P. 1
Studies in Documentary Film: Volume: 2 | Issue: 1

Studies in Documentary Film: Volume: 2 | Issue: 1

5.0

|Views: 8,051|Likes:
Published by Intellect Books
Studies in Documentary Film is the first refereed scholarly journal devoted to the history, theory, criticism and practice of documentary film. In recent years we have witnessed an increased visibility for documentary film through conferences, the success of general theatrical releases and the re-emergence of scholarship in documentary film studies.
Studies in Documentary Film is the first refereed scholarly journal devoted to the history, theory, criticism and practice of documentary film. In recent years we have witnessed an increased visibility for documentary film through conferences, the success of general theatrical releases and the re-emergence of scholarship in documentary film studies.

More info:

Published by: Intellect Books on Aug 19, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

Availability:

Read on Scribd mobile: iPhone, iPad and Android.
This book can be read on up to 6 mobile devices.
download as PDF, TXT or read online from Scribd
See more
See less

07/12/2015

pdf

text

original

Studies in

Documentary
Film
S
t
u
d
i
e
s

i
n

D
o
c
u
m
e
n
t
a
r
y

F
i
l
m


|


V
o
l
u
m
e

T
w
o


N
u
m
b
e
r

O
n
e

ISSN 1750-3280
2.1

i
n
t
e
l
l
e
c
t
www.intellectbooks.com
V
o
l
u
m
e

T
w
o

N
u
m
b
e
r

O
n
e


i
n
t
e
l
l
e
c
t

J
o
u
r
n
a
l
s

|

F
i
l
m

S
t
u
d
i
e
s
9 771750 328003
ISSN 1750-3280
2 1
Studies in
Documentary Film
Volume 2 Number 1 – 2008
3–7 Editorial
The field of digital documentary: a challenge to documentary theorists
Craig Hight
Articles
9–31 Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic
within play
Craig Hight
33–45 In and out of this world: digital video and the aesthetics of realism in the
new hybrid documentary
Ohad Landesman
47–59 Digital video and Alexandre Astruc’s caméra-stylo: the new avant-garde in
documentary realized?
Bjorn Sorenssen
61–78 Documentary expression online: The Wrong Crowd, a history documentary
for an ‘electrate’ audience
Debra Beattie
79–98 Undisclosed Recipients: documentary in an era of digital convergence
Sharon Lin Tay
79–98 Undisclosed Recipients: database documentaries and the Internet
Dale Hudson
Studies in Documentary Film gratefully acknowledges the
assistance of Monash University Publications Grants Committee
SDF 2.1_cover.indd 1 3/26/08 9:48:33 PM
Studies in Documentary Film
Volume 2 Number 1 2008
The scope of Studies in Documentary Film(SDF)
Studies in Documentary Film is a new refereed scholarly journal devoted
to the history, theory, criticism and practice of documentary film. This
journal will enable a considered approach to international documentary
film history, theory, criticism and practice serving a vibrant and
growing international community of documentary film scholars.
The journal published articles and reviews, in English, from researchers
throughout the world seeking to broaden the field of documentary film
scholarship. Some of the topics proposed include; New approaches to
documentary history; New developments in documentary theory; New
technologies in documentary film; International trends in documentary film
practice; Formal innovation in documentary film modes; Intersections of
documentary practice and theory; Critical accounts of national documen-
tary movements (particularly largely ignored cinemas); Documentary
auteurs; Political documentary; Critical writing on new documentary films.
Prospective guest editors may approach the editor with a proposal
for a themed issue or series. Prospective book reviewers and publishers
should approach the Reviews Editor directly.
Editorial Board
Ian Aitken – Hong Kong Baptist University
Moinak Biswas – Jadavpur University West Bengal
John Corner – University of Liverpool
Nick Deocampo – Mowelfund Film Institute Phillipines
Annie Goldson – University of Auckland
Helen Grace – Chinese University of Hong Kong
John Hughes – Melbourne
Bert Hogenkamp – Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
Fernão P. Ramos – State University of Campinas Brazil
Keyan Tomaselli – University of KwaZulu-Maal, Durban
Lee Daw Ming – National University of the Arts Taiwan
Xinyu Lu – Fudan University, China
Michael Renov – (USC)
Jane Roscoe – SBS Sydney
Janet Walker – University of California Santa Barbara
Wu Wenguang – China
Advisory Board
Chris Berry Goldsmiths – College University of London
Ib Bondebjerg – University of Copenhagen
Stella Bruzzi – Royal Holloway University of London
Steve Lipkin – I Western Michigan University
Sheila Schvarzman – State University of Campinas Brazil
Belinda Smaill – Monash University
Diane Waldman – University of Denver
Charles Wolf – University of California, Santa Barbara
Journal Editor
Deane Williams
Film and Television Studies
School of English Communications and
Performance Studies
Monash University
Building 11A Clayton Campus
Wellington Road
Clayton 3800
Melbourne, Australia
Tel: +61 (3) 9905-4226
E-mail:
deane.williams@arts.monash.edu.au
Editorial Assistant
Sally Wilson
E-mail:
sally.wilson@arts.monash.edu.au
Associate Editors
Derek Paget
Reading University UK
Abé Mark Nornes
University of Michigan
Book Reviews Editor
Helen Grace
Professor
Department of Cultural and
Religious Studies
Hui Yeung Shing Building,
Chung Chi College
The Chinese University of Hong Kong,
Shatin, Hong Kong
Tel: (852) 2609-6623
E-mail: helen@arts.cuhk.edu.hk
Printed and bound in Great Britain
by 4edge, UK.
ISSN 1750–3280 Studies in Documentary Film is published three times per year by Intellect,
The Mill, Parnall Road, Bristol, BS16 3JG, UK. The current subscription rates are
£33 (personal) and £210 (institutional). Postage within the UK is free whereas
it is £9 within the EU and £12 elsewhere. Advertising enquiries should be
addressed to: marketing@intellectbooks.com
© 2008 Intellect Ltd. Authorisation to photocopy items for internal or personal
use or the internal or personal use of specific clients is granted by Intellect Ltd for
libraries and other users registered with the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) in
the UK or the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) Transactional Reporting Service
in the USA provided that the base fee is paid directly to the relevant organisation.
SDF 2.1_00_FM.qxd 3/14/08 10:30 AM Page 1
• ‘Anon.’ for items for which you do not
have an author (because all items must
be referenced with an author within
the text)
• year date of publication in brackets
• commas, not full stops, between parts
of item
• absence of ‘in’ after the title of a chapter
within a monograph, but please use ‘in’
after chapters in edited volumes • name
of translator of a book within brackets
after title and preceded by ‘trans.’, not
‘transl.’ or ‘translated by’
• absence of ‘no.’ for the journal number
• colon between journal volume and
number
• ‘p.’ or ‘pp.’ before page extents
Web references
These are no different from other
references; they must have an author, and
that author must be referenced Harvard-
style within the text. Unlike paper
references, however, web pages can
change, so we need a date of access as
well as the full web reference. In the list of
references at the end of your article, the
item should read something like this:
Collins, F. (2006), ‘Memory in Ruins; the
Woman Filmmaker in her Father’s Cinema,
http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/
firstrelease/fr1201/fcfr13a.htm
Accessed 3 December 2006.
Notes
Notes appear at the side of appropriate
pages, but the numerical sequence runs
throughout the article. Notes should be kept
to a minimum. In general, if something
is worth saying, it is worth saying in the
text itself. A note will divert the reader’s
attention away from your argument. If you
think a note is necessary, make it as brief
and to the point as possible. Use Word’s
note-making facility, and ensure that your
notes are endnotes, not footnotes. Place note
calls outside the punctuation, so AFTER
the comma or the full stop. The note call
must be in superscripted Arabic (1, 2, 3).
Illustrations
Articles may be accompanied by images.
It is the author’s responsibility to supply
images and ensure they are copyright
cleared. Images should be scanned at
300 dpi resolution, saved as tiff files,
and sent electronically to the Editor at
SDF@intellectbooks.com. Do NOT insert
images into a word document. Please
ensure you insert a figure number at the
appropriate position in the text, together
with a caption and acknowledgement to
the copyright holder or source.
Transliteration
We follow the Library of Congress
transliteration, using a straight apostrophe:
for the soft sing and a curly inverted
comma ‘as apostrophe and for quotations.
• Quotations must be within the body of
the text unless they exceed approximately
four lines of your text. In this case, they
should be separated from the body of the
text and indented.
• Omitted material should be signalled
thus: [...]. Note that there are no spaces
between the suspension points.
• Avoid breaking up quotations with an
insertion, for example: ‘This approach to
mise-en-scène’, says MacPherson, ‘is not
sufficiently elaborated’ (MacPherson
1998: 33).
References
• The first mention of a film in the article
(except if it is in the title) should include
its original title, the director’s surname
(not Christian name), and the year of
release, thus: The Man with a Movie Camera
(Chelovek s kino-apparatom, Vertov, 1929).
In all subsequent references the title
should be translated into English, unless
the film is known in all markets by its
original title, for example San Soleil
• We use the Harvard system for
bibliographical references. This means
that all quotations must be followed by
the name of the author, the date of the
publication, and the pagination, thus:
(Walker 2005: 15). PLEASE DO NOT
use ‘(ibid.)’. Note that the punctuation
should always FOLLOW the reference
within brackets, whether a quotation is
within the text or an indented quotation.
• Your references refer the reader to a
bibliography at the end of the article,
before the endnotes. The heading
should be ‘Works Cited’. List the items
alphabetically.
Here are examples of the most likely cases:
Anon. (1931), ‘Stalin i kino’, Pravda,
28 January 1931.
Aitken, I. (1989), ‘John Grierson,
Idealism and the Inter-war Period,
Historical Journal of Film, Radio and
Television, 9.3, pp. 247–258.
Corner, John. (1996), The Art of Record:
A Critical Introduction to Documentary,
Manchester: Manchester UP.
Youngblood, Denise. (1991a), Soviet
Cinema in the Silent Era, 1918–1935,
