In anticipation of the new documentary film history book coming out, I have been rereading some of the overview and introductory books I have about the form. My most recent reread is Patricia Aufderheide’s Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. The Very Short Introduction series from Oxford University Press chooses its subject authors very carefully, and the press definitely made the right choice here.
Aufderheide divides the book into three somewhat long chapters. The first, titled “Defining the Documentary,” explores just that, going through the naming process, exploring some of the early developments and founders, and even unpacking the ideas behind cinema verite.
The second chapter, titled “Subgenres,” outlines some of the different groupings of documentary, their authors, and their applications. In particular, the chapter addresses public affairs, government propaganda, advocacy, historical, ethnographic, and nature. Aufderheide’s information here is not just listing of titles, but a more in-depth look at the involved organizations, the historical backdrop, and the current issues of each one.
The conclusion is the last chapter, which brings together some of they key ideas and introduces some of the key pieces of scholarship on documentary. In particular, this section offers an appreciation for Erik Barnouw’s seminal history of the form, as well as an overview of some of the key theorists, notably Bill Nichols and Michael Renov. Aufderheide’s calls for future research on the form provide a good starting point for scholars looking to contribute in a more meaningful way. (I am following one of those calls myself in my own research.)
Two things really amaze me about this book. One, Aufderheide manages to address so many of the key issues in a meaningful way with such brevity and grace. Two, she manages not only to touch on the canonical titles and makers, but also to integrate less-known titles and makers.
The new history coming out is an update of a 2005 book, A New History of Documentary Film by Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane. The 2012 edition bears only McLane’s name, and the promotional materials suggest some new sections. It comes out May 10 (hopefully).