Documentary took a while to get started in the early days. In fact, there are things that I think are documentaries, though, others may disagree with that opinion. I really think that documentary started with the Lumiere brothers. They made films which we give the name “actualities.” I love the name because it was about nothing but things that actually happened. In my opinion this was probably the closest that we could get to actuality because film was a new concept to the people of that day and age. I’m not alluding the point that people didn’t know what a camera was at that time, but usual cameras weren’t hand cranked.
I understand why some cannot classify this as a documentary though. As it states in the book Introduction to Documentary by Bill Nichols we learn that documentary is nothing without a voice. This could be true because documentary in our day and age are meant to prove a point, or give a voice to the voiceless. Watching people get off of a train never accomplished any of that. In fact, it really just proves the point that film could be done. They were really just starting to figure out what a film camera was.
But I could argue that that train station film (Arrival of a Train) was more of a documentary than that of Nanook of the North. While the book argues that there is no voice of the people getting off of the train, nor was this a film on trains, though the diagonal line was great composition. Look at the people getting out of the train, who are they? Middle class citizens. We are now shedding light on a group of people and getting a peek into their lives. Does it tell a narrative structure? Absolutely not! Does it need to to make movie stars out of those who ride trains?
What makes this even more real is understanding what it took to make the movie, Nanook of the North. In fact, I would almost suggest not learning how the film was made because the illusion of a real eskimo will turn to dust. With all things fabricated, how is there documentary? Yes, while it may be true that some time ago the eskimos would hunt like Nanook did. It was though only a representation of something real (which is a small step away from a “based on a true story” model of film making. Therefore, what the Lumiere brothers started being, in my opinion, more real than most of the documentaries that we have or any film for that matter. Why? Because it was real, it really happened that way, there was no takes (at least to my knowledge) These people on the screen were real and were portrayed only as such. That is why I think that The Lumiere brother filmed something real.
Nanook of the North. Dir. Robert J. Flaherty. Pathe Exchange, 1922. DVD.
Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2001. Print.