, the recent rediscovery in Britain of the Mitchell & Kenyon films reminds us that turning the camera on your own community was also a fundamental propensity. The rise ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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