Week 2 – Then (and now?) – Key doco excerpts & ‘gleeful sexiness’!



Stills from Man with a Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov

Week 2

Remember the new starting time of 9am today.

This week we take some time to trace the early development of the documentary tradition.

While viewing some excerpts of a few iconic documentaries, our goal here is also to tease out some of the key issues that early documentarians grappled with.

But first…..

1. Class Discussion:

Your reading last week was “Defining Documentary Film”, by Henrik Juel.

– What issues does the article raise in attempting to pin down a definition?

2. Some snippets from key early documentaries:

  • Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922).
  • Night Mail (Grierson et al, 1936)
  • Berlin, Symphony of a City (Walter Ruttman, 1927)
  • The River (Pare Lorenz, 1937)
  • The Blood of the Beasts (Georges Franju, 1949)

Nanook of the North:

Watch the bit about the building of the igloo:

The building of the igloo is one of the most celebrated sequences in the film, but interior photography presented a problem. Building an igloo large enough for a camera to enter resulted in the dome collapsing, and when they finally succeeded in making the igloo it was too dark for photography. Instead, the images of the inside of the igloo in the film were actually shot in a special three-walled igloo for Flaherty’s bulky camera so that there would be enough light for it to capture img.

(From a comment on the youtube upload page).

[alternative site for Nanook: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHbU2LdStwk ]

Night Mail

The opening sequence with poem by Auden:



Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927):

The beginning sequence as the train arrives in Berlin:

another beautiful snippet:

The River, 1937, Pare Lorenz

“…shows the importance of the Mississippi River to the United States, and how farming and timber practices had caused topsoil to be swept down the river and into the Gulf of Mexico, leading to catastrophic floods and impoverishing farmers.”

…regarded as propaganda in some quarters…

The Blood of the Beasts (Georges Franju 1949)

“…contrasts peaceful scenes of Parisian suburbia with scenes from a slaughterhouse. The film documents the slaughtering and butchering of horses, cattle, and sheep. The film is narrated without emotive language.” (from wikipedia)

3. Documentary Modes

Presentation via Prezi on Bill Nichols’ 6 documentary modes.
You can access this presentation here:

4. Screening:
Man with a Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov

It would be remiss, in any syllabus looking at new documentary, not to view Vertov’s much cited classic. And as it turns out, our screening coincides with the film being re-released in UK cinemas this week. Take a look at this primer from UK critic Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian. Not sure about the gleeful sexiness there Peter but there’s no doubt Vertov was the punk rock film-maker of his day.

The film, originally released in 1929, was silent, and accompanied in theaters with live music. Since then numerous soundtracks have been created for the film. The version we will watch today has a soundtrack created in 1995 by the Alloy Orchestra.

It can be worthwhile watching a few different versions online. I’m still trying to find the perfect soundtrack to this film. I’m always left a bit cold by the many musical interpretations. What do you think? How much does the music alter the reception of a work such as this?

 5. Class Discussion:

  • How would you describe Man with a Movie Camera?
  • What do you think the film is about?
  • How does it tell its ‘story’? What are some of the formal devices in Man with a Movie Camera?
  • What ‘mode’ do you think it most belongs in?

6. Next Week/Homework:

Here’s your homework to be completed by the start of class in week 3:

  • Write up your weekly reflections on your experience of watching all the various excerpts plus Man with a Movie Camera. Do some extra research about these works to enrich your blog entries.
  • The reading this week is from Bill Nichols’ book: Introduction to Documentary. It’s Chapters 2 – Why Are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary Filmmaking? and it’s available as an e-book through the UOW library. Make sure you’re looking at the 2010 edition of the book!
  • Also, do some research around Bill Nichols’ documentary modes. While thinking about documentaries you are familiar with, start asking yourself which mode they belong to.

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