- Documentary Disciplines:An Introduction
This is an extraordinary moment for documentary. The world of theatrical releases, movie awards, and popular journalism is in the grip of a much-remarked documentary renaissance. Put the breakthrough down to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, the highest-grossing documentary in U.S. history. Or, to put it another way, credit the film's distributor, the old Miramax of the Weinstein Brothers era, for creating unprecedented profits with a breakthrough indie film, as they did originally with the film that put the company (and the Sundance Film Festival) on the map in 1989: Sex, Lies and Videotape; fifteen years later they repeated the hat trick. But that's not to say that documentary was unknown in movie theaters before then. Indeed, some of the first U.S. independent films to cross over to art house audiences were the progressive documentaries of the seventies: Jerry Bruck's I. F. Stone's Weekly (1973), Jill Godmilow's My Antonia (1974), and The Mariposa Collective's The Word Is Out (1977). Since that time documentary has steadily extended its range and reach from these early theatrical breakthroughs and festival presences (in the United States, the San Francisco International Film Festival's pioneering Golden Gate Awards and the equitable Sundance Film Festival incorporation of documentary and dramatic film into equal competitions) into ever increasing theatrical exposure, an expanded public television and cable presence (in which HBO and the ITVS have played no small role), and the ever more frenzied tallying of profits to be made with a previously "educational" genre.
The academy has been occupied rather less breathlessly with its own perpetual renaissance in documentary studies, one that spans many more decades and shows no signs of slowing down. Indeed, in the past fifteen years the field of documentary studies has expanded remarkably. The most prominent evidence of this seriousness of purpose has been the annual Visible Evidence conference and the book series of the same name published by the University of Minnesota Press under the stewardship of Jane Gaines, Faye Ginsburg, and Michael Renov.1 The boom is broadly reflected in the world of academic publishing, with important volumes [End Page 108] constantly expanding the universe of documentary inquiry, research, and theoretical implications, both within cinema and media studies and in such other crucial arenas as ethnographic research and historical inquiry.2 University centers such as the Center for Social Media at American University, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University have been flagships that bridge academic, policy, and practitioner concerns and provide leadership on critical issues of documentary production.
I have experienced the new academic expansionism firsthand as a result of being hired to teach at the UC Santa Cruz Community Studies Department and its brand-new Graduate (M.A.) Program in Social Documentation and, more recently, of being asked to join the advisory board of the even newer Documentary Film Institute at San Francisco State University. All of this constitutes a remarkable change from the days when the only place to grapple with documentary issues was the annual (and still thriving) Flaherty Film Seminar, where documentarians, scholars, curators, and students have gathered to fight with and learn from each other for more than half a century. Today these debates go on in documentary film festivals around the world, from the Sundance documentary competition and panels to the Silver Docs, Double Take, and Hot Docs film festivals in North America and the leading international documentary festivals in Amsterdam, Sheffield, Thessaloniki, and Yamagata.
The landscape for documentary production, history, and theory is richer than it has been in the United States at any time since, perhaps, the last explosion: the direct cinema or cinema verité movement of the early 1960s, itself now undergoing a striking revival with tributes around the country to Albert Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, and Frederick Wiseman. Never mind that this revival thus far ignores the equally rich history of U.S. activist film: the Newsreel cycle of solidarity documentaries, the era of feminist documentary, the long history of early Latino and Asian American documentary...