William Stott writes that in "the thirties' documentary movement...feelings come first" and that "emotion counted more than fact." 1 John Grierson, who coined the term documentary, believed that "the essence of documentary is not information" but is rather "the same power to move that [he] had all along sought in Hollywood's films." 2 Edward Steichen was also convinced that photography could produce "the most remarkable human documents...that told stories and told them with such simple and blunt directness that they made many a citizen wince...." 3

Frontier Films productions are extraordinary examples of the use of documentary to invoke feelings in the viewer, point out struggles and injustices, and urge an active response to current social problems. In these films, created by individuals who agreed with Stott, Grierson, and Steichen concerning the purpose of documentary, emotion comes before education. Each production achieved the status of a human document in many ways, including presentation, use of music and images, prudent yet powerful narration, and choice of subject matter.


The makers of Frontier films use several different techniques of presentation. Native Land, for example, uses professional actors to re-enact past events while Power and the Land takes the camera inside one family's farm. People of the Cumberland also places the camera in front of actual people, those forgotten pioneers of the badlands, and Valley Town travels to an industrial town in Pennsylvania inhabited by displaced workers. Yet, each film uses some means of re-enactment or drama to portray the feelings of the people on the screen.

People of the Cumberland, for instance, shows actual poverty-stricken families standing in dilapidated doorways, children sick with scurvy, and graves marked only by broken glass.

People of the Cumberland

Yet, as unions organize, a dramatic scene is portrayed of one man being gunned down in the small town by anti-union gangsters. The narrator speaks the man's last thoughts before his death, then sharply returns to a third person voice, urging the town and the viewers not to mourn but to stand organized and unified. See People of the Cumberland.

Another film also depicts a dramatic scene of innocent men killed by those against unionization. In Native Land two sharecroppers are gunned down by deputized citizens, a scenario based on actual events in Arkansas in July 1936.

People of the Cumberland

As the second sharecropper runs into the barbed wire and falls to his death, the viewer is left with the image of one piece of his ripped clothing clinging to the wire. The scene then fades slowly to black as the narrator recites how night erases the tragedy for millions of Americans.

See clip from Native Land: QuickTime

On the foreign front, Frontier Films also portrayed heartache and the death of innocent men, women, and children in Spain. With dramatic footage of people standing in bread lines and the horrific effects of air attacks, the viewers' hearts go out to those suffering in Spain, even if they don't understand the politics behind the war.

See clip from The Spanish Earth: QuickTime

Also, reminiscent of Pare Lorentz's The River, The Plow that Broke the Plains, and other documentaries focused on the destruction of the land and need for preservation and proper irrigation, The Spanish Earth shows sweeping shots of the dry Spanish land that men must somehow make fruitful, a problem faced by many Americans during the same time period who were also fighting a battle--against the Great Depression.

See a second clip from The Spanish Earth: QuickTime

Music and Narration

In addition to using varying techniques to present the struggles of humankind, each film relies heavily on dramatic music and editing. In several works, the composed music falls in perfect rhythm with machines grinding, men working, and automobiles cruising. Some films take the role of music further, such as Valley Town, in which the music is integrated directly into the documentary as husband and wife sing their unemployment and hunger woes. See Valley Town.

In films such as The City, the difference between American country life and the big city is dramatically shown by changes in music and camera shots. A boy and his dog leisurely walk into a big wooden barn where blacksmiths manually heat and pound materials into functioning tools. Suddenly, the calm music with slow cadences changes pitch, the tempo increases, and the key turns minor. Loud drum beats usher in images of hot iron, buckets of flame, and slag heaps. Soon the rhythm of the train pipes in and the beat increases as shots of a train traveling through the factory, smoke billowing into the sky, are shown. All of a sudden, there is complete silence as the slag is dumped down the heap. Then the red hot bubbles seems to bring the music back, as a single man braves the smoke and heat to make his way down the man-made hill.

See clip from The City: QuickTime

Towards the end of this film clip the narration begins, in fast pace reciting the American pillars of progress, the machines man made in the name of advancement. The stark difference in pace, tone, and background music of the first and latter parts of this clip demonstrate the documentary's emphasis on the goodness of rural, planned community life and the horror of industrial, machine-age cities. By the use of music, the film invokes feelings of serenity followed by anxiety and the desire to burst into motion in time to the train.

Native Land also uses music to strike up emotions in the viewer, in addition to breathtaking footage of the American landscape, again contrasted to the machines, trains, and smoke stacks of the growing cities. With a steady drumbeat as accompaniment, the narrator describes patriotically how we all came to America in search of freedom and faced danger alone. Yet, with hope and perseverance, we built our roads and our communities, we made machines and "wheels for a new country." With background music again imitating the chugging of the train, we are taken through American cities "built with the steel girders of America," where freedom, happiness, life, liberty, and all men created equal are still shining hopes.

See clip from Native Land: QuickTime

Subject Matter

It is apparent that the leftist nature of Frontier Films influenced most of its subject matter. Perhaps the most blatant political statement was the film Native Land. With its emphasis on a government conspiracy taking the rights away from ordinary American citizens, especially those organizing labor unions, the film makes a strong statement against propaganda, spies, and the blackmailing and murder of innocent people. The subject matter of the other domestic films are more focused on American landscapes and the plight of man versus the land, the city, and the machine, instead of man versus man backed by a government system against the Bill of Rights.

Two films brilliantly portray the ideal American family and community. Power and the Land shows an actual family's transition from the technology of seventy years ago to a new electric cooperative. Tugging at American heartstrings, the film shows a warming scene of the hard-working family sitting down to a nice dinner, complete with kerosene lighting. In contrast, The City shows the beginnings of fast food, as city goers eat as fast as machines can process food. With fast music and editing, like that of the trains and machines depicted in earlier scenes, the viewer is startled by the contrast of the sit-down American family dinner and the automatic, electrified and mechanical mode of eating in the big city.

See clip from Power and the Land: QuickTime
See clip from The City: QuickTime

With the use of human elements as subject matter, re-enactments and live footage to portray the actions and emotions of actual people, the dramatic use of music, and narration that reminds the viewers of the American ideal and the wonder of our technological developments, all of the films discussed above fall into the category of a new radical genre of American documentary--social art work intent on showing not only the facts of life, but the feelings in the hearts of American citizens.

Introduction History Definition Interpreting Documentary Biographies Films Themes Conclusion Home

1 Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. New York: Oxford University, 1974. (8-9).
2 Stott. Documentary. (11).
3 Stott. Documentary. (11).