Austin: University of Texas Press.
— (1991b) “History” on Film: the
historical Melodrama in Early Soviet
Cinema’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio
and Television, 11: 2, pp. 173–184.
Dermody, Susan. (1995), ‘The Pressure
of the Unconscious Upon the Image: The
Subjective Voice in Documentary’, in
Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman (eds)
Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies,
Visual Anthropology and Photography.
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University
of California P, pp. 292–310.
Notes for Contributors
General
Articles submitted to Studies in
Documentary Film should be original and
not under consideration by any other
publication. They should be written in a
clear and concise style.
Language
The journal uses standard British English.
The Editors reserve the right to alter usage
to these ends.
Referees
Studies in Documentary Film is a refereed
journal. Strict anonymity is accorded to
both authors and referees.
Opinion
The views expressed in Studies in
Documentary Film are those of the
authors, and do not necessarily coincide
with those of the Editors or the Editorial
or Advisory Boards.
Submission
• Submit the article as an email
attachment in Word or in Rich
Text Format.
• Your article should not normally exceed
8,000 words (excluding ‘Notes’), but
longer pieces of up to 10,000 words
may be considered.
• Include an article abstract of 150–200
words; this will go onto the Intellect
website.
• Include a short biography in the third
person, which will be included in the
journal issue. Please also give your
contact details, and an email address,
if you wish.
• Provide up to six keywords for Indexing
and abstracting services.
• Place these items at the beginning of
your file, with the headings ‘Abstract’,
‘Contributor’s Details’, and ‘Keywords’.
Presentation
• The title of your article should be in
bold at the beginning of the file,
without inverted commas.
• The text, including the notes, should be
in Times New Roman 12 point.
• The text, including the endnotes, must
be double-spaced.
• The text should have at least 2.5 cm
margins for annotation by the
editorial team.
• You may send the text justified or
unjustified.
• You may, if you wish, break up your text
with sub-titles, which should be set in
ordinary text and bold, not ‘all caps’.
Quotations
• Quotations must be in English. For
reasons of space we cannot publish
the original text.
• Quotations must be within single inverted
commas. Material quoted within cited text
should be in double inverted commas.
Any matters concerning the format and presentation of articles not covered by the above notes should be addressed to the Editor.
The guidance on this page is by no means comprehensive: it must be read in conjunction with Intellect Notes for Contributors.
These notes can be referred to by contributors to any of Intellect’s journals, and so are, in turn, not sufficient; contributors will
also need to refer to the guidance such as this given for each specific journal. Intellect Notes for Contributors is obtainable from
www.intellectbooks.com/journals, or on request from the Editor of this journal.
SDF 2.1_00_FM.qxd 3/14/08 10:30 AM Page 2
Studies in Documentary Film Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd
Editorial. English language. doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.3/2
The field of digital documentary:
a challenge to documentary theorists
Craig Hight University of Waikato
Documentary has always responded, in an often dynamic fashion, to the
possibilities afforded by new technologies. The adoption of portable camera
and sound equipment, for example, gave documentary film-makers the
means to experiment with innovative approaches to capturing the social-
historical world, helped to reinvigorate interest in the genre amongst a
new generation of practitioners and reintroduced its potential to audi-
ences. The relationship between documentary and digital technologies,
however, offers the potential for a far more extensive and permanent
transformation of fundamental aspects of documentary culture. The possible
changes are many and varied. They involve a transformation of the very
materiality of texts themselves, as their constituent elements are trans-
posed into computer files able to be easily accessed, distributed, combined
and manipulated for a variety of ends. Those who we might refer to as
following “conventional” documentary forms are increasingly experi-
menting with digital-based means of capturing footage and a new palette
of post-production techniques, resulting in the stretching of familiar docu-
mentary modes of representation into new directions. The production base
of documentary culture itself is broadening as digital platforms foster far
more direct, if not yet fully democratic, forms of participation, especially
from the ranks of groups we might have previously consigned to the rela-
tively ‘passive’ role of audience members. Both professional and amateur
film-makers are also exploiting the varieties of forms of interactive, cross-
platform engagement through DVD and the World Wide Web, as well as
using these media as new avenues for distribution of more conventional
documentary texts.
All of these developments can, somewhat clumsily at this stage, be
grouped under the label of ‘digital documentary’. Collectively, they offer
the potential to change the nature of documentary practices, aesthetics,
forms of political engagement and the wider relationship of documentary
culture as a whole to the social-historical world. Such a shift poses a con-
siderable challenge to documentary theory, which has emerged in discus-
sion around a canon of cinematic and, to a lesser extent, television texts
produced from a relatively well-understood collection of audio-visual tech-
nologies. If we return to Bill Nichols’s well-known three-part definition of
documentary (Nichols 1991) – involving a community of practitioners
within a particular institutional context, familiar modes of documentary
representation and a set of assumptions and expectations of audiences – it
is possible to argue that the digital transformation of each part of this
definition suggests a radical shift in the basis of documentary culture.
3 SDF 2 (1) pp. 3–7 © Intellect Ltd 2008
SDF 2.1_01_edt_Hight 3/14/08 10:20 AM Page 3
It is very easy to fall in line with technological determinists and proclaim
a ‘digital revolution’, with its suggestion of a collapse of the existing
regimes of documentary discourse and practice, which are now to be
fractured into a myriad of forms that we will struggle to label as ‘docu-
mentary’. However, a much more useful approach is to adopt Lister’s sug-
gestion that when considering the impact of the digital we make a
distinction between the continuities of cultural forms and discourses and
their divergence across media platforms. Instead of deriving wider specula-
tions based simply on shifts in technology, it is necessary to consider such
changes within a wider framework of ‘continuities and transformations’
(Lister 2000: 322), involving a focus on the cultural meanings central to
each. It is also useful here to draw upon Bolter and Grusin’s notion of
‘remediation’ as an initial framework for conceptualizing the relationships
between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media – they focus on the tendency toward two-
way patterns in the appropriation of cultural forms.
At this early stage it is possible to delineate two broad dynamics at play
within this emerging field of digital documentary. These overlap and
inform each other, collectively transforming the technological basis of
documentary practice even as they reinforce and expand the significance of
documentary as a cultural form. First there is the integration of digital
technologies within conventional documentary practice, a process con-
taining the potential to reshape the production, post-production and
distribution of film and television documentary (just as the development of
the technologies of these media drew upon and reshaped earlier documen-
tary photography practices). The second dynamic is the appropriation by
digital platforms of aspects of documentary’s discourse and aesthetics,
refashioning these especially within more participatory online cultures.
Here we see both the convergence of documentary forms with other ways
of conveying meaning and a divergence as ‘splinters’ of documentary
modes familiar from ‘analogue’ media emerge within new digital contexts.
There are multiple opportunities for documentary researchers within
this wider spectrum of continuities and transformation. The manner in
which digital technologies are increasingly incorporated into ‘conven-
tional’ documentary practice ranges from the increasing use of digital
camcorders and other mobile devices as the main means of gaining
footage, to the reliance on desktop-based (or mobile, laptop-based) digital
non-linear editing systems. These developments draw upon wider trends
within visual culture, not least the continuing spread and domestication
of the means to document and capture aspects of the social-historical
world. Devices such as webcams, phonecams, amateur camcorders and
other means of visual surveillance are all drawn upon within contempo-
rary documentary, which has expanded to include not only regimes of
institutionalized surveillance but also more personalized forms of expres-
sion and surveillance. The emergence of films such as Jonathan Cauoette’s
oft-cited and celebrated Tarnation (2003), for example, can be used to suggest
both a further democratization of the means of production and an increas-
ing emphasis on the autobiographical.
The implications of a reliance on non-linear editing practices is difficult
to predict, but here also there are profound possibilities. The full range of
montage and editing techniques are converted by computer software
4
Craig Hight
SDF 2.1_01_edt_Hight 3/14/08 10:20 AM Page 4
programmes such as iMovie into an easy process of the ‘drop-down’ selec-
tion of special effects. Cauoette’s extensive play with the built-in functions
of iMovie, for example, are central to Tarnation’s kaleidoscopic aesthetic,
including its full exploration of caption presets. Just as the possibilities of
word processing have altered writing practices, and perhaps the craft of
writing as a conceptual exercise, will such readily available editing software
lead to similar fundamental changes in the nature of the (documentary)
film-making process? For example, what effect on film-making practice
