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The Fate of Documentary Film – The precarious position of documentarians

by Leslie Stonebraker.

While there is debate about when, exactly, the first film screening occurred, there is no arguing its genre. Whether the Lumiere brothers’ 1895 “Exiting the Factory” or Louis Le Prince’s 1888 “Roundhay Garden Scene” or the Edison workers’ undated camera test “Monkeyshines No. 1,” the earliest films were all documentaries. Simply by pointing a camera at it, these moving pictures made everyday life seem incredible.

But the expense of film stock and the enormous popularity of the infant fictional film invariably led to the creation of movie stars and the entrenched studio system, where every variable from setting to theater projection could be easily controlled for maximum efficiency and a substantive return on investment. Documentaries were relegated to wartime newsreels and exotic travelogues.

The invention of videotape in 1956 nearly revived the documentary with cheaper films and a more expendable stock. But viewers were not too keen on the experimental films of the ’60s. In the end, it took the creation of reality television programing to revitalize the genre. Using video stock meant hours of footage could be taken at relatively low cost, and without actors to pay, the programing quickly became a favorite. The widespread distribution of reality TV made for a public primed to accept real life (or what passes as real life) as incredible entertainment once more.

Read the rest of this article from NY Press.

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