Nonfiction Film Theory and Criticism
Revisionism made simple

by Thomas Waugh

from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 25-26
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

Richard Meran Barsam, ed. Nonfiction Film Theory and Criticism (N.Y. Dutton, 1976). Paperback. $6.95, US. $8.95, Canada.

Most serious film studies departments now offer documentary courses, and in recent years there has been a predictable proliferation of books designed to serve as texts in this specialized area. Nonfiction Film Theory and Criticism, an anthology edited by Professor Richard Barsam of Richmond College, City University of New York, aims rather conspicuously at this textbook market.

Barsam has made several previous book attempts to anticipate the needs of teachers and students in the documentary field. His first volume, the historical survey Nonfiction Film: a Critical Stance, (1973), was chiefly notable for having introduced the concept of “nonfiction film” as an apparent way of avoiding the theoretical muddle about genre definition that always has obscured documentary criticism. (In the twenties and thirties, for example, it was common for English language critics to treat Eisenstein and Dovzhenko as documentarists.) Yet the book proceeded to deal with its subject matter in quite conventional theoretical terms, without reflecting the radical shifting of boundaries which ought to have been implied by the term “nonfiction.” (This present 1975 volume perpetuates this theoretical backwardness.)

More recently Barsam has published a Filmguide to TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and a number of glowing articles on Leni Riefenstahl, for which he has been soundly scolded in these pages as elsewhere (JUMP CUT 10/11). One of his articles, “Leni Riefenstahl: Artifice and Truth in a World Apart,” is reprinted in his new anthology.   His inclusion of two Riefenstahl sections in a volume allegedly centered on English language documentary is at best an eccentric indulgence.(1)

Barsam’s new anthology confirms that his continuing uncritical and wrongheaded attitude toward his heroine is symptomatic of a far more fundamental error than indiscretion. The implication of his work on Riefenstahl is that politics and art are separate categories and only occasional and incidental bedfellows. This dubious ideological credo has now been extended, through Barsam’s present capacity as editor, in his unquestioning endorsement of the traditional pantheon and literature of documentary history, and in his emphasis on the aesthetic accomplishments of documentaries as the only real criterion of their worth.

In one of his section prefaces, he states:

“The best nonfiction film is a creative film, not a literal record of some happening or a straightforward piece of argument or a twisted piece of propaganda ... as with all art, the question is one of degree: the degree of creativity ... The best nonfiction films are best not because they are the most informative or the most persuasive or the most useful, but because they are the most creative, effective, and valuable human documents that can be made from the circumstances represented in them ...”

There is already a surfeit of this kind of mystification making the rounds without adding to it.

The twenty-six articles included in the volume are divided into four sections. “The Nonfiction Film Idea” is a collection of theoretical discussions of which most pertain to the Grierson generation of British documentary and were written at least a generation ago. The section called “The Nonfiction Film and History” explores a range of specific topics of documentary history from THE MARCH OF TIME to 60s USIA propaganda. “The Nonfiction Film Artist” presents critical evaluations of Flaherty, Cavalcanti, Riefenstahl, Jennings, and Wiseman, plus interviews with Wiseman and Willard van Dyke. The last section, “Making a Nonfiction Film,” contains personal accounts of filmmaking by van Dyke (again!), Riefenstahl (again!!), Joris Ivens, and Robert Gardner, the American ethnological documentarist.

No doubt it is significant that fully fifteen of the twenty-six entries are written by major “authors” of documentary history (primarily producers and directors, but an editor and a writer are represented as well). There are both advantages and disadvantages to this constellation. Documentary has been a film form usually motivated by an explicit social mission. For this reason it has been characterized by a highly self-conscious integration of theory and practice. Indeed, documentary’s major theoreticians in its classical period, Grierson and Dziga Vertov, were also among its greatest practitioners. Thus it makes good sense to be familiar with the original theoretical approach of a given documentarist.

Yet at the same time it is dangerous for a documentarist’s   writings to be the student’s only source. Riefenstahl’s lengthy reminiscence of the making of OLYMPIA, written twenty years after the fact in a transparent attempt at self-justification, is obviously an extreme example of this danger. Barsam is to be credited for providing the first English translation of this piece in his present anthology. But it is surely the height of irresponsibility to include this now-disputed information without any editorial qualification whatsoever. Even with a theoretician as brilliant and clear-sighted as Grierson, we should not continue to rely exclusively on the original texts. This is particularly important in anthologies, where there is a tendency to blur the specific historical formation of individual works. It is regrettable then that of the entries in the theoretical section, only one is by a non-participant in the documentary scene.

What’s more, the texts by Grierson and Rotha and a few others anthologized here are already widely available. (2)The same is not true of other bodies of theoretical literature on documentary, which are lamentably missing from this book, particularly those of the Soviet and French traditions. It is here that Barsam’s decision to limit his focus to the English-speaking world is most unfortunate. (This timorousness in conception marred Nonfiction Film as well.) Vertov’s theoretical writings, after all, constitute the first important body of documentary theory (not Grierson’s, as Barsam claims). And Vertov’s essays are probably further reaching in their contemporary ramifications than Grierson’s, and moreover are very hard to come by in English. Despite the endeavor of Erik Barnouw and the late French critic Georges Sadoul (whose study, Dziga Vertov, also needs translation) to ensure Vertov’s legacy as a documentarist. This legacy has been distorted by the spotty sampling of Vertov’s writings which have appeared in journals such as Art Forum, Film Culture, and Film Comment, where they have been selected and edited so as to emphasize Vertov’s avant-gardist, modernist affinities, to the detriment of his remarkable achievement as a social theorist and documentary practitioner.(3) Here is a gap which one wishes that Barsam had filled.

