Op.: A.C. Abadie; Prod.: Edison; 16mm. L.: 8 m. D.: 1’ a 16 f/s
The area of early film excluded from the Brighton Symposium in 1978 remains its most unexplored territory: non-fiction film. This neglect is nothing less than the scandal this implies, especially for historians of the documentary. Other than brief mention of the Lumière films and occasionally Pathé’s actualities, histories of the documentary skip over the period of early cinema, the one time in which non-fictional film outnumbered (in production at least) fictional films. The supposed simplicity of these early films led to their exclusion from the category of documentary by John Grierson in the late 1920’s. But the richness of these films is evident, in spite of their neglect by scholars (with recent important exceptions, of course).
In contrast to the rhetorical form Grierson admired in the Soviet documentaries of the twenties, these early short films present “views”: motion picture versions of the photographic views marketed for albums and stereoscope viewers since the end of the nineteenth century. The addition of motion transforms these views. Motion within the picture, whether of crowds, skilled craftsmen, dancers, animals, ocean waves, or machines, makes these views priceless records of the ephemeral. The addition of camera motion, whether panoramic shots moving across a landscape in imitation of panoramic photographs, or traveling through space, mounted on a train or trolley, makes these films intensely cinematic.
One could claim that the years before 1903 were the true climax of the actuality film. Production of the Lumière films and the breathtaking 68mm films of the Mutoscope and Biograph Company had ended by 1903. Nonetheless the power of the view remains evident in the visual variety of these films.