Fires Were Started (Humphrey Jennings, UK, 1943)

The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, USA, 1988): stylized reconstruction

Housing Problems (Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, UK, 1935)

Coal Face (Alberto Cavalcanti, UK, 1935): miners take a break

Five and Under (Donald Alexander, UK, 1941): nursery matrons

Five and Under: nursery work students

Five and Under: women workers discuss childcare

Documentary studies:
news from the front line

review by Russell Campbell

Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation by John Ellis (Routledge, 2011), 184 pages, $35.95 (pb), $125.00 (cloth).

Recording Reality, Desiring the Real by Elizabeth Cowie (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 217 pages, $25.00 (pb), $75.00 (cloth).

The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture by Belinda Smaill (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 221 pages, $80.00 (cloth).

Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary by Jonathan Kahana (Columbia University Press, 2008), 436 pages, $29.00 (pb), $90.00 (cloth).

The Right to Play Oneself: Looking Back on Documentary Film by Thomas Waugh (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 352 pages, $27.50 (pb), $82.50 (cloth).

These new books on documentary come from four corners of the English-speaking world. John Ellis’s Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation takes British television documentary as its principal point of reference and explores the impact of changing technology on the relationships between filmmakers and their subjects. Also from Britain, Elizabeth Cowie’s heavily theoretical Recording Reality, Desiring the Real marshals examples from both the UK and elsewhere to argue its case. From Australia, Belinda Smaill in The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture interrogates an international range of media productions in her study of the imbrication of emotional response in factual film. In Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary, Jonathan Kahana relates form to ideology in U.S. political documentary from the 1930s to the present day. Finally, Canadian Thomas Waugh gathers together the fruits of several decades of rumination on activist nonfiction filmmaking from around the globe in The Right to Play Oneself: Looking Back on Documentary Film.

Despite the diversity of their approaches, all the writers are predominantly concerned with social documentary and the role of nonfiction film in reflecting society and/or becoming a catalyst for social change. They do not dwell on the representation of penguins in Antarctica, migratory birds crossing the oceans or wild parrots in San Francisco. They betray little interest in Werner Herzog’s taste for exotica or the autobiographical peregrinations of Ross McElwee. As such they are especially apt objects for scrutiny in a journal devoted to the analysis of media from a leftwing perspective.

John Ellis’s Documentary reads like an introductory media studies text and that may well be the intention: the Routledge website claims that it is “ideal for students studying film, media studies and visual culture.” Principally known for his work on television – TV FAQ (2007), Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (1999), Visible Fictions (1982) – Ellis brings to bear on the book his extensive experience both as a university teacher (currently at Royal Holloway, University of London) and TV producer. In light of its evidently intended audience, the writing style is simple, almost conversational, without totally forgoing scholarly and theoretical pretensions.

Ellis divides documentary history into three phases. The first, he argues, lasted until roughly 1950 and was a period of productions for cinema in which reconstruction was the accepted norm. He cites as an example Fires Were Started (1943), Humphrey Jennings’s highly-regarded depiction of the work of London firefighters during the Blitz. In the second phase, from 1950 to the mid-1990s, television took over as the exhibition platform, 16mm largely supplanted 35mm, and observational or interview styles became predominant, with dramatization regarded as anathema unless incorporated in the hybrid docudrama genre. The current era, he contends, began in the 1990s with the adoption of digital technologies and is marked by the diversity of viewing platforms as well as the wide availability and easy use of filming and editing equipment, resulting in more casual and intimate methods of working. (However, reconstruction has once again become acceptable, if stylistically marked as such, following the success of Errol Morris’s 1988 theatrical documentary The Thin Blue Line.

Such a schema is useful and uncontentious. But the real strength of Ellis’s history is the detailed and accurate account he gives of the development of documentary filmmaking technology and the standard methods of working professionally with it (at least within the generously-funded British TV system – few independents could match the six or seven member crew he cites as the norm for 16mm documentary). His argument that the size of the crew needed and the equipment available “produces characteristic ways of working which in turn produce documentaries that are characteristic of their time” is a valuable one and occasionally insightful. For example, he notes that the introduction of the flip-out viewfinder on digital cameras has altered the relationship between filmmaker and subject, making direct eye-contact engagement much easier.

