Five Starter Books about Documentary to Check Out

Studies in documentary film have boomed in the last two decades. What used to be a shelf-ful of books about the form now number in the hundreds, maybe even thousands. Both single volumes and publisher series, including Minnesota’s Visible Evidence series and Wallflower Press’s Nonfictions series, go behind the screens and investigate the subject in new and interesting ways.

With so many titles to choose from, it might seem overwhelming on where to begin. The following list offers five accessible titles to check out.

Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction

Patricia Aufderheide, a professor at American University and long involved in the documentary community, provides an essential overview in this compact volume. Aufderheide charts an overview of the form’s key debates, including questions of reality, truth-telling, objectivity, bias, and ethics. Instead of a chronological order, she structures the book by themes in order to explore subgenres such as propaganda and nature films.

Introduction to Documentary, 3rd ed.

Introduction to Documentary serves as the primary textbook for documentary film studies. Focusing on documentary theory, criticism, and history, revered scholar Bill Nichols provides an accessible toolbox for how to think critically about the documentary genre through questions such as documentary voice, documentary modes, and representations of political and social issues. Nichols, who has written and edited multiple other volumes, connects theory with practice through chapters devoted to starting your own documentary and exploring ethical questions about documentary production.

A New History of Documentary Film, 2nd ed.

Documentary remains a challenging subject to plot as a chronological history, but Betsy McLane’s book overcomes that obstacle by providing a clear, coherent, and accessible narrative. Focusing mostly on U.S., Canadian, and British documentary, McLane covers the form’s contexts and changes throughout the decades from the iconic Nanook of the North in the 1920s through the emerging forms in the 21st century. Each chapter provides period films to check out as well.

Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told

In Documentary Case Studies, Chapman University professor Jeff Swimmer goes behind the scenes of Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated documentary features to learn more about twists and turns in the production process. Grounding each chapter in extensive interviews and writing in an accessible voice, Swimmer touches on issues such as choosing participants, working with difficult participants, respecting communities, and juggling finances. Films explored include The Act of Killing, Gasland, Man on Wire, Restrepo, Spellbound, and Sound and Fury.

100 Documentary Films

Barry Keith Grant and Jim Hillier compile, as the volume title states, 100 documentary films. For each title Grant and Hillier pen a brief and lively essay that offers some background and introduction. The titles range across the form’s history, from the 1920s through the early 2000s. The titles also represent multiple countries around the world.

Mi viaje a Costa Rica

Last week I had the privilege to travel to Costa Rica as part of a scouting visit for a student study abroad trip. In completing an article about Guatemala, I was surprised to learn how little English-based writing has been done about Central American media, so I was curious to learn more about Costa Rica and its media.

Among the countries in the region, Costa Rica is perhaps the most stable. Tourism, mostly by people from the United States, drives the economy. Exports such as medical tech and baseballs also contribute to the economy. The country faces challenges with drug trafficking, immigration (primarily from Nicaragua), poverty, law enforcement, and gender-based violence.

Journalism plays a strong role in Costa Rica, as it does in most Latin American nations. Journalism there faces familiar challenges, including reputation loss, fake news, and funding declines. People are more informed than they ever were, however. User access to news is primarily through mobile devices, then television, and finally tablets at a distant 3 percent.

Entertainment television is dominated by United States programming. For example, the cable offerings included movies such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy (with the Elvish subtitled in Spanish) and The Proposal (don’t judge me). The country receives telenovelas from other countries, but it has no telenovela of its own.

One person frustrated with these offerings asked me why reality shows like 90 Day Fiance continue to appear on television. While the media might tell us that these are shows we want, arguably the bottom line informs these shows’ creation, which are cheaper and faster to produce than expensive sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory. The person asking made a compelling argument for how that show promotes human trafficking.

Another strong point that emerged from the week’s discussions is the importance of representations. The influx of U.S.-based programming squeezes out local programming and its voices. That influx also brings its fair share negative gender and ethnic stereotypes. The question arose: Why don’t audiences resist the negative representations more? Films like Wonder Woman and The Black Panther offer the rare exceptions in an otherwise overwhelming sea of negativity, at least in fiction.

Social media became a question as well. Mobile devices accessing news also access social media, though digital inequalities exist and coverage doesn’t reach the more rural and remote areas. Social networks there are more in person than online.

