The history of the long take in documentary goes all the way back to the beginning of cinema.
As we see in the first films from the Lumiere Brothers, all of early cinema involved the filming of ‘real life’. And for the most part, the scenes that were being filmed were shot using a whole roll of film, up to one minute usually. Since editing techniques had not been fully developed at that time, the filmed scenes were often projected in their entirety.
As cinema began to move towards scripted scenarios and what we now see as fictional or dramatic film, the non fiction director was also influenced by newer techniques, in some cases, actively inventing new and creative ways of presenting images to the viewer. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera is a good example of this. Not only was Vertov inventing a new cinematic form in his experimental film, he was also contributing to the invention of a new style of editing, the montage, pioneered by Vertov’s contemporary, Sergei Eisenstein. This development changed filmmaking, both fiction and non-fiction, from this point onwards.
However, the long take was not abandoned and increasingly became a device utilised by fictional filmmakers (Hitchcock, Welles, Tarkovsky, Kubrick et al), while documentarists increasingly embraced a montage style of editing. Not until the emergence of cinéma vérité in the 1960’s and a move towards cinematic documentary through the work of directors such as Frederick Wiseman, The Maysle Brothers, to name a few examples, did the long take make its way back into non-fiction films.
Unlike fiction films, where a long take can be carefully choreographed, documentary filmmaking is often less predictable. Directors usually do not rehearse with their subjects, and depending upon their individual approach to capturing reality, do not wish to interfere and start directing them.
But this does not mean that a director cannot plan a shot. A great deal of documentary filmmaking is based upon research and observation. Spending time with subjects, without a camera, observing the every day activities of someone you wish to make a film about is crucial in the early stages. Looking around the environment, noting the light at different times of day, the sounds, the activities of the main characters. All of these elements are as important to documentary directors as they are to fiction directors with their need for location scouting and casting. So too can a documentary director take such care in the time leading up to filming.
In the making of his astounding documentary Bread Day, Sergei Dvortsevoy was able to spend a considerable time researching in the village where the film was made. The fact that the bread was delivered once a week meant that he was able to observe (many times) how the bread came to be moved from the train up to the village. The filming itself took three months. Together with his cinematographer, Alisher Khamidkhodjaev, he practiced how to film the journey from the railway up to the village. Many, many times. The opening sequence,
7 minutes long, and shot by Khamidkhodjaev, on hand held 35mm must be one of the most extraordinary in the history of documentary.
Making the decision to include such long takes in a documentary takes a great deal of courage on behalf of the filmmaker. These extended shots demands a great deal more from the viewer, but in fact, gives back in a way that montage scenes do not. The viewer is invited into the film in a way which makes them feel more of a participant. The viewer is able to relax and observe and consider what it is they are seeing. In the instance of Bread Day’s opening, as with many long takes, the purpose is to articulate space and time in a way that allows the viewer to really get what is happening. To understand that this is not a small task which is being undertaken. There is no tricks here, it’s all happening in real time, in real life.