In 1922, a star was born. Out of the North of Quebec, the world was introduced to a figure who would soon become a forming character of cinema itself. Nanook of the North has frequently been dubbed as the first documentary feature film to have been made. Created by Robert L. Flaherty, the film captures the difficulties of Nanook, an Inuit man in the Canadian arctic. Whereas early cinematic films had captured real life in a sense, Flaherty’s film was the first to overtly follow the real life of one person, intentionally aiming to document parts of a life in the hopes of discovering a deeper meaning. Everything that we know about Nanook comes from Flaherty’s film. All of the documentary footage that we could wish to find on the subject is condensed to 79 minutes, the running time of the film. In a sense, the film is an archive of the subject, offering us a limited viewpoint of a specific time and place about which we can find no further data.
The documentary film since then has changed somewhat. Whilst documentary cinema was created largely out of a desire to bring together a number of loose ends of a subject, our access to everyday information has increased over time. What was once the painstaking bringing together of a few scraps of ancient footage has now become something entirely different.
The structure of the old documentary film balanced archive footage with present day interviews and voiceovers. The comparison of the grainy, old footage with the sleek studios of the present day presented a clear rift in time; the subject of the film was very much attached to ‘then’, the filmmaker approaching it from a specific point in time. Footage from the past was often difficult to source or damaged and therefore, a lot of ‘fact’ had to be presented as supposition. There was an aura of myth around the documentary film. Whilst it referred to an event which actually happened, the lack of data from that time meant that there were always issues of validity. The footage that had been discovered was so precious that it often became too high a focal point in the narrative arc. What were perhaps less significant details became the points around which the narrative was framed. The real event became something other than it was.
There has been a shift, however, in the way in which documentary films are structured. Not only do we live in an age in which there are many multi-functional platforms on which we can post about our day but also, subsequently, we capture every moment of our lives, in spite of its apparent significance. What was once something captured on rare, damaged film is now collected every day in lines and lines of digital data. In order to look back at an event, we need only look to Youtube.
A few years ago, during the birth of the found footage movie, it seemed laughable that characters would think to lug recording equipment around with them in moments of peril. Now, however, it seems it is the norm, with countless people talking into their portable cameras everyday, capturing the most banal of activities. The vlog has been received with particular enthusiasm in recent years, the number of lifestyle videos on Youtube in particular rocketing. Whilst capturing moments in real life were once few and far between, now it seems we cannot go anywhere without being poked in the face with a selfie stick.
In retaliation to this, the documentary film has had to adjust a few of its rules. With archival footage existing in everyone’s back pockets, a number of non-fiction films have moved their gaze to the slightly more unconventional. Whilst documenting a truth of some kind, documentary films increasingly contain extended periods of reflection and supposition. They have moved their focus to inside of the imagination. Where truth once reigned, something a little less reliable nature has taken its place. Films such as Waltz With Bashir and The Act of Killing both took a slightly more loose approach to the subject of documentary. Whilst Waltz With Bashir turned to animation to recreate extended scenes of soldier’s memories, The Act of Killing enabled its participants to restage the most brutal moments in their lives, essentially fictionalising events which really happened.
Perhaps this is the road that the modern documentary will follows. Exhausted of finding an actual truth from real events, it will turn its head to the imagined, to the reconceptualising of true moments. Keeping the truth at its core, it will turn the event on its side, considering how it could have been different or alternate ways in which it could be considered. When the truth is more rich than fiction, why not rewrite it?