The research project is proving hard to control, and keeps going off in different directions. The hardest thing will be to write a coherent account of it. Just now I am considering the fact that the word ‘documentary’ appears to have different meanings – several different meanings – depending on [a] whether we are discussing photography or film and [b] what historical period we are discussing, and [c] which theoretician we are reading. Plenty of choice. The point that got me into this avenue (cul-de-sac? maze?) of research was a quotation from the Scottish film-maker John Grierson, who is said to have first used the term ‘documentary’ in relation to film. While most people would probably define a documentary as a film about real life, or something like that, he called it ‘the creative treatment of actuality’ – a definition superbly illustrated in his 1929 film Drifters, a documentary about the British fishing industry, shot in multiple locations, then edited to create the illusion of a single narrative in much the same way as a fiction film (apart from not using actors, but ‘real people’):
The film is about 50 minutes, and the music (not, I should say, the original accompanying music, but a sort of jangly musak) is a bit irritating, but it’s well worth watching – I particularly like the swirling masses of fish – as a poetic exposition of man’s struggle with nature and its commodification.
What exactly Grierson meant by his definition has been much debated, and is related to his philosophy of idealism, a topic I plan to develop further – it also raises the question, what is actuality, actually? Is it what is actually there, or is it a culturally conditioned interpretation of our perceptions? Answers in 140 characters please.