Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Thursday, January 12, 2017
By Patricia R. Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies, Ithaca College, Ithaca,New York
Bjorn Sorenssen is the first screen studies scholar I met from Scandanavia.
He is also the first documentary studies scholar I met from Norway, a place I identified with fjords and mountains and salmon. Cliches, I know.
My friendship with Bjorn blasted those misconceptions away like a winter avalanche.
It was only later in the 2000s, once I met more Scandinavian professors and graduate students at conferences and symposia, that I learned of Bjorn’s monumental significance in carving out the field of documentary studies in that region--and the world.
Someone once told me that Erik Barnouw, author of the landmark book Documentary: A History of the Non Fiction Film, which might be considered the first opening into establishing our field, was actually the Bjorn Sorenssen of the United States. Both Erik and Bjorn are titans of our field of documentary, warriors and visionaries who believe that documentaries as well as the ideas and the theories about them make a difference in how we live in and perceive and change our world.
National identities and comparisons aside, both Erik and Bjorn actually share similar trajectories and concerns. They both insisted documentary matters, demanding our scholarship be resolutely international. They both engaged any and all new technologies as opportunities to expand documentary. They both asserted that social justice and humanity be at the center of all that we do. They are scholars of the large gesture, rather than the small and the careful and the safe.
I think I met Bjorn at one of the first Visible Evidence Conferences on Documentary in the mid 1990s. I ended up at a reception standing alone with my small plastic cup of cheap chardonnay, nibbling from a plate of cheddar cheese slices and fake Danish meatballs on a plastic recyclable plate.
Bjorn approached me. He was animated: he wanted to talk about political struggles and also about new media.
He said he thought we shared some similar ideas. He then said something about how the field needed to be shaken up, rattled to its core, always kept alive and on top of promising new developments.
We critiqued old school legacy media forms as some tired expressions of the old left way of thinking documentary changes the world. At the end of this conversation, I asked him what his name was. He said: Bjorn.
That cocktail reception conversation—dynamic, energizing, field-pushing, engaging, and pulsing with solidarity—changed how I navigated subsequent Visible Evidence Conferences. Meeting Bjorn gave me a clear plan.
First, I always tried to attend his presentations
I knew that he would always be chipping away at any and all traditions in documentary. I knew he would always be yanking the field into considering the possibilities and problems of new media.
He loves debate.
He was writing about new media and its affordances in the 1990s before there was a scholarly category labeled new media. For him, new media offered a new horizon, an emerging opportunity that challenged and recalibrated our conventional scholarly thinking about documentary. He likes documentaries and ideas and platforms that disturb and rattle the universe.
Second, I always made sure to find time with him at coffee breaks or receptions. His enthusiasm for the combustion of ideas, politics, documentary, and social justice, as well as his outrage at world politics, renews me.
Academia can be a snide, lonely place of filled with competitive, narcissistic souls who would destroy one’s sense of self and shatter one's confidence. Academia can make one feel like a small blue ink dot on a large sheet of white typing paper.
A conversation with Bjorn functions in exactly the opposite way, as an antidote to all that wrecks the soul and the heart in the academy.
He is a person who talks to you as a colleague. He is a person who shares explosive, unresolved ideas with you. He is a person who finds something valuable in anything you argued in the conference paper you worried about delivering.
He comes to your talks. He grabs you afterwards and recounts the one idea that stuck with him, or the one idea he disagrees with.
Bjorn looks forward to seeing where our field might go. And he is always supportive, making you feel like part of a larger international community where working on and thinking about documentary across all forms and formats absolutely matters.
As many know, Bjorn and his wife enjoy travel and hiking. I do not think there was a Visible Evidence I attended where he did not recount with the deepest of passions his hiking itinerary connected to the conference's locale, whether in North Carolina or England or California or Montana or Canada or France. In this, he exemplifies the trends in bioregionalist theory so fashionable with emerging scholars.
For him, the life of the mind and research is intimately linked with the life of his body walking in the natural world, a dialectic between what we study on many screens and what we experience in the lived material world.
To close, I think that Bjorn’s love of hiking provides a good working metaphor for his enormous contributions to documentary studies and his towering, magnificent influence on the field and all of us from around the globe who have had the honor of knowing him.
As a groundbreaking scholar, as a committed intellectual, and as the fiercest defender of documentary scholars and human rights issues, Bjorn approaches our field as a long hike, one with many different flora and fauna to immerse in, whether old fashioned legacy film documentaries or new media iterations.
Metaphorically, his research seems to lace up its hiking boots, load up on water bottles, stuff a backpack with necessary tools and food, and set out into the unknown. His research has walked through many different media ecosystems. His thinking created new paths through the unknowns of new technologies, emerging politics, and continual social struggles.
Like any good mountain guide, he takes us with him.
Bjorn adjusts to our slower pace, but always pushes us to reach new summits with him.
And then, he guides us ever so lightly, ever so gently, ever so generously, into a rich solidarity awash in community, passion, interrogation, and fun.