Scott MacDonald and Local Nonfiction Cinema - Part 1
October 18, 2013
Over the past half-century, the Boston area has been the fountainhead of American documentary filmmaking. Many of the pioneers of cinema vérité (that is, sync-sound shooting from within evolving events) have had Boston connections – Robert Drew, the Maysles Brothers, Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock, Ed Pincus are examples. And WGBH has been a pioneer in television documentary, especially about race. Cambridge in particular has been crucial in nurturing two major genres of nonfiction cinema: ethnographic filmmaking and personal documentary.
Originally understood as filmmaking devoted to the recording of indigenous, pre-industrial cultures on the verge of transformation, ethnographic cinema evolved at Harvard’s Film Study Center in the work of John Marshall and Robert Gardner, and a modern flowering of ethnographic cinema has been the achievement of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Personal documentary – the use of cinema-vérité shooting to investigate the filmmakers’ personal lives – was instigated by Ed Pincus at MIT’s Film Section, and in the hands of Pincus’ students, Ross McElwee most famously, has become one of the most popular forms of documentary.