Advocacy groups use social media to help people and to promote their actions. Gender-based violence, particularly femicide, remains a problem in rural areas. Focusing on the potential victims, education provides one of the strongest means to escape it, as many women don’t know what options are available. In-person meetings play a strong role, but a Facebook page also encourages people to share their stories.

Another problem is incestual relationships between older men and teenage girls, and as a result the rate of teen pregnancy is quite high. Girls lack education, role models, and self-esteem to break that cycle, though some groups work to empower these girls through life skills, relationship skills, and critical thinking skills. Documentaries such as Girl Rising and Half the Sky help call attention to this issue, though each in its own way.

I also heard about a local documentary that followed one pregnant teen’s story: Kassandra: Una Mama de 13 Años. It was produced by NTN24 — Nuestra Tele Noticias 24– and some excerpts of the film are available.

In all, these observations only begin to scratch the surface of the media and social media in Costa Rica. Online searching makes learning about the media organizations, social movements, media productions, and social media possible, but there is something to be said about learning from the people making and using the media for their own purposes.

Part Promotion, Part Travelogue: With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College

As part of learning more about With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College, I sought some reading about the early U.S. film era, from around 1900-1915.

Not surprisingly, documentary histories tend to skip this era. While it follows the Lumière brothers’ experiments, it still predates the landmark Nanook of the North (1922), Grierson’s “documentary” definition (1926), and even Hollywood’s emerging dominance. This era’s best-known film is probably Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), a prototype of the popular western genre that I have tortured more than 20 classes and more than 2,500 students with (and no, not exaggerating that number).

This period, though, was a boon for both fiction and nonfiction films, which often played in theaters on the same bill. Without the documentary or fiction labels that we use today, though, the nonfiction films had other names, including educational, scenic, industrials, topicals, and travelogues.

It is this latter type that Woodbury University professor Jennifer Lynn Peterson examines in her book Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film. Her book offers a thematic analysis of the travelogue, which she defines “as nonfiction motion pictures that represent place as their primary subject.” She situates these films within cultural, industrial, and other contexts of the time.

My post here concerns what I learned from the book and thus does not offer a formal review, though you can find some reviews here and here. I am more interested in what this book tells me about that era and how it informs understanding With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College specifically.

One useful lesson is the basic conventions of these films — what did they look like? Since a print of the film most likely no longer exists, this question is important. Peterson describes the travelogue as series of shots switching between scenery and people. Titles appear between to explain the shots, but no narrative glue unites them. Instead, “The stand-alone quality of the shots is another of the genre’s most notable formal elements,” Peterson writes.

Another useful lesson is the place of these films within the emerging industry at the time. The Selig Polygraph Company is credited for making the film, as companies receive the credit. The idea of auteurs had not yet emerged at that time. Similar to the Production Code era three decades later, these early films faced questions about their respectability and their potential dangers to audiences. Peterson writes how the industry sought to become more respectable in light of these criticisms. Nonfiction film in particular served as part of this cultural uplift. (See Moya Luckett’s Cinema and Community for a more sustained discussion of progressivism specifically relating to Chicago.)

The final useful lesson is the importance of the train in film production during this era. “Railway companies were some of the most important early sponsors of travel films,” Peterson writes. With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College is about a train trip throughout North Dakota, and The Great Northern Railway Company provided equipment for that journey.

Travelogues created a strong connection with popularizing the U.S. West to the U.S. East, showing the former as a place for recreation and for settlement. Train companies, the fastest form of transportation at the time, “encouraged the promotion of the West on film beginning in the 1890s, and in the 1910s, they enlarged the practice by subsidizing numerous film productions and initiating a major tourism promotion campaign using the slogan ‘See America First,'” Peterson writes.

Drawing on Peterson’s comments, we can guess that With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College mostly likely offers a series of scenes about the students and their activities on the special. Intertitles probably explain the images.

The presence of the train companies within early film perhaps explains The Great Northern Railway Company’s donation, not to mention Selig’s production of this film.

But the notions of travel and uplift become more complicated within this film. Travelogues typically show “somewhere else,” allowing viewers to “travel” without leaving their theater seats. Even when representing the West, these films showed national parks and western cities as modern and domesticated, inviting visitors to come see for themselves.

With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College, however, stays within North Dakota. The state joined the union in 1889, just 24 years prior to the special, and the college was founded in 1890, just 23 years prior to the special. Staying within the young state’s boundaries made sense for reaching potential local students. Though changing quickly, most people still lived in rural areas at the time, but trains allowed greater opportunities to travel, including possibly leaving home to attend school nearby.

