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Powerful Documentary or Documented Power?

When, in December 1895, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière introduced their 50 second long shot of a steam locomotive approaching the train station in the French coastal town of La Ciotat, it caused chaos. This black-and-whitesilent documentary film, named L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station),  showed a single, unedited view illustrating an aspect of everyday life. With no apparent intentional camera movement, and being just one continuous real-time shot, the rather small detail that might have felt “unusual” for the viewers was that they were not used to sitting still while a real size steam locomotive was moving towards them. Based on this legend, the terrified spectators ran shouting and screaming to hide in the back of the basement lounge of the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, where the screening took place.

This kind of “actuality” film shows some noteworthy events, such as scenes from foreign lands or everyday events. Documentary films are often regarded as the first genre of the cinema. Step by step, they developed from short movies by corporate businesses to promote their image (in today’s world globally understood as an advertisement), to a form of social and political critique, ideology, and propaganda. Their original aim to entertain was transformed into a highly valuable form of promotion and persuasion. As Bill Nichols, American film critic and founder of the contemporary study of documentary film, points out “The radical potential of film to contest the state and its law, as well as to affirm it, made documentary an unruly ally of those in power.”

During World War I (WWI), the participating countries quickly realised the impact of propaganda production and documentary moved away from entertainment and private sponsorship into the domain of the state and heavy censorship. While early on, governments were suspicious of the new medium emerging from the working class, they soon realised that they might be able to exploit it for their own agenda.  One of the first results of this discovery was the British film Battle of the Somme (1916), which depicts the life on the frontline and delivers a credible picture of the scene during WWI.

It was in 1922 that Robert Flaherty on his expedition to Canada filmed the famous documentary Nanook of the North, depicting a year in the life of an Inuit Eskimo and his family. Seven years later, it was in the Soviet Union that another important documentary film of that period emerged. Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man with a Movie Camera) where a typical day in Moscow from dawn to dusk was been edited into an hour long documentary.

In the period from 1930 to 1945, three documentaries, in particular, marked another stage in the historical development of the documentary film. Released in 1935, Adolf Hitler used Triumph of the Will, the filming of the annual Nazi Party rally of 1934, as a propaganda tool to further his cause. Across La Manche, the British series of The World at War told the story of World War II from the perspective of ordinary people. On the other side of the Atlantic, the United States used the documentary Why we Fight to explain its citizens why the US was going to war.

Today, when we read about the panic at the Lumière screening, the “naivity” of the terrified first documentary spectators in Paris makes us smile and wonder “How could they possibly believe it?”. Nevertheless, in 2013, we are surrounded by real moving images that make some of us jump, or at least cover our eyes, owing to their influence.

Restrepo is one such documentary. Restrepo is the name of an isolated military outpost in the Korengal Valley on the Aghanistan-Pakistan border. Considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military, the documentary depicts the day-to-day life of fifteen US soldiers during the year which they spent fighting to hold this outpost. Living with the soldiers through combat, boredom and fear as experienced through their own eyes, creates the feeling of living through it with them.

No geopolitical debates, no foreign policy analysis, and no interviews with the relatives of the casualties are needed to understand the message. As the authors of the documentary, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, stated themselves: “Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs are a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.”

To learn more, come along to the Documentary Evening session, Monday 18th, November, to listen to the introduction by Professor Alex Danchev, watch the Restrepo movie, and make up your own mind about it.

Link to the trailer:


Jana Jonasova is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations and her research focuses on private military companies

Published inConflict & Security


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