Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film by Erik Barnouw; Oxford University Press; New York.

Cinema in our society serves, for the most part, to entertain. This is not to deny the existence of training films—educational tools, which are served by a sizable industry—but to take note of the fact that the cinema is almost wholly a popular commercial enterprise. As such, it caters more to the desire for distraction than to any demand for tutelage. Some might say that there is no such demand existent among the masses and that since the cinema is, given production costs, a medium that must appeal to many, economic suicide would be committed by any company that produced a film that even hinted of pedagogy. Curious, though, is the paperback book market, which is virtually populist by definition. Count less books are spewed out of presses that instruct people about practices including investing in stocks, potty training children, losing weight, writing resumes—and on and on. So-called “self-help” books are commonly list leaders, so it’s evident that they appeal to thousands of people, not a quirky band characterized by plastic shirt-pocket pen holders and practical footware. If the people who plunk down S3.50 or more for books that are supplanted by others with a frequency that is more characteristic of magazines than books were to spend the same at the box office, then their selections would become “smash hits.” People will laugh, cry, be amused, or become annoyed in public; lyceums and chautauquas are without support on a notable scale. If someone were to dare to make a feature-length film that deliberately aimed at educating the viewers, people would stay away in droves. Thus, documentary films end up being screened in school auditoriums, union halls, church basements, and the like; given the audiences, ideology undercuts the education.

As Documentary shows, people should not underestimate the significance and power of documentary films, for they help shape the views and opinions of those hearty few who are willing to take the time to watch something that isn’t designed as entertainment, those who obviously have a social commitment. To treat the films as being marginal is to make a mistake. While general releases tend to be soporific, documentaries are often incendiary: chapter titles in Documentary include “Prophet,” “Advocate,” “Bugler,” “Prosecutor,” “Promoter,” “Catalyst,” and “Guerilla.” Anyone who doubts the efficacy of the films should consult the bulletin boards at large universities and then wonder why there are all of those ads for films hailing the “heroic” Latin American revolutionaries, promoting the nuclear freeze, and excoriating American corporations—just to name a few of the topics. Clearly, some interest groups take documentaries very seriously.