will follow from the inclusion within iMovie of a preset selection for some-
thing that is labelled the ‘Ken Burns effect’, which mimics that director’s
trademark panning of photographic material as a central device for the
construction of historical narrative? Digital theorists have noted the possi-
bilities that derive from the ability of desktop computer software to merge
existing traditions of photography, information design (especially typo-
graphic and graphic design), and the varieties of moving image production
(Lister 2000: 305) into an expanded palette for motion graphics. The
result, argues Manovich, is a distinctive ‘hybrid, intricate, complex and
rich visual language’ (Manovich 2006: 11), one that is becoming more
and more accessible to amateur media producers.
A transformation is already complete in the area of documentary
distribution. The emergence of Digital Versatile Disc (or Digital Video
Disk, or DVD) as a medium has allowed for the rise of specialist distributors
such as docurama.com catering to new domestic markets for conventional
documentary texts. DVD is a platform that also has the potential to con-
struct a variety of frames for documentary texts, as background, ‘making
of ’ and update materials included as DVD ‘extras’ provide an insight into
the nature of documentary practice employed by film-makers and televi-
sion producers (Hight 2005). A documentary is potentially ‘reframed’ by
these new layers of information that might previously have appeared as
separate, extra-textual prompts for audience encounters with a documen-
tary. The two-disc DVD release of Capturing the Friedmans (2003) suggests
the possibilities for reframing, as the discs’ extras problematize the argu-
ment of the documentary text itself by including alternative forms of evi-
dence and the dissenting responses of participants in the documentary.
One wider potential for the DVD medium, then, appears to be the fostering
of reflexive perspectives toward mainstream documentary practice as
a whole.
The possibilities for online distribution are also considerable. We can
access downloads of complete documentary films
1
or the institutional
spaces for documentary shorts ranging from the video diary approach of
the BBC’s Video Nation,
2
to the four-minute allowance of Channel 4’s
FourDocs
3
). The World Wide Web creates opportunities for the distribution
of independent documentary productions, such as those of Robert
Greenwald,
4
or the widely-known 9/11 conspiracy film Loose Change,
5
not
to mention the proliferation of user-created material that often conform
quite loosely to the documentary project available on Web 2.0
6
sites such
as YouTube and MySpace. The explosion of such content reinforces a kind
of ‘YouTube’ aesthetic; amateur footage, edited on a desktop, intended
almost as throwaway pieces of culture, often produced as a direct response
to other online material. This kind of online environment provides for both
5
The field of digital documentary: a challenge to documentary theorists
1. Such as http://www.
documentary-film.net/
2. Available at
http://www.bbc.co.uk/
videonation/
3. Available at
http://www.channel4.
com/fourdocs/
4. Available at
http://www.
robertgreenwald. org/
5. Available at
http://loosechange911.
com/
6. O’Reilly offers a
definition of Web 2.0
at T. O’Reilly (2005),
‘What is Web 2.0:
Design Patterns and
Business Models of
the Next Generation
of Software’, available
at http://www.
oreillynet.com/pub/a/
oreilly/tim/news/
2005/09/30/
what-is-web-20.html
Accessed 11
November 2006.
SDF 2.1_01_edt_Hight 3/14/08 10:20 AM Page 5
the flowering of the work of new documentary auteurs, and also their
swamping within an ocean of more mediocre offerings.
The World Wide Web also fosters new digital forms of media that
incorporate and transform elements of documentary aesthetics, and occa-
sionally conform to the documentary project, such as webcams (Hight
2001) and forms of websites that operate within a documentary frame.
Further afield within digital media are computer games that draw upon
archival material as forms of evidence, focus on the reconstruction of his-
torical events or claim to provide a simulation of social-historical experi-
ence. Computer games, DVD and online sites all allow for the exploration
of spatial metaphors for the presentation of referents to the social-historical,
a radical departure from the norms of continuity and evidentiary editing
that are central to an analogue-based ‘commonsense’ appreciation of
documentary form. Such developments pose their own challenges to doc-
umentary theory. How does the creation of pathways through database-
centred content relate to the creation of narrative and argument that are
of such central concern to documentary practice?
Ultimately, the encounter with digital documentary texts contains the
challenge for documentary theorists to revisit, reconceptualize and clarify
those things that make ‘documentary’ distinctive from other kinds of
symbolic forms. The challenge is ultimately to either redefine ‘documen-
tary’ itself or abandon a collective term in favour of identifying a number
of distinct practices that overlap the digital and analogue, moving and still
image, photographic and graphic, two- and three-dimensional, and dis-
tinct practices of engagement centred on a clearly-defined continuum of
interactivity and participation.
The pieces in this special issue offer specific sites within this broad field
of ‘digital documentary’, with each contributor theorizing the intersection
of documentary and the digital within specific texts across quite different
media.
Craig Hight discusses key patterns in the use of digital-based animation
within primetime television documentary series, identifying three key ani-
mation ‘modes’ and the implications they pose to television documentary
practice and aesthetics. Ohad Landesman explores the challenges that the
aesthetic of digital video (DV) poses to discourses of documentary realism
when used in cinematic hybrids such as Michael Winterbottom’s In This
World (2002), Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002) and Hany Abu-Assad’s Ford
Transit (2002). Bjørn Sørenssen uses the short films of YouTube user
‘Geriatric1927’ as a key case study to discuss recent advances in amateur
digital-based audio-visual production. He positions the explosion of online
amateur videography within a historical perspective informed by
Alexandre Astruc’s much earlier observations on the emergence of a
consumer base for portable film technologies. Debra Beattie builds from
her own experience as a digital practitioner, discussing the issues that
arise from the use of Quicktime virtual reality reconstructions and non-
linear narrative in the production of her 2003 online documentary The
Wrong Crowd. And finally, Dale Hudson and Sharon Lin Tay offer comple-
mentary commentaries on digital pieces from the 2007 online exhibit
‘Undisclosed Recipients’. Tay explores the implications for documentary
representation of the digital mediations at the heart of Michael Takeo
6
Craig Hight
SDF 2.1_01_edt_Hight 3/14/08 10:20 AM Page 6
Magruder’s {transcription} and [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004] and
Christina McPhee’s La Conchita mon amour. Hudson, in turn, considers the
possibilities for plural meanings and forms of engagement offered by the
database documentaries Eduardo Navas’s Goobalization and the collabora-
tive work Permanent Transit: net.remix.
References
Bolter, J.D. and Grusin, R. (2000), Remediation: Understanding New Media,
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hight, C. (2001), ‘Webcam sites: the documentary genre moves online?’, Media
International Australia, 100, pp. 81–93.
—— (2005), ‘Making-of Documentaries on DVD: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
and Special Editions’, Velvet Light Trap, 56, pp. 4–17.
Lister, M. (2000), ‘Photography in the age of electronic imaging’, in L. Wells (ed.),
Photography: A Critical Introduction, 2nd edition, London: Routledge, pp.
305–47.
Manovich, L. (2006), ‘After Effects or The Velvet Revolution’, Millennium Film
Journal, 45/46, pp. 5–19.
Nichols, B. (1991), Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Suggested citation
Hight, C. (2008), ‘The field of digital documentary: a challenge to documentary
theorists’, Studies in Documentary Film 2: 1, pp. 3–7, doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.3/2.
Contributor details
Dr Craig Hight is a senior lecturer with the Screen and Media Studies Department
at the University of Waikato. His research interests focus on documentary theory,
including aspects of the production, construction and reception of documentary
hybrids and the relationship of digital media technologies to documentary practice.
With Dr Jane Roscoe he has co-written a book on mockumentary entitled Faking It:
Mock-Documentary and the Subversion of Factuality (Manchester University Press,
2001). He is currently writing a book on television mockumentary series. Contact:
Screen and Media Studies Department, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105,
Hamilton, New Zealand 3240.
E-mail: hight@waikato.ac.nz
7
The field of digital documentary: a challenge to documentary theorists
SDF 2.1_01_edt_Hight 3/14/08 10:20 AM Page 7
6^bhVcYHXdeZ
¹||· jou|na| ¦ocu·e· |¦· a¦¦en¦|on on
¦|e au|a| e|emen¦· w||c| com||ne
w|¦| mov|nc |mace· l¦ |eca|c· ¦|e
·ounc· w||c| accomµanv ¦|e v|·ua|·
no¦ a· a com||na¦|on o¦ c|·µa|a¦e
c|·c|µ||ne·, |u¦ a· a un|¦ec anc
co|e|en¦ en¦|¦v l¦ a··ume· ¦|a¦
|||e·µec¦|ve o¦ ¦|e |ncu·¦||a| ce¦e|m|·
nan¦·, ¦|e ·ounc¦|ac| |· µe|ce|vec a·
a con¦|nuum |v ¦|e auc|ence, ¦|a¦
mu·|c, c|a|ocue, e¦¦ec¦· anc a¦mo··
µ|e|e· a|e |n·¦|umen¦· |n ¦|e ·on|¦ca·
¦|on o¦ ¦|e ¦|m, ana|ocou· µe||aµ· ¦o
¦|e ·¦||nc·, ||a··, woocw|nc· anc
µe|cu··|on |n an o|c|e·¦|a
¹|e jou|na| |· ||co|ou· acacem|ca||v
ve¦ acce··|||e ¦o a|| |n¦e|e·¦ec
|eace|· l¦· ec|¦o||a| |oa|c |nc|uce·
k|c| /|¦man, |a|m ||e·|ee¦|, |o|n
||oom|a||, ||c|ae| C|anan, ||c|e|
C||on, lan C|||·¦|e, Cu·¦avo Co·¦an¦|n|,
lan C|o··, C|auc|a Co||man, \a|¦e|
|u|c|, ko|e|¦o |e|µ|cnan|, C|an|uca
Se|c|, Sean S¦|ee¦, kancv ¹|om anc
|||·a|e¦| \e|·
ISSN :¬j:÷a:oj i lhree issues
Print 8 full electronic access
^ciZaaZXijou|na|·
>HHC&,*&")&.(
ln¦e||ec¦, ¹|e ||||, |a|na|| kc, |||·¦o| |S!6 3|C, Ul / ¹ ·´´ (O)!!¯ 9'899!O / | o|ce|·´|n¦e||ec¦|oo|·com
;gZZ:"VXXZhh
ln¦e||ec¦ o¦¦e|· ¦|ee acce·· ¦o a|| ou| jou|na|·
|n e|ec¦|on|c ¦o|m ¦o u·e|· |n |n·¦|¦u¦|on·
w|e|e ¦|e|e |· a ||||a|v ·u|·c||µ¦|on ¦o ¦|e
µ||n¦ ve|·|on o¦ ¦|a¦ jou|na|
HjWhXg^W^c\
¹S |· µu|||·|ec ¦||ee ¦|me· µe| vea|
Con¦ac¦ u· ¦o| a ·u|·c||µ¦|on o|ce| ¦o|m

