AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: GREAT PRE-21ST CENTURY DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (1895-1965)

Colleagues and friends tell me that they have kept themselves extremely busy this first week in quarantine but this is because for most people in my circle working at home is hardly a novelty. I myself have really no spare time to fill in which means that I will most likely miss the exciting online offer that cultural institutions, professional artists and plain citizens are pouring onto their websites and their social networks. For those of you who still have a little corner to fill in, here is the announced list of great documentaries from 1895 to 1995 (first part!)–the, so to speak, canonical list that I have asked my students to learn about, and enjoy. Most of these 50 films can be found online one way or another (but check first their duration on IMDB, there are plenty of mutilated versions…). I’m discovering these days that the situation changes from day to day, and films impossible to find one week suddenly appear the next one, either legally or illegally. Others remain, sadly, in a limbo, which is a shame.

1895 Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, Louis and Auguste Lumière. The Lumières didn’t know they were making a documentary because the word didn’t appear until 1926, when the British father of this film genre, John Grierson, reviewed Robert Flaherty’s Moana calling it a ‘documentary film’. The Lumières were just testing their camera and simply made a record of their workers leaving their premises, lasting under one minute. The film survives in three versions. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers_Leaving_the_Lumière_Factory

1922 Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013427/ . This is, properly speaking, the first documentary film and also a very controversial starting point. In this film and in Moana (set in the Pacific islands, like the 2016 animated Moana here known as Vaiana), Flaherty had the natives whose lives he was documenting perform scenes staging customs and uses long abandoned. Since then, documentary films are plagued by the question of how close they must stay to the truth.

1927 Berlin, Die Simphonie der Grosstadt / Berlin: Symphony of a Great City Walter Ruttman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017668/ The idea has been copied countless times: take the camera and see what happens on one day in a big city. Has it ever been done with better insight and taste? I doubt it! The film is also a beautiful homage to Berlin before the rise of the Nazi regime, during the much happier times of the Weimar Republic.

1929 Cheloveks kino-apparatom / Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019760/ You might think that this is like the Berlin film but set in Moscow. Yes and no. Vertov’s film is a riot of images full of life with shows the Soviet capital as pure humanity, with a sensuality and a freedom that is certainly unexpected, and exhilarating. Don’t miss the birth scene…

1929 Regen / Rain, Joris Ivens, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020321/ A short documentary based on a very simple concept: recording one rainy day in Amsterdam. The film, as it turns out, took longer to make than that. It has a lovely, strangely melancholy air, very much like the rain… which is the whole point.

1929 Drifters, John Grierson, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019838/ North Sea herring fishing may not sound like a very exciting subject, particularly considering that this is a silent black and white film. Grierson, however, shows here in the only film he directed (he was mainly a producer) how little is needed to make a memorable record of life at sea. And show respect for the fishermen.

1930 À Propos de Nice, Jean Vigo, Boris Kaufman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021576/ Another silent, black and white film, which offers a slice of life like no other. Vigo and Kaufman show street life in Nice, on the French Cote d’Azur, mocking its richer inhabitants but transmitting the enjoyment of popular celebrations with glee.

1935 Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0025913/ Yes: I’m recommending that you watch Riefenstahl portrait of the 1934 massive Nuremberg Nazi rally. This was a winner for Best Foreign Documentary at the Venice Film Festival and a film that Frank Capra and other American directors studied very closely for its lessons in political propaganda, copied by the Allies during WWII. We must all understand Nazism for it not to reappear.

1936 Night Mail, Herbert Smith, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0250616/ This is one of Grierson’s pro-Government, propaganda pieces –but who cares? The film manages to make the subject of how mail is gathered in one end of Britain and moved at night in trains to the other end a moving portrait of British efficiency, public service, and care. Like Drifters, it pays homage to the average working man, not a very common subject in our days.

1937 The Spanish Earth, Joris Ivens, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029594/ This is a pro-Republican propaganda film, made in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, narrated by Ernest Hemingway (reading his own texts and others by John Dos Passos). It’s, I’m sorry to say, a truly misguided portrait of Spain in those times, good only for laughs, though it still enjoys great prestige. I was flabbergasted by hearing Catalan sardanas as the background music for village life in Madrid… But do watch it!

