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The looking machineEssays on cinema, anthropology and documentary filmmaking$
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David MacDougall

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781526134097

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9781526134097.001.0001

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Documentary and its doubles

Documentary and its doubles

(p.157) 12 Documentary and its doubles
The looking machine

David MacDougall

Manchester University Press

This chapter provides a critical overview of the history of documentary cinema, arguing that it gradually lost sight of its early inspiration in the cinema of the Lumière brothers, adopting many of the features of fiction film production and modelling itself increasingly on didactic texts and journalism. In the sound era, British documentary films made under the aegis of John Grierson, despite his celebration of the ‘actual’, turned towards mass education and an idealised vision of collective humanity, and away from recording actual events in human lives. Italian Neorealist fiction films and changes to camera technology in the post-war period inspired a return to these objectives, but this found little space in television, which remained firmly fixed on journalism, entertainment, and public issues. Reactions took many forms, including experimental documentaries, social advocacy, biography and autobiography, and films exploring the relationship of film to reality, as in the work of Jean Rouch and Errol Morris. The rise of observational films gave promise of a return to the more modest aim of giving audiences shared access to what the filmmaker had witnessed, despite the challenges of manipulative ‘reality’ television and designer-packaged documentaries. The essay refers to a host of influences and commentaries, including those of Edward Said, Bill Nichols, Dai Vaughan, Robert Flaherty, Jean Rouch, Colin Young, and Grierson himself.

Keywords:   film history, documentary, film technology, television, representation, observation, Neorealism, film theory

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