The Documentarian as Tourist: Travel and Representation in Documentary

by Merritt Mecham

Documentary film has long been associated with travel and culture. However, some historical examples of documentary have been problematic, leading to a denigration of the documentary ideals with their “outside looking in” sensibility. As film tourism becomes a rising field of interest, this portion of documentary history is in danger of repetition unless documentarians utilize the nobler ideas of documentary in order to cultivate a deeper understanding between people, filmmaker, and audience.

Film and travel have long been companions. When the Lumière brothers successfully created a portable camera, they promptly traveled the world in order to collect footage. Documentary film, specifically, has been linked to exploration from its beginning when film was still closely tied with the “cinema of attractions,” as documentary historian Bill Nichols describes: “Safari films and travelogues on everything from surfing to architecture rely heavily on this exhibitionist impulse…Clearly an element of documentary film, this ‘cabinet of curious attractions’ is often treated as an embarrassing fellow traveler rather than as a central component” (128). The exhibition element of travel in documentary, though ever present, has often been seen as one that is degrading, as it is more closely tied to sensationalism than the more noble ideals of documentary. The ethnographic or travel genre of documentary has been particularly problematic as it is associated with the objectification and misrepresentation of peoples and cultures due to an “outsider looking in” perspective and corporate sponsorship. As film tourism is increasing in popularity and becoming a profitable industry, the consequential renaissance of the travel documentary is in danger of repeating the mistakes of earlier travel film unless the focus of these documentaries is turned away from the exhibitionist style to instead focus on cultivating a deeper understanding for the audience.

The first films followed the tradition of vaudeville shows, carnivals, and exhibitions. To explore these novelties, filmmakers used both the Lumière brothers’ cinématographe as well as Thomas Edison’s Black Maria. As the Lumière brothers’ careers grew, they travelled all over the globe in order to capture worldwide culture on film. Lumière programs featured scenes from all over; for example, one program included “A Gondola Scene in Venice,” “The Fish Market at Marseilles, France,” and “The Bath of Minerva at Milan, Italy” (Barnouw 13). These films, originally called actualités, were soon more widely referred to as expedition films, or travelogues. Often seen as a sort of scientific document, they were very popular and added a certain element of class and erudition to whatever was showing alongside them. Consequently, wide audiences saw these films frequently, and the films became an excellent form of advertisement. It became standard for these expedition films to be funded by a larger corporate force, most often a government. The films proved useful to cast a positive light on imperialism, but they were more often used by companies and government tourist boards to increase tourist activity. As companies realized the travelogue could literally act like a moving postcard, they moved in and quickly took advantage of the technology:

The London & North Western Railway Company sponsored films promoting the holiday highlights of Scotland and Wales in 1909, while Thomas Cook backed a film about travelling the Nile (Moonlight Trip on the Nile) in the same year. This trend continued with bodies such as the Travel and Industrial Development Association (TIDA) in the 1930s, and with Tourist Boards from all countries and regions up to the present. (Stewart)

Soon the majority of the travelogue genre was sponsored, and the objectivity practiced by early filmmakers like the Lumière brothers was lost.

Because these travelogue films were backed by a high level of sponsorship, the films were not so much scientific documents as they were advertisements. In many ways this became ethically problematic. The films were created with a definite “outsider looking in” aesthetic and therefore failed to fully explore the cultures and peoples they were presenting. In other words, there was no attempt to become a resident in the culture the documentarians were exploring, and so they treated the subject like a tourist, making the peoples and cultures a novelty and “other.” Additionally, because the films were made most often to persuade audiences to visit the area depicted, they were often contrived, representing a wishful reality. However, this failed to deter audiences. The films, though exploitative, were enormously popular due to the novelty of it all; the films, after all, had developed out of carnivals, with the indigenous people and traditions being portrayed with as much gimmick as a strong man or bearded lady.

As travelogues continued to develop as a popular documentary genre, other genres, such as the ethnographic film, began to explore the idea of travel as well. Robert Flaherty is largely responsible for the birth of this genre, though documentary was not yet a defined idea during the time he was making these films. After the widespread success of his first film Nanook of the North (1922), other filmmakers jumped at the opportunity of making these ethnographic films. However, Flaherty himself was aware of many issues surrounding this trend. As he travelled to different ancient nations, he would see the native peoples struggling as a result of imperialism and the intrusion of white, Western societies. Nevertheless, he felt he could do more good by making his films, saying, “I am not going to make films about what the white man has made of primitive peoples…What I want to show is the former majesty and character of these people” (Barnouw 45).

