Tate Etc

The aesthetics of documentary

‘Documentary is intrinsically aesthetic,’ argues Mark Cousins, ‘it is as much about shots and cuts, structure and rhythm as fiction film.’ From the work of John Grierson and Allen Funt’s Candid Camera to Michael Apted’s 7 Up and works by Gillian Wearing, Cousins charts the development of documentary film through the decades.

The pioneering American photographer and filmmaker Paul Strand was a sneaky guy. As Geoff Dyer shows in his new book on photography, The Ongoing Moment, in 1916 Strand added fake lenses to the side of his camera to make people think he was shooting from that angle. In fact it was the front lens that was doing the work, capturing those before it oblivious to the fact that they had just become a photograph.

And in 1948 Allen Funt decided that if he hid cameras in and around New York City and filmed people doing ordinary things, he’d reduce the artifice of television and record the comedy of everyday life. The result was Candid Camera, one of the longest running and most influential TV shows of all time.

Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey Housing Problems 1935

Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey
Housing Problems 1935
© National Gas Archive

As recently as August 2005, at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the American documentarist Albert Maysles reaffirmed the Strand-Funt position. The job of the documentarist is not to direct reality, he said, but to let reality direct the documentarist: use unobtrusive equipment, be alert to what’s going on around you, don’t impose yourself on the material, be patient, and the real world will reward you with rich and revealing incidents and characters.

On the face of it this is certainly the case, as Maysles’s milestone Direct Cinema films such as The Salesman (1969) and Grey Gardens (1975) show. But, of course, the deferment to the real that these towering figures propose is only half the story. Documentary is also intrinsically aesthetic and, therefore, an art. It is as much about shots and cuts, structure and rhythm as fiction film. Anyone who has been on a shoot or spent months in a documentary editing room watching a work change shape, story and meaning, knows this. Non-fiction film is, then, something like a chariot pulled by two horses: when they run together you get unique works of art.

The greatest national documentary cultures have been those of Japan, America, Russia, Britain and France, but Britain’s has been the most interesting ride. Following it tells us much about the relationship between reality and art in documentary. It begins with the most discussed figure in the history of non-fiction film – John Grierson. A Scot born in 1898 who studied philosophy, he was interested by mass-communication theories. He first used the term documentary in a review of American Robert Flaherty’s non-fiction movie Moana. The currents that flowed through Grierson’s ideas were fascinating: Kant’s theories of harmony; Ruskin’s Victorian idealism; the films of Flaherty and, from non-fiction, the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and, even more so, the Ukrainian Dovzhenko; plus the Scottish educational zeal of his schoolmaster father. Together these influences turned Grierson into documentary’s first evangelist and, more than anyone in the UK at the time, the man who got the money to make documentaries. Setting up film units at the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office, then establishing the National Film Board of Canada, he institutionalised non-fiction film, saying that “documentary was a term that pleased the government”.

He directed films too. Drifters (1929), a mythic work full of montage sequences about North Sea fishermen, saw all his themes playing at full pelt. Here was the interest in work, the Soviet editing - where to cut was not to join shots smoothly, but to provide a collision – the evangelising, the ennobling of ordinary people. Looking at it now it seems wholly aesthetic. The Strand-Funt- Maysles idea of directorial self-abnegation has no place in Grierson’s ardent, beautiful attempt to change the world.

Neither does it in the work of his remarkable acolytes. Between 1929 and 1936 Grierson gathered around him a range of sometimes highly talented, mostly male, mostly Oxbridge, mostly English, mostly very young film-makers, the best of whom developed his work on Drifters in even more aesthetic directions. Among them were Basil Wright, in his early twenties, who would soon co-direct the dreamy, poetic Song of Ceylon (1934); from Brazil via France, one of the most interesting figures of the 1920s and 1930s, the avant-gardist and former collaborator of Marcel L’Herbier and Fernand Léger, Alberto Cavalcanti, whose film Rien Que les Heurs (1926) helped to established the city film genre; and the painter Humphrey Jennings, whose interest in poetic unity, the fluidity of national feeling and poetic anti-capitalism led to films such as Listen to Britain (1942), a work that anticipates Powell and Pressburger, Derek Jarman and Terence Davies.

Wright, Cavalcanti and Jennings stylised Grierson’s approach. The first two were gay and saw in his sober heterosexuality an aesthetic blindness. They were card carrying members of the group that embraced the idea – learned from Flaherty and Strand, and from French Impressionist and German Expressionist cinema – that documentary was not journalistic; that it sailed close to the contours, not of the fleeting surface of life, but of its underlying truths – elegantly so – and of its own filmic rhythm. As they, in their edit suites, crafted sequences as great as Dreyer or Dovzhenko, Grierson would be in meetings with top civil servants, selling a socially-improving vision of documentary in his passionately serious Scottish way. It’s a surprise that they managed to shackle these two divergent visions together, but they did so between 1929 and 1936, with Jennings continuing later. Their achievements inspired generations of film-makers to come.

But notice one thing: the “defer to reality” approach had not yet entered the soul of documentary film-making. It began to do so with the arrival of sound. Housing Problems (1935) by Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey interviewed real working-class people – wow! – and though these scenes look stiff to our modern eyes, the voice of documentary was suddenly no longer Oxbridge. Nonfiction cinema became vividly journalistic throughout the 1940s. The civil servants were happy. Jennings stood out against the trend, but by the end of the 1940s, Funt’s Candid Camera in America and the rapid rise of television in the UK meant that documentary had found a new, nationwide home – the small screen.