furrent subscrìptìon rates are:
£33 (personaI) / £210 (ìnstìtutìonaI)
(|o·¦ace |· ¦|ee w|¦||n ¦|e Ul, I9 |n ¦|e
|U anc I!2 ou¦·|ce ¦|e |U)
6YkZgi^h^c\:cfj^g^Zh anc |oo||nc·
·|ou|c |e acc|e··ec ¦o
acve|¦|·|nc´|n¦e||ec¦|oo|·com
I]ZHdjcYigVX`
SDF 2.1_01_edt_Hight 3/14/08 10:20 AM Page 8
Studies in Documentary Film Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd
Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.9/1
Primetime digital documentary
animation: the photographic and
graphic within play
Craig Hight University of Waikato
Abstract
The increased use of digital-based animation techniques within primetime television
documentary series needs to be viewed in the context of a number of challenges to
the documentary genre emerging from a more competitive television broadcasting
environment. Since the 1990s television producers looking for a more cinematic
and popular aesthetic have integrated computer-media imaging (CMI) and computer-
generated imaging (CGI) into documentary practice, layered into a text either
in-frame or in-sequence. Patterns in the ways these animation techniques have
been used can be grouped into three key modes: ‘symbolic expositional’, ‘graphic
vérité’ and ‘invasive surveillance’. The development of these modes has expanded
the means of (television) documentary representation, and been closely associated
with the emergence of more playful and layered mediations of social and historical
knowledge.
Both animation and documentary are notoriously difficult to define. A
working definition of animation could be ‘the artificial creation of the
illusion of movement in inanimate lines and forms’ (Wells 1997: 10). This
is a definition that, as Wells suggests, is both broad enough to cover the
myriad of techniques employed by animators and yet inadequate to precisely
identify where animation sits within the full spectrum of audio-visual
forms. As a set of techniques, animation has long been incorporated into
documentary culture. The avant-garde and short-film realms have more
frequently been a site for exploration and experimentation in documentary
animation while mainstream cinema and television have tended to use
these techniques in a number of quite formulaic ways.
A full account of documentary animation within documentary as a
whole could begin as early as Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments in ani-
mated sequences of photographic stills, and offer a trajectory that includes
the influential avant-garde work of Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kinoapparatom
(Man with a Movie Camera) (Vertov, 1929), the more formulaic use of ani-
mation in examples such as Frank Capra’s Why We Fight (Capra, 1943–45),
through to contemporary examples such as the satiric historical narrative
cartoon of US gun culture in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine
(Moore, 2002).
The nature of this intersection between animation and documentary
suffers from the relative neglect of both documentary and animation
9 SDF 2 (1) pp. 9–31 © Intellect Ltd 2008
Keywords
documentary
animation
computer-mediated
imaging
computer-generated
imaging
photorealism
evidentiary layering
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 2:47 PM Page 9
researchers (Strøm 2003: 47–48; Ward 2005). Given the variety of pro-
duction techniques that fall under the category of ‘animation’, analysing
the role and significance of documentary animation has always involved
assessing either the manner in which a specific set of techniques are used
and framed within a given documentary text, or the manner in which a
fully animated text works to position itself in relation to documentary aes-
thetics and discourses. Wells offers a useful typology of four modes of
documentary animation – the imitative, the subjective, the fantastic and
the postmodern – positioned in relation to the more familiar schema of
conventional documentary modes of representation (Nichols 1991: 32–56).
It is Wells’s modular approach that has informed the discussion of digital-
based documentary animation modes outlined below.
This article focuses on some key trends in the use of digital-based ani-
mation within mainstream television documentary since the 1990s (the
period when these techniques have become more prominent within prime-
time programming). Although the examples used below are largely from
British documentary television, they exhibit patterns that are becoming
manifest across similar examples of the television genre globally. The fact
that these trends are so prominent within television documentary is not
coincidental, as they are prompted in large part by a variety of other
factors that are reshaping both the television documentary genre itself
and the televisual medium as a whole.
‘Post-documentary’ culture?
As with any other genre, documentary is continually evolving; it has
never been fixed into an ideal form, or associated with a limited set of
social-political functions, which can be championed as the epitome of the
genre. It has always responded to changes to the broader social-political
contexts of documentary production and to developments in media tech-
nologies. The development of hand-held film cameras, for example, served
as one significant catalyst for the emergence of cinéma vérité and direct
cinema, just as digital camcorders, miniature cameras and the like have
been quickly incorporated into the lexicon of contemporary documentary
film-making.
The genre, as with all visual culture, also needs to be understood
within the wider social-political contexts that shape its agendas and its
forms. A number of writers have been looking to address the complexity of
the documentary genre within the contemporary television broadcasting
environment. John Corner’s speculations on the development of a ‘post-
documentary’ culture (Corner 2001, 2002a) attempt to position new factual
forms in relation to fundamental changes within the agenda of documen-
tary culture as a whole. He uses the term ‘post-documentary’ as a means
to promote debate over the cultural significance of the proliferation of doc-
umentary hybrid forms, and the new relationships between film-makers
and audiences that they might signify (rather than to suggest an explicit
break from previous traditions of documentary film-making).
There is not the space here to properly discuss the variety of such fact-
fiction forms (which include docu-soaps, video diaries, reality TV, reality
game shows, makeover documentaries and situation documentaries), nor
the variety of debates that they have attracted.
1
They collectively represent
10
Craig Hight
1. See Nichols (1994);
Bruzzi (2000); Hight
(2001); Roscoe and
Hight (2001); Dovey
(2000); Corner
(2002a); Friedman
(2002); Holmes and
Jermyn (2003);
Palmer (2003);
Kilborn (2003);
Murray and Ouellette
(2004); Andrejevic
(2004).
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 10
a variety of aesthetic styles, narrative structures, thematics and social-
political agendas, but there is little doubt that their impact on the docu-
mentary genre itself has been significant. The last two decades have
witnessed the proliferation of fact-fiction texts that often have a tenuous
relationship with documentary concerns, but which explicitly draw upon
a variety of assumptions and expectations of factual forms (in particular
the indexical quality of photographic images, which has its own complex
relationship with the digital forms discussed below). Critical commentary
on such forms is typically focused both on the nature of their content and
the manner in which this is packaged into readily accessible forms of
entertainment programming, derived from more traditional television gen-
res such as soap opera, talk shows, game shows and tabloid journalism.
Corner argues that the variety of presentation styles and the agendas
that these forms reflect should be recognized as the politics and aesthetics
of ‘documentary as diversion’. They represent a new function for the genre
as a whole, adding to earlier non-fiction traditions that focused more on
exposition, inquiry and interrogation. He suggests that their significance
lies in their fostering of demands that documentary itself adapts to new
forms of representation:
Neither postmodern skepticism nor the techniques of digital manipulation
present documentary with its biggest future challenge. This will undoubtedly
come from the requirement to reorient and refashion itself in an audio-visual
culture where the dynamics of diversion and the aesthetics of performance
dominate a greatly expanded range of popular images of the real.
(Corner 2002a: 267)
Such trends with the wider documentary culture also need to be under-
stood in relation to more fundamental changes within social and cultural
patterns of engagement with mediations of the ‘real’. These include an
accelerating interaction between the social-political discourses of surveil-
lance, autobiography and creative expression. These are manifest partly in
the increasing and disquieting use of surveillance systems within modern
societies, and an associated rise in the acceptance of surveillance footage
within television programming (Palmer 2003). At a more intimate level
these discourses are exhibited through the emergence of an amateur sur-
veillance culture centred on camcorders and, more recently, webcams,
video blogs, phonecams and amateur videography submitted to online
sites such as YouTube and MySpace.
These trends suggest both a transformation of distinctions between
public and private space and an increased realm for personalized forms of
confession and expression. These are clearly intersecting with more estab-
lished traditions of personal media, such as amateur photography and
videography. The aesthetic of amateur video – grainy, hand-held, accidental
and partial perspectives on often spectacular events or emotional outbursts –
is increasingly reinforced as the marker of authenticity. These trends are in
turn associated with fundamental changes within conventional models of
broadcasting.
Television is always in a constant state of reinvention, but this is a
process that has accelerated in response to the challenges and opportunities
11
Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 11
afforded by the emergence of the full range of digital media. The interrela-
tion between television and digital media is not easily summarized. It is
clear that the conditions that gave rise to the dominance of television as a
medium within the domestic sphere have been transformed over the last
two decades, and the medium has been required to refashion itself in the
face of an increasingly ferocious level of competition both between prolif-
erating television networks and from other entertainment media. There is
a need for television networks to develop innovative forms of programming
to hold their own against alternative entertainment and information
sources, and to reorient themselves to address online forms of broadcast-
ing, the appeal of computer games, and other forms of interactive media.
Johnson (2005: 62–115) cites the proliferation of home entertainment
systems and domestic DVD libraries as factors in encouraging more ‘cine-
matic’, complex, nuanced and layered television narratives. The medium
is also more adept at exploring cross-platform possibilities such as wireless
and online accompaniments to programming – online and cellphone-
based voting for the multiple national variants of Big Brother (Pos, 1999)
are an early instance of this. At the level of the televisual image, the layer-
ing of graphic information, especially within staple forms of programming
such as news and current affairs, draws from the convergent aesthetic of
the World Wide Web. The use of the televisual frame to explore intimate
and spatially complicated fictional milieux (with dramatic and comedic
vérité series) partly draws inspiration from the dynamic spaces of video
games. Such aesthetic trends have long been observed (Caldwell 1995),
and to a large extent the incorporation of computer-based animation
within documentary is derived from these wider developments.
Within the television environment, documentary is by no means a
nurtured and protected genre, automatically respected for its social-political
functions, but is required to compete for popular audiences in the same
manner as other forms of television programming. The BBC itself (the pro-
ducer of many of the texts discussed below) is perhaps the key example of