However, there was certainly a tendency to idolize the genre as well as the filmmaker. For example, Flaherty was a world figure and had an aura of romanticism surrounding him. This inevitably attracted criticism, beginning with Nanook of the North: “Observers (starting with John Grierson) would come to accuse Flaherty of ignoring reality in favor of a romance that was, for all its documentary value, irrelevant” (Duncan). While it is true that moments of the film are contrived, this does not lessen Flaherty’s ideals. Due to the newness of the genre, the idea of documentary ethics was not universal, and Flaherty sincerely attempted to portray his subjects realistically, often having them watch the footage and give input. However, the criticism of Flaherty has had its own staying power, and unfortunately ethnographic films made following Nanook of the North continued to tarnish the reputation of ethnographic films. While filmmakers attempted to make films to be the next Flaherty and achieve the same kind of lusty explorer status, they did quick jobs that went against Flaherty’s personal ethics and sullied the ethnographic film trend. Filmmakers would exploit their subjects, portraying them as savages and exposing them to danger in order to create a more commercial, entertaining film. The duo of Martin and Osa Johnson are a particularly troublesome example, as they made films that were focused on their own self-glorification, such as Among the Cannibals of the South Pacific (1918) and Jungle Adventures (1921). “Both Johnsons were constantly in sequence demonstrating their courage or wit,” and the whole tone of their films was demeaning and condescending; for example, Martin Johnson, for the sake of humor, would give a pygmy a cigar in order to watch him get sick, or purposefully burst a balloon just to frighten him (Barnouw 51). Through controversy and a consequent lack of interest, the Johnsons’ and others’ quests for celebrity brought the ethnographic film/explorer genre to a close.

At this time there was another emerging genre that focused on location and travel: the city symphony. The city symphony, while also focusing on social issues, capitalized on the movie industry as a whole. “In the 1920s the movies were still relatively young, and an evolving modernist aesthetic embraced all things new, sleek, fast, and urban. Not surprisingly, a common focus of the cinematic avant-garde during this era was on the power, complexity, and excitement of cities” (Handman).

The films—such as Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927) or Man with a Movie Camera (1929)—not only captured the excitement of the new film technology and avant-garde movement, but also encapsulated the excitement surrounding a modern, thriving city. City symphony films continued to evolve into a more mainstream mode of portrayal, making the films accessible to a more widespread audience. Film such as Rudy Burckhardt’s trilogy of New York City documentaries were a celebration of the city. Because Burckhardt was a Swedish immigrant, his films feature “images that sing the immensity of New York and the accomplishment of its architecture” as well as a focus on the vast diversity of the city, consequently making his films an invitation—a postcard—to experience New York City like the travelogues out of which the city symphony was born (MacDonald 6). However, the city symphony presents issues concerning the representation of people and location. Though representing a people was definitely not the aim of the city symphony, the focus on architecture and other modern structures caused the identity and individuality of the people to disappear. New York City, as seen through these films, is not a place where people live, but a place where a visitor can see grand architecture and large, faceless crowds. While this is an element of the very hustle and bustle the filmmakers were trying to present, there is still, in essence, an “outsider looking in” sensibility.

Despite the weaknesses of its early manifestations in ethnographies and city symphonies, the tradition of travel film has continued. The traditions of the travelogue film have become commonplace in Hollywood and more mainstream film and television, as Dana Benelli describes in her article “Hollywood and the Travelogue”:

The travelogue tradition constitutes a presence evidenced in the spectacle value manifest in any landscape imagery, even when it is a background to narrative action. It takes only such routine cinematic situations as camera placement at a great enough distance to allow the landscape to compete with narrative action for viewer attention, or screen duration of a shot which extends sufficiently to allow viewers to read its narrative content and then shift their attention to the background, for the always temptingly disruptive power of documentary to reveal its ongoing presence within the feature fiction film. (14)