So instead of showing the possibilities of travel elsewhere, this film showed the possibilities of education. In that regard, it serves as part of cultural uplift and progressivism. This purpose suggests that it belongs less to a travelogue and more to the promotional film. Peterson writes, “[I]n the early film era, the boundary between promotional and nonpromotional content was unclear.” Loosely constructed though it most likely was, the journey becomes a frame for the promotional message for the college and perhaps even the train industry.

Peterson’s book was immensely useful and insightful about this period. Her passion for the subject beamed from many sentences. Her clear writing incorporates critical theory but does so in an accessible way and does not get bogged down by it.

Not Just a “One-Horse Institution:” Following the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College

With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College is a 1913 film produced by the Selig Polyscope Company and was distributed by the General Film Company.

Aside from IMDb’s basic details, not much easily accessible information exists about this film. I am curious to learn more, but where to begin? After searching some larger online archives and coming up empty handed, I looked into the college itself.

North Dakota Agricultural College is now North Dakota State University, located in Fargo. NDAC started in 1890 as a land-grant college. The Morrill Act of 1862 gave U.S. states land to develop colleges for educating wider sections of the population in argicultural and mechanical arts. Though many of these universities still operate today, not all highlight their status as a land-grant institution.

NDSU maintains a special collection with artifacts of its own history, so I contacted the people there and asked about the film. While Archives Associate John Hallberg had not heard of it, he did a search within those archives and found some student newspaper (The Spectrum) coverage and a yearbook spread about the event that the film likely documents.

The event was called the “Student Life Special Train.” Perhaps like today’s chartered busses and limos, trains were booked for special events at the time. In 1911, for example, the Western Governors’ Special brought governors from Minnesota, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Oregon to visit Midwest and east coast states to promote business and other connections.

According to a news story, “Never before in the history of this country has such an enterprise as this been inaugurated.” The journey covered 4,000 miles to 21 cities in 20 days. Along with the dignitaries, five train cars featured exhibits showcasing these western states’ resources. The train also carried “a barber, tailor, stenographers, [and] typewriters for those of the newspaper men who accompany the train and special stationery for the governors.”

The next sentence in that same newspaper story caught my attention: “Motion pictures will be made showing the departure of the special from St. Paul, and the films will be displayed over the prominent American vaudeville circuits.” What was the name of that film, who produced it, where was it shown, and what did people think of it? Questions for another post, I suppose.

The Student Life Special Train appears modeled after the Western Governors’ Special Train. While the IMDb description claims the film traveled “throughout the great Northwest,” it actually traveled throughout North Dakota, visiting more than 30 cities in four days in February 1913. The cars included a dining car, a coach car, an observation car, a sleeper, and two baggage cars. The Great Northern Railway Company provided the equipment.

NDAC students planned and ran every part of the trip. As the student newspaper proclaimed, “This is a train of the students, for more students, by the students.” Home economics students prepared the meals in the dining car. The coach car included motion pictures operated by students. The baggage cars featured exhibits such as state geological maps from the Geology Department, fertilizer exhibits from the Chemistry Department, and candy from the Home Economics Department. At various stops, other student groups, including the Cadet Band, Crack Squad, Dramatic Club, College “Y” Quarter, and the orchestra, performed.

Several special guests accompanied students on this trip. A staff correspondent of the London Times and Telegram, Marguerite Curtiss, joined them from London. Lloyd McDowell, who rode on the Western Governors’ Special, also came along. A film company representative also came for the trip — in this case a Mr. Buckwalter from Selig.

Despite a snowstorm — it was a North Dakota winter, after all — the trip appeared to be a success, even with a $78.27 deficit.

Much enthusiasm surrounded the trip, not surprisingly in the student newspaper as both the trip and the paper were run by the student council. One story offered exalting language similar to the Western Governors’ Special: “The students of the North Dakota Agricultural College are preparing to launch out on an expedition, such as has never before been attempted by an educational institution.”

But what was the purpose of all this? According to the student newspaper, it was to raise awareness about the mission and benefits of the college. One newspaper story began, “Few people appreciate the mission of an Agricultural College.” In other words, the special train was a publicity campaign for the college “to do away with the notion that the Agricultural College is a one-horse institution.”

For me, all of this background helps with answering two general questions: It suggests possible film scenes, and it explains the film’s purpose. And, of course, it raises more questions than it answers.

