Quick Facts:
A History of Documentaries

There are many books that go into depth on the history of documentaries, so to keep it short and web friendly, here are a few key highlights. 

Documentary History Highlights

  • The very first films (pre-1900’s) were called "actuality films" because they captured short snippets of real "actual" events, such as a boat pulling up to the dock or workers leaving a factory. So in essence, the first movies ever made were documentaries, also called newsreels.

  • 1920’s Russia - Perhaps the true spirit of the documentary starts with a young poet and film editor named Dziga Vertov. He and his group created a series of educational newsreels called the Kino-Eye (literally, "cinema truth") during the Russian Revolution.

  • Nanook of the North - by American filmmaker, Robert Flaherty (1922) - Considered the first "original" documentary, this film profiles the lives of a real Eskimo family.

  • 1926 - the first recorded mention of the term "documentary" (by Scottish-born filmmaker John Grierson) to describe a non-fiction film.

  • 1930’s & 1940’s – the documentary becomes a valuable propaganda tool for governments such as Nazi Germany, America and Britain, especially during WWII.

  • Cinéma Vérité and Direct Cinema (1950’s – 1970’s) - with the advent of new technology and lighter camera equipment, new filmmaking styles emerged to capture more "spontaneous" events.

  • 1960’s – 1990’s - Television becomes an important outlet for documentary filmmaking, putting more of an emphasis on journalistic and educational programs (i.e. Ken Burns’s Civil Warseries, 1990).

Documentaries today are experiencing a boost in popularity with the help of blockbusters such as Fahrenheit 911, SuperSize Me and An Inconvenient Truth.

It is truly an exciting time to be a documentary filmmaker. Never before have there been so many opportunities to get your story told and seen.

Literally, all you need is a camcorder & a computer and you can be in the movie-making business! 

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