The move was timely. After the social shakedown of war, late 1940s and 1950s Britain was ready for a democratisation of culture. Elite ideas about what constituted art were being blasted by John Berger in his writings (from 1952) in the New Statesman. Painters such as Lucian Freud were re-challenging idealised notions of how people look and the kitchen sink aesthetic was spreading through theatre and literature. In film, in 1956, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson launched Free Cinema, a documentary-based throwback to leftist Grierson-Jennings ideas, complete with working-class themes, poetically handled. All these developments were significant, but on televisions in living rooms across the country the trickle of portrayals of real people, less and less mediated, became a flood. If you were an artist interested in reality, you could go to the Royal Court, read the New Statesman, or, alternatively, simply push the button on your TV set. There, by the 1960s, on the BBC and then ITV, you’d find a startling new world. Michael Apted’s 7 Up (1963 to the present day) tracked a gallery of new Britons using, in part, Maysles’s Direct Cinema techniques. Tony Garnett and Ken Loach, in docudramas such as The Wednesday Play series, borrowed the garb of such techniques to make viewers look with fresh eyes at the problems they wanted to address. And Roger Graef pioneered the least obtrusive techniques of all, what became known as fly-on-the-wall filming.

By the end of the 1960s, the richness of the aesthetic proposition afforded by filming reality had become clear: let the real world direct you, yet you direct it too, gently shaping it, or semi-scripting it, or even restaging it. The tension between Grierson’s civil service-led and Cavalcanti’s poetic shaping options had already looked enticing in the 1930s. But fly-on-the-wall’s new closeness appealed to less evangelic, less controlling artistic personalities.

A final element was added to this history: video. The first VCRs were made in 1951; Betamax was available from 1975 and VHS from 1976. The means of capturing reality, and editing it, had become radically simplified and cheap, and that trend continued. How could artists interested in reality refuse? The answer is that they didn’t. Pure filmmakers, television programme makers and art school graduates, working on 8 mm, 16 mm or the emerging video formats, took to the streets.

Derek Jarman made his first film, Studio Bankside, a super-8 mm diary, in 1970. William Raban used three adjacent 16 mm film cameras to make Thames Barrier (1977). Michael Grigsby worked with no commentaries, making poetic, sonic films such as Living on the Edge (1987) in the manner of Humphrey Jennings. A whole range of director-artist-radicals emerged, whose backgrounds were far more varied than those of Grierson’s acolytes or Anderson’s Free Cinema group. After the film union ACTT agreed in 1984 to a number of films by independent workshops, the Black Audio Film Collective’s John Akomfrah made Handsworth Songs (1985), an exploration of memory and the roots of protest in Britain’s colonial past. The Amber Film Collective, based in Newcastle, became one of the first sustained examples of working-class filmmakers making working-class films. Their work, though uneven, made Grierson’s look dated. The ultimate example of the removal of the distance between filmmaker and subject was the BBC’s Video Nation, in which, from 1993, contributors were given a Hi-8 camera by the BBC’s community programmes unit to film their own lives.

Television was the patron for such work, but when its world began to fragment in the multichannel era, the drive for new voices in documentary became replaced by stranding. By the early 1990s television documentaries were less likely to be one-offs sold on their content. Runs of six or twelve films emerged, bearing a common title and signature, such as Cutting Edge and True Stories, or confirming the status of author-directors such as Nick Broomfield and Kim Longinotto, or increasingly formatting and constructing the worlds they captured, such as Wife Swap.

At the same time, and in partial reaction to some of this, a new generation of artist/filmmakers came to the fore. The work of Gillian Wearing, Patrick Keiller and Andrew Kotting, for example, tells us something about how far we’ve come in the relationship between documentary and art. Each loves film or video, and there is an ease with which they seem to hoover the movement and sound of reality. But for each this ease seems almost too easy, so they challenge the documentary quality of what they’ve filmed. Wearing’s Dancing in Peckham (1994) is a 25-minute video about a woman that the artist saw dancing. But Wearing did not film the original woman – she portrayed herself impersonating the dance. Much of the vitality she admired from the original dance was there in her re-staging, but there was a conceptual distance, a ventriloquism. Keiller’s London (1994) is a city film, like Cavalcanti’s Rien Que les Heurs, but more essayistic and overworked. Seven decades after Cavalcanti’s work, an artist such as Keiller, living in the age of television and digitised imagery, is sceptical about the overly direct and perhaps naïve use of documentary material. Kotting’s masterly Gallivant (1996) was less sceptical than Keiller’s London, but even more experimental. A documentary about the artists’s granny and eight-year old daughter travelling around the coast of Britain, it used super-8, speeded up imagery, overlays and an impressionistic soundtrack in rich and flickering ways. The result was something more delicate than television, more determined to capture the small details of the relationship, and more painterly too.

The past 80 years have shown that documentary is not an information medium, an educational form, a tool of the teacher and anthropologist. Or, rather, it can be, but only secondarily so. Primarily, it is an artform. As such, contrary to the claims of Strand, Funt and Maysles, it directs reality. But also, more than painting, theatre, fiction cinema or music, it is directed by and responsive to events in the real world. Its socio-aesthetic palette is, therefore, particularly intriguing. Its great figures are not so much directors, but co-directors of their work. That’s what makes John Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti, Humphrey Jennings, Lindsay Anderson, Gillian Wearing and Andrew Kotting so fascinating.