Screening Reality: How Documentary Filmmakers Reimagined America

Jon Wilkman. Bloomsbury, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-1-6355-7103-5
Filmmaker Wilkman (Floodpath) brings his love of documentary film and enthusiasm for its potential to this enthralling survey of the genre’s history in America. To the book’s great benefit, Wilkman does not adopt a doctrinaire definition of his subject, but includes both semistaged films such as Robert Flaherty’s 1922 look at Inuit life, Nanook of the North, and pure works of cinema verité such as brothers Albert and David Maysles’s 1969 film Salesman. Wilkman is also careful to recognize significant female contributions to a male-dominated field, such as from Flaherty’s wife and story consultant, Frances, or from the Maysles’ editor, Charlotte Zwerin (who eventually won recognition from them as a codirector, as well). Accessible and immersive, Wilkman’s text is peppered with numerous unexpected revelations, including Henry Ford’s role as producer of some of the earliest newsreels and educational and industrial films, and the documentary roots of such feature film directors as George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. Throughout, he skillfully weaves in historical context, such as how opposition to fascism and Nazism imparted additional urgency to documentary filmmaking, and how the 1951 introduction of videotape presaged the democratization of the field. A valuable resource for cinephiles, this sweeping history will ignite a new enthusiasm for the form among readers less well-versed in the genre. (Feb.)
Reviewed on : 09/09/2019
Release date: 02/18/2020
Genre: Nonfiction
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