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The documentary version of film history

Miller, H. K. ORCID: (2016) The documentary version of film history. In: Aitken, I. (ed.) The Major Realist Film Theorists. Edinburgh University Press, pp. 172-186. ISBN 9781474421959

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To link to this item DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474402217.003.0011


The overwhelmingly negative response of members of the British documentary film movement (the ‘documentarists’), Grierson very much included, to Cavalcanti’s compilation film Film and Reality (1942) has been taken as a crystallization of a split between ‘aesthetic’ and ‘purposive’ drives within the documentary film movement. Without rejecting this broad characterization, this chapter treats the version of film history advanced by Cavalcanti’s film as largely consonant with that which Grierson and others around him had promoted in the late 1930s, about the time Film and Reality was conceived and commissioned. Both Cavalcanti and Grierson saw in the studio story-film the betrayal of film’s ‘natural destiny of discovering mankind’ (Grierson); both agreed on the realist canon of (principally) Flaherty, the city symphonists, and the Soviets; and both put the documentary movement at the pinnacle of the medium’s progress in the 1930s. Cavalcanti differed from Grierson’s trajectory by introducing Jean Renoir at the climax of his film, but their disagreement over this particular issue was to a large degree a matter of institutional politics and positioning, rather than of theoretical substance. After exploring these issues, the chapter then proceeds to relate the ‘documentarist conception of film history’, which was influential at the time, to others then in circulation, such as what David Bordwell has described as the ‘Basic Story’ account. The chapter concludes by relating the documentarist model of film history to that elaborated later by Andre Bazin.

Item Type:Book or Report Section
Divisions:No Reading authors. Back catalogue items
Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Arts and Communication Design > Film, Theatre & Television
ID Code:100936
Publisher:Edinburgh University Press

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