The Politics of Documentary: Michael Chanan’s Argument Considered

By Martin Carter


Trying to define the documentary film is, by any measurement, an uphill task. Is documentary a genre? Does it have a greater claim to ‘truth’ (whatever that might mean) than a fictional feature or short? Quite simply, what is it? Just trying to answer such basic questions about the form immediately opens up cans of worms by the shelf-load. Therefore in his attempt to construct an understanding of documentary Michael Chanan certainly has his work cut out.

It is a pleasure then to report that his latest book, disguised by a rather dry title, is an extensive historical, conceptual and, yes, political review of the documentary film that is immensely readable whilst always remaining challenging and erudite. Chanan provides us with a selective history of the form that, whilst including such usual suspects as Vertov, Jennings and the Free Cinema movement, introduces us to overlooked filmmakers such as Japan’s Kamei Fumio and Akira Iwasaki. His chapter dealing with documentary in 1930s Japan is an alarming reminder of how narrow our knowledge and experience of such filmmaking is in the West.

The politics of the book’s title are tackled in a subtle manner with refreshingly little space given to the more obvious filmmakers with an overtly political stance (Leni Riefenstahl and Michael Moore barely get a mention). Instead Chanan chooses to explore the underlying influences of politics on documentary filmmaking. It is these forces which are shown to be crucial to the production, reception and consumption of documentary films and he vividly demonstrates how that they are capable of being transformed and translated in different ways through techniques such as montage and voice-over, and, more pervasively, by an ever-changing historical perspective.

Chanan also attempts to answer some of the basic questions about the form (such as those raised above). One of his most persuasive lines is his attempt to construct a description of what documentary film is. Borrowing from Wittgenstein he posits documentary as being a ‘family’ of film forms linked by a common gene pool that, like family resemblances, can be identical, similar or totally different. This approach, in itself, proves an elegant way to bring together the menagerie of films gathered under the umbrella term ‘documentary’; from Emile de Antonio to Patrick Keiller; Jean Rouch to Nick Broomfield; and Agnes Varda to Errol Morris; to name only a few.

This book will be invaluable to exponents and students of documentary filmmaking, giving a fresh perspective on its history and techniques. For those who may want better to understand the history and codes of the form, it provides a thought-provoking perspective that takes in not just those who have made the films but also the ideas of such figures as Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida, making this volume a thoroughly enjoyable workout for the intellect.

The Politics of Documentary is available now from BFI Publishing.

Martin Carter is a writer and academic.