A semidocumentary is a form of book, film, or television program presenting a fictional story that incorporates many factual details or actual events, or which is presented in a manner similar to a documentary. Stylistically, it has certain similarities to Italian Neorealism, such as the use of location shooting and employing non-actors in secondary roles. However, the viewer is not intended to mistake a semidocumentary for a real documentary; the fictional elements are too prominent.
One of the first films of this kind was The House on 92nd Street (1945): Time used the term "semidocumentary" to describe this film in 1952. The producer of the film had previously worked on newsreels which inspired the film-making style.
In the late 1940s, semidocumentary films were often associated with film noir thrillers, sharing a commitment to on-location shooting, gritty realism, and understated performances. Several of Richard Fleischer's films had semidocumentary qualities, as did the productions of Louis de Rochemont.
In the 1960s and 1970s the semidocumentary style faded. The standard documentary had blurred the difference between itself and fiction so much that there was viewer confusion regarding what they were seeing.
Some examples of movies that have elements of semidocumentary in their style:
Arne Edvard Sucksdorff (3 February 1917, – 4 May 2001) was a Swedish film director, considered one of cinema's greatest documentary filmmakers. He was particularly celebrated for his visually poetic and scenic nature documentaries. His works include Pojken i trädet (The Boy in the Tree) and the Academy Award-winning Människor i Stad (Symphony of a City).
Perhaps Sucksdorff's most widely admired work was the internationally acclaimed Det Stora Äventyret (1953) (The Great Adventure) about a year in the outdoors told in semidocumentary fashion from the viewpoint of a farmboy. It is noted for its remarkable photography and authentic scenes of nature, and its appeal to children for its story of domesticated otters. Sucksdorff also appeared as an actor in this film, portraying the father, while his real-life son is an actor as well. The film won the International Prize at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival and the Big Silver Medal (Documentaries and Culture Films) at the 4th Berlin International Film Festival.In the early 1960s, Sucksdorff moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he taught cinema at the film school and continued making documentaries, as well as the documentary-style drama Mitt hem är Copacabana (My Home Is Copacabana). The film was entered into the 1965 Cannes Film Festival and the 4th Moscow International Film Festival. Sucksdorff also won the award for Best Director at the 2nd Guldbagge Awards. At the 29th Guldbagge Awards he won the Creative Achievement award.In later life, he became an outspoken critic of deforestation and a fervent environmentalist.
Sucksdorff's last film was the 1971 feature Cry of the Penguins (also titled Mr. Forbush and the Penguins), starring John Hurt and Hayley Mills.
He died of pneumonia in 2001 at his birthplace, Stockholm, Sweden.Boomerang (1947 film)
Boomerang! is a 1947 American crime film noir based on the true story of a vagrant who was accused of murder, only to be found not guilty through the efforts of the prosecutor. It stars Dana Andrews, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Jane Wyatt.
The film was directed by Elia Kazan, based on a story (written by Fulton Oursler, credited as "Anthony Abbot") in Reader's Digest and was shot largely in Stamford, Connecticut after Kazan was denied permission to film in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the actual events occurred. This semidocumentary also contains voice-overs by Reed Hadley. The film was entered into the 1947 Cannes Film Festival.Bullfighter and the Lady
Bullfighter and the Lady is a 1951 drama romance sport film directed and written by Budd Boetticher starring Robert Stack, Joy Page and Gilbert Roland. Filmed on location in Mexico, the film focused on the realities of the dangerous sport of bullfighting. During production, one stunt man died. Boetticher, who had experience in bullfighting, used a semidocumentary approach in filming the sport and the lives of matadors.C-Man (film)
C-Man is a 1949 American quasi-semidocumentary crime film noir directed by Joseph Lerner featuring Dean Jagger, John Carradine, Lottie Elwen and Rene Paul. Gail Kubik based his Pulitzer Prize winning Symphony Concertante on his score for C-Man.Follow Me Quietly
Follow Me Quietly is a 1949 semidocumentary film noir directed by Richard Fleischer. The drama features William Lundigan, Dorothy Patrick, Jeff Corey, and others.Grace Marguerite Hay Drummond-Hay
Grace Marguerite, Lady Hay Drummond-Hay (née Lethbridge, 12 September 1895 – 12 February 1946) was a British journalist, who was the first woman to travel around the world by air (in a zeppelin). Although she was not an aviator herself at first, she contributed to the glamour of aviation and general knowledge of it, by writing articles about her aerial adventures for US newspapers in the late 1920s and early 1930s.He Walked by Night
He Walked by Night is a 1948 American police procedural film noir directed by Alfred L. Werker and an uncredited Anthony Mann. The film, shot in semidocumentary tone, was loosely based on newspaper accounts of the real-life actions of Erwin "Machine-Gun" Walker, a former Glendale, California, police department employee and World War II veteran who unleashed a crime spree of burglaries, robberies, and shootouts in the Los Angeles area during 1945 and 1946.During production, one of the actors, Jack Webb, struck up a friendship with the police technical advisor, Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn, and was inspired by a conversation with Wynn to create the radio and later television program Dragnet.He Walked by Night was released by Eagle-Lion Films and is notable for the camera work by renowned noir cinematographer John Alton. Today the film is in the public domain.I, Tintin
I, Tintin (French: Moi, Tintin ) is a Franco-Belgian film which premiered in the Paris cinema as a feature presentation in 1975.
Made in semidocumentary style and mixing interviews with The Adventures of Tintin creator Hergé with real historical events and news stories edited together with animated Adventures of Tintin clips, narrated by Belgian news correspondent, Gérard Valet.
