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A New History of Documentary Film


Betsy A. McLane


London: Continuum, 2013 (Second edition)

Paperback. xv+428 p. ISBN 978-1441124579. £19.99


Reviewed by Thomas F. Cohen

University of Tampa



Betsy A. McLane’s New History of Documentary Film, second edition, is a revised version of the 2005 text co-authored with Jack C. Ellis, who died soon after the latter was published. (The new edition is, appropriately, dedicated to Ellis.) Like its predecessor, this book aims primarily to serve undergraduate and graduate students in college cinema courses. It presents a history of documentary film organized chronologically and geographically rather than conceptually. English language films and documentaries in the Western tradition provide the focus, from the actualities of the Lumière brothers, through various stylistic trends and movements of the twentieth century, to documentary online today. Along with obligatory chapters on Soviet montage, British Free Cinema, cinéma verité, etc., McLane has added sections on emergent technologies and documentary in social media. The text is valuable as an up-to-date survey of documentary cinema for both scholars and students.

Educators should rightly suspect the publication of new editions, given a textbook industry that compulsively generates updated product, often with pointless reorganizations and minimal additions. Such is not the case, however, with McLane’s book. Although the greater part of the previous edition remains, significantly fresh material appears as well. More importantly, McLane assumes a different approach to the material as a whole, one informed by a feminist perspective. She wastes no time asserting her ownership of the revised text, citing disagreements between her and Ellis in the preface [xiv].  Her comments suggest that McLane regarded this book as both an opportunity to perpetuate the collaboration with Ellis and to re-write the historical narrative according to her own vision.

The new text places greater emphasis on women’s role in documentary, not merely rehearsing the progress made since the rise of the women’s movement in the mid-twentieth century but reevaluating the contributions of women before 1970. For example, chapter 2, formerly titled “Beginnings: ‘The Americans and Popular Anthropology’,” has become “The Work of Robert and Frances Flaherty.” As in the previous edition, stalwarts such as Barbara Kopple, Joan Churchill, and Barbara Hammer claim a paragraph or two each, and the brief mention of Su Friedrich’s experimental nonfiction films makes a welcome addition. Still, I wish more space were devoted to the work of Charlotte Zwerin and Susan Fromke. Of course, the historical survey genre demands brevity, as authors struggle to construct a readable, coherent narrative while doing justice to a large and diverse body of films.

Naturally, a good deal of what’s new in this edition attempts to take into account digital technologies that blossomed following Ellis’s demise. The first page of the preface announces the intention to address how digital technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet have affected documentary practice. McLane clearly holds an ambivalent attitude toward such technology. She somewhat tepidly celebrates the gains afforded by such “advancements” whereas she passionately laments the losses incurred as “heartbreakingly detrimental” [384]. For McLane, increasing access to the tools of documentary production has been accompanied by a loss of craft and the proliferation of documentaries of “questionable veracity, [which are] almost never analyzed journalistically” [382]. McLane also fears the loss of historical data itself, pointing out that negative film stock remains the only reliable archival medium for moving images. Thus, despite her claim that documentary today remains “livelier and more complex than ever” [387], the tone of the last few pages strikes this reader as elegiac. However, McLane’s stylistic shift from detached historiography to impassioned argumentation provides a certain urgency that offsets the more pedestrian sections of the book.

In sum, the second edition of A New History of Documentary Film retains the solid scholarship and readable prose of its predecessor while offering some important revisions. It is an ideal text for college-level introductory courses in the history of documentary.


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