Adventures in Chasing Old Documentaries

Documentary production in the United States often appears bicoastal. On the east coast, the documentary corridor seems to run from Boston to Washington, D.C. On the west coast, it seems to run from San Francisco to San Diego.

This loose classification has its problems, of course. Documentary powerhouse Kartemquin Films is firmly rooted in Chicago and its vibrant media scene. AppalShop in Kentucky gives voice to rural cultures and their challenges. Other documentary organizations and festivals accomplish similar purposes in other pockets of the country.

Documentary production more specifically and media production more generally have never been that geographically centralized. In the early years of film experimentation and pre-Hollywood, around 1895-1915, media production happened across the country. Unfortunately, these regional histories remain underexplored.

Which brought me to a question: What about North Dakota?

Several contemporary documentaries offer different pictures of the state. Welcome to Leith examines what happens when a hate group moves to town. The Overnighters is set against the backdrop of the shale oil boom and its affects on labor. Jesus Camp explores an evangelical youth Christian camp that used to be located in the state.

But I sought older titles, and an internet search uncovered the 1913 documentary With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College. The IMDb page included a trade publication’s description:

One of Selig’s informing educational pictures, showing a notable trip of the students of the North Dakota Agricultural College on a trip through the great Northwest. The students show their practicability in caring for every detail on this trip.

Selig refers to The Selig Polyscope Company, which began in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles, and at the time was one of the largest makers of films. The page also mentions the distibutor, the generically named General Film Company.

The time period offers some other hints about the film. It is certainly in black and white. It has a short run time, perhaps ten minutes or less. Most likely, it is a travel film or a scenic, with a series of scenes instead of a developed, character-driven narrative.

Sadly, the original film is probably gone. I did try the Internet Archive, Prelinger’s Archives, and The Library of Congress, but, so far, no luck.

And with that, the chase is on.

Five 1930s Documentaries to Check Out

The 1930s saw significant changes in documentary production practices and purposes. During this decade, the development of sound brought both voiceover narration and talking heads. John Grierson’s visions for documentary and their purposes flourished in the United Kingdom, while propaganda flourished in other parts of the world. And just as new conventions were being established, mockumentaries were already making fun of the emerging forms.

Here are five documentaries from the 1930s to check out.

Housing Problems

Directed by Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton, Housing Problems examines the problems facing slum-dwellers in Stepney, London, England and proposes a solution. While a voiceover delivers the “official” perspective, this documentary short also provides interviews with the slum-dwellers themselves — an innovation at the time. Located in their homes, these residents talk about general disrepairs, vermin infestation, and even children’s deaths. New housing becomes the miracle solution that brings dignity as well as new appliances and natural gas, which is fitting considering the film’s sponsorship by the British Commercial Gas Association.

Night Mail

Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail follows Royal Mail delivery on a train journey from London to Glasgow. It shows mail collection, deposit, and sorting on the trip. While simple in premise, Night Mail represents a more experimental form for documentaries at time. The narration, whose rhtythms align with the train’s at times, was written by poet W.H. Auden.

Triumph of the Will

Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will (Triumph Des Willens, German) shows both the height and the horror of Germany’s Nazi Party during the 1934 Nuremberg rallies. She captures the soundless fury of Hitler’s speeches and the collective’s responses. Elaborate staging, crane shots, and precise editing evoke both art in its form and fear in its application.

The River

Like Night Mail, Pare Lorentz’s The River traipses the line between art and propaganda. The river in question is the Mighty Mississippi and people’s attempts to contain it. Poetic narration and on-location visuals, including flooding damage, evoke the power and beauty of the river. A score by Virgil Thomson adds a sense of majesty to this film.

Land Without Bread

Luis Buñuel was ahead of his time with Land without Bread (Tierra Sin Pan). The film shows the extreme poverty of the Hurdes region in Spain, people who reportedly knew nothing about making bread. The film mocks the travelogues of the time, particularly through the voiceover narration and its staging of sequences, including a goat plummeting to its death and a donkey being stung to death.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Five Antarctica Documentaries to Check Out

Antarctica remains one of the few underexplored areas of our planet. Its startling beauty and mystery belie dangerous cold and other perils. Neither stops explorers from traveling there, nor do they stop documentary makers from going with them.

Check out these five documentaries about the southern-most continent.

