Skip to main content


Editor's Note, September/October 1998

Documentary Films

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, September/October 1998 | Volume 19, Number 5

Three days after Christmas in 1895, a fascinating new machine was unveiled in the basement of the Grand Café on Boulevard des Capuchins. The Paris crowd, there at a franc a ticket, found itself looking at pictures unlike any seen before -- not just pictures, but pictures that moved. On the screen were scenes of workers leaving a factory, of a train roaring into the camera eye, of a youngster kinking a squirting hose.

The machine was the cinématographe of Louis Lumière. It was a quantum leap from Edison’s kinetoscope of the year before, small enough to fit in a suitcase, able to project as well as record, and mobile enough for outdoor use. Erik Barnouw tells us the story in his book, Documentary: A History of the Nonfiction Film. Louis Lumière, whose family owned a photographic plate factory, had been working in secret for months, showing his cinèmatographe only to select professional and scientific groups. When he was satisfied with what it could do, he ordered twenty-five more to be made, ready to take his invention worldwide. Louis and his brother Auguste were absent from the Grand Café première that December day; they had grander plans under way. Barnouw writes that within six months of the Paris opening, the Lumière organization was operating in England, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Serbia, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. By the end of 1897, Lumière photographers had nearly a thousand screen titles to their credit, from Coronation of Nicholas II to The Baby’s First Lesson in Walking. The company had beaten the rest of the world in exploiting the new art form. It sold its machines and films for a handsome price, and Louis returned to his beloved laboratory.

The craze for cinema continued. Sometimes demand outran technology. When photographers clamored for battle scenes of the Boer War, British soldiers donned enemy uniforms. When the charge up San Juan Hill proved a little dull to watch, obliging moviemakers provided a stirring Battle of Santiago Bay done with toy ships and cigar smoke.

Over the decades, the techniques grew surer. The fundamental questions would remain: issues of selectivity, balance, truthfulness.

In this issue of Humanities, we look at the documentary’s modern offshoot. A number of made-for-television documentaries, supported by the Endowment, will debut this fall, covering subjects from the slave trade to Margaret Sanger’s crusade for birth control. We visit with one of the creative forces in that genre, Judy Crichton, whose American Experience series has brought us Eisenhower and LBJ and other memorable films. “History is filled with magnificent stories,” Judy Crichton tells Endowment Chairman William Ferris, but she cautions that the medium imposes its own limits. “There has to be an understanding between the creator of the film and his or her viewers. . . that the selection of material within that film is not arbitrary, that it is selected to stand in for a great deal more material than there is time to tell . . .”

Crichton is putting her own criteria to the test. She is directing a film of her own, America 1900, and writing a book on the subject as well. Whether we encounter it in print or on screen, we are promised history with a discerning eye.