What Dana Benelli describes is particularly evident in the currently popular fantasy genre—for example, the The Lord of the Rings trilogy features the landscape of New Zealand with wide, sweeping shots and a huge variety in location. Additionally, modern globalization is bringing travel back to the forefront. While they might not appear as often on the big screen, travelogues are a staple of television; examples include series led by Rick Steves or Michael Palin, or the Travel Channel and other channels focused entirely on tourism. Lastly, while some documentaries might not specifically be travelogues, they often use travelogue elements to create the more personal, essayistic documentaries that have become popular in recent documentary history: “Some modern filmmakers have been able to use aspects of the travelogue to create more personal, artistic works. Patrick Keiller’s London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1996) mix urban British landscapes with the more internal journey of the narrator” (Stewart). The travelogue and travel in general have had an undeniably lasting effect on both fiction and documentary film.

As for the future of the travelogue film, the options are wide and varied, and globalization will certainly keep travel in the public eye. With the growth of interactive interfaced documentaries, the possibilities for travel documentary and consequent film tourism have expanded. For example, companies like The Armchair Travel Company offer completely virtual tours (Utterson 200). In his exploration of the virtual, interactive possibilities for travelogue documentary, Andrew Utterson states “As paradigmatic documentary forms continue to evolve into virtual variants, it is no surprise that geographical actuality once again resurfaces as a primary subject of choice” (201). With documentary forms again gravitating toward the exploration of location, as seen in many online interactive documentaries such as the award-winning Hollow (2013), the integration of documentary and film tourism seems inevitable, as are the consequent problems.

Travel and location-based documentaries, such as the travelogues, ethnographic films, and city symphonies discussed above, are able to make locations attractive, and have had a near century-long association with the travel industry. Additionally, some of the elements inherent to the genre make documentary film the perfect way to induce film-related travel. Like fictional narratives, they use a “range of attributes that create emotional response—not simply about an interesting plot and/or characters, but grounded in the complex arrangement and organization of special effects, soundtracks and narrative” (Connell 1014). Through the use of direct address, education, story, and the long tradition of celebrating other cultures, tourist-based documentaries can be profitable and valuable. However, using documentary as tourism advertisement feels all too similar to the ethnographic films and city symphonies that proved to be problematic and impermanent. Using a film specifically for tourist purposes can too often result in a shallow, surface-level representation of another culture and can further perpetrate the “outsider looking in” mentality. However, while fiction films used for film tourism may cause tourists to view locations less as someone’s home and more as a novelty, documentary can more directly influence the audience in their view of reality. In fact, by paying attention to the rising tourist tendencies in film, documentaries can increase cultural understanding and solve many of the ethical problems surrounding travel film.

Film tourism can be defined as “a branch of cultural tourism, and refers to the growing interest and demand for locations which became popular due to their appearance in films and television series” (Tomala and Faber 149).  Film tourism has been around for years, beginning with the corporate sponsorship of travelogue films. However, academic research on the subject did not appear until the 1990s, and has only recently has gained attention; and it is still a critically under-researched field, especially as it concerns perception, cultural understanding, and behavioral implications (Hudson, Wang, and Gil 178). This branch of tourism is rapidly growing, especially in New Zealand and London where the economic effects have been documented: “The most recent research shows that films depicting the UK are responsible for attracting one in ten overseas tourists, generating approximately £2.1billion annually for the country’s economy” (“Screen Tourism”). When studied, the numbers have proven to be impressive, thus making film tourism a vendible field of research. The criteria for creating a film that will have a high potential for film-induced tourism is as follows:

The construction of a favorable destination impression is a formula of idyllic or extraordinary landscape qualities, a unique social and cultural vantage point and/or an image that tourists identify with and wish to explore or rediscover. Building on this work, [Film Scholars Riley and Van Doren] added the ingredients of storyline themes, exciting sequences and human relationships, suggesting that films create exotic worlds that can be recreated through a visit to the location where they were filmed. (Hudson, Wayne, and Gil, 179)

In other words, the ideal travel film will depict an appealing landscape that entices the audience through emotional involvement by including story and character.

