Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Blog post written by Patricia Zimmerman, professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.
While democracy protesters jammed into Tahrir Square, the Egyptian government cut off and then opened up the internet and Facebook, and British students from the anti-cut movement mounted large demonstrations in the streets of London, the Documentary Now! Conference at the University of Westminster on January 28-30 staged some emerging, key debates about scholarship, exhibition and practice of documentary.
The conference opened with a screening of the feature length documentary 48 (2009) with Portuguese filmmaker Susana De Sousa. Composed entirely of still image portraits taken by various police and security forces of captured political dissidents during the Portuguese dictatorship (1926-1974), the film looks simple but isn’t. As De Sousa noted, she contrasted the official history inscribed in the images with the unofficial history of the sound of the resistance.
The voices of the prisoners, involved in different resistance movements both above ground and underground, describe their political work and how they survived physical and mental torture, including sleep deprivation where prisoners were kept awake for 18 days, endless bouts of dysentary, nails ripped off, bodies assaulted.
We never see current images of the political activists and internees who narrate their stories. Instead, we scrutinize the way the military and security forces rendered their faces into historical records. De Sousa explained that she decided to never show the people "because that would divide the film into times, the present and the past, and I wanted to bring the experience and memories to the present, in a more complex temporality with the images.” The film does not focus on individuals, but instead exposes the system of the fascist dictatorship in Portugal, a history still repressed and silenced.
Organized by documentary scholars Alisa Lebow (Brunel University)and Michael Chanan (Roehampton University), the annual Documentary Now! Conference in London bills itself as a “conference on the contemporary contexts and possibilities of the documentary.” Lebow and Chanan have written extensively on the forms and function of the committed documentary.
Both have championed moving documentary film studies away from its American/Eurocentric axis: Lebow has not only advanced queer documentary, but Turkish Cinema, and Chanan is a leading figure in writing about Cuban and Latin American Cinema. The conference bears their imprint, because its organization refuses to accept safe categories or traditional thinking about documentary. For example, smaller symposia often feature mostly senior, established scholars. But Lebow and Chanan programmed almost as many PhD students as senior level heavyweights.
In the context of the mammoth job-marketing, career-advancing conferences mounted by the likes of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) and the International Communication Association (ICA), the intense collegiality and think tank intensities of a smaller conference like Documentary Now function as a most welcome and much-needed respite. Documentary Now offers a place to test out new edgy ideas, connect with scholars and makers pushing the envelope of scholarship, and engage in conversations about ideas rather than about program cuts, tenure battles, and the end of the humanities as we used to know it.
The three days of panels and presentations mapped the unresolved political and ethical issues contemporary documentary studies engages. An outstanding, provocative panel called “Dis/Embodied Voices” featured scholars Bella Honess (England), Patrik Sjoberg (Sweden) and Laura Rascaroli (Ireland) probing how the fracturing of sound, voice, image, portrait, face challenge the documentary referent as unified, suggesting documentary form as a philosophical, rather than representational, enterprise.
Rascaroli advanced the idea of the “interstice”, a textual and extratextual space, a “crevice that engenders something new.” Sjoberg’s paper queried how “hidden subjects” –like faces covered by the burqa, the mask, the veil, or rotoscoping and animation of social actors, bring to documentary an argument about hidden, defaced, distorted, destabilized identities which foreground voice over image.
In a fascinating panel on “Television and the Everyday,” noted British documentary scholar and intellectual pugilist Brian Winston returned to the Griersonian documentary, threading the relationship between acting, direction, and the realist documentary project. Noting the “utter directorial failure” of the films produced by Grierson for the General Post Office, Winston observed how a film like Night Mail “performed dialogue previously observed.” He contended that the failure of these British films from the 1930s to deal with fascism, war, and depression demonstrated how they ran “away from social meaning.”
A panel on "Musical Docs" raised issues of how music functions in documentary. Does it invoke and rework narrative deployments, where music connects with emotion, or can music function as another layer of textual complexity, challenging and reworking images? Julian Savage (Brunel University) explored how music travels between the exotic, the political, the colonial, the resistant, the postcolonial, and the imaginary in a documentary project about Tahitian music called Upa Tangi Reka. Tracing and tracking Tahitian ukulele bands, he argued for a concept of fissures between the colonized/ savage, the orientalist and the immersive.
Other panels and talks explored the persistent ethical tensions in documentary. At “Authenticity or Artifice” British scholars and practicioners (Angus Carlyle, John Wynne, Pratap Rughani, Paul Lowe) explored field recordings, sound art, documentary narrative, and photography. A panel called "Critical Perspectives" looked at documentary through the lenses of philosophers Walter Benjamin and Roman Jakobson. Michael Renov’s (USC) plenary lecture, “The Compilation Film: The Chorus of Bits and Pieces,” revisited the long trajectory of films constructed from other films as metatextual practices with a nod to Jay Leyda.
But documentary, as envisioned by Lebow and Chanan, has moved well beyond the flat-on-the-wall, fixed analog forms that are the stuff of documentary textbooks.
The complexity and proliferation of new media forms and interfaces not only extends previous documentary strategies, but also unhinges and troubles them. One senior scholar told me that new media and new technology functioned as just another form of “opium” but also conceded he/she would like to actually learn more. Elizabeth Cowie, an influential feminist film theorist, asked, in a spirit of intellectual generosity, how new media and installation can be considered documentary, in that their forms destabilize some central epistemological and definitional tenets.
Keith Marley (Liverpool John Moores University) and Geoffrey Cox (Huddersfield University) presented an ambitious but somewhat aesthetically and conceptually undeveloped live video performance inspired by Vertov’s city film mixed with club culture as an alternative to a traditional academic paper. The panel “From Viewsers to Activists” investigated the internet, YouTube, and Britain’s video activist movent.
The Open Space/New Media and New Documentary Forms Panel (which, full disclosure, I mounted and spoke at) looked at how new media, installation, and user-generated archives in Southeast Asia, a hub for new technology and digital arts, have shifted documentary into a more collaborative, horizontal, iterative modality where technology meets space meets people.
The panel featured Singaporean cutting edge new media artists Michael Tan and Jesvin Yeo from Nanyang Technological Unviersity (NTU), scholar/curator Sharon Lin Tay (NTU/Middlesex University), and filmmaker/curator Nikki Draper (NTU) discussing the Shaw Foundation/NTU funded new media curatorial project, Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia, mounted at the ICA conference in Singapore in 2010.
A closing session called “Video Activism Workshop” featured Ann Burton, from the Confederation of Trade Unnions in the UK, as well as Richard Hering and Hamish Campbell from VisionOn.TV, a user-generated, citizen media site, discussing how social media, cheap video technologies, and Web 2.0 revise the definition of “activist media”(note to readers: I’ll be writing another post on this panel, so stay tuned).
Documentary Now in London demonstrated that documentary constitutes one of the most malleable, shape-shifting, platform-crossing, politically-challenging forms of media. And it also showed that lively conversation and debate amongst a heterogeneous group of international colleagues offers maybe the most vital form of social media on the planet.