Unsurprisingly Ellis devotes most of his book to the current situation, and there is much of value in his analysis. He writes perceptively on the way documentary performance has evolved now that cameras are ubiquitous, on the dynamics of the interview, on the dispersed control over editing that digital systems have facilitated, on the growing sophistication of audiences and the extensive extratextual discussion that now often surrounds the film itself, and on the increased concern among the general public with documentary ethics (e.g., regarding undercover filming).

There are problems, though. Often Ellis does not cite enough examples to make his case strongly. His excuse that many documentaries “which are important in their historical moment are extremely hard to access subsequently” and so might well not be “familiar to you the reader” is a weak one. This is especially so since the few works he does comment extensively on, such as Raymond Depardon’s Profils Paysans: L’Approche (2001) and Paul Watson’s Rain in My Heart (2006), are not readily available whereas thousands of other documentaries are within easy reach.

Ellis discusses Profils Paysans in the context of an extended plea for “Slow Film” — “the modern radical gesture” (on analogy with Slow Food). He contends that montage, while it may have been radical in the 1920s, cannot be so in the fast-cutting media-saturated environment of the 21st century. This idea is hardly debatable, but what is curious about this section of the text is that Ellis seems oblivious to the whole history and theory of the long take in documentary, especially in ethnographic filmmaking. The ideas are scarcely new: David MacDougall’s important article, “When Less is Less: the Long Take in Documentary” (Film Quarterly 46 No. 2), for example, was published nearly twenty years ago.

A major weakness of the book is its tendency to wander off the point. In a misguided attempt to widen the discussion out into other fields of the media and contemporary society generally, Ellis goes into extended digressions on widely varied subjects:

  • reality TV,
  • celebrity journalism,
  • the possible inauthenticity of Capa’s photograph The Fallen Soldier,
  • the contents of a British news broadcast in 2001 compared with one of 1965,
  • Facebook,
  • surveillance cameras,
  • privacy,
  • family photo albums,
  • the case of a newsreader who was arrested for taking a photograph of her daughter in the bath,
  • paparazzi photography,
  • a gallery exhibition dealing with a photograph of a starving child,
  • fake photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners,
  • mise-en-scene in The Bourne Ultimatum, and more.

In all these cases the focus becomes blurred and the opportunity to develop an original, in-depth account of documentary film in its past and contemporary manifestations is lost. (Symptomatic perhaps is that in the final section Ellis virtually ceases speaking in his own voice, giving way to a collage of anonymous excerpts from his students’ work.)  

In many respects Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation is a lively and stimulating introduction to the topic. But it would have been better if it had included a greater number of relevant film examples, had engaged more directly with documentary scholarship, and was more tightly edited.


If Ellis’s book is aimed at the beginning student, Elizabeth Cowie’s Recording Reality, Desiring the Real is definitely only for an advanced cultural theory readership. Professor of film studies at the University of Kent, Cowie is the author of Representing the Woman: Cinema and Psychoanalysis (1996). Here, with heavy dollops of Lacan and Foucault, a dash of Deleuze and seasoning from Zizek, she dishes up a psychoanalytical treatise on documentary that is likely to prove indigestible to all but gourmets. The book comes with strong endorsement from Mary Ann Doane: “This is an intricate and powerful treatment of our psychical investment in the representation of the real that will certainly have a major impact on our thinking about documentary,” reads the blurb. Cowie’s theoretical argument will undoubtedly receive the serious consideration it deserves in the relevant quarters. But for non-initiates, including the present reviewer, it is probably wiser to avert the danger of being engulfed in the giddying vortex of language:

“For while one cannot feign the act of feigning, one can lie about telling a lie, but in doing so one posits a truth knowable somewhere else, by some other who is witness to the lie as a lie and thus also to the truth of the lying speech.”

