The birth of the non-fiction film- indeed, the birth of cinema itself- is also closely related to the diversified representations of reality in the nineteenth century art; the works of Lumières was another manifestation of art being directed towards the objective world of things to seek a “closeness to nature”. – Non-fiction Film, a critical History Barsam, Richard – page 13
Inspired in Barsam’s statement at the very beginning of his book, the propose of this short article is to briefly outline what was social realism and name the authors that define this movement. Also, this post is the first of a series that I intend to write about documentary and its history.
Nineteenth century was one of many revolutions both social and technological. The industrial revolution created concentration of vast populations in the great urban centers, never seen before slums with high density and low conditions of life contrasting with the showy display of wealth by the successful classes. Those imbalances called the attention of writers, thinkers and artist and were themselves part of the revolutions all over Europe, especially in France in 1848 (the year Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto). We can see this attention not only as a will for a call to action, and reflection about these issues, but also as a disruption from a Romanticism form where painting and literature were dipped.
Courbet, considered by many the archetypal painter of realism said that “Paintings are an essentially concrete art, and can only consist of the presentation of real and existing things”. Instead of creating huge and heroic paintings, instead of creating beautiful landscapes, it seems that Courbet and many other saw his art as a way of communicate his ideas of the world, being the new world order or the class differences for example. He expressed ideas of equality by heroicizing ordinary individuals, painting them at great scale and refusing to hide their imperfections. One of his main works was L’Atelier du peintre. Allégorie réelle déterminant une phase de sept années de ma vie artistique et morale (The Artist’s Studio, a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life) and can been seen as deeply political and of social criticism:
To the left, representing everyday life, is a group of ordinary people from all levels of French society: a Jew, a priest, a merchant, a republican veteran of 1793, a game-keeper, a textile pedlar, an undertaker, a woman suckling a child, an unemployed worker and a beggar girl, and so on
To the right, in semi-darkness, behind the artist, are a number of Courbet’s friends, some of whom were important influences on his thought and work. The poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) is perched on a table, extreme right.
Many other artists followed similar principles on their approach on arts, namely Jules Breton, Rosa Bonheur, Caillebotte, and Jean-François Millet which turned his attention to subjects drawn from the life of the peasantry and creating a rural, peasant version of heroic paintings but instead of great battles he painted the common people, Honoré Daumier that despite being famous for critic caricatures has a profound work related to social realism such as Third carriage where he shows working class people in an entirely modern situation, unidealized yet monumental in their patient passivity.
Realism closely relates with the philosophical work of authors like Comte, Fourier and Proudhon and fiction writers were not indifferent to this movement. From Victor Hugo, to Emile Zola, from Balzac to Charles Dickens all develop theirs works in a direction towards a more real approach refusing to some extend the idealized and disconnected from reality novels. Also in Poetry we can see this tendency on poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud. But was probably Flaubert who most established what most readers and writes see as modern realistic narration. Like James Wood says, it is, like when we watch a film and we don’t notice what was left out, we don’t notice what hides outside the frame, and we also don’t noticed that Flaubert decides not to observe.
If we can already see a lot of resemblances with painting, especially the social engagement, cinema and particularly non-fiction film is deeply connected with literary realism regarding its construction and point of view. It is interesting to notice that truth was questioned on documentary when we could look to literature and see the possible answers. Roland Barthes said that there isn’t a realist method to describe the world. The naïve illusion of XIX authors that the world has a transparent connection with its referent was canceled. He said that there are different ways to make fiction, among them realism and I honestly can relate that with cinema. It’s always a construction regardless your approach and closeness to reality.
Nonetheless, these are questions for future articles. Even Social Realism it’s approached here in a very superficial way. What I want to point out it’s the profound influence that this movement had on cinema, and if you look to Lumiére’s first films you can identify the initial impulse to record common places, common people actions. I’m not sure if they have only archival and some ethnographic value, and not documentary value in a sense that there isn’t any interpretation of reality but the framing.
Barsam, Richard – Non fiction film, a critical history – Indiana University Press, 1992
Piper, David – The illustrated history of art – Bounty Books, 2004
Wood, James – A mecânica da ficção – Quetzal, 2010