(02/04/08) – Documentaries have never been as popular as they have become since the 1990s. Covering a huge variety of styles, from the crockumentary tactics of Michael Moore, the investigative boldness of Nick Broomfield and the exquisitely crafted ‘reality fictions’ of Frederick Wiseman, whose films have recently been made available on DVD, documentaries these days have as big audiences as some of the most popular fiction films. And as many stylistic variations.

Kamera Books’ lastest title, Documentaries…and how to make them looks at the universe of documentary-making. Written by Andy Glynne, it says everything that the aspiring documentarian needs to know to go out about researching, developing, producing and distributing his or her work, among many other topics. Below is an edited extract from the book’s introduction.

We can go into a high-street shop these days, buy a small DV or HDV camera, and go out and make our documentary. We can then edit the film on our home computers, add a little music, and make it into a DVD. The process might not lead to the highest production values, and our intended audience might only be our mum, dad, or friend, but the very fact that we can just go out and do it is very new. What we now take for granted was not only once novel, but actually incredible.

The very first ‘documentary films’ are a far cry from what we see on our television screens and in cinemas today. At the turn of the century, they were simply a visual and audio recording of an event. No story. No plot. No character development. People would flock to cinemas to see these films, which either reflected contemporary life on the big screen, or, for the first time, showed portraits of what life was like in the far corners of the world (such as Robert Flaherty’s classic Nanook of the North). In Britain specifi- cally, the early pioneers of documentary such as Humphrey Jennings made films about ordinary people going about their everyday business. Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey’s Housing Problems was one of the first times people actually witnessed the experiences of the British working class on film. This powerful look at contemporary society, which had never before been seen in such a way, sowed the seeds of the documentary form as a tool for social change.

Any documentarian will hear the name John Grierson mentioned again and again, often cited as the father of documentary filmmaking, and founder of the Documentary Film Movement in Britain in the late 1920s. He defined documentary as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’, a definition which has stood the test of time. The Documentary Film Movement produced many classic examples of the emerging documentary genre through several public bodies and corporate sponsors. These include, famously, the GPO Film Unit (which produced Night Mail), Shell, and the Crown Film Unit at the Ministry of Information ( Listen to Britain ). The Movement gave us filmmakers such as Alberto Cavalcanti, Paul Rotha, Basil Wright, Edgar Anstey and the now-celebrated Humphrey Jennings. The important point here, though, was the type of documentaries they made, and how this set the context for documentary making over the subsequent decades. Grierson’s academic training was as a philosopher, but he also studied the psychology of propaganda, which informed the techniques he used to make documentary films. ‘I look on cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a propagandist,’ he said, and in some ways it’s a legacy that has defined many documentaries we see today (such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11).

Following World War Two and the advent of television, documentary disappeared from the cinema in Britain to emerge in our homes, where it developed into the television forms we can still recognise today (although increasingly rarely), in current affairs strands such as BBC’s Panorama and in the work of today’s filmmakers such as Marilyn Gaunt and Paul Watson. There were certain fringe movements of cinematic documentaries such as the Free Cinema Movement (1956–1959), which was a series of programmes held at the National Film Theatre in London by a group of filmmakers, including Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Michael Grigsby. They were much more experimental and poetic in form than mainstream fare, and often depicted the working-class experience. Classics here include Momma Don’t Allow , O Dreamland , Every Day Except Christmas and Enginemen . The screenings ended in 1959, but most of the filmmakers went on to successful feature film careers and formed the British New Wave, while Grigsby became a renowned documentary filmmaker in his own right.

Meanwhile, outside the UK, the cinematic documentary continued to grow. The transition to more portable 16mm cameras, together with the ability to capture synchronous sound, directly influenced the aesthetics and content of a movement known as ‘cinéma vérité’ (Cinema Truth) in France and ‘Direct Cinema’ in North America. From this movement emerged filmmakers such as brothers Albert and David Maysles, DA Pennebaker ( Don’t Look Back ), Chris Hegedus and Frederick Wiseman ( Titicut Follies ) in the US, and Jean Rouch in France ( Chronique d’un Été or Chronicle of a Summer). Both these branches of the movement relied on observational techniques with an attempt to capture real events as they unfolded. Direct Cinema was all about having little or no involvement with the action in front of the lens, with the intention that the camera somehow became ‘invisible’; Cinéma Vérité, on the other hand, sometimes sanctioned direct involvement or even provocation when the filmmakers felt it was necessary. Regardless of the subtle differences, this fly-on-the-wall approach had a profound influence on documentaries and, it has been argued, directly influenced the advent of reality television that is so prevalent on television screens today.

Back in the UK, from the 1960s through to the 1990s, the main documentary output was on television, rather than at the cinema. Granada’s documentary department produced consistently high-quality documentaries, many of which have now unfortunately been lost to audiences. Highlights from the period include: Michael Apted’s 7 Up series (starting in 1964); Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965); Michael Grigsby’s A Life Apart (1973); Paul Watson’s The Family (1974); Roger Graef’s Police series (1982); and John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986). There were many strands and series from the period, including the BBC’s Man Alive , a social and political documentary strand, which ran from 1965–1981; Arena and Omnibus, the arts strands; plus Granada’s anthropological Disappearing World, and World in Action, the long-running current affairs strand.

In the 1990s, on both sides of the Atlantic, television saw the advent of video diaries and the docusoap, with series such as Driving School and Airport creating celebrities of its participants. More recently, of course, we have the formatted derivatives of documentaries (now known as factual entertainment) such as Wife Swap , Big Brother and The Apprentice . It’s this potted history which makes one realise that the term ‘documentary’ now encompasses a whole range of films. Just as the forms of docu-mentaries are exceptionally varied, so too are the themes. Despite these various forms, perhaps the first intended purpose – to comment on social phenomena or even to effect social change – is one that still appeals to many documentary filmmakers today.

Some documentaries have had a profound influence, and changed the world, sometimes in small ways, and sometimes on a much bigger scale. One such film is Brian Woods and Kate Blewett’s The Dying Rooms . It tells the tale of the one-child policy in China and the impact that this has had on female babies. We see images of a new-born girl tied up in urine-soaked blankets, scabs of dried mucus growing across her eyes, her face shrinking to a skull, malnutrition slowly shrivelling her small body, and we are told the plight of these children – that literally thousands will be left to die in places that became known as ‘The Dying Rooms’. When the film was due to be aired on Channel 4, the Chinese government started to make a lot of fuss; they warned Britain that if the documentary was aired then it would ‘poison’ relations between the two countries. Channel 4 went on to air the film as planned, and it caused a national outcry about the obvious abuses of human rights. Later it brought international attention to what was happening in China. This resulted in human rights agencies and charities going to China, which in turn led to various reforms of the one-child policy. In addition, True Vision (the production company behind the film) set up The Dying Rooms Trust, which makes various contributions to these charities to help improve conditions in Chinese orphanages. This is just one of countless examples of ways in which, over the course of their short history, documentaries have been instrumental in bringing about change, and the trend still continues today.

Kamera Books’ Documentaries includes a DVD with three-awarding short documentaries showing some of the aesthetic possibilities in contemporary factual cinema. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy.