Entitled To Tell The Truth: A History of Documentary Film, the six-film series is the ambitious and timely project of Lumiere Productions, and filmmakers Ali Pomeroy, Calvin Skaggs and David Van Taylor.
The first two episodes -- those screening at DOC NYC -- are actually numbers two and three in the series, and they cover the years from 1928 to 1946, an important and pivotal period in documentary filmmaking, during which style and purpose ranged from pure observation as seen in cinema verite films to the outright propaganda movies that came into play leading up to, during and after World War II.
Both types of films have clearly influenced contemporary documentary filmmakers, and it's fascinating to be able to trace some of the trends we see today to their roots.
Legendary documentarians George Stoney and Leo Hurwitz, both recently deceased, are among the great filmmakers interviewed for these two galvanizing first episodes. The filmmakers' stories they tell about how they arrived at the precipice of their own edgy works and jumped right into the most challenging of circumstances are absolutely fascinating.
Then, there is the treasury of archival period footage, much of it rarely seen and restored for this well composed montage. There are clips that capture for eternity the heartbreaking conditions, show the human anguish and resilience during the Great Depression, and the smart analysis of how the masterful Leni Reifensthal composed her shots and edited her material to make it seem that all of Germany was heiling Hitler is a stirring reminder of the power of film. Then, too, there are revelations about the use of film by Americans and Brits to rally support for the war effort and to record wartime events for posterity.
The bottom line on these two must-see documentary-on-documentaries episodes is that they leave you wanting to see the rest of what the probing and conscientious Lumiere team will offer in the remaining four hour-long episodes.
The first will be about the earliest nonfiction movies, including those made by Auguste and Louis Lumière (no relation to this filmmaking team), and up until the term 'documentary' was coined by the Scottish documentarian John Grierson in an article published in the New York Sun in 1926.
Parts four and five will bring us up to the present, and part six will cover contemporary documentary making and some of the issues raised around it.
"We are tracking the development of documentary film, examining what social and political trends have given rise to certain types of documentaries and shaped their styles and, on the other hand, we are focusing on how documentary film effects the public, on seeing how it by its 'truth telling' nature or by design plays a part in determining people's outlook, behavior and their expectations about the future," said David Van Taylor, during a recent interview.
It is all quite relevant to developments we're witnessing in contemporary documentary filmmaking, which is enjoying wider audience reach, but also faces tremendous challenges of redefinition and authenticity, of the conflict of interest concerns about funding sources and the influence exerted by them, of marketing and distribution pressures, and gamification of real life issues, and of establishing its role in the increasingly complex media landscape of the future.
I can't wait to see this series completed.
Meanwhile, make sure you see the first two episodes of To Tell The Truth: A History of Documentary Film at their premiere at DOC NYC on Saturday, November 10 at 2 PM at the IFC Center, with the wonderful Richard Pena present to moderate a post-screening Q&A with the filmmakers.
Really, don't miss this To Tell The Truth: A History of Documentary Film!