Review of Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (1974/1983)


Erik Barnouw (writer).

Read in 2017.

I read the revised 1983 edition, since made intermediate by a 1993 edition.

The non-fiction film by way of the development of its medium, from its roots in Muybridge, Marey, Edison and Lumière to the mature documentaries of the Vietnam War. In a final chapter added for the revised edition, Barnouw extends the analysis to Cosmos: A Personal Journey (1980) and cautions the reader that while documentary film is always subjective and meaningful—always in some sense propaganda—the same is true of more deceptive fiction film.

For an overview as old as I am, it has stood up remarkably well. Barnouw writes beautifully and achieves a near-perfect balance, at pleasant length, of technological development—leading by the 1980s to “a constant state of upheaval”—political context, biography and cogent analysis of individual works.

References here: Nanook of the North (1922), “Drifters” (1929), “Rain” (1929), “The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936).

text non-fiction