The film was produced by Belvision Studios and Pierre Films in cooperation with the Franco-Belgian Ministry of Culture (Ministère de la Culture Française de Belgique).John C. Higgins
John C. Higgins (April 28, 1908 – July 2, 1995) was an American screenwriter. During the 1930s and early 1940s, the Winnipeg, Canada-born scribe worked on mostly complex murder mystery films, including the Spencer Tracy film Murder Man (1935). During the late 1940s, Higgins continued to pen thrillers, including semidocumentary-style films such as director Anthony Mann's He Walked By Night, Raw Deal, T-Men and Border Incident.
Higgins also wrote horror films like the Basil Rathbone starrer The Black Sleep (1956) and Higgins last film Daughters of Satan (1972). Higgins also wrote the science fiction film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) and the adventure film Impasse (1969).Let Me Die a Woman
Let Me Die a Woman is a 1978 semidocumentary film concerning the lives of transgender people directed and produced by exploitation film auteur Doris Wishman.Port of New York (film)
Port of New York is a 1949 film noir crime film directed by László Benedek with cinematography by George E. Diskant and shot in semidocumentary style. The film is notable for being Yul Brynner's first movie. He had not begun shaving his head yet. The film, which is very similar to T-Men (1947), was shot on location in New York City.Southside 1-1000
Southside 1-1000 is a 1950 semidocumentary-style film noir directed by Boris Ingster featuring Don DeFore, Andrea King, George Tobias and Gerald Mohr as the off-screen narrator.T-Men
T-Men is a 1947 semidocumentary style film noir by director Anthony Mann and shot by noted noir cameraman John Alton. The production features Dennis O'Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder, Wallace Ford, June Lockhart and Charles McGraw. A year later, director Mann used the film's male lead, Dennis O'Keefe, in Raw Deal.The film was identified as a B movie when featured in the 1992 documentary, Visions Of Light: The Art Of Cinematography for its use of lighting and in the discussion about film noir.The House on 92nd Street
The House on 92nd Street is a 1945 black-and-white American spy film directed by Henry Hathaway. The movie, shot mostly in New York City, was released shortly after the end of World War II. The House on 92nd Street was made with the full cooperation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), whose director, J. Edgar Hoover, appears during the introductory montage. Also, the FBI agents shown in Washington, D.C. were played by actual agents. The film's semidocumentary style inspired other films, including The Naked City and Boomerang.The Quiet One (film)
The Quiet One is a 1948 American documentary film directed by Sidney Meyers. The documentary chronicles the rehabilitation of a young, emotionally disturbed African-American boy; it contains a commentary written by James Agee, and narrated by Gary Merrill. In his 1949 review, Bosley Crowther characterized the film succinctly:Out of the tortured experiences of a 10-year-old Harlem Negro boy, cruelly rejected by his loved ones but rescued by the people of the Wiltwyck School, a new group of local film-makers has fashioned a genuine masterpiece in the way of a documentary drama.
The still photographer Helen Levitt was one of the film's cinematographers and writers, along with the painter Janice Loeb. The neoclassical composer Ulysses Kay wrote the score for the film. The film's principle cinematographer, Richard Bagley, also photographed the critically acclaimed New York semidocumentary feature On the Bowery. The film's three writers - Meyers, Loeb, and Levitt - were nominated for the Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Academy Award; the film itself was also nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award. The National Board of Review named The Quiet One the second best film of 1949.The Sleeping City
The Sleeping City is a 1950 film noir crime film in semidocumentary style, that was set in and shot at New York's Bellevue Hospital. Directed by George Sherman, it stars Richard Conte and Coleen Gray.The film is notable for its dark and evocative photography, above-par performances by featured players and taut script by Jo Eisinger, best known for his script of Night and the City. It was one of the few motion pictures of the era to be shot entirely on location.
The Sleeping City is viewed by critics as one of the best examples of the use of betrayal—in this instance, several layers of betrayal—as a noir plot device. However, as is typical in this genre/style, the film is simply plotted and economical in its characterizations.
The movie begins with an unusual prologue, featuring Conte, to assure the audience that the story is "completely fictional" and did not take place at Bellevue or New York City. The prologue was inserted at the insistence of New York mayor William O'Dwyer, who had objected to the script as besmirching the reputation of the city-run hospital.The Street with No Name
The Street with No Name is a 1948 film noir directed by William Keighley. A follow-up to The House on 92nd Street (1945), it tells the story of an undercover FBI agent, Gene Cordell (Mark Stevens), who infiltrates a deadly crime gang. Cordell's superior, FBI Inspector George A. Briggs (Lloyd Nolan), also appears in The House on 92nd Street. The movie, shot in a semidocumentary style, takes place in the Skid Row section of fictional (actually Los Angeles) "Center City."Trapped (1949 film)
Trapped is a 1949 semidocumentary film noir directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, and John Hoyt. It was written by George Zuckerman and Earl Felton.Like many semi-documentaries, the film begins with a voice over footage of the treasury department, telling the story of what the department does. Then it quickly begins the story once a woman tries to deposit a twenty-dollar bill at the bank that turns out to be phony.Without Warning!
Without Warning! is a 1952 film noir crime film directed by Arnold Laven and starring Adam Williams, Meg Randall, and Ed Binns. The film is shot in a semidocumentary-style with police procedural voice-over narration in parts. Without Warning! was released commercially for the first time on DVD in 2005. Previously, the film was considered lost and unavailable for viewings.
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