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Discover the history and development of film, a merging of science, technology, business, and art, and one of the most widely experienced mediums.

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Documentary and Propaganda

Advent of Cinema

Scientists and inventors set photographs into motion—and make movies.

Experimentation with Sound

Sound technology breaks the silence of the movies and revolutionizes filmmaking.

Documentary and Propaganda

Filmmakers turn their cameras onto real life to make documentaries, or attempt to mold real life to an ideology through propaganda.

Experimentation in Film / The Avant-Garde

Seeing untapped artistic and, sometimes, revolutionary potential in film, artists and filmmakers take motion pictures into entirely new territory.

The affective, even visceral quality of film makes it a powerful form of communication. Films can help people develop empathy and understand the world more completely. Documentary—a nonfiction genre rooted in facts and the real world—is one form of filmmaking that has been developed for these ends.

Though nonfiction filmmaking is as old as the medium itself, among the earliest feature-length documentaries to be released, and a foundation of the genre, was Nanook of the North (1922). Made by Robert J. Flaherty, it follows a year in the life of Nanook, an Inuit hunter. Flaherty looked to Hollywood in structuring his footage into a loose narrative of both staged and observed scenes. In the process, he romanticized and sometimes stereotyped Nanook, but also stayed true to the spirit of the life he sought to capture.

Documentary filmmakers working after Nanook of the North have been grappling with issues of objectivity versus subjectivity and reality versus invention that the film raised. As documentarian Robert Green puts it: “No matter the contour, a documentary must have some unbreakable link to actual experience or it’s a fiction film. But the line between fiction and non-fiction is endlessly unstable. This is because no matter how authentic the content, a documentarian must make filmmaking decisions, which are inherently manipulative (they have to be!).”1

Makers of propaganda—information disseminated to influence people—may be less concerned with crossing the line into fiction. Forms of propaganda range widely, and it can serve a constructive purpose. But at its extreme it spreads outright, often dangerous exaggerations and lies to achieve a single overriding goal: to manipulate as many people as possible into believing the message of its makers. In the 1930s, governments worldwide used propaganda to sway populaces toward their ideologies. This was true in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, for example, which both produced a large body of propaganda meant to incite nationalistic fervor and devotion to dictators. Documentary films can help puncture the lies of propaganda and expose its destructiveness.

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Robert Green, quoted in “What is documentary?”, Little White Lies,

Any systematic, widespread dissemination or promotion of particular ideas, doctrines, practices, etc. to further one’s own cause or to damage an opposing one; ideas, doctrines, or allegations spread in this manner, now often used disparagingly to connote deception or distortion. Propaganda may take many different forms, including public or recorded speeches, texts, films, and visual or artistic matter such as posters, paintings, sculptures, or public monuments.

A genre encompassing nonfiction films intended to capture some aspect of reality, often for the purposes of instruction, education, or the development of a historical record.

A person who directs or produces movies.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

The outline of something.

The subject matter or significance of a work of art, especially as contrasted with its form.

Standardized and oversimplified assumptions about specific social groups.

A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.

The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).

A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.