an organization looking to renegotiate its legacy as a public service broad-
caster within a more fluid, dynamic and competitive media environment.
The emergence of digital documentary animation in primetime needs to be
seen as symptomatic of such wider changes within television broadcasting,
and of an underlying anxiety towards retaining a mass audience for
primetime documentary. The result is an impetus to create a more complex,
layered and spectacular aesthetic, one which is easily married with con-
ventional modes of documentary representation and the focus on emotion,
performance and intimacy that governs documentary hybrids.
Key modes in digital-based documentary animation
The use of digital-based animation within primetime television documentary
operates within a comparatively limited range of representational styles.
As noted above, we tend not to see here the full experimental possibilities
which are perhaps more open naturally to animation than other tech-
niques. Instead of the exploration of the abstract or the avant-garde the
typical television text is centred on increasingly sophisticated demonstra-
tions of the formulaic. The broad parameters of these patterns are partly
determined by the nature of the technologies employed in production and
12
Craig Hight
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 12
post-production, and partly through the manner in which they are used to
appropriate and perform familiar modes of presentation.
An intersection between specific motion graphic techniques and familiar
discourses of representation (outlined in the schematic in Figure 1) sug-
gests the current territory of primetime digital documentary animation.
At one pole of a continuum of techniques is the computer mediation of
images (CMI), which position elements of the indexical and photographic
within animation and morphing sequences during post-production. At the
other pole are entirely computer-generated images (CGI), derived from the
many advances towards synthetic realism achieved in fictional film-making.
2
Each of these poles address the need to produce imagery that can be com-
petitive within contemporary television programming.
This continuum of techniques can be usefully seen to intersect with a
key discursive continuum within animation more generally, that between
photorealism and the exploration of purely symbolic or abstract forms
(Wells 1998: 24–28). This is only one pathway through the discourses
shaping the development of animation but a useful one for the purposes of
this discussion. The term ‘symbolism’ here is intended to suggest a
focused set of animation techniques particularly informed by the tradition
and principles of information design, and incorporating both iconic and
metaphoric forms of representation. The opposite end of this continuum,
the quest for increasingly photorealistic effects, also taps into long-standing
traditions within visual culture but these are more explicitly linked to the
same faith in an indexical link between the photographic and actuality
which still serves as a key basis for documentary culture.
As Manovich notes, the field of computer graphics ‘defines photorealism
as the ability to simulate any object in such a way that its computer
image is indistinguishable from its photograph’ (Manovich 2000: 199), a
definition that emphasizes how this pole of animation is aimed at replicating
cinematography rather than human perception and experience of reality
itself. The photorealistic techniques employed in television primetime
documentaries involve direct referencing to documentary photography
and cinematography, with its inherent tension between obscuring the role
of the camera and its insistence on that camera as a faithful instrument for
documenting reality. Similarly, there is a paradoxical sense of indexicality
13
Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play
2. See Manovich’s
discussion on
synthetic realism
(Manovich 2000:
184–98).
Figure 1: Schematic of key continua within patterns of digital animation.
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 13
generated through the use of CMI and CGI techniques in these series. As
discussed below, photorealistic imagery is employed in a typically reflexive
manner, while acoustic indexicality
3
in the form of interview sound-bites
and especially expositional voice-over narration, provides the key means of
continuity between animation sequences and other, more conventional
modes of documentary representation.
From this broad schematic of digital documentary animation, the dis-
cussions below focus on three key modes in the use of CGI and CMI within
primetime television documentaries over the last two decades, modes which
tend to operate with distinct intersections between animation techniques
and discourses.
1. Symbolic expositional mode
This mode draws especially from well-established traditions of information
design,
4
already naturalized and deeply embedded within everyday televi-
sion graphic practice. Forms of graphic presentation such as maps and
the conveying of simplified statistical information through graphs and
tables are standard practice within news and current affairs reporting, in
increasingly layered and three-dimensional forms. Such forms enable often
complex natural and social phenomena to be introduced and explained
in easily digested ways, and are increasingly an immediate option for
producers looking to offer simplistic three-dimensional modular recon-
structions of events where there exists no footage (such as plane crashes or
battle scenes).
The use of animation in this way has a long history in documentary.
Frank Capra’s classic Why We Fight series of Second World War ‘informa-
tion’ films, for example, makes frequent use of animated maps (produced
by the Disney corporation) to convey a sense of geographical movements
in armed forces, underpinned with a distinct propagandist agenda (Figure 2).
The use of such graphic means of representation allowed Capra and his
collaborators to immediately convey a variety of information (in this case,
about geography, political and ideological transformation, and an explicit
threat to European security) and to shift easily between iconic and symbolic
graphic forms. The ‘animated map’ has become a convention used to the
point of cliché within all forms of historical documentary, especially those
focused on military history.
The use of CGI and CMI animation techniques allows such diagrams to
appear to be more convincingly three-dimensional and hence to mesh
more easily with the overall trend towards a more cinematic aesthetic
within television. The History Channel’s Line of Fire series is one of any
number of everyday examples that demonstrate how this existing pattern
of animation has seamlessly incorporated digital technology (Figure 3).
Such constructions draw upon conventions of map representation
(updated to simplified three-dimensional rendered landscapes), employ
symbols such as national flags to denote various players in the battle, use
coloured arrows that snake over the terrain to suggest their movement,
and include iconic features where needed (the sequence in Figure 3
includes three-dimensional US forces helicopters that fly ‘into’ and over
the map). As is typical of editing strategies employed in expositional mode
(Nichols 1991: 34–38), this sequence is intercut with grainy, hand-held
14
Craig Hight
3. Ward has noted the
significance of sound
as the basis of
indexicality within
the wider field
of animated
documentary (Ward
2005: 98). He quotes
Renov’s use of the
term ‘acoustic
indexicality’. Sound
has been a neglected
area of documentary
theory (Corner
2002b), and is
often forgotten as
a remnant of the
social-historical
world within digital
media.
4. See especially the
classic texts by
Edward Tufte
(Tufte 1990, 1997,
2001), which cover
well-established
techniques of graphic
representation in
both print and
audio-visual media.
His books cover
conventions for
representing ‘pictures
of numbers’, ‘pictures
of nouns’ and
‘pictures of verbs’.
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 14
actual battle footage, and talking heads and voice-over narration pro-
viding apparent expert testimony. Here the calm and rational expert
testimony serves to erase any clash of the juxtaposition of the chaos of
battlefield video footage with the crisp and definitive lines of the ani-
mated map. The digital battle map, in other words, is typically used to
reinforce the certainty of the historical narrative that such documen-
taries construct.
As such animation techniques have become more commonplace, there
has been the extension of more metaphoric means of conveying informa-
tion. The BBC series Superhuman (Bunting, Evans and Hickman, 2001)
uses CGI and CMI sequences in the service of presenting medical discourse
on the body, drawing especially on spatial and rhetorical forms inherent to
computer-game design. Presented by Robert Winston, the series employs a
symbolic expositional mode as a key part of a wider rhetorical strategy of
using sequences which offer easily digested metaphors for various physical
processes within the body. Some of these metaphors are relatively visually
sophisticated yet still closely integrated within Winston’s rhetoric of the
empowering effect of medical discovery.
The most extended metaphor sequence occurs in the ‘Killer into Cures’
episode of Superhuman.
5
To suggest the ways in which a young girl’s body is
fighting off chicken pox, which Winston likens to a ‘war game’, we move from
the girl’s older brother playing a computer game straight into the game itself.
15
Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play
5. Portions of this
analysis of
Superhuman have
previously appeared
in Hight and
Coleborne (2006).
Figure 2: Four stills from an animated sequence in ‘Prelude to War’, the first of Frank Capra’s
Why We Fight (1939–45) series of Second World War documentary films.
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 15
Winston compares the body to a sprawling city, under attack from
viruses, and we see a CGI-generated city represented on-screen, to the
sound of fast-paced electronic music. A spiked ball representing a virus
spins menacingly towards the city, with the screen showing the cross-
hairs of the virus taking aim at healthy cells. Tank-like ‘helper t-cells’
trundle slowly around the city, and we see ‘killer t-cells’ as enormous
machine guns, deliberately reminiscent of the anti-aircraft systems of
the Death Star from Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), shooting and destroying the
viral spiked balls. The game sequence is intercut with the girl’s recovery,
then is returned to later in the episode when Winston discusses AIDS,
with glowing HIV viruses creating mayhem within the CGI city’s
defences. We are treated to the apocalyptic vision of the city burning as
the ‘killer t-cells’ lie helpless. When the narration turns to the natural
immunity to the HIV virus of Nairobi prostitutes, we see these defences
come to life and begin hunting down the suddenly vulnerable HIV
viruses. This sense of the human body as a landscape in which ‘battles’
occur shares an obvious affinity to the examples above, even though
such sequences are used towards different discursive ends in the
Superhuman series.
16
Craig Hight
Figure 3: Still from an animated expositional sequence from the History Channel’s Life of Fire documentary
on the 1991 Gulf War (2002).
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 16
Such forms of graphic exposition draw their legitimacy from how they
are used within wider sequences, and particularly through the continuity
provided by voice-over narration. A second mode of digital animation is
more explicitly couched within reference to conventional forms of docu-
mentary visual evidence.
2. Graphic vérité mode
Graphic vérité texts are typically aligned more closely to the photorealistic
end of CGI. Here digital animation techniques are most commonly
employed for dramatic reconstructions, appearing to extend the reach of
the documentary lens into history itself through replicating familiar forms
of documentary cinematography, particularly the aesthetic of the observa-
tional mode of documentary (Nichols 1991: 38–44).
The potential, agenda and ultimate ambition of the graphic vérité mode
are suggested by a programme such as Virtual History: The Secret Plot to Kill
Hitler (McNab, 2004), which offers a dramatic reconstruction of the July
