Skip to Main Content

French & Francophone Film: A Research Guide

Documentary and Actuality Films

Free French Press, photographer. Three members of the Free French foreign legion who distinguished themselves in the battle at Bir Hacheim in the Western desert. They are from Senegal, Equatorial Africa, and Madagascar, respectively. 1942. Library of Congress Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information photograph collection.

The very first French films document the everyday world: La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon/Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyons (1895), Barque sortant du port/Boat Leaving the Harbor (1895), and L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat/Train Arriving at La Ciotat Station (1895) are just a few examples. These Lumière Brothers documentaries, similar ones shot by Lumière associates around the world, and Pathé-Journal, the weekly newsreels begun in 1908, are all the foundations for Francophone documentary cinema.

Originally called "actuality" films, documentary films are nonfiction and can include newsreels, scientific or educational films, biographies, travelogues, nature films, journalistic investigations, and much more. In contrast to fiction film, documentaries are (arguably) less staged, and are intended to inform rather than entertain.

While viewers tend to regard documentaries as truthful recordings of objective reality, it is important to note that documentarians approach their filmed subjects with their own biases or agendas, and filmmakers' funding sources (as will be discussed below) often decide what a film is "about," with what intentionality it is edited, and how it is received.

After the first wave of documentaries, the genre began to metamorphose. Jean Vigo's À propos de Nice/About Nice (1930) demonstrates the wide possibilities of the form: More than simply being a straightforward film of well-to-do people strolling the boardwalk in Nice, France, Vigo's end product is transformed through a surrealist lens and disconcerting editing tactics. What could have been a film of pleasant beachside strolls by the bourgeoisie becomes a dizzying political and artistic commentary.

The possibility for cinema as a tool of manipulation is evident in the next iteration of the Francophone documentary timeline: the propaganda film. During World War II, the Nazi propaganda ministry forced cinemas in Vichy France to show propaganda newsreels during film screenings. These were stridently rejected by French audiences, and so police presence was regularly needed to prevent audiences from rioting, booing, spitting, and throwing objects at the screen.

After World War II, the first images of Nazi death and concentration camps were shown in documentaries such as Les Camps de la mort/Death Camps (1945, produced by Les Actualités Françaises), early films in the subgenre of Holocaust documentaries. These films were followed by Nuit et brouillard/Night and Fog (1955, dir. Alain Resnais) and Shoah (1985, dir. Claude Lanzmann), to name two of the best known examples.

Directors used film to challenge the French public's story of that country's actions during World War II. For example, in Le Chagrin et la pitié/The Sorrow and the Pity (1971), director Marcel Ophüls interrogates the French national myth that the country was unified in its resistance to Nazi powers. Ophüls focuses his interviews on inhabitants of the town of Clermont-Ferrand, once under Nazi occupation. The wide variety of Ophüls' subjects includes Resistance fighters, aristocratic fascists, une femme tondue (a woman whose head was shaved in public after having been accused of "horizontal collaboration" with the enemy), SS officers stationed there, Allied leaders, Vichy politicians, and offspring of both Nazi soldiers and Jews killed during the Holocaust; in short, a broad cross-section of France during wartime. Throughout the over four hours of interviews, an increasingly complex and fraught picture of a French society emerges.

Documentary cinema interrogates other political subjects in the Francophone sphere (namely, colonization) through immersive filming techniques, ethno-fiction, and shared anthropology. These forms were possible in part because of the lightweight equipment available to filmmakers (which also influenced New Wave directors).

Filming was now possible with minimal crews and therefore increased intimacy between filmmaker and subject. Afrique 50 (1952, dir. René Vautier), Les Statues meurent aussi/Statues Die Also (1953, dirs. Chris Marker and Alain Resnais), Les Maîtres fous/The Crazy Masters (1955, dir. Jean Rouch), Algérie en flammes/Algeria in Flames (1958, dir. Vautier; filmed at the request of Frantz Fanon), and Jaguar (1967, dir. Rouch) are a few of examples.

Cinéma-vérité is another documentary technique similar in intention to the ones above. Pioneered by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch in Chronique d’un été/Chronicle of a Summer (1961), the camera is used to provoke subjects into interacting with the filmmaker, other subjects, and the documentary form in ways they likely otherwise would not. In Chronique..., for example, subjects are approached on the streets of Paris and asked, "Are you happy?" a laden question to answer in the presence of a stranger and a camera. In another scene, African students in Paris are confused at their French peers' distressed reactions to a girl's tattoo. The numbers on her arm are from a concentration camp.

In Canada, documentary developed differently thanks to Scottish director John Grierson. The Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau, between 1917-1941, captured scenes of everyday life, tourist destinations, and ethnography films of First Peoples, and also produced educational films on nutrition, family life, and mental health. The films were tools intended to encourage immigrant communities to assimilate into white, Protestant, English-speaking Canadian society. Later, Grierson helped found the National Film Board of Canada (NFB)/Office national du film du Canada (ONF).

Shorts, such as Les Raquetteurs (1958, Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx), produced by the NFB/ONF during its early documentary days are also excellent examples of direct cinema, similar to cinéma-vérité and specific to Quebec.

Below are some of the actuality and documentary films available through the Library of Congress, as well as the Cinémathèque Française Collection, filmed in France, Switzerland, Vietnam and North America. Note that many can be streamed.

Suggested titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.