The Factual Treatment of Actuality: The Emergence of Educational Film in the 1920s and its Relation to Documentary Film Proper


  • Laurel E. Ahnert



This paper looks at the relatively unexamined relationship between so-called educational films of the 1920s and films of the 1930s American and British Documentary Film Movement, which includes such canonized works as The City (Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, 1939) and The Plough That Broke the Plains (Pare Lorentz, 1936). Rather than seeing a historical break between nonfiction films of the pre- and post-sound era, this paper argues that the 1920s served as a kind of gestational period for the renaissance of documentary films that would occur during the 1930s and 1940s. It is the discursive, institutional, and exhibition contexts of early educational film that establishes the foundation for later documentaries, while simultaneously allowing for slippages in how society understood the changing purpose and possibilities of cinema during the period. To make this argument, this paper uses as its primary case study a series of films made in the early 1920s that were produced through a partnership between the Illinois state government and the dairy industry and exhibited in a range of venues from state fairs to classrooms. These films demonstrate the fluidity between early, simple educational films and their supposedly more complex descendants lauded by the film studies discipline.