1944 plot by German generals to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Here actors
resembling the historical figures were filmed using techniques designed to
replicate the projection of archival footage (with apparent scratches on
the aged black-and-white celluloid film strip, and hisses and other noise on the
soundtrack). The sense of authenticity generated by this simulation is
enhanced through an additional step in post-production: the actors’ faces
are superimposed with CGI masks closely modelled on those of the historical
figures themselves. An accompanying ‘making of ’ television special and
similar production information provided on the Discovery Channel’s
official website for the programme are quite explicit in articulating the
programme’s overall agenda.
The concept of Virtual History is to recreate an event as convincingly as pos-
sible, using documents, photographs and archive film to produce a histori-
cally accurate picture of what happened on that day. With the help of
advanced computer animation, the programme makers are able to put the
viewer right in the thick of the action. Unlike Hollywood movies or television
drama, Virtual History portrays the characters and events as if they were
actually filmed on that day. In effect, it recreates archive footage that was
never shot at the time.
6
The rhetoric is familiar from drama-documentary, but here the programme-
makers seek to escape any taint of partiality and manipulation through the
precise application of digital technique. The aim, as with all dramatic recon-
struction, is to effectively deny the nature of any debate over the nature and
significance of a given event and instead offer as popular orthodoxy a
singular narrative of that event (Corner 1996; Paget 1998). The paradox
here is that the authenticity of this version of history is claimed through the
revelation and celebration of the technological basis of the illusion itself.
Walking with Dinosaurs (Haines and James, 1999) is the most well-
known example of this graphic vérité mode, and has already been exten-
sively discussed and debated (Darley 2003; Scott and White 2003;
Kilborn 2003: 169–75). The series is an animated drama-documentary that
successfully mimics the form of a nature documentary (Bousé 2000) – an
17
Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play
6. From the Virtual
History website,
introducing the
making of the series:
http://www.discovery
channel.co.uk/
virtualhistory/_pages/
making_of/
back_to_life.shtml,
accessed August
2007.
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 17
intersection of three forms of documentary hybridity. Using CGI anima-
tion techniques pioneered by entertainment media such as the feature
film Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993), together with more conventional
film-making techniques such as animatronics and background location
footage, the programme-makers successfully create naturalistic narra-
tives of the everyday lives of extinct species. Darley’s succinct critique of
the agenda of the series targets the confidence of its particular pathway
through paeleontological speculation on the appearance and behaviour of
dinosaurs. He expresses an unease with the ultimate effect of such convinc-
ing constructions: ‘These near-flawless simulations of the world in the
time of the dinosaurs – meticulous stand-ins for the real that remains for-
ever out of reach – are completely closed, omniscient texts, allowing little
or no space for questions or conflicting views’ (Darley 2003).
Countering this closed frame towards the scientific knowledge that the
series partly references, is the series’ deliberately reflexive and playful edge. This
is revealed clearly in the ‘making of ’ documentary which accompanied the
series (Figure 4)
7
but is also evident at key points during the series where water
seems to ‘splash’ the camera lens, or the pseudo-camera operator (i.e. the com-
puter-generated frame) appears to hide behind trees to escape the attention of
dinosaurs as they seem capable of turning on the ‘camera crew’ at any time.
Again, the text as a whole is framed by extra-textual material (a website and
‘making of ’ documentary) which helps to convey a sense of ‘proximity’ distin-
guishing this drama-documentary text from pure fiction (Lipkin 2002), yet
reveals the techniques of their construction as a key to the series’ promotion.
This sense of the playful in television reconstructions is a significant
aspect of digital-based documentary animation. It is a characteristic that
presenter Robert Winston continues in one of the sequels to Walking with
18
Craig Hight
7. See Scott and White’s
discussion of the
making of documen-
tary (Scott and White
2003: 324) where
they note especially
the mockumentary
edge to its opening
sequence.
Figure 4: The mockumentary first scene from The Making of Walking with Dinosaurs (James, 1999).
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 18
Dinosaurs, Walking with Cavemen (Dale and Lespinois, 2003), where he
plays an observer dropped into an ancient historical period to assess the
nature of early human behaviour. And these tendencies are given full rein
in the mockumentary-infused ITV series Prehistoric Park (Bennett, Kelly
and Thompson 2006) – one logical successor to the various Walking with
series – where real-life naturalist Nigel Marven travels back in time to capture
and bring back to the present day prehistoric animals, in a more explicit
reprisal of the science-fiction premise of Jurassic Park itself (Figure 5).
It is important to emphasize that this sense of playful hybridity is not new
or necessarily inherent to the graphic vérité mode. Peter Watkins explored
techniques involving fake interviews and a pastiche of observational and
other documentary modes within television drama-documentary as early as
Culloden (Watkins, 1964) and The War Game (Watkins, 1965). But the sense
of irreverence toward historical inquiry has become more prominent and
integral to television documentary as the genre itself has been reoriented to
address the emergence of popular television hybrid formats such as docu-soap
and reality game show, as noted above. This playful sense has also become a
feature of more sober examples of television drama-documentary itself.
A series such as Seven Wonders of the Industrial World (Spencer, 2003),
for example, integrates CGI techniques designed to convey a more credible
sense of historical verisimilitude, without looking to suggest (as does
Walking with Dinosaurs) that such images function as an adequate docu-
mentation or replacement of reality itself. Photorealistic CGI is used to provide
a grander sense of scale to the more panoramic dramatic reconstructions,
and these techniques are perfectly suited to the subject of this series,
which looks at large-scale engineering feats. These digitally-enhanced
reconstructions become a key part of an extended palette of techniques
employed in the series, as they are intercut with archives from the period
such as blueprints of the structures being portrayed, hand-held filmed
reconstructions using actors, and (Watkins-derived) fake interviews with
actors voicing scripts based on language taken from the historical record.
3. Invasive surveillance mode
This final documentary animation mode could be seen as a logical succes-
sor to the practice of using a photographic camera as a scientific instru-
ment (Winston 1995), which informed the explorations of photographic
media by historical figures from Muybridge to Vertov. This mode involves
the use of CMI and CGI to extend the range and penetration of the docu-
mentary lens, typically combining animation techniques with medical
scanning imagery and forms of miniature and endoscopic cameras. This
combination of techniques seems particularly suited to the televisual
space, which has naturalized special effects such as time-lapse photogra-
phy, time-slice photography and motion-control photography within
primetime nature documentary, the use of surveillance tools within inves-
tigative reporting and contributed to wider cultures of surveillance that
sustain more recent documentary television hybrids.
The invasive surveillance mode continues this agenda of surveillance
into the interior of the human body, and other spaces not easily open to
the physical presence of the camera, in the process broadening the
means of representing the documentary gaze. A series such as Superhuman
19
Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 19
20
Craig Hight
Figure 5: An encounter scene from Prehistoric Park (2006) the part-mockumentary successor to the
Walking with series.
Figure 6: A typical use of CGI from the first episode of the historical drama-documentary series Seven
Wonders of the Industrial World (2003).
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 20
demonstrates how easily this mode can be incorporated into conventional
television documentary. Presenter Robert Winston uses three-dimensional
computer-generated models of various parts of the human body, particu-
larly skeletons and key body organs. These models are always viewed in
motion, with each spinning on an axis to give the appearance of the camera
tracking around these simplified representations of the body. Often key
body parts are highlighted, with a model momentarily ‘freezing’ and the
body part in question glowing as Winston discusses its significance. These
techniques are implicated within the broader aesthetic of medical surveil-
lance which Winston presents as an inherent, commonsense aspect of
scientific discovery,
8
and part of an extended, apparently omnipotent and
visually spectacular perspective on the human body.
In a similar manner to Winston’s earlier, somewhat groundbreaking
documentary series The Human Body (Spencer, 1998), an often bewildering
array of medical technologies are presented, including images from scan-
ning electron microscopy (SEM), endoscopy, thermal imaging, magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound. These medical scans become
CMI animation through placing a series of scans in a sequence to mimic a
tracking shot or pan along a part of the internal organs of the body (sug-
gesting a CMI update of Muybridge’s famous experiments using multiple
photographic stills to capture human and animal motion). These parallel
the series’ CGI sequences which, as noted above, similarly reference ‘track-
ing’ shots around the human body.
The effect is to suggest that the camera simply changes scanning mode
as it explores the landscape of the human body (in the same way that ama-
teur film-makers using digital camcorders can change to a green-tinged
night mode). Different modes are enabled for capturing different spatial and
temporal investigations into the biomechanical and chemical processes of
the body. We move seamlessly from observing the exterior of the human
body, to observing a schematic of its structure, to directly invading its orifices,
to surveying body characteristics at a microscopic level.
It is important to note, however, that this kind of penetrative voyeurism is
much more palatable than an actual investigation of the corporeal body.
Compare, for example, the aesthetic pleasure of CGI/CMI-dominated
sequences from The Human Body (Figure 7) to those from Dr. Gunter von
Hagens’s Anatomy for Beginners (Coleman, 2005), where human flesh is
literally opened, through a brightly-lit postmortem, as a terrain for photo-
graphic survey. Superhuman and The Human Body make the human form
apparently accessible but in a manner that is also distanced from any of
the more confronting possibilities of the remnants of the human body
itself. Winston’s surveillance is based on an intimacy mediated through
the comforting sterility of digital technologies, perfectly matching the dis-
passionate penetration of the gaze of medical science itself.
These series also illustrate the tendency towards the overlap of digital
documentary animation modes within a given text. They demonstrate
the need to treat the three modes outlined here as reference points for
identifying the use of digital animation techniques within primetime
television programming, rather than a fixed topography of digital anima-
tion aesthetics. Again, how such techniques are combined with and
21
Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play
8. The naturalization of
this mode mirrors the
incorporation of
computer imaging
techniques within
medical diagnostic
