Documentary Films

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Documentary Films


a form of cinematic art whose material is footage of actual events, in contrast to dramatized (fictional) films. The origin of documentary films is directly associated with the rise of the film-maker. The first films by the Lumiere brothers (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciolat and Lunch Break at the Lumiere Factory, 1895, France) reproduce scenes taken from real life. The films used the effect of visually recording reality in its movement through time and space. Pictures of the way of life in various countries, which were shot in 1896 by assistants to the Lumiere brothers, marked the beginning of the transformation of the newsreel into a public information medium.

Russian newsreels preserved a wealth of factual material whose objective value was reappraised in the Soviet period from a revolutionary, class standpoint. After the Great October Socialist Revolution the Moscow and Petrograd film committees, which were established in 1918, began to put out newsreels. Guided by the directors G. M. Boltianskii, D. Vertov, V. R. Gardin, and L. V. Kuleshov, cameramen G. V. Giber, S. P. Zabozlaev, P. V. Ermolov, N. F. Kozlovskii, A. A. Levitskii, A. G. Lemberg, P. K. Novitskii, and E. K. Tisse filmed the most important sociopolitical events in the country, including V. I. Lenin’s address at the Third and Fourth Congresses of the Comintern, congresses of the Soviets, the Red Army’s combat operations on the Civil War fronts, and the activation of the first electric power plants. Material reflecting the heroic deeds of the first years of the revolution appeared in issues of the movie magazines Kinonedelia (Film Week, 1918-19), Kinopravda (Film Truth, 1922-25), and Goskinokalendar’ (State Film Calendar, 1923-25), as well as in film reports on individual events.

The depiction of a new reality in newsreels influenced the style and content of the outstanding feature films of the dramatic cinema in the 1920’s (Strike andPotemkin, directed by S. M. Eisenstein, and The End of St. Petersburg, directed by V. I. Pudovkin). The importance of combining truthful, direct presentation of information with effective propaganda was stressed by Lenin in a conversation with A. V. Lunacharskii, in which he pointed out that the basic task of Soviet documentary films was “to provide a broadly informative chronicle that would be selected accordingly, that is, that would be a graphic kind of journalism, in the spirit of the line pursued, for example, by our best Soviet newspapers” (from the collection Samoe vazhnoe iz vsekh iskusstv, 1963, p. 125).

Giving newsreels an agitational and publicistic character played a decisive role in the development of Soviet documentary film as an art. The goal of reinforcing revolutionary ideas confronted the makers of documentary films with the need not only to reproduce facts but also to interpret them actively with the aid of various camera techniques, montage, text, and dramatic composition. Documentary films took the first steps from providing news to offering visual interpretation, which found its most vivid expression in D. Vertov’s work, which was based on the principle of organically combining lengthy filmed observations—footage of “life caught unawares.” This made it possible to record the most characteristic occurrences of reality, with an analysis of events—“a Communist interpretation of that which actually exists.” Vertov revealed the ideological meaning of facts in generalizations that grew out of the documentary material. He carried out his principles in the film Leninist Film Truth (1925) and in the best episodes of the films March, Soviet! (1926), One-sixth of the World (1926), The Eleventh (1928), and Man With a Camera (1929), in which the epic scale of the narrative about the changes that had occurred since the Revolution was combined with a poetic depiction of the path the country had traveled. A visual interpretation of prerevolutionary newsreels from the party standpoint was the basis of E. I. Shub’s films The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty and The Great Path (both 1927) and Nicholas H’s Russia and Leo Tolstoy (1928), all of which marked the beginning of so-called montage films.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Soviet documentary-makers created a film chronicle of the achievements of the Soviet Union. Cameramen of newsreel studios, traveling film companies, and film trains (under the leadership of the director A. I. Medvedkin, for example) filmed construction projects of the five-year plans, transformations in the kolkhoz countryside, the development of the arctic, and the most important international events. The output of documentary films gradually increased, and the range of documentary themes and genres was expanded. A poetic treatment of reality distinguished such films of the 1920’s and 1930’s as Moscow (directed by M. A. Kaufman and I. P. Kopalin), Turksib (directed by V. A. Turin), The Symphony of the Donbas and Three Songs of Lenin (directed by D. Vertov), Cheliuskin (directed by la. M. Posel’skii), Spain (directed by E. I. Shub), and A Day of the New World (directed by R. L. Karmen and M. la. Slutskii).

During the Great Patriotic War (1941-45), the newsreels made on the fronts by more than 200 cameramen, saturated with details of the people’s military exploits, gave the makers of documentary films an opportunity to express publicistic enthusiasm through their graphic interpretation of documentary footage. Examples of such films include The Defeat of the German Troops Outside Moscow (directed by L. V. Varlamov and I. P. Kopalin), Struggling Leningrad (directed by R. L. Karmen, E. Lu. Uchitel’, and V. M. Solovtsov), Stalingrad (directed by L. V. Varlamov), and The Black Sea Sailors (directed by V. N. Beliaev). Feature-film directors worked with documentary films, making them more artistic and further enriching their expressive devices. The trend toward artistically assimilating documentary material emerged most clearly in the films The Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine (directed by A. P. Dovzhenko), Liberated France (directed by S. I. lutkevich) &K& Berlin (directed by Lu. la. Raizman). This trend was reflected in the film Trial by the Peoples (1946), by the director R. L. Karmen.

