Amidst claims of a new "post-truth" era, documentary filmmaking has experienced a golden age. Today, more documentaries are made and widely viewed than ever before, illuminating our increasingly fraught relationship with what's true in politics and culture. For most of our history, Americans have depended on motion pictures to bring the realities of the world into view. And yet the richly complex, ever-evolving relationship between nonfiction movies and American history is virtually unexplored. Screening Reality is a widescreen view of how American "truth" has been discovered, defined, projected, televised, and streamed during more than one hundred years of dramatic change, through World Wars I and II, the dawn of mass media, the social and political turmoil of the sixties and seventies, and the communications revolution that led to a twenty-first century of empowered yet divided Americans. In the telling, professional filmmaker Jon Wilkman draws on his own experience, as well as the stories of inventors, adventurers, journalists, entrepreneurs, artists, and activists who framed and filtered the world to inform, persuade, awe, and entertain. Screening Reality is an essential and fascinating book for anyone looking to better understand the American experience and today's truth-challenged times.
"In Screening Reality, a many-faceted, dynamic, and thought-provoking history of nonfiction films in America, filmmaker and author Jon Wilkman elucidates the motivations of intrepid documentarians as they struggled to capture and honestly portray the real world. With vivid profiles of diverse filmmakers and expert analysis of their work set within finely grained social and political contexts, Wilkman addresses aspects personal, technical, aesthetic, cultural, and ethical.As he illuminates the many forms documentaries have taken, Wilkman traces the perpetual contrast between filmmakers committed to truth and social justice versus those crafting propaganda. Henry Ford produced industrials to promote his automobiles and instructional films meant to Americanize his immigrant workforce. President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned documentaries for the public as part of the New Deal. Wilkman provides a remarkable history of the newsreel; the travelogue, pioneered by one of many documentarian husband-and-wife teams, Martin and Osa Johnson; and wildlife documentaries, launched by Carl Akeley, an innovative museum taxidermist. In a key segment, Wilkman dissects Robert Joseph Flaherty's seminal Nanook of the North (1922) and the debates it triggered about ethnographic truth-telling, scene manipulation, and reenactments, epitomizing a popular if murky style that became known as docudrama. Wilkman dissects the dangerous filming of WWI, and the more sophisticated if equally risky efforts during WWII, including Hollywood directors documenting under fire, coverage of Black soldiers by African American filmmaker William D. Alexander, and long-banned films about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Wilkman charts the transformative arrival of television and the production of influential network documentary series, from See It Now to 60 Minutes. In opposition to these authoritatively narrated and edifying programs blossomed free-form, observational films by such cinema verité innovators as Albert and David Maysles and Frederick Wiseman. Wilkman's tracing of cutting-edge filmmakers includes a focus on women and directors of color, among them Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, 1976; American Dream, 1990), Henry Hampton, Jr. (Eyes on the Prize, 1987-90), and various Native American and Latinx filmmakers. Wilkman also discusses the work of LGBTQ documentarians, and examines the films and impact of Ken Burns, Michael Moore, Errol Morris, and such right-wing practitioners as Steve Bannon and Dinesh D'Souza.How authentic are documentaries? When does a filmmaker cross the line between veracity and phoniness, compassion and manipulation? Wilkman's mind-expanding investigation of the conundrums inherent in nonfiction filmmaking culminates in his examination of docutainment, and its loose interpretation of facts, and reality TV, which not only further changed what Americans expected from the truth, but also propelled reality-TV personality Donald J. Trump to the White House. In concluding this monumental exploration, Wilkman reminds us that evidential truth is essential to liberty and justice, and cautions: Without a commitment to veracity over artful visuals and popular appeal, even a golden age can become counterfeit. Let the real be real; let truth ring true.--Donna Seaman Copyright 2019 Booklist"
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Publisher's Weekly Review:
"Filmmaker Wilkman (Floodpath) brings his love of documentary film and enthusiasm for its potential to this enthralling survey of the genre's history in America. To the book's great benefit, Wilkman does not adopt a doctrinaire definition of his subject, but includes both semistaged films such as Robert Flaherty's 1922 look at Inuit life, Nanook of the North, and pure works of cinema verité such as brothers Albert and David Maysles's 1969 film Salesman. Wilkman is also careful to recognize significant female contributions to a male-dominated field, such as from Flaherty's wife and story consultant, Frances, or from the Maysles' editor, Charlotte Zwerin (who eventually won recognition from them as a codirector, as well). Accessible and immersive, Wilkman's text is peppered with numerous unexpected revelations, including Henry Ford's role as producer of some of the earliest newsreels and educational and industrial films, and the documentary roots of such feature film directors as George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. Throughout, he skillfully weaves in historical context, such as how opposition to fascism and Nazism imparted additional urgency to documentary filmmaking, and how the 1951 introduction of videotape presaged the democratization of the field. A valuable resource for cinephiles, this sweeping history will ignite a new enthusiasm for the form among readers less well-versed in the genre. (Feb.)"
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