Most Influential Docs & Makers

In the history of documentary, what was the most influential film, and who was the most influential doc-maker?
December 1, 2002

Nanook, Salesman or Roger and Me? Burns, Wiseman or Riefenstahl? When contemplating the docs and doc-makers that continue to inspire, an argument could be made for any of these, and many others. However, only a few generated accord among RealScreen survey respondents. Here are the results.

Influential Doc

It came as no surprise that Nanook of the North was voted most influential film in the history of docs, with 18% of the vote. Shot in 1921 by American explorer-turned-filmmaker Robert Flaherty, Nanook was the first of its kind – a feature-length doc and an anthropological record of a little-known people and their vanishing way of life. One pollee wrote, ‘It’s considered the great-granddaddy of docs.’

Also not surprising was that it was chosen for a range of reasons, both positive and negative. ‘It was [what] happened after the film that influenced me the most,’ said another respondent. ‘We learned later that the ‘subject’ died of starvation and that the introduction of the filmmaker into the lives of these people actually led to their destruction.’ That might be overstating it, but Nanook illustrates that from the beginning and for as long as docs are made, filmmakers will need to consider the impact a project has on the lives of its subjects.

Particularly noteworthy about the poll results was how diverse the selections were for most influential doc. The runner-up to Nanook was Ken Burns’s Civil War, but it captured only five percent of the vote. It was an eight-way tie for third place, with each of the following films taking three percent: Salesman (Albert and David Maysles), Primary (Robert Drew and Richard Leacock), Roger and Me (Michael Moore), Scared Straight! (Arnold Shapiro), Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman), The Olympiad (Leni Riefenstahl), the David Attenborough series Life on Earth and Drifters (John Grierson).

The other films mentioned by respondents (making up the remaining 52%) were a varied lot. It seems obvious in hindsight to say that different doc-makers find different docs inspiring, for reasons unique to each of them. On that everyone can agree.

Influential doc-maker

It makes sense that the maker of the most influential film would also be deemed most influential filmmaker, but Robert Flaherty has to share the title with Ken Burns – both received 11% of the vote.

Flaherty spent over a year filming the ‘Eskimo’ Nanook and his family in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Because their traditional way of life was already dying, they had to be persuaded to ‘perform’ for the camera. Many have criticized Flaherty for this and other aspects of his filmmaking process, but such issues are still argued over today, especially in the realm of reality TV, where scripting is de rigeur and reality can be constructed by the director. Survey respondents who chose Flaherty picked him ‘for his love of powerful images’ and because, among other things, ‘he started it all.’

Epic-doc filmmaker Ken Burns generated more effusive commentary. One respondent noted, ‘Ken Burns created (with his brother Ric) a style that has become not only the model but the gold standard of history docs – the less-is-more approach, with narrators as characters and the storyteller as an emotional link to the subject.’ Another wrote that Burns is ‘influential in that [he has] brought a new and young audience to documentaries.’

Some, though, seemed to confer the title on Burns only grudgingly. ‘I’m not a big fan of his work by any means…but his name has become [such] a staple that anyone hustling doc financing should be saying, ‘It will be like a Ken Burns film’…and then laugh all the way to the bank,’ wrote one respondent.

In second place, at eight percent, was Frederick Wiseman, ‘the father of ‘reality-style’ documentaries, who showed how unobtrusive a camera could be in showing the nuances of life.’

Tied for third, with six percent of the vote each, were Albert Maysles (‘changed the way we perceive docs’) and David Wolper (‘because he popularized the non-fiction form’).

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