Many documentaries certainly fit this description, and so it is no wonder that the tourism industry is capitalizing on them. The involvement of this industry does not bode well for travel documentary, as the commercial aspect is what brought expedition films to a close earlier in the century; it brings documentary dangerously close to repeating history. While the problem is serious, a complete departure from the tourism industry is impossible. Rather, the focus should be on creating documentary films that feature locations with the landscape and emotional involvement that film tourism requires while also using the more noble ideals of documentary to lessen the issues an “outsider looking in” perspective creates, cultivating instead a deep understanding of the location. In examining this, New York City proves to be a useful case study.

First, documentaries can quite literally act as a travel guide. While fiction films rarely slow down enough to explain the setting to the audience, this is built into documentary films in a variety of ways. Using a few of Bill Nichol’s documentary “modes,” as well as Broderick Fox’s multimedia mode, it is clear how documentary can be a travel guide. First, in the expository mode, documentary can act like a guidebook, much like a copy of a Lonely Planet guide. The expository mode is characterized by an argument, backed up with evidence usually given by a voice-over narrator. This mode gives both practical advice and contextualization for an area. This contextualization can help the audience, and later on the tourist, acclimate to an area. The film Megacities: New York is a good example of this expository mode of film in relation to travel. The film uses New York City’s subway system to take the audience around the city and reveal the city’s infrastructure and rhythm. Using the subway system provides practical information about New York City’s public transportation and additionally serves as contextualization for the tourist audience.

Second, there is what Nichols would call the observational mode, which is characterized by an unobtrusive use of the camera, leading to a direct observation and engagement with the subject. This mode provides a pseudo-travel experience for the audience, giving them a taste for what they could expect in the city and leading them to look beyond the tourist areas and view the location as both someone’s home and a place of history. The 1921 film Manhatta is an observational mode documentary that provides a distinct look at Manhattan. At the time the film was celebrated for its unique look at the city–establishing in part the New York known worldwide today: “The tall buildings, magnificent harbor, and great bridges of New York City have come to stand as icons for American confidence, ingenuity, and hard work” (“From Delight to Disaster” 22) . In this observational film, the audience has a chance to observe the city not just as a tourist but as an educated traveller. This is because the film draws attention to specific elements, most notably the architecture and modern infrastructures of the city. A differing example would be Frederick Wiseman’s film Central Park (1990), which gives the audience a window into the city to observe the characters that wander around this manmade oasis, allowing them to see the operations of daily life. This mode of documentary serves as both a “postcard”—being a brief, unique glimpse at a city that invites the viewer to come and partake—as well as a unique look into the daily life of a resident.

Third is the participatory mode, which focuses on the interaction between filmmaker and subject and is characterized by interviews between subject and filmmaker; Bennett Miller’s film The Cruise (1998) offers a good example. The film features the legendary New York City tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch. Miller participates in the making of the documentary by interviewing Levitch and following him around on the tour. In this mode, the audience literally gets to go on a tour around the city with Levitch. Even without the tour guide as subject, this mode allows the audience to participate in the documentary along with the filmmaker as he or she explores a tourist location. The added knowledge the audience can gain from a film such as this not only increases their understanding of the area, but also provides depth to the people they may meet as they travel.

Lastly, there is Fox’s multimedia mode of documentary—documentary explored through an online or virtual interface. The New York Times online documentary project One in 8 Million is an example of this multimedia mode. The project features a database of short profiles of people living throughout New York City. This mode garners a more personal engagement with the documentary, especially effective due to the fact that the audience must take action in order to explore the project. As viewers explore this online documentary, they can have personal, intimate interactions with each one of the people profiled; this gives the audience a humanizing look at the inhabitants of a location and a view of the area as someone’s home, rather than an exhibit.