procedures
themselves, although
not with the same
degree of fluid and
dynamic presentation
as they appear within
Superhuman (Satava
1998).
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 21
positioned in relation to other forms of representation in a given series is
reflective of the overall agenda of the text’s producers. The Human Body, for
example, uses invasive surveillance paired with symbolic exposition in
order to provide a fluid exploration of the exterior and interior of the
human body, with the human skin serving as no barrier to the visual pre-
sentation of body processes. Winston’s voice-over provides the logical con-
tinuity between diagrammatic and metaphoric sequences, between the
quite distinct sets of aesthetics associated with the agendas of exposition
and surveillance. A key point to reiterate here is how easily these are sub-
sumed into mainstream television documentary practice. The visual com-
plexity of these series is no more challenging for viewers than it is to
accept the movement between distinct forms of representation within con-
ventional documentary.
The ultimate effect of this array of animation techniques is to
expand the scope of documentary representation and to make it more
visually seductive, raising the bar in terms of primetime documentary
spectacle. Crucially, the omnipotence of the documentary gaze – the
sense that documentary film-makers can traverse across space and time
in order to construct arguments and narratives – is reinforced and
extended. Series such as Virtual History and Walking with Dinosaurs
suggest that even historical events can be accurately ‘captured’ by the
digital-enhanced lens, taking the overlap between documentary and
drama-documentary a step further. Everything, from the interior of the
human body to the social-historical terrain of the past, is equally open
to the documentary gaze.
22
Craig Hight
Figure 7: A variety of stills taken from the opening of The Making of . . . the
Robert Winston presented series The Human Body (1998), including CGI and
CMI sequences.
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 22
Evidentiary layering
The fluidity with which such documentaries move between CGI, CMI and
other more conventional modes of documentary representation is partly a
reflection of the nature of digital practices themselves, and especially those
of post-production. Digital post-production allows for the compositing of
quite distinct forms of content, both in-frame (as layers to a single image)
or in-sequence (edited together as shots within a sequence). Each form of
content exists as computer code ready to be reshaped as needed. The effect
is to erase, even at the level of the materiality of the image itself, any dis-
tinction between the photographic and graphic. Manovich, in discussing
the case of cinematic production, argues that the traditional hierarchy
between these practices is reversed:
Live action footage is now only raw material to be manipulated by hand –
animated, combined with 3-D computer generated scenes, and painted over.
The final images are constructed manually from different elements, and all
the elements are either created entirely from scratch or modified by hand.
Now we can finally answer the question ‘What is digital cinema?’ Digital cin-
ema is a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many
elements.
(Manovich 2000: 302, emphasis in the original)
In other words, ‘production becomes just the first stage in post-production’
(Manovich 2000: 303), a development that obviously has profound impli-
cations for a cultural form such as documentary, which is so reliant on a
set of assumptions and expectations centred on an indexical link to the
social-historical world. A blurring of the line between the photographic
(including both visual and acoustic indexicality) and graphic (in terms of a
visual continuum between the symbolic and photorealistic), however, is
not necessarily evidence of the complete collapse of indexicality that
presumably characterizes a post-photographic era. As Lister notes, in the
absence of a sense of certainty about the integrity of the image itself, the
basis of authenticity becomes more centred in discourses of spectatorship
and in this case the modes of reading prompted by (documentary) texts
themselves. In other words, there is a need to explore in specific detail how
techniques and sequences are framed in ways that encourages their read-
ing as consistent with the expectations associated with ‘documentary’
constructions.
Each of the three modes outlined briefly above work to establish a re-
presentational strategy that complements more conventional modes of
documentary representation. Symbolic expositional mode typically offers
an abstraction from the social-historical, a clear simplification drawing
upon the clarity of graphic means of representation. It presents itself as a
tool for reducing social-historical complexity to something that is aestheti-
cally appealing yet still authentic in terms of its referent. Graphic vérité
mode offers especially the promise of fulfilling the quest for a plausible
verisimilitude in the service of dramatic reconstruction, in the process
allowing audiences to apparently witness history itself unfolding. Invasive
surveillance mode involves a reinforcement of the omnipotence of the doc-
umentary gaze, drawing especially upon a belief in a mechanically derived
23
Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 23
objectivity – even as its aesthetic is obviously mediated through graphic
technologies.
The tensions between the indexical and the graphic are played out in
different ways within each mode. Each of these modes, in fact, demon-
strate the same paradox which helps to define and characterize digital
cinema (Bolter and Grusin 1999; Manovich 2000); the seamless illusions
achieved through digital imaging techniques are invariably revealed in
order to be celebrated as technological achievements. As noted above,
often this celebration of digital technique is constructed through extra-
textual means, through a ‘making of ’ documentary accompanying the
broadcast of a series and packaged with a DVD release, or through official
websites that feature the state-of-the-art technology employed in its pro-
duction at the centre of their promotion for a series.
A key issue, however, is the extent to which digital documentary ani-
mation modes also generate a degree of reflexivity through their incorpo-
ration with other documentary modes. The overall aim with digital
animation is invariably for there to be a consistent and persuasive integra-
tion with other representational styles employed within a television series,
whether such techniques are used in-frame or in-sequence. That is, for
there to be an overall ontological coherence to a documentary text that is
employing digital animation at some level. It is useful here to return to
and reframe a core aspect of conventional documentary construction, that
of evidentiary editing.
In Nichols’s words, evidentiary editing involves the following practice:
Instead of organising cuts within a scene to present a sense of a single, uni-
fied time and space in which we can quickly locate the relative position of
central characters, documentary organises cuts within a scene to present
the impression of a single, convincing argument in which we can locate a
logic. Leaps in time or space and the placement of characters become rela-
tively unimportant compared to the sense of the flow of evidence in the ser-
vice of this controlling logic.
(Nichols 1991: 19–20)
As Nichols notes, this form of construction typically places a great deal of
importance on the use of the spoken word to articulate the logic of the
argument, to provide an overriding sense of continuity between often
quite distinct forms of evidence (this is most obviously the case with the
expositional mode of documentary). The concept of evidentiary layering
could be used in parallel with evidentiary editing when referring to digital-
based documentary texts; to draw attention to both the wider array of
means of presenting evidence available to producers, and the possibilities
of post-production to provide for a more richly layered aesthetic than is
normally the case for documentary. A key part of the analysis of digital
documentary animation, then, involves trying to assess the extent to
which in-frame or in-sequence layers (digital and otherwise) work in rela-
tion to each other. How are specific animation techniques spliced into the
more conventional presentations of evidence that are intimately associated
with documentary as a cultural form, such as archival footage, documents,
vérité footage and interview testimony from social actors and experts?
24
Craig Hight
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 24
How do these graphic layers operate with the more familiar codes and
conventions of (photographic) documentary?
Again, it is important to position patterns within television documentary
series into the wider frame constructed by the emergence of documentary
hybrid forms – including older hybrids such as nature documentary and
drama-documentary (both staples of primetime television programming),
and the more recent hybrid formats noted above. Some of the entertain-
ment-driven innovations developed through these recent hybrids have also
been incorporated into more conventional television documentary practice,
such as the use of video diaries to provide confessional forms of testimony,
various surveillance techniques used within investigative reporting,
or game-show elements used to construct the premise of situation
documentaries. This programming environment means that the televi-
sual space has become more naturally reflexive toward documentary
construction than perhaps any time in the past, and this provides a
sensibility that shapes the forms of address for contemporary documen-
tary series.
Superhuman serves as an apt illustration here. It employs a wide range of
film-making techniques in the service of its central arguments and themes,
including a number of key representational strategies that are utilized to
communicate its particular discourse on medical knowledge. These tech-
niques clearly reflect the influence of hybrid documentary forms, and serve
as a useful demonstration of the continual expansion of such techniques
available to contemporary documentary film-makers. The advantage of
using such techniques within Superhuman is that they allow Winston to
immediately establish a familiar frame for audiences. The ‘Trauma’ episode,
for example, features a variety of spectacular archival footage, including
explosions, violent attacks by animals within the natural world, shots of
traumatic injuries suffered in war zones and violent automobile accidents.
These are used together with footage following a car accident, with emergency
services rushing to rescue its victims, then footage within the emergency
room of a metropolitan hospital, all of which uses the hand-held aesthetic
that saturates hybrid forms. These sequences directly reference one form
within the spectrum of documentary hybrids, that which can be specifically
labelled ‘reality TV’. As distinct from other hybrids, these are those pro-
grammes that focus particularly on institutions such as rescue services,
police enforcement agencies, hospital personnel and procedures and the
like, providing personalized narratives of people forced to deal with extreme
situations (Dovey 2000; Palmer 2003).
In Superhuman, the emphasis on medical services struggling to deal
with the violent, unpredictable consequences of everyday life in modern
societies are quite deliberately paired and contrasted with Winston’s rea-
sonable, rational discourse of medical science and discovery represented
through aesthetically sophisticated sequences employing CGI and CMI.
Medical science is reinforced as the rational, necessary response to the
everyday traumatic events and chronic diseases that our bodies are
inevitably subject to within such societies. Despite the complexity of
representational styles employed within Superhuman, the series achieves a
level of rhetorical coherence that largely obscures the potential for a
reflexivity toward the means of presentation themselves.
25
Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 25
In comparison, the BBC series Battlefield Britain (Cranitch, 2004) is an
example where in-frame and in-sequence representational layers do not