Encounters at the End of the World

Directed and narrated by Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World offers breath-taking scenery while exploring the wonders and dangers underlying it. Herzog interviews people working and living at McMurdo Station. As Herzog learns their stories and the natural wonders of the continent, he develops meditations on insane penguins and human extinction.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice

While Herzog is the ultimate outsider, Anthony Powell brings an insider’s access to his Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Ten years in the making, this visually stunning documentary shows what it’s like to live on the continent that sees 24-hour days in summer and 24-hour nights in winter. Instead of focusing on the scientists like other documentaries, Powell tells stories of the people who keep the stations running, from communications specialists to domestic help.

Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South

Scientists are the heroes in Dena Siedel’s Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South. A group of them take a month-long boat trip along the Antarctic coast, studying climate change and its effects on penguins, whales, krill, and ice. They conduct their studies using expensive and sophisticated equipment, and these experts then explain the studies and their relevance.

Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance

Sir Ernest Shackleton planned a journey to traverse the southern continent — an 1,800-mile trek of mostly unexplored territory in the early 1900s. Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance delves into the history of the expedition, focusing particularly on the final leg to and across the South Georgia Island. This documentary uses interviews with experts and descendents, archival footage of still and moving images, and oral dramatizations from the explorers to bring the story to life.

Terra Antarctica: Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent

Jon Bowermaster’s Terra Antarctica: Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent follows a more modern journey on the seas near the continent. Traveling by sailboat, kayak, and small plane, the documentary features the expected stunning icy visuals alongside more quirky human experiences, such as preparing meals on a rocking boat and exploring a Russian Orthodox church. First-person voiceover offers insights into the expedition, climate change, and human impacts.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Five Comedy Documentaries to Check Out

Comedy is an important part of culture. Humor allows expression of controversial and taboo ideas in ways that some audiences can accept. Jokes bring hidden issues to public attention in ways other genres just can’t.

Documentaries take comedy seriously. Well, documentaries take most everything seriously, but that doesn’t mean the form never shows its sense of humor.

Check out these five documentaries about comedy.

Comedian

Comedian goes backstage to explore the nerve-wracking world of stand-up comedy. Christian Charles’s film follows twin narrative arcs of the novice comedian and the established comedian. The novice comedian, Orny Adams, struggles with landing gigs and telling a rewritten joke on a late-night talk show. The established comedian, none other than Jerry Seinfeld, places himself back on the club circuit to develop his new material. While the two comedians offer career contrasts, they both face similar struggles.

The Aristocrats

With the aristocrats joke, the humor is not in the punchline but in the telling. And the more offensive the telling of the joke, the better. Directed by Paul Provenza, The Aristocrats features 100 comedians from Billy Connolly to Whoopi Goldberg telling their version of this classic vaudeville joke. Check out Full House star Bob Saget’s rendition for a particularly vulgar take. This film is not for the thin-skinned.

Old Jews Telling Jokes

The title captures the topic, simplicity, and delight of this web series directed by Sam Hoffman. A senior Jewish person is idenitified by name, sometimes occupation, sometimes location, and birth year as they tell their joke. Some jokes are short and sweet, such as this one about the urologist, while others require a longer telling, such as this one about the Lone Ranger’s fate. They also cover food, religion, Jewish mothers,
and the more risqué.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers (1933-2014) was a giant in female stand-up comedy, a pioneer who inspired generations of female comics. In 2017, she landed at number six on Rolling Stone’s best stand-up comics list. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work follows the workaholic comedian for a year, during which she packs her calendar with gigs from acting in a play to appearing on a reality show, not to mention the occasional stand-up appearance.

The Muslims are Coming!

The Muslims are Coming! is a concert documentary and road trip that features several Muslim comedians traveling around the United States to generate conversation about Muslims, to challenge Muslim stereotypes, and to entertain audiences. Directed by and starring Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah, the film follows these comedians as they offer free shows in places such as Birmingham, Tupelo, and Murfreesboro. Commentary from established comedians, imams, and other experts rounds out this film.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Five Sport Documentaries to Check Out

Sport has been a subject of documentary since Edison’s and the Lumieres’ 1890s experiments. One of Edison’s first pieces is a boxing match between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing. In the 1930s Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia showcased atheticism in the guise of propaganda. Today, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has propelled sport documenatary to new popularity.

In no particular order below are five sport documentaries to check out.

When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings, directed by Leon Gast, chronicles the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. The film captures Ali at his heights of skill and charm, and it captures the fans’ fervor of the event. Though financial issues kept the film in production for more than 20 years, that delay didn’t inhibit any of the film’s power when it was finally released in 1996.

