A documentary filmmaker examines the history of conveying truth on screen.
Drawing on his own career and extensive research (including viewing every film he discusses), Wilkman (Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, 2016, etc.), whose series Moguls and Movie Stars was nominated for three Emmys, offers an illuminating, encyclopedic history of nonfiction film, from Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 images of a galloping horse to the virtual reality of the 21st century. While Westerns, comedies, mysteries, and romances dominated the entertainment industry in its early days, in 1908, in order to meet audiences’ demand for “glimpses of the real world,” the French film company founded by Charles Pathé and his brothers began distributing newsreels: short films recording events such as a daredevil’s fall from the Eiffel Tower and a suffragette march in Washington, D.C. In addition to showing current events, including images of military activities during wars, nonfiction movies became a popular means of education. Henry Ford, diving into movie production, offered films on topics such as pottery making, newspaper production, and, not surprisingly, “Ford’s way of doing business.” Wilkman creates vivid profiles of significant documentarians: photographer Edward S. Curtis, who filmed Native peoples of British Columbia; the daring Osa and Martin Johnson, who filmed expeditions in Africa and the South Pacific; and Robert Flaherty, whose Nanook of the North, a lyrical celebration of Inuit culture, became an unlikely box office success. During World War II, the Army enlisted acclaimed director Frank Capra to produce documentaries “to show Americans what they’re fighting for and why.” TV ensured new audiences for revelations about public issues, society, and culture, on such programs as See It Now, CBS Reports, Frontline, Ken Burns’ histories, and a groundbreaking PBS series, An American Family, that filmed daily life in the Santa Barbara home of the Louds. The author also underscores the importance of documentary film “at a time when the foundations of evidential inquiry are under attack and virtual reality promises to change perceptions of what is accepted as real.”
A capacious celebration of film’s potential to show us the world.