A talk by James Rosenow (U of Chicago)
Defining the documentary form has been since the beginning a slippery task. One rare point of accord, both then and now, seems to be that regardless of how we understand the documentary form, it is a form that truly came into its own during and because of the 1930s. This is slightly misleading. While later generations possess vivid images of southern sharecroppers, dust bowl caravans and migrant camps, the economic crisis did not initially offer a visual experience. It was only as the Depression deepened that many American artists, authors, and filmmakers sought to overcome the economic crisis by directing their efforts and talents to the issue of adequately representing it.
This talk looks specifically at the formal experiments undertaken by American independent filmmakers in pursuit of alternative documentary models, models that actively challenged the developing standards for nonfiction representation. By bookending the era with two works—Footnote to Fact (1933, dir. Lewis Jacobs) and The City (1939, dir. Willard Van Dyke and Ralph Steiner)—I reconsider the extent to which documentary’s inchoate definition was in exciting and productive disarray. For these filmmakers—who vocally privileged form over content—the objective was not solely to show faithful depictions of the charged social environs but also, through filmic means, to encourage viewers to consume images with more vigilant eyes.
James Rosenow is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. She is currently a Fellow in Residence at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where she is writing a dissertation entitled, “'For God’s Sake, Don’t Call it Art': The American Interwar Laboratory and Its Film Experiments."