Creativity and Actuality: the Art and Craft of Documentary Films

One of the most powerful functions of documentary films is their ability to introduce viewers to meaningful, important subjects and ideas. Many documentary filmmakers have chosen to document the day-to-day details about the way of life of a particular group of people. These people may be divided from the rest of the world by religion or geography or technology or culture; whatever it is that makes them stand apart provides the context and framework for the best documentary films. While seeing what it is that makes them different or unique, viewers also come to see what it is that makes them just like everyone else; the differences between people can also provide a glimpse into the universality of the human experience. Photographers, journalists, and other documentarians try to accomplish the same things, though in different ways, and often with different results. These differences in approach, technique, and subject matter also give viewers and readers a chance to learn that what divides us is usually much smaller than what unites us.

Since the technology was developed, film has always been used to take viewers into other worlds; some of these worlds are fictional, and some are quite real. It is those real worlds visited and explored by documentarians that inform this discussion. The Expos of 1967 and 1968 were both venues that provided powerful stages from which documentarians could broadcast their works and share their messages with audiences, and these expos each displayed thousands and thousands of films during their runs. The theme of the 1967 Expo was “man and his world,” a broad enough title that it could cover nearly every conceivable subject (Lamont, 1969); most documentary films are at least tangentially related to the human race and its role on the earth.

Films of the era (the mid-20th century) were being made by people who still had a lot of world left to explore. In the age of globalization, the Internet can bring people from around the world together in an instant, and ideas and information can travel between and among billions of people. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, it was the documentary film or the photo essay that often introduced those of one culture to those of another. The 1967 film Children of Fogo Island, shows viewers a group of children at play on the small island off the coast of Newfoundland. At the time, those who lived on Fogo were not well-known (Low, n.d.), and the film introduces them to new viewers through the eyes of children. Rather than feature a narration-heavy soundtrack, the images of the children at play speak for themselves: they are not just Fogo’s children, they are everyone’s children.

The film The Back-breaking Leaf takes a somewhat more conventional approach to documentary filmmaking, in the sense that a narrator provides background and contextual information about the subjects of the film. The Back-breaking Leaf is both the story of the importance and value of the tobacco crop in Ontario in the 1950s and the story of the men who come to the tobacco farms in the area at harvest time to pick the crops. As the narrators explains, there are machines that can process the tobacco, but no machine (at the time, anyway) can harvest it, so “you had to bend your back and get to it” (Macartney-Filgate, n.d.).  Like The Children of Fogo, The Backbreaking Leaf describes a way of life that is slowly fading away forever; were it not for that documentarians, many people would never get a glimpse into either of these worlds.

Both films show how progress brings in the new and does away with the old. At the time The Backbreaking Leaf was filmed, Canada’s economy was booming (Macartney-Filgate). According to the film there used to be far too many people to fill too few jobs; by the late 1950s there were too many openings for pickers and not enough men to fill them (Macartney-Filgate). Millions of dollars of tobacco crops were at stake for those who could not find hired hands, and it was clear that the situation was not likely to improve any time soon. The Children of Fogo, in a sense, explores similar ground. The small population of people on the island was rapidly dwindling at the time the film was made; modern life was drawing people off into new opportunities (Low). Yet some of the Fogo island population clung stubbornly to the island, which was reminiscent of the way the tobacco farmers clung to their way of life on the farm.

In an article about John Grierson, author Renate Wickens explores the development of documentary filmmaking in the context of the National Film Board. According to Wickens, it was Grierson who actually coined the term “documentary,” defining it as “the creative treatment of actuality” (Wickens, 1996). As simple as this definition appears at first glance, it is remarkably complete. Documenting a process, or a group of people, or a sociological phenomenon, or any of the other myriad of topics that have been explored by documentary filmmakers is not simply about aiming a camera at a film’s subject or subjects. The filmmaker also brings his or her own agenda and point of view to the process; as such, documentary films tell audiences not just about their subjects, but also offer insight into the person or persons behind the camera. Simply deciding on the subject of a documentary film is an inherently artistic act; the subsequent decisions involved in making a film, from lighting to cinematography to editing all provide the means for uncovering a sense of “actuality” about those who are both behind and in front of the camera.

As one who proselytized for the world of documentary filmmaking, Grierson’s underpinning goal “was to focus public and private film-making on the social priorities of the industrial world with the intention of educating, informing, and advocating for change” (Wickens). At their best, documentary films leave their audiences somehow changed; this does not mean that every documentarian hopes to drive donations to a pet project or encourage people to vote in certain ways, but it does mean that effective documentary films foment one form or another of change. In The Children of Fogo Island, the intention was simply offer viewers the chance to learn something about a group of people with which they would otherwise have been unfamiliar. While The Backbreaking Leaf documents the difficulties involved in harvesting Canada’s tobacco crop in the middle of the 20th century, and shows viewers a glimpse of the men who toiled in the fields doing the “backbreaking” work of picking tobacco leaves, the film’s purpose was not really to foment change within the industry. If anything, it was designed simply to save a piece of Canada’s history, a history that was being quickly subsumed by the advances of the industrial and technological changes taking place at the time.

There are times where the lines between artist and subject are not always entirely distinct. The photo-essay entitled “When the Wind Blows They Make Prints,” explores the activities at the Cape Dorset Arts Center in the 1950s and 1960s. The Eskimo people who are native to this region of the Arctic have long been known for their artistic abilities, particularly in terms of their soapstone carvings of indigenous animals and other figures. Under the guidance of a man named James Houston, the artistic director at the Cape Dorset Arts Centre, a group of native Eskimos began to apply their carving abilities to new media, most notably by turning their carvings into the basic forms used for printing. Other approaches to creating art for the people involved with the arts centre included painting, drawing, and even sewing craft items from animal skins.

Houston’s role in this scenario straddles the line between documentarian and co-artist. The artwork created by the Eskimos had already been popular in its traditional forms; Houston and others could simply have documented the creations of these people, or even facilitated their creation and the subsequent commercial sales, all without becoming directly involved in the process. In becoming involved with creating art with the Eskimos, Houston is, in a sense, still accomplishing what many documentarians seek to accomplish, by fomenting change. Houston goes a step further; his process brings change not only to those who have access to the works of art created by these Eskimos, but also to the Eskimos themselves, who now have new artistic outlets s well as the means to capitalize on them.


Lamont, A. F. (1969). Film at Expo: A Retrospect. Journal of the University Film Association, 21(1), 3-12.

The Back-breaking Leaf by Terence Macartney-Filgate – NFB. (n.d.). Watch Documentaries and Animated Films Online – Retrieved March 4, 2013, from

The Children of Fogo Island par Colin Low – ONF. (n.d.). Visionner des documentaires et des films d’animation en ligne – Retrieved March 4, 2013, from

When the Wind Blows They Make Prints: Eskimo Artists at Cape Dorset.

Wickens, R. (1996). The National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division. History of Photography, 20(3), 271-277.