1938 Inside Nazi Germany, Jack Glenn, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0131471/ An amazingly brave, bold description of Nazi Germany released twenty months before the beginning of WWII, which shows in all detail and clarity what Hitler and company were doing. Glenn, an American director, did his best but the world was not listening… Or it was, but trying not to have a new world war.

1943 Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035881/ See how firefighters coped with the bombings and the fires in London during the Blitz. Technically this is a docudrama, since most scenes are staged, but the gimmick does not mean it is less valuable for that. An homage indeed to the heroes who endured all kinds of sacrifices for their neighbours.

1943 The Battle of Midway, John Ford, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034498/ Lt. Cmdr. John Ford U.S.N.R made this 18 minute colour documentary in the middle of the real Battle of Midway, with great danger to his life. The purpose was showing audiences back home what WWII aerial combat was like. The problem is that having seen re-enactments (like the 1976 Midway film) this looks less exciting –but remember that men are dying on screen for real.

1946 Let there be Light, John Huston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038687/ Huston was commissioned to document the progress of a group of traumatized veterans receiving psychiatric treatment back home once WWII was over but the US military could not stomach this heartfelt portrait of the suffering men. The film, which is a marvel to watch, was suppressed until 1980, when Vietnam had made PTSD a well-known concept. Please, please, please: do see it!

1948 Le Sang des bêtes/ The Blood of Beasts Georges Franju, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041842/ It’s only 22 minutes long but I had to stop watching after just a few minutes –Franju’s camera shows lovely Paris and then what is done to the animals in a local slaughterhouse with no frills. You can call this one the first pro-vegan film.

1955 Nuit et bruillard / Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048434/ This may be hard to believe but few people after WWII wanted to hear what survivors had to say about the Nazi extermination camps. Resnais’s short film, made ten years!! after the end of the war, was the first one to bring to light for the benefit of a general audiences what the Nazis did. It completely changed the way the suffering of the Jews and other victims was (mis)understood.

1959 Moi, un noir/ I, a Negro, Jean Rouch, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051942/ This one requires a very patient viewer, but if you can accept the amateurish footage and the poor sound (badly inserted afterwards), you might enjoy this singular pioneering portrait of a migrant’s life. The young Nigerian who interests Rouch survives as well he can in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, in an interesting case of intra-African migration.

1959 We are the Lambeth Boys, Karel Reisz, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052380/ This is one of the 1950s documentaries recording ordinary British life in the 1950s associated with the Free Cinema movement (Reisz would have a long career as fiction film director). The Lambeth Boys are not a gang, but a youth club –do marvel at how much the young have and have not changed since 1959. And at the local accent!

1960 Primary, Robert Drew, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054205/ Employing a cinéma vérité style Drew films presidential pre-candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey during the Democratic Wisconsin primary (1960). The film inaugurates a political sub-genre later imitated by many others, in, for instance, The War Room (about Clinton).

1961 Chronique d’un été / Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054745/. Authentic French cinéma vérité by the director of Moi, un noir (and Morin). They send their female assistants to ask Parisians randomly met on the street whether they are happy. Their replies lead to a reflection on what we mean by happiness in a quite existential vein.

1964- The Up Series, Paul Almond (as Seven Up!) then Michael Apted, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_(film_series) The Up series is an ITV (later BBC) series, which has been documenting the lives of fourteen British citizens since 1964, when they were aged 7. It has now passed its ninth instalment (in 2019) and will presumably continue.

1964 Point of Order!, Emile de Antonio, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058481/ De Antonio does here something marvelously clever: he edits down to 97 thrilling minutes the TV footage of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings (Senator McCarthy was accused of seeking to obtain from the Army special privileges for a Private he was using as a spy). Along the film, which has no voiceover, we see the infamous McCarthy dig his own grave with increasing arrogance and cruelty. No need to add any comment…

1965 The War Game, Peter Watkins, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059894/ The BBC asked Watkins to make a docudrama showing the effects of a nuclear bomb dropped on an average British city (Rochester in Kent). The result was so scary that the film was not shown until 1985 (though it did win an Oscar). Can a low-budget, black and white film be so frightening? I was absolutely terrified –please watch it!

Enough for today… the rest next week! Stay safe, keep well.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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