The Endless Summer

Bruce Brown‘s The Endless Summer follows two 1960s surfers as they attempt to catch waves on coasts around the world: New Zealand, Tahiti, and South Africa, to name a few. The surf rock soundtrack offers an easy-going feel, and the voiceover narration provides light-hearted humor and fun in its wry observations on the surf, surfers, and local cultures.

Tokyo Olympiad

Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympaid is an Olympic achievement unto itself with its scale and length. Filmed during the 1964 Olympics, Ichikawa’s catalogue captures details grand and small, from entire races to anguished faces. The careful editing results in a musical composition that glides through the Olympic experience.

Murderball

Murderball offers an edge-of-your-seat look at wheelchair rugby and the competition between the U.S. and Canadian teams in the 2004 Paralympic Games. Players such as Mark Zupan and Scott Hogsett break down the stereotypes of sport, masculinity, and ability with brutal honesty and biting humor. The result is entertaining and uplifting.

Hoop Dreams

If you watch only one sport documentary, make it Steve James’s Hoop Dreams. The almost-three hour film follows two Chicago teens recruited to play ball in suburban high schools as they pursue their dreams to play pro ball. They face multiple obstacles along the way — financial and familial, physical and psychological — as they aim for spots on college and, later, NBA teams. The thrilling gameplay at the Illinois state championships is among some of the best shot and edited game footage in any sport documentary.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Lemming Lessons and a Case Study

In a leadership training session today, the facilitator showed the following cartoon:

The cartoon depicts lemmings following each other over a cliff in a mass suicide. One lemming in the back says, “I’d like to question the leadership on this move.” Another lemming next to him says, “Shut up! You’re undermining the troops!” Arguably, the questioning lemming is the leader, while the other lemming is management. (Both are necessary for effective project management, however.)

A shot from the popular Lemmings video game.

The idea of lemmings commiting mass suicide shows up elsewhere in popular culture. Lemmings the video game is perhaps the most popular. In the game, players herd their lemmings through a maze-puzzle, trying to save as many as possible, while sacrificing a few to prevent the mass suicide. The few might serve as blocks or bombs, for example, to keep the group flowing or to remove some obstacles.

Apple created a dystopian lemmings commercial for its Macintosh Office:

Apple critiques the workers who continue to use the same applications without question and suggests their doom for doing so. To say the least, the commercial did not go over well.

This amusing campaign commercial compared lemmings with a death wish to politicians and the status quo:

Unfortunately, the voters went with the lemmings on this one.

But let’s get right to the point: Lemmings do not commit mass suicide. Lemming populations vary widely over time, and earlier wild theories attempted to explain these shifts. One thought the lemmings descended from the sky during storms, and another story suggested they came down with snow. Instead, lemmings migrate to ease the problems created during population booms.

This myth of lemmings committing mass suicide started with a Disney documentary titled White Wilderness (1958), which actually won the Best Documentary Oscar. In White Wilderness, the filmmakers brought lemmings into Alberta, Canada, and staged them to look like a mass of them was jumping off a cliff into the water:

The lemmings’ plummeting toward the water is a dramatic and disturbing sequence, particularly once you know they are being pushed to create the fake story’s drama. The swelling music adds suspense to this climax. The narrator states, “All seem to survive the ordeal” (of being pushed over a cliff!) before they swim out into the sea (and most likely drown).

A Canadian television show called The Fifth Estate broke the news of the sequences being faked in 1982, but the cartoon, video game, commercial, and campaign spot all came well after this finding.

White Wilderness is a great case study in wildlife documentary and truth. It shows how people tend to trust the documentary form, particularly with the voiceover explaining its visuals. The authoritarian voiceover leaves little room for argument or interpretation. That expository mode of representation, along with the impact of the lemming “story,” created a deep cultural frame that has yet to be completely undone.

It also shows the challenges of wildlife filmmaking, particularly with making animals look interesting when much of filming wildlife involves waiting. Lemmings are cute and about the size of other rodents caged as pets, but those qualities provide little to make them a compelling story filled with drama and conflict.

It further shows taking wildlife filmmaking too far. Trying to get that right shot is one thing, but staging an entire sequence that misleads the audience about lemmings’ habits is disingenuous. That staging also resulted in killing animals, which is the greater offense behind this piece’s fictions.