The Influence of Non-Fiction Movies
A Brief History of Non-Fiction Film
Motion pictures are among the most influential mediums in history. Since the medium became popular around 1900, motion pictures have consistently influenced our culture, often moving people to realization, understanding and action!
The earliest movies were extensions of photography, recording motion in the basic framing of a still photograph. However, filmmakers soon realized the power of movies to alter and expand perspective. Urban legend has it that an audience panicked and felt traumatized by an 1896 showing of the Luméire Brothers’ Arrival of The Train. The 50-second short film documented a train pulling into a station in one shot with no editing. The story goes that seeing the locomotive’s image barreling toward the audience unnerved many viewers. Regardless of the degree of panic that day, going forward, filmmakers knew they had something powerful with moving pictures.
Soon, the photographic arts of composition, lighting and editing began to influence the subjects of movies. Writers and production designers got involved and narrative films became a popular pastime in the early 20th Century. As the motion picture industry built itself up, documentary and non-fiction films explored nature and culture, opening the world to movie-going audiences. Travelogue documentaries allowed audiences to experience foreign lands and distant cultures with a firsthand view. Nanook of the North (1922) a silent documentary still is considered one of the great non-fiction films of all time, as it went into rare depth documenting the Inuit culture.
In the 1930’s, silent film gave way to “talkies” also known as motion pictures with sound. The power of movies vaulted forward and, for many societies, films and the cinema experience became a regular pastime. The Leni Reifenstal documentary Triumph of the Will (1935), which acted as a galvanizing force in Nazi Germany and the French short documentary Night and Fog (1956) by Alain Resnais, which examines the lives of wartime concentration camp victims in Poland, both stand as graphic examples of the power of documentary film from the wartime era.
In the 1960s, technical improvements lowered film production costs and increased production portability. This made filmmaking easier. In that era, cultural upheavals in the decade led to new ways for artists to take risks and express themselves. Direct Cinema and Cinema Verité documentaries, which intend to show life in an unfiltered, realistic way ushered in a gritty, frequently difficult-to-watch form of non-fiction storytelling in movies. Historic documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles documentary about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour, Gimme Shelter (1970), showed the infamous riot at Altamont while the band was on stage. Footage from the film was used in trial for the murder of Meredith Hunter, who was stabbed and died during the riot. The film was key evidence that led to the accused’s exoneration as it showed Hunter was stabbed in self-defense. Fueled by events like this and the improved quality of filmmaking, documentary and non-fiction film stepped into a new role as a social watchdog as the 1970s progressed. Filmed as coverage of a Kentucky coal workers strike, Harlan County, USA (1976) is considered one of the most significant social documentaries ever made. Throughout filming, it is generally agreed that the presence of the film crews at protest sites averted violence and brutality in the contentious labor strike.
In the 1980s, the advent of video production tools and the addition of more distribution channels through cable television increased both the supply and demand of motion picture content. The video rental market that matured in the 1980s introduced an entirely new audience to documentary and non-fiction films. Before this time, only a fraction of the movie-going audience would attend a documentary in the theaters, and documentaries of the time rarely got a wide enough release to attract a large audience. However, the at-home viewer proved to have quite different habits. On Friday night at the corner Blockbuster Video, it only cost a few dollars to take a risk on a title. With this new home video rental option, non-fiction film no longer had to compete with the big studio releases for screen time.
Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line in 1988 and Michael Moore’s debut documentary Roger & Me (1989) ushered in a provocative era of documentary film that is still expanding more than 30 years later. The Thin Blue Line investigated the murder conviction of Randall Dale Adams, and it played a vital role in overturning his conviction. Roger & Me merged Moore’s self-deprecating sarcasm with the economic devastation caused in Flint, Michigan when General Motors closed its Flint production plant laying off 30,000 workers in the 1980s. Moore personalized the class and economic struggles of the 80s trickle-down economics as he spent the film trying to meet with GM Chairman Roger Smith to “get some answers.” At the point where non-fiction movies found a new, growing audience, the watchdog significance of Thin Blue Line and the success of Roger & Me encouraged emerging filmmakers to dig deeper on content than short news cycle journalists and to tell stories with more accessible tone and voice.
Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) explored America’s gun culture in response to incomprehensible school shootings. SuperSize Me (2004) personified our modern fast food culture’s destructive effects on health. The film made a profound impact on the industry’s awareness of exploitive practices, caused McDonald’s to revise its menu to include more healthy options, led to the widespread practice of adding calorie counts and nutritional information to menus and contributed to the expansion of the bottled water market.
In 2006, An Inconvenient Truth featured former vice-president Al Gore’s analysis and commentary on the global environmental crisis. More than a decade later, the film is considered as the statement that triggered widespread public attention to global warming and the modern environmentalist movement. Blackfish (2013), produced by CNN Films exposed the inhumane treatment of captive killer whales by exploring the story of the SeaWorld killer whale Tilkum which attacked and killed one of its trainers. The exposé caused a major public backlash against the treatment of killer whales in captivity which resulted in SeaWorld eliminating theatrical orca shows and the breeding of captive killer whales.
Since the mid-90s, documentary films have reached the mainstream with regularity. Hoop Dreams (1994), the story about two high school basketball players during their college recruiting years, grossed almost $12M. It was a film that began as a PBS short film and became one of the most talked-about feature films of 1994. March of the Penguins (2005) which documented the harsh conditions the Emperor Penguin species endure each year to breed and survive, is one of the top grossing documentaries of all time. Farenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s 2004 exploration of the Bush Administration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the most profitable documentary of all time, grossing more than $222M.
Recently, nearly each year a captivating documentary buzzes through American pop culture, many of them prominently featured on digital platforms. In 2015, Netflix’s Making of a Murderer, which documented the trial and conviction of Stephen Avery for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach, achieved 19.3M series viewers in only 35 days fueled by word of mouth. Netflix, Amazon Prime and other digital platforms now regularly feed the modern fascination with documentaries and documentary series. Most major digital platforms have fully stocked categories for documentaries.
Looking back on this long history of non-fiction movies and their rise to prominence and influence, Maitri River Productions produces art for social change. Our productions illuminate, educate, model and influence positive social change, and we are at work at a time when messages that make us better can be distributed in a wide scale powered by the truth of non-fiction.
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