Battle in Print: The changing nature of the film documentary - a short history

Alan Miller, 15 November 2007

As a lover of documentaries and films generally, I believe the answer to the question can films change the world is unequivocally ‘no’. Documentaries enrage and inspire us, sadden and deflate us. They can confuse and enlighten, tantalise and surprise us. If they are really good they may end up doing a number of these things at different times and stay with us for years. In fact, they become a part of us. They cannot, however, change the world.

The best of the best of any art form acts as a mirror on our world, reflecting our trials and tribulations, glaringly prodding and poking at the parts we see all the time, but seldom clearly. The best documentaries may help us understand some aspect of a thing differently, but generally they will simply contribute to our broader understanding of the world, and this can happen only in a context that is already established through shared experiences and discussion.

Television documentary first became a genre in the post-war period, when the radio documentary moved onto television. The genesis of the American TV documentary tradition is attributed to the CBS series See It Now, started in 1951 by the legendary team Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly. See It Now set the model for future documentary series, including Frontline, The American Experience, POV and NOVA. Likewise, both Panorama and World in Action in Britain were important in presenting an array of international and domestic issues that could be considered and argued about.

However, television in recent years has increasingly broadcast cheap ‘reality’ TV, and many documentary filmmakers have moved towards cinematic distribution along the independent film route. For a while, big film execs rushed from one obscure documentary to another at film festivals, hoping to be the next one to sign up some radical-ish type docu-buster. But even this doesn’t happen much anymore, and the idea that we can all go make a film about the subject we are passionate about, and it will become a blockbuster and change the world, may still be a popular one, but it is rather na•ve. We can now make films on our mobile phones and mini-DV cameras, and final-cut pro laptop software has made the process of making a film affordable and possible for many more. The issue still remains, however, what is being made, why and for whom - and what will be the effect of it?

The Battle of Algiers, for instance, can make a significant impression, although it is more likely to do so if one already has a sympathy for its themes: the notion of national self-determination, the view that people should have autonomy, and the belief that Imperialism has been a problem. John Grierson’s The Drifters, which he wrote, produced and directed and released in 1929, is a film that follows the heroic work of North Sea herring fishermen. It may be evocative and fascinating, but to what extent it will make someone believe people are entitled to improved working conditions and equal pay is far less clear.

Paul Watson’s The Family was an eye opener for British society in the seventies, which was still enormously marked by rigid class stratification. But whilst it was possible to draw out all sorts of points from this fly-on-the-wall documentary, much of what people picked out was based on what they brought to the film in the first place.

It is true that certain documentaries, such as Roger Graef’s Thames Valley Police, have changed the way some things are done (in this case the handling of rape victims), or that In Search of Law and Order, where Graef’s eye and camera were inside institutions, altered certain practices and behaviour. In Minamata: The Victims and their World, Tsuchimoto’s documentary tirelessly follows the 29 families who sued the Chisso company for pouring methyl-mercury into the Japanese watercourse, causing Minamata disease. Filmed over more than a decade and rarely screened, it is one of the greatest campaigning films of all time. The story was a scandal, but it was the families’ actions and not the film that changed the law in Japan. And changing laws can be a step in the right direction, but changing the world means much more.

Documentaries can also be a good source of information. At The River I Stand, made in 1993, aimed to capture the turbulence of the 1968 strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. It is a powerful piece of history. Similarly, so are Barbara Kopple’s 1973 Harlan County, on miners and conditions, and the 1991 American Dream dealing with the Hormel meatpackers in 1984.

And documentaries that touch a cord at the time have often been banned and censored. When Ken Loach made A Question of Leadership in 1983, subtitled ‘Problems of Democracy in Trade Unions: Some Views from the Frontline’, the four-parter was prevented from being shown due to ‘lack of balance’. Melvynn Bragg had commissioned Loach to make a piece about the newly-striking coal miners’ poems and songs (not police attacks at Orgreave) - and once again Loach’s perspective prevented the airing of his work (Footnote 1). People in the past who sought to reflect a particular kind of reality that would butress a particular political position (against those who held power) often found themselves gagged. However, simply getting the documentary broadcast would not in and of itself have changed the situation. To do that, one has to win the hearts and minds of a great many people, a process to which a documentary can contribute, though not replace.

Talking of ‘hearts and minds’, the film of that name did manage to capture the sense of hopelessness of Vietnam in 1974, although it was In the Year of the Pig earlier in 1968 that gave popular credence to the idea of a subjectively-based anti-war polemic rooted in a belief in national self-determination. The film was able to influence some and shape a part of the debate, but it didn’t have the final word.

Today, without a broader sense of what politics is, ‘political’ documentaries are becoming preachy and sermon-like. There seems to be a sense that these ‘campaigning’ documentaries will somehow magically change reality themselves and that we do not have to embark on the hard work of convincing people, one by one, of what we believe needs to change. Whilst I could enjoy a documentary showing Noam Chomsky recounting the gassing of the Kurds by Winston Churchill on a date in New York - mainly because I had been arguing with my date about how the borders in the Middle East had been arbitrarily created - a ‘lecture’ from the pulpit is only dreary, not thought-provoking.

