TRUR1186 – Introduction to Contextual Studies

Online Presentation

To investigate the early developments of photography and film arts and the key debates around the nature of still and moving images.

Class Presentation


How did films or photography endeavour to represent an authentic representation of reality in the 20th Century?

         Presently we think about media misrepresentation in association to ‘fake news’ and digital manipulation such as ‘photoshopping’ and CGI but in fact forms of these trickeries have been around since the beginning of capturing. I currently believe film would be harder to misrepresent without editing software we use in the 21st Century and therefore would like to look into arguments against this and compare it against developments in photography contextually.  

The start of the 20th century saw the start of the film industry and some of those very first films made such as the Lumiere Shorts were small one-minute clips that were intended to be ‘real life’ shots. One of these shorts La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (English: Quitting Time at the Lumière Factory) is regarded as the first real motion picture ever made (MSN Encarta, 2007). But just how ‘real’ could these shorts be? Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the ‘real films’ are still films told through the lens of a filmmaker. So while we’re shown the illusion of raw footage we are in fact watching that filmmakers perception of reality and as we know more commonly today in the 21st Century, different people will have alternate perceptions of reality. For example how did the workers really feel in the situation compared to the higher end of hierarchy that was filming the event.

The first feature-length films that sort to challenge these different realities and lifestyles was Robert J. Flaherty’s: Nanook of the North (1922) where he captured an Inuk man named Nanook and his families search for food in the Canadian Arctic. This meant that at a time when fictional pieces, known as actualities we’re considered to be solely informative, they could, in fact, have elements of drama. These elements of drama are something that critics like myself challenge as drama is a form of stories and when we refer back to a story it’s once again someone’s representation or memory of the events. While storys can be construed and slowly changed overtime it’s often the composure of films that misrepresent and with Nanook of the North (1922) Robert came under fire by critics for staging or geting the subjects to repeat scenes due to technical difficulties (Cruz-Tan, 2014).

When we look for fictional informative videos we think of Documentaries by it wasn’t until 1926 when Scottish filmmaker John Grierson came up with the term to describe “The Creativity of Actuality” that ‘Documentary’ was coined. Grierson himself shot real people in real situations in real environments. He wanted to challenge the old style of documentaries that he felt had a sense of persuasion as he believed documentaries should show facts, he wrote about this in his essay First Principles of Documentary (1932). In 1936 a film narrated by Grierson was released in conjunction with the post office called Night mail. The film follows the distribution of mail on the special night train dedicated only to carry the post. The film followed Grierson’s values of real people, scenarios and environments and is widely considered a masterpiece of the British Documentary Film Movement (McLane, 2012). There is one particular scene in the film that doesn’t necessarily follow Grierson’s values. Halfway through the film, the mail is sorted in one of the carriages into pigeon holes, due to the size of the carriage and the camera itself, they could not physically fit past the workers and record. To get around this they built a full-size replica set, this then meant the workers were hired to reconstruct what happened. Is reconstruction authentic? Or is it another misrepresentation? On one hand, they’re reconstructing the exact situation but throughout the whole film the workers are aware of the camera and that awareness might provoke subtle changes; the Royal Post Office wouldn’t want to fund a negative film about themselves would they? Well no, they wouldn’t but the exact opposite was exploited.

Three years after the release of Night Mail war broke out. All forms of media did their best to follow headlines and deliver news to the public. War saw journalists following the front line with photographers such as Robert Capa and Tony Vaccaro, soldiers with a new era of the camera; Leica Camera. Not only a small camera that could be carried at all times but faster, allowing for revolutionary photos to be released through magazines. Something that film couldn’t follow due to the bulky recording equipment for both sound and visuals. The war period did see a shift in documentary. Where opposing sides used factual pieces fused together with staged shots and somewhat misleading taglines used to misconstrued the public’s opinion. This wave of elicit documentaries is what we now call propaganda. One famous example of this is Leni Riefenstahl’s: Triumph of the Will (1935). Unofficially produced for and starring Adolf Hitler it was a movie about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg with an overall theme of the Nazis returning Germany as a great power with Hitler as their leader (Hinton, 1975). In retaliation, we saw American filmmakers such as Frank Capra producing a series called Why We Fight which included famous films such as Prelude to War (1942) and The Battle of Britain (1943) both made to justify the United States involvement in the war and to persuade the support of the public. Presently we know about the intent behind these war driven films and recognise them for what they are; propaganda, but back in a time when sharing information isn’t as easy as today, both sides were subject to the same levels of misrepresentation, no matter the ideology. Something that’s only comparable modernly to the restrictions within China’s and North Korea’s media industries.

