Perhaps the earliest example of this phenomenon [the movement from copying to interpreting] comes from 1890’s in France where the Lumiere Brothers had successfully built a hand-cranked motion picture camera that doubled as a projector. Famously, they screened a short film called Arrival of a Train At La Ciotat to an unsuspecting audience, who were so frightened that they attempted to get out of the way of the image of the approaching train. The demonstration was intended to illustrate the new technology, moving pictures, and the audience was affected simply by its existence. They called these films actualities. Like the portrait painters of the past, it seemed as though a simple representation of the world was enough to dazzle audiences.
However, the Lumiere Brothers were of course engaging in a host of interpretive and creative choices, such as which events to film, where to point the camera, how to compose the frame and how long to film, whether or not to instruct the people involved or whether or not to move the camera. The fact of the matter is that no film is able to completely mimic reality. I once had a great old photography professor who constantly stressed to us that the act of photography itself requires focusing one’s attention on some things and/or ignoring other things, and therefore the photographer is always involved in interpreting and presenting aspects of reality of his or her choosing. As it turns out, the introduction of a machine (the camera) into the process of image-making does not make the photographer all that different from the painter at the end of the day. Just as the impressionists realized, any truth that documentary can convey is actually interpreted reality. Of course, like the painters before them, the question for filmmakers as the medium developed was how to take these simple representations, and craft them into works of art, to go beyond the mere depiction of events. Like the painters before them, filmmakers over the next twenty years began to discover that film has a language.
– from the upcoming book “How to Film the Truth: The Story of Documentary Film As a Spiritual Journey” to be released in the Spring of 2018 by Wipf & Stock