The Third Edition of A New History of Documentary Film is the result of my 60 year fascination with documentary film. I created the persona of “DocumentaryDiva” to market the first edition of the book, and, corny as it is, the moniker rather fits me.
I began watching documentaries as a child on black and white antenna television with my father, Robert R. McLane. He was a WWII army volunteer, wounded in the horrific winter of 1944 battle of the Hurtgen Forest. While he never talked with me about the war, we watched war documentaries; Victory at Sea was a consistent presence. We also went out to the movies together, but my love of fiction film is another story.
Because we lived on a hill near Erie, PA, Canadian television stations came in clearly from 20 miles across Lake Erie. So we had NBC CBS and later ABC in Erie, and CBC from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. The latter opened up the world of National Film Board of Canada documentaries, which is how I first saw the classic City of Gold, and the BBC’s Panorama spaghetti trees documentary hoax . They were fascinating.
I went off to Ithaca College to study radio/television, and when the school added a degree in cinema and photography, I was in the first class of graduates. I spent the first semester of senior year in the school’s r/tv/film program in London, where I discovered the library at The British Film Institute and there, with stereotypical undergraduate enthusiasm, wrote my thesis on “Surrealism in Film.” The BFI and surrealism led me to Humphrey Jennings, and thus to John Grierson and the British Documentary Movement, With these, my role as an advocate for documentary was laid out, although I did not quite yet know that.
Wanting to watch movies more than wanting to get a job led me to graduate film school at the University of Southern California, not at that time known for its nonfiction curriculum. There I took a documentary history class from Wolfram Von Hanwehr, a German expat rumored to have worked with Leni Riefenstahl. Guided by Lewis Jacob’s anthology The Documentary Tradition, “Wolfie’s” precise and strict approach gave me a thorough factual base that still serves. While my master’s thesis and PhD dissertation were both on Hollywood fiction film subjects, documentaries were never far from my mind.
Through USC and The University Film and Video Association, I met the era’s leading lights in academic film studies, and at the same time began working with the nascent film distribution company Direct Cinema Ltd. Two parallel paths emerged, and I have always been both an academic and a practitioner, not a filmmaker, but a film distributor, marketer, programmer, and non-profit executive.
My life and my work, as Executive Director of The International Documentary Association, as a film festival juror, initiating and overseeing The American Documentary Showcase, teaching regularly at colleges and universities, serving on the Advisory Board for the Library of Congress National Film Registry, freelance writing, being interviewer for oral histories for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and writing three editions of A New History of Documentary Film, cannot be separated.
I am extremely fortunate to have met and worked with outstanding documentarians and documentary advocates. I learned, and continue to learn, so many important things from them. They are almost always open and generous with their knowledge and experiences, and always clear about their opinions.
Many of the facts and ideas they shared with me influenced A New History of Documentary Film, and I hope my writing provides a link between their work and the readers of the book.
I continue to believe that documentary film has the power to change the world, to record realities, to make life better for people everywhere. This is the motivation for my work, whether as teacher, writer, distributor, or executive, and I am grateful for a life that allows me to actualize me belief.
About the Author
Betsy McLane is the author of the book A NEW HISTORY OF DOCUMENTARY FILM: THIRD EDITION. She served as the Project Director for The American Documentary Showcase, a cooperative project of the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State. For eight years Dr. McLane was the Executive Director The International Documentary Association. She holds an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Southern California School Of Cinematic Arts, and a BA in Cinema and Photography from Ithaca College. She has taught many areas of film and television studies at The University of Vermont, Loyola Marymount, U.C. San Bernadino Palm Desert Campus, National University and The University of Southern California.
Dr. McLane has served on festival juries including Its All True (Sao Paulo, Brazil), Sundance, The Dallas Video Festival, and The IDA Awards among others. She also served as the Chair of the IDA/Pare Lorentz Award Panel, a Board Member of Living Earth Television and The LA Harbor International Film Festival. She writes regularly about cinema, contributing to publications such as “21st Century American Political Documentary” to the ROUTLEDGE COMPANION TO FILM AND POLITICS and REFOCUS: THE FILMS OF BARBARA KOPPLE.