Despite economic hardships, there was a tremendous impulse in the Depression Era to document actual events and people. One of the new genres of "documentary expression" that emerged during these years was documentary film. Using the camera, artists could capture a worker's revolt, a poor farmer and his family trying to survive on the overworked land, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and the impact of the machine on man and the land. No other apparatus was as well-suited to the social realism movement, which was committed to capturing the problems and hardships of everyday life. Using social documentary, film makers of the thirties, like the still photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, could "show the things that had to be corrected" and encourage improvements in society.
Documentary film had been widely used in other countries, but was still relatively new in America in 1930. Single reels of industrial processes, romantic travelogues of foreign lands, and increasing amounts of newsreels were the only alternative to Hollywood's feature fiction films. The British film producer John Grierson was the first to coin the term documentary and his work was based on his detestment of "'the false excitements' of Hollywood's fictions." 1 American film artists also began to pick up cameras in the name of revolution and social change.
One collective of left-wing American film makers was responsible for producing some of the most revolutionary documentary films. The Worker's Film and Photo League was formed in the early part of the decade, transformed into Nykino in 1934, and emerged as Frontier Films in 1937 with the purpose of making documentaries with a progressive viewpoint. The history of these leagues and biographical information on the people behind the cameras follow. Additionally, there is a general discussion of the definition of documentary, ways to interpret documentary, and an exploration of the themes and structural elements of particular films with clips to view.
The most important aspect of these radical documentaries are the films themselves. Unfortunately, much of the footage produced in this era is now lost. The films that remain and are publicly available offer a treasure chest of understanding the progressive movement, the trend of using film as documentary material, and the importance of film makers like Paul Strand, Ralph Steiner, Leo Hurwitz, Willard Van Dyke, and Joris Ivens. Yet, even the availability of these remaining works is becoming increasingly limited. These films are referenced, but rarely actually viewed. Their significance cannot be overlooked, nor the responsibility to preserve these important works of art and their commentary on the people of the Great Depression. This website offers a beginning point for the digital preservation and presentation of these revolutionary 1930s documentary films.
1Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. New York: Oxford University, 1974. (9).