The Trajectory of Documentary Film-Making

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The Trajectory of Documentary Film-Making

Documentary filmmaking dates back to the early 19th century, following the invention of cinematography. By the early 20th century, journalism and modern art heavily influenced documentaries via the preference for realism. Robert J. Flaherty’s ‘Nanook of the North’ is exemplary archival footage that illustrates the earlier approaches to realism. During its release, realism was plagued by the dramatic prestidigitation of Hollywood narratives. As opposed to living the everyday lives of his subjects, Flaherty focused on conveying his impulses. On the other hand, Marc Singer’s ‘Dark Days’ shows a more contemporary understanding of realism in documentary filmmaking. The director not only interviews his subjects but also coexists with them for a more authentic construction of life under the tunnels of Manhattan. While Nanook of the North and Dark Days are good examples of how documentaries tell human stories, Flaherty fails to achieve the level of authenticity of the story that Singer achieves because of using tailored images that create inaccurate realities.

Nanook of the North was the pioneer of modern documentary filmmaking but also the founder of falsehoods in the genre. According to Laman, by its very nature, documentaries are supposed to convey the notion that whatever a person is watching is reality as it exists (para1). Due to technological developments, Flaherty was the first filmmaker to add a narrative to the footage. The director was researching the way of life of Inuit Eskimos. However, Flaherty had a Hollywood disposition toward Native Americans’ lives and their culture (Laman para 2). During the time of filmmaking, the Eskimos had already begun using guns. However, Flaherty made them use harpoons and spears for his documentary. The name of the primary character, Nanook, is equally fictional. The ice, cold, houses, animals and hunts were real, but the methods and tools used were outdated to fictionalize a more primitive setting. The staging shows Flaherty’s dispositions as an artist as opposed to an ethnographer. In all ways, Nanook was the birthplace of false documentary filmmaking in Western cinema.

Dark Days is a more authentic production that seeks to redeem the name and credibility of western documentaries. Singer’s film is unique among modern documentaries because it does not have any political underpinnings and is not an advocacy film. Instead, how Singer treats his subjects with sensitivity provides a more credible and believable take on life inside Manhattan’s tunnels (Heumann and Murray para2). Unlike Flaherty, Singer actually lives with his eight subjects under the tunnels for a while. The director spent most of his money on the documentary, which also rendered him homeless as his documentary’s subjects (Heumann and Murray para 2). Singer’s narration shows he acted as an objective observer in many ways. The director manages to enter the world of homelessness and even includes it in filmmaking. Such a directorial approach is more credible and realistic and facilitates a new type of thinking about the covered social problem. Singer’s film was a success because it bases its perspectives on the homeless people’s sense of community and the need to survive the urban jungle that is New York.

While Singer thrives in depicting homeless life, Flaherty fails to cover Inuit life because of not working together with his subjects. Flaherty does not live with the Native Americans long enough to learn about their culture, relationships or behaviors. Nanook of the North helped ensure mainstream documentaries are exclusionary and unreceptive of minority cultures. The director’s oral narration only added to the infantilization of Native Americans as rough, backward and isolated from reality. Dark Days is a fortunate contrast to Nanook. The homeless people act as both the subjects of the film and the cast behind it. Singer follows the roles of ethnographic research to the letter and even adds one or two features of other forms of documentaries, such as mini-autobiographies from the cast. Unlike Flaherty’s emphasis on classical Hollywood portrayals, the focus and appeal of Dark Days are human skill and adaptability.

            The differences between Nanook of the North and Dark Days highlight why documentaries have grown into powerful tools for disseminating truth to power. The two documentaries depict a contrasting understanding and application of realism as an artistic principle. Flaherty’s documentary was a private project, meaning it was commissioned with a big budget. Therefore, the director was more vulnerable to the Hollywood influences associated with the project. Dark Days was an individual undertaking. The lack of funds forced the director to work, collaborate and live with his subjects, resulting in a more truthful narrative. Nevertheless, money is not the only factor explaining the differences between the two documentaries. Over the years, realism in filmmaking has evolved to become more investigative, inclusive and accurate. Documentary production will continue to change, but the central purpose will remain the same, to illuminate, inform and inspire sociopolitical changes. The film genre is critical to establishing and maintaining healthy and democratic societies, which is why filmmakers should strive to follow Singer’s ethnographic approach as opposed to Flaherty’s. Documentaries must be truthful and accurate to remain effective tools for checking people in power.

Works Cited

Heumann, Joseph and Robin Murray. ‘Dark Days: A Narrative of Environmental Adaptation.’ Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, n.d., Accessed 14 Sep 2022.

Laman, Douglas. ‘Nanook of the North’ at 100: How Documentaries Can Warp Reality.’ Collider, 11 June 2022,, Accessed 14 Sep 2022.

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