Documentary Site started as an outlet for my interests in documentary 15 years ago. Since then, my presence has expanded to writing, managing Twitter fans, and connecting with makers, promoters, and fans of documentary. Probably three of the coolest things to come from this endeavor are being invited to write for POV, visiting Kartemquin studios, and leading a discussion after a screening of The Trials of Muhammad Ali. My current project involves watching and writing about 365 documentaries in 2014. Feel free to send along your suggestions via Twitter @documentarysite!

#365Docs: Rain (27/365)

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I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to hmcintosh@documentarysite.com. Read more.

Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Part of my goals for this year-long project is to look for documentaries older than 1960. This goal requires some searching as most older titles remain unavailable through mainstream streaming options.

YouTube offers a treasure trove of older titles, though some offerings raise questions. Is the title part of the public domain? Is it made available through fair use? A handful of descriptions claim public domain, while most others claim nothing at all. The murkiness of copyright laws makes these claims questionable anyway. I would prefer the copyright holder see monies back from my watching the piece, should the holder want them.

Archive.org offers another treasure trove of older titles. An important section to check out is the Prelinger Archives. The collection features Coronet Instructional Films, which were shown in middle and high schools. These films addressed such hard-hitting topics as making friends, dealing with parents, and writing better letters. They even offered advice on citizenship, morality, and love.

One short I found on both YouTube and Archive.org is Rain, by Joris Ivens and M.H.K. Franken. This 1929 piece is one of the city symphonies, which included montages of cityscapes set to composed music. Ivens and Franken spent several months filming in Amsterdam, and Hanns Eisler composed the music. The short offers no other type of sound.

The sequence that unfolds shows the everyday activities within the city as people and traffic move through the sunshine to their destinations. Soon, clouds crowd the sky, the drops start, and then the rain arrives. As the people and vehicles move through the downpour, the rain creates its own traffic down roofs, gutters, and streets. The rain eventually slows and stops.

That summary above suggests nothing about the thought that went into creating all of the shots that appear within the film. A couple themes emerge. One theme is indirect representations, such as through reflections and shadows. In one of the more famous shots, a bike rolls by, and we see the bike’s wheel and spokes in shadow on the road. Trees and people reflect in the puddles.

Another theme is moving shots. The camera is mounted to multiple forms of transport, such as a bike, a car, and a trolley car. As the vehicle moves through the rain, so does the camera.

Lev Kuleshov’s experiments demonstrated how we as audiences mentally fill in meanings in juxtaposed shots, for me it’s that subtlety in the shots and their arrangement that makes Rain so interesting to watch. Modern technologies make montages easy to create, but the shots themselves make a montage truly memorable.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.