Documentary can also provide the stories that make film-induced tourism so compelling, while simultaneously providing a more human look at the area. Just as a tourist may travel to New Zealand to be part of the story of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so may a tourist travel in order to be part of the story they viewed in a documentary. The documentary Bill Cunningham in New York depicts the life of a fashion photographer. This character study prompted Roger Ebert to recommend the film because the character seemed so much like a friend: “Here is a good and joyous man who leads a life that is perfect for him, and how many people do we meet like that? This movie made me happy every moment I was watching it” (Ebert). As New York City is often seen as a cold and impersonal city, a documentary such as this—featuring a real person being amiable and genuine—could be invaluable for the tourist in viewing the area with a deepened understanding. In the article “The Influence of a Film on Destination Image and the Desire to Travel: a Cross-Cultural Comparison” the authors state, “The level of empathic involvement with the film characters may have impact on cognitive or affective components of destination image. In addition, familiarity, including cultural familiarity, may lead to a different perception of the destination portrayed in the film” (Hudson, Wayne, and Gil 181). In this way, documentary could be beneficial for more respectful tourism, as the perception of a destination could be led to include a better understanding of the people, history, and culture of an area–rather than leading to an “outsider looking in” perspective. In a similar vein, the stories in the film Dark Days (2000) by Marc Singer could prompt the tourist to view even the more intimidating, dangerous parts of New York City with an element of compassion and interest. This fulfills the criteria, previously discussed, for a good destination impression—fascinating locale, story, and human relationships—while also avoiding the ethical issues of earlier travel film.

Lastly, documentary can open the eyes of the tourist to new destinations and cultures that they might not previously have been aware of. As examined above, films can lead to an altered perception based on the emotional impact of the film, and travel documentaries can use this to their advantage. Because of the emotional connection an audience might have with a film, they may feel compelled to go to areas that are not so commercialized and encourage an audience to have more understanding and respect of the culture and people. For example, a tourist who enjoyed Manhatta (1921) might seek out the older, industrial parts of the city in order to be more involved with that film, whereas a documentary might additionally encourage the audience to respect an area and perhaps even serve the people there.

Eric Barnouw stated in his book Documentary that the documentary tradition started with Robert Flaherty, who wanted to “reveal wonders he had seen,” and that travel documentary could carry on this tradition (348). However, travel documentary films have, at this point, been somewhat taken over by the tourism industry. While the increased production of documentary is favorable, the genre is risking a repeated history, reiterating the mistakes that brought both extreme ethical issues and eventually the disappearance of the genre. On the other hand, both film tourism and documentary could benefit by embracing the intellectual and artistic possibilities of documentary, consequently giving the audience a greater understanding and appreciation of the area. Documentarians can avoid the ethical issues and increase audience understanding by acting as guides and storytellers for their viewers, leading the audience to view the world in a more compassionate, open way. This is truly the documentarian’s medium: “True Documentarians have a passion for what they find in images and sounds—which always seems to them more meaningful than anything they can invent… they present their version of the world” (Barnouw 348).  Standing on a century of films that feature the “outsider looking in,” documentary film can help the outsiders more completely and more sensitively engage with the world around them.

Works Cited

Benelli, Dana. “Hollywood and the Travelogue.” Visual Anthropology. 15.1 (2002): 3-16. Web. Nov. 26 2014.

Connell, Joanne. “Film tourism – Evolution, Progress and Prospects.” Tourism Management. 33.1 (2012): 1007-1029. Web. Nov. 26 2014.

Duncan, Dean W. “Nanook of the North.” The Criterion Collection. The Criterion Collection, 2013. Web. Dec. 11 2014.

Handman, Gary. “City Symphonies.” Lib.berkely.edu. Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1996.  Web. Nov. 30 2014.

Hudson, Simon, Youcheng Wang, and Sergio Moreno Gil. “The Influence of a Film on Destination Image and the Desire to Travel: a Cross-Cultural Comparison.” International Journal of Tourism Research. 13.1 (2011): 177-190. Web. Nov. 26 2014.

MacDonald, Scott. “The City as the Country: The New York City Symphony from Rudy Burckhardt to Spike Lee.” Film Quarterly. 51.2 (1998): 2-20. Web. Nov. 26 2014.

Peterson, Jennifer Lynn. World Pictures: Travelogue Films and the Lure of the Exotic, 1890-1920. Diss. The University of Chicago, 1999. Web. Nov. 26 2014.

“Screen Tourism.” Filmlondon.org.uk. Film London, 2014. Web. Nov. 30 2014.

Stewart, Jez. “Travelogues.” Screenonline.org.uk. BFI Screenonline, n.d. Web. Nov. 30 2014.

Utterson, Andrew. “Destination Digital: Documentary Representation and the Virtual Travelogue.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video. 20.3 (2010): 193-202. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.