Background onTraditional Documentary Film in Canada

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Allan King's The Yukoner (1956)

What Are Traditional Documentaries?

A traditional documentary is a film that deals with fact rather than fiction, that aims for truth over fabrication. In essence, it seeks to explore and record life as it is being observed. Traditional documentaries often include a narrator, to act as a tour guide on the journey into discovering new lands, new people, new beings.

Although there are also certain other documentary conventions, there are no real rules, so its tradition is as rich in techniques and styles as it is in subject matter.

Traditional Documentaries in Canada

Canada has had a long and successful documentary tradition. In 1939, John Grierson, a British documentary filmmaker, became the first Commissioner of the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada. He aggressively pursued the idea that Canada should also focus on documentaries, under allegations that he faked the attendance records for NFB films to stop the government from looking into a commercial film industry!

When Grierson left Canada at the end of the Second World War, the NFB was a highly productive, well-trained, and creative film studio. It is, in a way, a monument to Grierson's legacy that Canada is still renowned for its quality of documentary filmmaking, a tradition that continues to this day.

Documentary filmmaking has evolved, however, since the Grierson days, when remnants of colonial ideology were still evident in style and construction, but when the Second World War ended the world was thrown into a spiral of change. Many old ideas and conventions were thrown out the door and people went in search of new strategies. Along with new technologies and updated equipment, this led to significantly different approaches in documentary film-making, including Direct Cinema.

© 1999 Laurie Warden