Notes on Social Realism


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.

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Courbet – Artist’s studio

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.


Daumier – The third carriage



Millet – Gleaners

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



How to keep yourself from killing the director

The Sound Design Process

This is a post with the collaboration of my friend and director Sérgio. We will both share our thoughts on our process creating and communicating between a sound designer and a director.

This idea came up long time ago when we were both whining about the people we were working with and for; and the realisation that there was a level of unfairness from our part, and that all the whining probably goes both ways and it can be avoided.

Sérgio´s views present what he expects from the sound designer and how he likes to collaborate:

There isn’t a magic formula, or a methodology that will work every time in a process of collaborative work. Fundamentally, I think that we have to find a common ground where communication may flow without major troubles and where no one wants to strangle the other.

As a director, there are a few basic aspects that…

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Found footage – memory and reflection

Recently, I decided to apply to a Sheffield’s documentary competition that consists in making a one minute video using only archive footage given by itnsource. With that in mind, I’ve made a short research about the subject looking for some inspiration. How could I use archive images and creatively write such a short video?

Maybe the first question should be which function I want the images to have. I’m not interested on using them to illustrate a voice-over or to invest them with a historicist roll, where they serve as proof of a specific period in time and/or an event, of course that has its value as document, but I see documentary as an opportunity to reflect about things rather than a kind of educational purpose. I believe, as Ranciére points in an essay regarding Chris Marker, that we can be dealing with the construction of memory itself.

In that sense, it seems to me that one great question concerning the usage of found footage is the value of the image itself; another issue we can debate is about the editing: How can a different combination of the same images give the viewer a different message? Both are ever since asked questions, but each time I edit a video, those questions come up; particularly when using images that had a different use before. We can go back to the 1920’s where this theme was central to some authors, mainly in Russia. Vertov, and perhaps even more Esther Shub, explored the polysemic value of the image present in its content. In 1927, Shub made a film using propaganda images of the previous regime as ground base in order to point out its decadence (The fall of the Romanov). Capra, in a series of documentaries produced during the WWII, borrowed techniques and footage liberally from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, subverting the German propaganda film into an anti-fascist film. In these two examples we can discuss the referred polysemic value of the image and the questioning of truth. Different juxtapositions of the images can convey a contrary message, Kuleshov would be so proud!

We can say that essay film fits in the found footage logic I’m approaching, once it deals more with the editing than with the shooting, because the ambitions is to show how the director articulates his reflection inside a referent. It’s like creating a meta-narrative where is present a reminiscence of the original content of the image (for which it was created) and its reinterpretation to generate new meaning, and (again) to construct memory. It’s a kind of necessity to revisit history, thinking politics in a reflexive (such a Nichols term) and find ways to tell it differently. Many times we find a narrator in this films (like In Marker) but very far from a demonstrative tone, as you can see in Sans Soleil but it isn’t mandatory to do so in order to create the announced reflection, the montage can be enough.

wolfram mine

There are several wolfram mines in Portugal and the zenith of their exploration was during the Second World War. Both Germans and British needed that mineral for their weaponry, and both of them resorted to my small country to get it. In Arouca, a small village in the north, there are two wolfram mines: Regoufe and Rio de Frade. The interesting thing is that one was explored by the Germans and the other by the British; part of the road that lead to the mines was the same! At the time, the enemy countries shared the expenses of the common parcel of the path. On the image is Regoufe mines that served the English part of the war.