In the Beginning There Were Documentaries

A Man with a Movie CameraWith certain fanfare and a headline interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, Sight & Sound today announced the results of their poll for the greatest documentary ever made. And as lists go it quickly set the wires of social media humming with outrage and consternation, as Dviga Vertov’s masterful Man with a Movie Camera was noted as comfortably taking the top spot. Should we even call it a documentary, is it just an art film, and what are documentaries even good for. So the debate ever was, it made for good reading for those with a real passion for the genre, if genre should even be considered the right word.

And so the occasion was taken by at least one commentator to take a pop at the eight ‘unimaginative’ souls who had picked out the Lumière’s first publicly screened film, the presumptively titled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Much merriment was had at such a boring choice, and well, it sure as shit isn’t as exciting as that other classic of the Train Pulling Into the Station. As someone who so gladly proselytises for the occasionally put upon subject of Early Cinema, of course my heart sank.

Almost any Lumière film taken out of context is probably going to appear a bit dumb, and I’d certainly not question anyone who found them tedious, because I’ve slept through more than a few early films. And that considering most are under five minutes long. And sure, anyone idly picking the film for the sake of posterity should certainly be singled out as being unimaginative, but I doubt that’s the case. There’s far more to it than that.

On the walls of Chauvet CaveThe crude analogy that comes readily to mind, would be showing someone the 32000 year old paintings in the Chauvet Cave, so wonderfully captured in 3D documentary form by Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and to have them turn and say “well they’re a bit shit, aren’t they?” Now you can’t argue that they’re masterpieces by the standards of modern or contemporary art, but then that is to quite colossally miss the forest for the trees. The analogy touches on the whole world of misguided discourse which would frame Early Cinema in terms of being ‘primitive’ and ‘unevolved’, where old cinema is ultimately a stepping stone before cinema could realise it’s all-singing, all-dancing, widescreen Technicolor 3D razzmatazz true self, which it was always MEANT to be. Which is so historically chauvinistic I struggle to know where to even begin.

But what is there to say for the Factory Gate? Context is of course king, and what excites me about considering such an unsupposing title as documentary is that it captures the first moment anyone thought to film life just as it was. No staging, no performance as with Edison’s Kinetoscope films, just working life as it was in that moment in time. That we should imbue film with such meaning and significance is completely ridiculous, and Louis Lumière sensed no occasion in capturing movement on a technical novelty he saw absolutely no future for. Yet in the beginning there was documentary, and still the form became secondary from the off all the same.

Discussing the matter with Pam Hutchinson of the brilliant blog Silent London, she conceded that the film is just a tech demo, but that “it takes imagination to see that it’s more than [that]. But once you see that… boom.” Which is as fine a case as could be made for appreciating Early Cinema, but it’s not easy to convince the sceptics.

Those looking for a supporting arguement in this debate would do well to take the uninitiated to see A Night at the Cinema in 1914, a special programme of Early Cinema programmed by the BFI and currently doing a tour round the UK. Picked out by the archivist Bryony Dixon, and with a score from the brilliant accompanist Stephen Horne, early reviews of the programme are positive, and it’s far better a defence of Early Cinema than I could ever state.

Complete dates for the nationwide tour of A Night at the CInema in 1914 can be found on the BFI’s website.

[My thoughts on what constitutes an unimaginative choice for greatest documentary ever made, and what films I’d put on my own list might however have to wait for another day!]

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2 thoughts on “In the Beginning There Were Documentaries

  1. charlielyne says:

    Hello! You’re talking about me. And I maintain that it’s unimaginative to pick what’s arguably the first documentary as one of the all-time best documentaries, more than 100 years after the genre’s creation. Nothing against the film — I totally recognise its significance in the course of film history — but you won’t convince me that the eight voters who chose it did so for any reason other than its historical context, which I don’t think qualifies it as one of the genre’s ‘best’.
    If you want to discuss the issue further, just get in touch. That way you won’t have to imagine my opinions (I don’t consider cave paintings, nor early cinema, to be ‘a bit shit’). Your friend Catherine thinks I’m a ‘jackass’, but only because I responded to her patronising tweet with an equally patronising tweet of my own. I think we share the blame on that one.
    My own personal documentary top ten is in Sight & Sound this month. Nothing on it was made prior to about 1968. Maybe that’s a good starting point for our conversation. 🙂

    • Peter Walsh says:

      Hi Charlie, credit where it’s due and hats off to you for the response!

      It was with good reason that I didn’t want to name you, as I wasn’t aiming to snipe and start a tit for tat online argument, which the oh-so-sarky forum of twitter so easily fosters. That said it’s not fair to paint you as a straw man and put opinions in your mouth, even if that wasn’t my first intention.

      My gripe is with the attitude which is quick to dismiss Early Cinema and I tend to react to anyone having a cheap laugh at their expense. Your comment on twitter wasn’t guilty of that, but the reaction of others had me rolling my eyes a bit. It bears pointing out from time to time that the Lumieres weren’t neanderthals, but again this is taking aim at general attitudes, and not yours. It’s Two Thumbs Up for cave paintings from us both, so it feels like we’re on the same page on that front. As it were.

      Getting to the point of what’s unimaginative in terms of the poll, I’ve been chewing it over a fair bit. I’m quicker to level that comment against Shoah and Night & Fog, which sort of supersede being documentaries, with a function above the form of films in general. Do we even need to mention them? Does the fact that a good wedge of voters picked one or the other show a collective impulse to name one of the two because, well, you have to, don’t you? Without diving into Adorno and all literary criticism of art dealing with the Holocaust, and god-where-to-even-begin, but Jonathan Rosenbaum gave a pretty untouchable defence of Shoah in S&S itself, and I feel like a mug for even making the case.

      Of course I have to concede that some of those picking Factory Gate might have been doing it for the sake of filling a gap and doffing a cap to film history, others maybe to just point out that it is a documentary and an important one at that. Is the Best/Greatest Of All Time doc marked out by what’s in it, or by the impact it had? If we’re talking impact, Charles Urban’s Cheese Mites (1903), a film of real-life microscopic bugs and bacteria freaked out audiences so badly that it started the ball rolling towards what became the BBFC. As a fan of their work and their annual report I’m sure you’d appreciate that film’s long-lasting impact.

      The whole thing obviously hinges on what a voter means when they say best/most important/greatest doc, and it begs the question if anything pre-1920 can be considered for it’s documentary quality, especially since the word only found any meaning around 1968. I’m going to try and make the case for a few when I get round to hammering out my own list, not Factory Gate as it happens, as I think it’s a bit overrated (ha!), but there’s got to be a case beyond picking it for posterity.

      That said, I think the accolade for the most unimaginative of the unimaginative has already been singled out by Robbie Collin: James Toback for picking his own Seduced and Abandoned. Of course he is out-done by Lucy Walker who picked two (TWO!) of her own films in Waste Land and The Crash Reel. Only Orson Welles could get away with that shit, and he obviously wasn’t available for comment.

      Look forward to seeing what your choices were, and to hear the justification of the few Lumiere fans, when the voting slips get released online later this month.

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