A New Source of History

The second part of this week's Culture Digest: some of the best archival documentaries freely available online

One of the most anticipated premieres at this week's 73rd International Venice Film Festival was Terence Malick’s first documentary, Voyage of Time, which (typically nothing if not ambitious) is an attempt to evoke the history of the universe and an ‘experience of the unfolding of time’. (Trailer here)

It will be released in two parts: a 40-minute IMAX film narrated by Brad Pitt and a 35mm feature-length version, Life’s Journey, which is narrated by Cate Blanchett. The official blurb declares:

Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience is a one-of-a-kind celebration of life and the grand history of the cosmos, transporting audiences into a vast yet up-close-and personal journey that spans the eons from the Big Bang to the dinosaur age to our present human world … and beyond.

There are now seemingly countless documentary film festivals around the world, but when was the first one made? In 1877, when Eadweard Muybridge developed his sequential photographs of horses in motion? Or in 1879, when her invented the zoöpraxiscope, a device for projecting and animating his photographic images? Or was it earlier – are cave paintings the earliest form?

The earliest writer to identify the kind of documentary we’re used to now – a film exploring a non-fiction idea – was the Polish writer, photographer and filmmaker Bolesław Matuszewski. He wrote two of the earliest texts on cinema: Une nouvelle source de l’histoire (A New Source of History) and La photographie animée (Animated photography), which were published in 1898. Matuszewski was also one of the first people to propose the creation of a Film Archive to protect film. However, the word ‘documentary’ was apparently coined by Scottish filmmaker John Grierson in his review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana (1926), published in the New York Sun on 8 February 1926.

I thought it might be interesting to post a few important documentaries from the last 120 years or so that are freely available online (and include some favourites):

Louis Le Prince, Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)

Louis Le Prince shot Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) at Oakwood Grange in Leeds, in the UK. It is believed to be the oldest film in existence and features Adolphe Le Prince, Sarah and Joseph Whitley and Annie Hartley walking in the garden. Sarah died 10 days after the scene was taken, which makes her the earliest born person ever to appear in a film and the first person who had appeared in a film to die.

Louis Lumière, La Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon (Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory, and Exiting the Factory, 1895)

Debatedly the first public projection of film, La Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon (Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory, and Exiting the Factory, 1895) was created by Louis Lumière using his all-in-one camera, the Cinématographe – both a film projector and developer. It was first screened in 1895 at the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. 

William Heise, The Kiss (1896)

One of the first films ever shown commercially to the public, William Heise’s The Kiss (1896) lasts 18 seconds and features the first kiss ever recorded on film. Denounced by the church and promtping outraged calls for police action, it was advertised by its distributor, Thomas Edison, as: ‘They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time.'

Claude Friese-Greene, The Open Road – London (1926)

In the 1920s, travelogues became hugely popular. I love this early colour film, The Open Road – London (1926) by the pioneering filmmaker Claude Friese-Greene, who made the ‘Open Road’ series of silent travelogues in order to promote the colour process his father, William Friese-Greene, had been working on at the time of his death. 

Walter Ruttmann, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Symphony of a Great City, 1927)

Heavily influenced by modern art, so-called ‘City Symphony Films’ were avant-garde films made during the 1920s and ’30s. One of the most famous and influential is Walter Ruttmann’s silent film, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Symphony of a Great City), 1927. You can watch it in its entirety here.

I’ll be posting more films (one from each decade from the 1930s to now) on Friday, but in the meantime, here’s a useful poll from a few years ago: 340 critics, programmers and filmmakers nominate their favourite documentaries.

Jennifer Higgie is the editorial director of frieze.

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