With levels of misrepresentation spewing around in the media the post-war period saw a new ear of filmmakers dedicated to creating an authentic representation in films to dissociate from the propaganda that people had to be subject to while also reflecting upon both the moral and economic conditions after the war. Italian Neorealism stems from the difficulties Italy faced during WWII. Crippled financially, politically unstable and a lack of studio space due to bombings combined with advancements in technology meant that filmmakers took to the streets. One example to come from this golden era was Di Sica’s: The Bicycle Thieves (1948). The film follows undeniable characteristics of a Neorealist film, all shot on the streets you can see bystanders looking at the camera, shots often hang around long after the dialog ends with most shots being medium to long range. The protagonist is a working class man who has his bike stolen causing him to face difficulty with his job due to transport and low employment rates, the film shows the struggles of the protagonist through his misfortune as he turns towards crime with a social injustice ending. While these films had elements to improve authentic representation a law passed in Italy in 1949 that imposed censorship on films that portrayed Italy in a negative light. So while the era showed filmmakers that real societal problems and natural sets are effective it was overshadowed by restrictions. The Italian’s movement did, however, influence new movements throughout the world especially in France, America and India. It was also considered a ‘Golden Era’(Arabian, 2017)  for showing third world countries that films didn’t have to be high budgeted and be filmed on lavished sets, inevitably opening up to more indie filmmakers.

Thanks to the Italians and the removal of fascist groups post-war new movements in cinema formed; Cinema Verité from the french and Direct Cinema from the Americans were both new waves of films that wanted to move away from the staged styles of narrative films and put the audience in the middle of the action as it unfolds. Both during the 60s they focus around new handheld cameras that allowed for production by one individual meaning fewer interruptions and flexibility. This flexibility allowed a wider representation of reality to be captured by the two movements but they took slightly different approaches.

Robert Drew an American filmmaker approached Life magazine asking for $1M so he could make a small camera that he said would redefine media (Rapold, 2014), he succeeded and in 1960 produced a film called Primary shot on his own camera. In the film, he followed John F. Kennedy during the Wisconsin primary election (Drew Associates, 2019). The film was a revolutionary documentary. Some particular shots are ones we take for granted today. The camera follows Kennedy directly as he walks through a crowd of people crammed into a hotel room, watching the film back today feels really intimate and has since become that standard style of video reporting. The direct cinema approach was observational, other then the camera itself no interaction is occurring creating a true fly-on-the-wall experience for the audience meanwhile the same equipment was being used in France by Jean Rouch a French filmmaker who released a film in 1961 called Chronicle of a Summer where he approached people in the street and asked them “Are you happy?” (Brody, 2019). While there is no structure or planning, the filmmaker himself is getting involved with the people  which meant cinema verité was more participatory than the observational style of direct cinema

These styles were later considered to be some of the factual modes of film and can now be split down into 6 modes. Originally theorised by Bill Nichols he stated that “In documentary film and video, we can identify six modes of representation that function something like sub-genres of the documentary film genre itself: poetic, expository, participatory, observational, reflexive, performative.” (Nichols, 2010). These styles are what I’ve come to realise were constructed throughout different points within the 20th century, each with their own way to try and create an authentic representation of reality.

In conclusion I have realised that while film within the 20th century wasn’t manipulative in the same style as the 21st century it did, however, have the ability to be misrepresented and influential as more of an underlying tone to a lot of films. Early documentaries were restricted with equipment size meaning reconstruction and involvement was often unavoidable. Propaganda had the ability to construe reality to fit the producers needs which wasn’t authentic to the public. The public retaliation to propaganda post-war was censored. I now understand that while photography is a still and could easily be misrepresented with a tagline or story a film is much more defined. There is more ways a filmmaker can convey their ideas and therefor be less authentic due to their angle and views. One thing I go back to that I mentioned at the start of the essay is that any film is being told through the lens of a filmmaker and whether it’s being filtered through post-production or contained to it’s raw footage any and all film will still have misrepresented authenticity to it as we’re unable to capture all details as we’re restricted to what’s in frame and what we are shown. But thanks to the efforts of filmmakers and photographers through the 20th century we now have a range of documentary, 6 modes to be precise. New developments and styles have come out of the race to be authentic and it’s those different ranges and styles that make our overall capture of history as authentic as possible.


Arabian, A. (2017). Evolution Of Italian Cinema: Neorealism To Post-Modernism | Film Inquiry. [online] Film Inquiry. Available at: [Accessed 29 Jan. 2019].

Brody, R. (2019). The Extraordinary “Chronicle of a Summer”. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: [Accessed 27 Jan. 2019].

Cruz-Tan, Z. (2014). Nanook Of The North (1922) – The Critical Reel. [online] The Critical Reel. Available at: [Accessed 22 Jan. 2019].

Drew Associates. (2019). The Kennedy Films | Drew Associates. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Jan. 2019].

Hinton, D. (1975). “Triumph of the Will”: Document or Artifice?. Cinema Journal, 15(1), p.48.

McLane, B. (2012). A new history of documentary film. New York, NY: Continuum, pp.73-92.

MSN Encarta. (2007). Lumière. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Jan. 2019].

Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to documentary. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.99.

Rapold, N. (2014). Interview: Robert Drew – Film Comment. [online] Film Comment. Available at: [Accessed 28 Jan. 2019].