Once, and it was not so long ago, the story of documentary was just that: a narrative that tried to make sense of the cinema’s less-favoured branch by tracing its descent like a family tree. It was a story that began, rather arrogantly, with the founding fathers Robert Flaherty and John Grierson, an explorer and a canny political operator, who between them fostered the widespread belief that documentary was creative, informative and generally good for the body politic. The story thereafter tended to zigzag between technology and form, with the introduction of increasingly unobtrusive portable cameras and recorders shaping what kinds of films could be made, until television raised its inevitable head.
Was television “good” for documentary? Hard to believe this question was once posed, since television has so clearly become the dominant institution controlling what counts as “documentary”. This shift is well reflected in Alan Rosenthal and John Corner’s thoughtful and remarkably comprehensive anthology, which is a substantially revised version of Rosenthal’s original 1987 collection. In come welcome discussions not only of “docudrama” and “dramadoc” - subtly different genres - and timely reflections on the spread of “docusoap” as the documentary impulse finds new ways of staying on primetime television.
Corner’s contribution is most evident in bringing issues of aesthetics and institutions to the fore, while more UK material is also a feature of the new edition, which will make the text particularly useful as a teaching resource.
Among the new contributions, John Ellis’s on the “crisis of trust” that erupted in Britain in 1999 after serious faking had been exposed is acute in pinpointing the centrality of documentary to our mediated culture and consequent anxiety about what we can believe. Stella Bruzzi valuably considers the status of the “event” in terms of audiovisual record; and Brian Winston ponders “ethics” with characteristic trenchancy.
The history of documentary has always been more national than global accounts make it appear, and this poses problems for an anthology that wants to respect particularity. Ignoring national heroes such as Johann van der Keuken, Nicholas Philibert and Nick Broomfield may be justifiable on the grounds that the text is not trying to be comprehensive, but is instead offering a series of case studies intended to illuminate issues of wide concern.
Such a rubric presumably justifies Rosenthal including his own account of starting to work in Israel, since contextual issues are crucial for the documentarist, and a splendid interview with the controversial Dennis O’Rourke, director of The Good Woman of Bangkok and Landmines - A Love Story , which keeps the collection edgily up to date on documentary’s continuing challenge.
Ian Christie is professor of film and media history, Birkbeck, University of London.
New Challenges for Documentary. Second edition
Editor - Alan Rosenthal and John Corner
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Pages - 507
Price - £60.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 0 7190 6898 3 and 6899 1