Films such as The Corporation, which have obvious and unsubtle messages, demonstrate the limitations of the form (as well as those of filmmakers). While some may enjoy the antics of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, this can hardly be viewed as a serious examination of anything, not least the interrogation of an idea. The increasing popularity of simplistic explanations of our problems often leads to simplistic documentaries. Bush’s Brain leads on from the book of the same name, as does The Smartest Men in the Room, which much like The Corporation is about greed and avariciousness and is superficial because of that (see Ben-Ami 2006). You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is an attempt to popularise Howard Zinn’s thought, as is Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man. It is interesting that all these films share the contemporary distaste for corporations and believe that evil executives rule the world. Who Killed the Electric Car? projects the idea of a conspiracy while McLibel, made over 10 years, is a testament to independent filmmaking, though the claims that it (or the two defendants against McDonald’s) have ‘changed the world’ seem bizarre. In fact, these films have only reinforced certain prejudices rather than deeply challenged the status quo and stimulated debate.

The two giants of the contemporary idea that making a film can make a difference are of course Michael Moore and Al Gore. Here again, in their own styles, the two simply reproduce popular sentiments that already have significant purchase. Moore, in Bowling for Columbine and Farenheit 9/11, demonstrates how he unabashedly believes that tabloid documentaries ‘speak to the masses’, whereas Gore takes a more pastor-like position in An Inconvenient Truth. It is undoubtable that their success, in terms of cinematic distribution and exposure, has convinced many that documentaries can change the landscape of public discourse. But it is worth noting that when a film such as The Great Global Warming Swindle by Martin Durkin appears and challenges consensus there is uproar. Once again, films can be polemical and provocative, but do not in and of themselves challenge the very political platitudes that must be examined in order to truly change the world.

We should perhaps pause to reflect on the fact that many have turned to documentaries because they do not believe they can change the world any other way. Whilst American Democrats blame ‘stupid people’ in the mid-west and south for their defeats, rather than their own lack of compelling ideas, filmmakers often feel that documentary-making is the new politics, and that all that is important is viewing figures and not quality of argument. I often find, however, that the best documentaries are those that do not push a particular message, at least overtly. For example, Spellbound seems a straightforward portrayal of young people at an annual spelling bee competition, yet at the same time is a wonderful representation of class and the immigrant experience in America. Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans plays on society’s obsession with paedophilia, yet is also funny and engaging.

Hoop Dreams is a fantastic film about the trials and tribulations of school kids competing at the highest level of basketball and along the way explores the issues of poverty and exclusion in America. Green Leaves is a touching and comical exploration of one person’s history, but also grapples with larger issues of tobacco manufacturing, slavery and ownership in the US. Touching the Void is about human determination and the will to survive and utterly gripping because of it.

There are of course tremendous films with polemical positions. Errol Morris, a master of the form, showed us this with The Fog of War. But even then, the simplified explanations of the evil Curtis Le May and the reproach of McNamara left us wanting more. The brothers Albert and David Maysles have brought us generations of detailed insight (Footnote 2), but so too has Jehane Noujaim with The Control Room. Often documentaries have been associated with the old Left, but Triumph of the Will is an impeccably made film that has retained its significance. Ken Burns continues to produce breathtaking films, and while one can take issue with his idea of ‘people’s history’ in Thomas Jefferson, he has etched his vision onto our psychology. I sincerely believe it is these types of filmmakers, along with the Werner Herzogs, Dziga Vertovs and DA Pennebakers, that make documentaries that can stand the test of time.

Ultimately, however, if one wants to change the world this can only be done through politics, by engaging in public debate, and by action in the world. Sometimes the best documentaries will influence those embarked on that task - or even inspire people to get involved somehow - but the documentary in the end is a mechanism of exploration, not social or political transformation. I encourage any aspiring filmmaker to make their films and have their say - though we would do well to remember that in the end there is no substitute for the very real and everyday task of forging the world with the vision we have. Those who want to change the world should get involved in doing that - and hope that some good filmmakers will document them doing so.


Alan Miller is director of The NY Salon and a filmmaker and producer.


1 Ken Loach believed the Trade Unions to be one of the reasons the ‘rank and file’ of workers could not win. The documentary included scenes of police violence against the pickets (Orgreave), and it was decided not to show it due to lack of balance. Eventually it did appear on Channel 4 in January 1985, but spending almost two years on the project, the final four-part programme were banned and, even today, cannot be exhibited.

2 Albert and David Maysles dealt with issues ranging from psychiatry in Russian institutions to abortion, from students revolting to Democrats in Primary.


Ben-Ami, D. (2006). ‘Not the smartest film in the cinema’. Spiked Online.

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