I found it better to concentrate on the actual film criticism, which constitutes a little under half of the book.
Cowie scrutinizes a mix of canonical standards and lesser-known works under theoretically-informed rubrics:

  • A Day in the Life of a Coalminer (Kineto Production Co., 1910), Coal Face (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1935), and Housing Problems (Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, 1935)[1] [open endnotes in new window] are considered in terms of representing work and “voicing the ordinary”;
  • Disaster at Hillsborough (Yorkshire Television, 1990) and When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee, 2006) in relation to identification;
  • War Neuroses: Netley, 1917, Seale Hayne Military Hospital (Pathé, 1918) and Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1945) under the heading “desire and the real”;
  • Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread (Luis Buñuel, 1933) and Les Maîtres fous (Jean Rouch, 1955) exemplifying the “surreal of reality.”

That said, Cowie’s critiques are for the most part not logically dependent on the theory that surrounds them. They may be read in their own right for the illumination that they offer on the films under discussion. And there are certainly flashes of insight to reward the reader. For example, Cowie singles out a moment from When the Levees Broke in which a hurricane victim directly addresses the camera operator or reporter, calling on help for her elderly mother. The sequence achieves its force, we can see, from the fact that it breaks a standard documentary convention. Cowie writes,

“Documentaries afford us another pleasure in identifying, for through them we can engage in situations in which we feel for others in order to assure or reassure ourselves that we are caring people.... For this we require victims, the less fortunate, for whom we can feel. Again, they must be properly helpless as well as voiceless, or at least voicing only their plight and suffering, and must not make an overt demand for help.”

Cowie’s criticism is however vitiated at times by a surprising inattention to the text. There are a few minor descriptive slips which do not affect the thrust of the analysis.[2] But beyond this, there are partial or inaccurate observations which problematize the interpretations based on them. Thus Cowie contends that because the workers in Coal Face are “silent” (and do not look at the camera), address by the “social actors” has been banished. She is ignoring, however, the snatches of (non-sync, Welsh-accented) conversation heard when the miners take a break. It is only a brief moment, but it stands out because of the contrast with the voice of the narrator. Again, discussing Housing Problems, Cowie writes that one of the “authoritative” voice-overs is by “Councillor Lauder, a local Labour Party politician and chairman of the Stepney Housing Committee.” This gives a completely false impression that the film is engaging in party politics, for in fact Lauder’s Labour Party affiliation is not mentioned. 

But Cowie’s most strangely askew analysis is of Five and Under (Donald Alexander, 1941), about childcare for women workers in the wartime situation. She argues that the documentary,

“like Coal Face, speaks for the subjects it presents, but unlike that film, it fails to represent the women and their achievements inclusively, as part of making ‘Britain’ great, or as war workers, victorious.”

It is very hard to see how this interpretation can be sustained in the light of the following aspects of the film:

  • the opening title is “Women are in this War as much as their Men...,”
  • the narrator/interviewer (termed “Investigator” in the credits) is female,
  • three nursery matrons have substantial speaking roles explaining the workings of their institution,
  • the situation of female students taking up nursery work as a career is examined,
  • women workers have a sync dialogue sequence discussing the childcare issue,
  • the final piece of narration speaks of health and education centres which will be “part of the new Britain which we women must help build for our children.”[3]

When Cowie’s film criticism does hit the target, it may be seen as a plea for the ongoing political functioning of documentaries (now that more and more are becoming available) long after their initial release. A case in point is the Brechtian feminist documentary The Nightcleaners Part One (Berwick Street Collective, 1975), whose makers admitted that it was badly received in the women’s movement and did not prove to be a useful campaign tool for the cleaners’ struggle.[4] Cowie does not acknowledge this – in fact citing to the contrary an activist miner who claimed that working-class women at screenings he attended “responded very well” to the radical style. But she does build a compelling case for her assertion that the film leaves the spectator

“with haunting images recalled long after that become a remembering not only of these particular women at this moment in time, during a strike, but also of any women at all, any place at all.”    

The documentary criticism contained in Recording Reality, Desiring the Real is thus of variable quality, but at its best it is perceptive and provocative. Unfortunately it is unlikely to be widely disseminated, for it is planted in the midst of a theoretical thicket that for the non-specialist is very hard going indeed.


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