By far the most useful part of Barsam’s anthology is the section on documentary and history. Some of the entries here do break new ground, for example, the editor’s own illuminating article on THIS IS AMERICA, the newsreel serial introduced by RKO in 1942 to compete with Time, Inc.’s THE MARCH OF TIME. To be sure, the article needs some materialist overview, but on the whole it provides a suggestive departure point simply by virtue of its detailed compilation of the series’ subjects and other similar factual material.

The sane cannot be said however for the companion article on THE MARCH OF TIME by Richard Elson, who, as Barsam neglects to mention, is more or less the company historian of Time. Inc., the producer of the famous series. And Elson’s favor with Time. Inc. (which not incidentally published the original two book-length histories of the company from which the Elson entry is excerpted) is evident in his blatant partisanship and lack of analysis. Articles by Richard Dyer MacCann on U.S. WW2 documentaries and on the 60s USIA propaganda films are considerably more scholarly and informative.

Valuable as it is, this section also ultimately reflects the specific ideological bias of the editor’s approach. Five of the eight topics from documentary history included here deal with initiatives undertaken by various branches of the British and U.S. governments, and the rest deal with projects by huge private corporations such as Time, Inc.. There is no sense whatever in this sampling of the tremendous inspiration that documentary has also received from those engaged in struggle against the producers of Barsam’s films and their patrons, from the impetus of anti-establishment filmmakers using documentary as a force for genuine social change, not social stabilization. I'm thinking of the radical workers’ film movements in both the U.S. and Britain during the thirties; the American Film and Photo League and Frontier Films are the best known of these, but some fascinating material has also recently come to light on their British counterparts.(4) And what about all of the prolific documentary activity stemming from the U.S. New Left and Feminist Movement in the last decade?

In every case, the editorial choices are ideologically predetermined: we get an article by the producer of TWENTIETH CENTURY, for example, but only passing reference to Edward R. Murrow’s SEE IT NOW programming of the early and mid-50s. We get disproportionate emphasis on Willard van Dyke, but no mention of Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz; on Frederick Wiseman, but no mention of Emile de Antonio.

And while we're on the subject of gaps, one further (and justifiably chauvinistic) observation. No anthology purporting to deal with English language documentary can afford to dispense with the crucial, influential contribution of the National Film Board of Canada, as this one does.

It would be unjust to dwell on this anthology’s distorted sense of history if it did at least present a representative range of critical methodology. But as I've suggested, it does not. There is no sample, for instance, of the robust periodical literature on documentary which has accumulated in the last decade by a new generation of critics. Barsam’s own contemporaries, in fact. And of course there is no representation whatsoever of the materialist, semiotic, and/or feminist approaches which have come to be vital to that literature. Barsam’s own unconsciously auteurist approach is what is most in evidence.

A final note is that the editor should have been more careful with a few key facts. It might not be so important to get the title of Walther Ruttmann’s 1927 city film right (it should be BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY not SYMPHONY OF A GREAT DAY), but more seriously, twice Barsam clams that Lindsay Anderson’s piece on the British Free Cinema was written in 1950 when in fact it dates from seven years later. And it should have been mentioned that Joris Ivens’ account of the filming of SPANISH EARTH, though published in book form in 1969, was first written about twenty-five years earlier. The errors about Anderson and Ivens contribute to a serious misreading of the respective articles.

All in all, the book will probably get a lot of mileage in documentary courses across the country. This fact points once again to the insidious power of textbook producers to mold our conception of history as students and teachers. And even worse, in addition to distorting our radical documentary legacy and being quite hard on the pocketbook, Barsam’s book—safe, conventional, and not illustrated—is going to turn a lot of people off documentary and its rich potential as a political force.


1. Barsam’s claim that he has balanced things out by including two other non-anglophone filmmakers, Joris Ovens and Alberto Cavalcanti, doesn't hold water, since these filmmakers are dealt with in terms of their roles in the U.S. and British documentary, respectively. Including two long Riefenstahl articles in this collection makes as much sense as discussing CRIES AND WHISPERS in a history of the Hollywood western.

2. Incredibly enough, seven of Barman’s entries are to be found in Lewis Jacob’s similarly motivated but infinitely richer anthology, The Documentary Tradition, published in 1971 but still in print. This anthology still remains by far the best solution to the documentary textbook dilemma when used in combination with Erik Barnow’s Documentary!, which is a lucid chronological narrative of the tradition documented by Jacobs. Barsam’s repetition of Jacobs’ selections constitutes needless duplication.

3. The most blatant example of such editorial distortion is in a March 1972 Artforum reprint of a 1926 Vertov text, accompanying Annette Michelson’s influential article on Vertov, “MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA: From Magician to Epistemologist.” Editor Michelson discreetly omits a long passage from Vertov’s original diary entry without notifying the reader of this deletion, even by means of punctuation. In the deleted passage, Vertov proclaims his principal task to be the edification of the Soviet peoples and then discusses the task of socialist construction (the subject of his films before and after the entry) in terms of the most prosaic details of economic conditions. For the complete text, see the French edition of Vertov’s writings (Dziga Vertov, Articles, Journaux, Projects, edited by Cahiers du cinéma, Editions 10/18, p. 216).

4. Bert Hogenkamp. “Film and the Workers’ Movement in Britain, 1929-1939.” Sight and Sound, Spring 1976. p. 69.