In the postwar years documentary-makers turned to the themes of reconstruction of the national economy (Donbas,directed by M. L. Bilinskii, and The Day of the Victorious Country, directed by I. P. Kopalin and I. F. Setkina), revolutionary reorganizations in other socialist countries (Bulgaria, directed by R. G. Grigor’ev, and Poland, directed by L. V. Varlamov), and the struggle for peace (The Youth of the World, directed by A. A. Ovanesova, and We Are for Peace, directed by I. A. Pyr’ev and I. Ivens). However, many of the films of this period were constructed on principles of the illustrative function of newsreel material and on a showcase-like, descriptive approach to the depiction of reality.

A new phase in the development of documentary films in the mid-1950’s was associated with an increased interest in forms of art constructed on a documentary basis. The films A Tale of the Caspian Oil Workers (directed by R. L. Karmen), Unforgettable Encounters (directed by A. A. Ovanesova), and People of the Blue Flame (directed by R. G. Grigor’ev) were the first serious attempts by documentary-makers to make man the center of a narrative. This new trend was further developed in the 1960’s. The use of lengthy film observations combined with various forms of dramatic organization, based on artistic analysis of the material, provided an opportunity to examine individual personalities from a social and moral standpoint. Examples of this tendency include the documentaries Katiusha (directed by V. P. Lisakovich), A World Without Play (directed by L. V. Makhnach), My 18 Boys (directed by V. A. Gur’ianov), PSP (directed by A. S. Vidugiris), and Perpetual Motion (directed by M. M. Merkel’). Other documentaries that examine individuals from a social and moral viewpoint include The Best Days of Our Lives (directed by B. D. Galanter and V. P. Gorokhov), The Well (directed by V. I. lovitse), The Time That Is Always With Us (directed by S. D. Aranovich), Just Three Lessons (directed by P. M. Mostovoi), and Thirteen Swallows (directed by M. Kaiumov and N. Ataullaeya).

The endeavor to interpret facts artistically promoted the appearance of various kinds of documentary films. Among the lyrical documentaries were The Worker, directed by U. V. Braun, A Report on the Year, directed by A. V. Freimanis, and Castles on the Sand, directed by la. M. Bronshtein and A. S. Vidugiris. Dramatic documentaries included There Behind the Mountains Is the Horizon, directed by B. D. Galanter and I. A. Gershtein, and among the satirical documentary films was The Case of the Spool, directed by V. E. Aksenov. Reason vs. Madness, directed by A. I. Medvedkin, is a lampoon-like documentary. A number of films, including Czechoslovakia: Year of Ordeals, directed by A. A. Koloshin, and Loyal Sons of the People, directed by B. R. Nebylitskii, provided publicistic reports. America Behind the Footlights, directed by A. A. Koloshin, and Multilevel America, directed by G. I. Asatiani, are examples of travelogues.

The achievements of the documentary films of the 1960’s find their fullest expression in the film Ordinary Fascism (directed by M. I. Romm), which was based on a graphic reinterpretation of foreign newsreel footage. Materials from film libraries were used in The Last Letters (directed by S. A. Kulish and Kh. Stoichev), Granada, Granada, My Granada. . . (directed by R. L. Karmen), If Your Home Is Dear to You (directed by V. S. Ordynskii), and The Gym Suit and the Tailcoat (directed by V. P. Lisakovich).

Among Soviet documentary films a special place is held by works portraying Lenin and his historical role as the founder of the Communist Party and the world’s first workers’ and peasants’ state. Among these films are Living Lenin (directed by M. I. Romm), The Train to the Revolution (directed by V. V. Mikosha), and Lenin: Documents, Facts, Reminiscences (directed by L. M. Kristi).

Soviet documentary cinema, which produced about 300 films and 1,300 issues of movie magazines in 1970, has won worldwide recognition. Many Soviet documentary films have received awards at international film festivals. The truthful, realistic Soviet documentary cinema, which is profoundly devoted to party ideals, is developing on the basis of the revolutionary principles of Soviet film art and the discoveries of D. Vertov and E. I. Shub, which have also influenced the work of progressive masters of the documentary film abroad.


Samoe vazhnoe iz vsekh iskusstv: Lenin o kino. Sbornik dokumentov i materialov. Moscow, 1963.
Shub, E. Krupnym planom. Moscow, 1959.
Abramov, N. P. Dziga Vertov. Moscow, 1962.
Drobashenko, S. Ekran i zhizn’. Moscow [1962].
Dokumental’noe kino segodnia. Moscow, 1963.
lutkevich, S. “Razmyshleniia o kinopravde i kinolzhi.” Iskusstvo kino, 1964, no. 1.
Vertov, D. Stat’i, dnevniki, zamysly. [Moscow, 1966.]
Medvedev, B. SvideteV obvineniia [Moscow, 1966.]
Pravda kino i “kinopravda.” Moscow, 1967.
Sovremennyi dokumental’nyifil’m. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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