attempt to develop a comparable coherence of historical narrative, and
where there is intentional slippage as changes in mode open up space for
reflection on the nature of their construction. Presented by father-and-son
team Peter and Dan Snow, the series employs both CGI and CMI, in-frame
and in-sequence, animation to present accounts of historical battles on
British soil. The most important characteristic of the series is the manner
in which it draws upon a sense of the presentation of military history as a
game, both in terms of the enthusiasm that the presenters display toward
the tools and strategies of war, and the manner in which distinctive ani-
mation elements are deployed.
Peter Snow makes frequent use of an animated game board, con-
structed through in-frame CGI superimposed over a folded game board,
which he carries onto the location of historic battles. Snow opens the
game board to provide access to an animated version of the war games
played by military enthusiasts using miniature soldiers. Derived from the
animated maps discussed above, the board serves as a demonstration
space for a kind of coaches’ play-book approach to history by showing
how the battle was actually ‘played’. As the camera tracks in, we can dis-
cern individual figures moving within the mass of a military force.
9
The
human figures are simplified, but more detailed than the purely iconic fig-
ures usually associated with animated maps. Viewed in long shot, these
(and other in-frame CGI battle sequences) are yet another version of dra-
matic reconstructions intended to show scale, position and movement.
These game-board sequences are the key means for Snow’s presenta-
tion of an overall narrative of each battle, and serve as reference points for
his on-screen and voice-of-god narration. The sequences are intercut with
various other modes used to present evidence (Figure 8) including son
Dan Snow’s demonstration of (and play with) remaining weapons from
the historical period; fake interviews (modelled on Culloden’s template)
used as a replacement for participant testimony; and more conventional
(live-action) reconstructions using actors in costume on location. Other
visual tools briefly employed at the beginning of each episode include CGI
reconstructions of the faces of key historical figures, and a Google Earth-
like zooming into a map of the location of the battlefield itself.
The overall effect is to transform historical inquiry into a form of play,
in more than one sense, as the authoritative play-book perspective of a
leading military historian is combined in often jarring juxtaposition with
hybrid-informed reconstructions of aspects of historical narrative. As with
Walking with Dinosaurs and other examples discussed here, the overall sen-
sibility is the playful articulation of a historical narrative. However, the
leaping from mode to mode suggests that the series is not looking to pro-
vide a singular compelling narrative for each battle. The effect is instead to
present fragmented perspectives that highlight the gaps in this narrative,
as the two presenters race around the landscape, breathlessly touring
battle locations and trying to sample something of the experience of each
battle’s participants.
The overall agenda of the three digital animation modes is as much
entertainment as information and argument, involving an address to a
26
Craig Hight
9. The overall
movement of these
figures was organized
using software
similar to that
employed for the
Lord of the Rings: The
Fellowship of the Ring
battle sequences.
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 26
television audience, which celebrates the possibilities of technology and
delivers a coherent message through often chaotic hybrid-informed means
of presentation. It is difficult to predict the long-term implications of this
pattern of television programming. Certainly the juxtaposition between
distinct modes and layers of representation contains the potential for a
more complex and reflexive understanding of the manner in which histor-
ical, social and political knowledge itself is constructed; however, none of
the series discussed deliberately foreground such a possibility. Instead
there is the naturalization of graphic forms of presenting reality, with CGI
and CMI-based spectacle at times overwhelming the use of more conven-
tional, and authoritative, techniques for presenting evidence. Some series
oscillate between the photographic and the graphic, looking especially to
avoid any semblance of a traditional ‘talking head’ dominated discussion
of the social-historical world.
To some extent, these new digital forms of aesthetic force us as viewers
to consider conventional, analogue documentary in terms of the gaps that
have always existed between different forms of presenting evidence from
the social-historical world. There has always been a degree of ontological
tension between those modes that centre their authenticity on the pres-
ence of the camera to record events, or the testimony of social actors, or
on the authoritative rhetoric of a narrator. Within the (often unintentionally)
reflexive space generated by hybrid television formats, audiences have
27
Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play
Figure 8: Stills from the key modes used within Battlefield Britain (2004),
including (clockwise from top left) location footage, CGI-animated game board,
demonstration of weaponry, fake interview, dramatic reconstruction of a battle,
and CGI battle shots.
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 27
arguably become more accustomed to engaging in more visually sophisti-
cated and perhaps more critically literate readings of reality-based
programming. Roscoe has suggested the use of the term ‘flickers of
authenticity’ (Roscoe 2001: 13) to denote opportunities provided for view-
ers’ recognition of the centrality of performance within television hybrids,
and their need to continually assess the authenticity of forms of expression
from participants. What is striking about the integration of digital anima-
tion techniques into this television documentary aesthetic is the extent to
which these kinds of textual strategies construct further layers of ontolog-
ical complexity that ultimately are not designed to trouble the viewer. The
sense instead is of a more playful approach to social and historical knowl-
edge, both in terms of the rapid transitions between the graphic and pho-
tographic and in the types of address these television series favour towards
their primetime audiences.
To judge from the ease with which the full spectrum of documentary
and related modes are combined in short-form examples of user-created
content submitted to sites such as YouTube, at least some sections of
these audiences are familiar and quite comfortable with a more playful
sphere of mediated forms. It seems likely that such emerging patterns
within wider documentary culture will prompt further momentum
towards more playful and diverting examples of television documentary
itself. However, the long-term implications of such trends are difficult to
predict. Certainly primetime documentary animation falls easily into the
aesthetic and discursive trends encompassed by Corner’s notion of a
‘post-documentary’ culture, but it is not yet clear whether these will cul-
minate in a permanent, destablizing shift in the basis of more conven-
tional documentary programming, or entail a new era of experimentation
and innovation in documentary representation with digital-based anima-
tion at its centre.
References
Anatomy for Beginners (2005), directed by David Coleman, UK, television series.
Andrejevic, M. (2004), Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield.
Battlefield Britain (2004), directed by Mary Cranitch, British Broadcasting
Corporation, UK, television series.
Big Brother (1999), directed by Marc Pos, Endemol Nederland BV, Netherlands,
television series.
Biressi, A. and Nunn, H. (2005), Reality TV: Realism and Revelation, London:
Wallflower Press.
Bolter, J.D. and Grusin, R. (1999), Remediation: Understanding New Media,
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Bousé, D. (2000), Wildlife Films, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press,
pp. 4–36.
Bowling for Columbine (2002), directed by Michael Moore, Alliance Atlantis
Communications, Dog Eat Dog Films, Iconolatry Productions Inc., Salter Street
Films International, TiMe Film- und TV-Produktions GmbH, Vif Babelsberger
Filmproduktion GmbH & Co., Zweite KG, Canada/US/Germany, feature film.
Bruzzi, S. (2000), New Documentary: A Critical Introduction, London: Routledge.
28
Craig Hight
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 28
Caldwell, J.T. (1995), Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television,
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man with a Movie Camera) (1929), directed by Dziga
Vertov, VUFKU, USSR, feature film.
Corner, J. (1996) ‘British TV Dramadocumentary: Origins and Developments’,
reprinted in Alan Rosenthal (ed.) (1999), Why Docudrama?: Fact-Fiction on Film
and TV, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 35–46.
Corner, John (2001)’Documentary in a Post-Documentary Culture? A Note on
Forms and their Functions’, European Science Foundation ‘Changing Media -
Changing Europe’ programme, Team One (Citizenship and Consumerism)
Working Paper No. 1, available at: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/research/chang-
ing.media/publications.htm
—— (2002a), ‘Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions’, Television New
Media, 3: 3, pp. 255–69.
—— (2002b), ‘Sound Real: Music and Documentary’, reprinted in A. Rosenthal
and J. Corner (eds) (2005), New Challenges for Documentary, 2nd edn.,
Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Culloden (1964), directed by Peter Watkins, British Broadcasting Corporation, UK,
television programme.
Darley, A. (2003), ‘Simulating Natural History: Walking with Dinosaurs as Hyper-
Real Edutainment’, Science as Culture, 12: 2, pp. 227–56.
Dovey, J. (2000), Freakshow: First Person Media and Factual Television, London: Pluto
Press.
Friedman, J. (ed.) (2002), Reality Squared: Televisual Discourse on the Real, New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Gulf War, The (2002), Cromwell Productions, UK, television programme.
Hight, C. (2001), ‘Debating Reality-TV’, Continuum, 15: 3, pp. 389–95.
Hight, C. and Coleborne, C. (2006), ‘Robert Winston’s Superhuman: spectacle,
surveillance and patient narrative’, The Journal of Health Psychology, 11: 2,
pp. 233–45.
Holmes, S. and Jermyn, D. (eds) (2003), Understanding Reality Television, London:
Routledge.
Human Body, The (1998), directed by Christopher Spencer, British Broadcasting
Corporation, UK, television series.
Johnson, S. (2005), Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is
Actually Making Us Smarter, New York: Riverhead Books.
Jurassic Park (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg, Universal Pictures, Amblin
Entertainment, US, feature film.
Kilborn, R. (2003), Staging the Real: Factual TV programming in the Age of Big
Brother, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Lipkin, S.N. (2002), Real Emotional Logic: Film and Television Docudrama as Persuasive
Practice, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Lister, M. (2000), ‘Photography in the age of electronic imaging’, in Liz Wells (ed.)
(2000), Photography: A Critical Introduction, 2nd edn., London: Routledge, pp.
305–47.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), directed by Peter Jackson, New
Line Cinema and WingNut Films, NZ/US, feature film.
Making of Walking with Dinosaurs, The (1999), directed by Jasper James, British
Broadcasting Corporation, UK, television programme.
29
Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 29
Manovich, L. (2000), The Language of New Media, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Murray, S. and Ouellette, L. (eds) (2004), Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture,
New York: New York University Press.
Nichols, B. (1991), Representing Reality, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
—— (1994), Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Paget, D. (1998), No Other Way To Tell It: Dramadoc/Docudrama on Television,
Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 61–89.
Palmer, G. (2003), Discipline and Liberty: Television and Governance, Manchester:
Manchester University Press.
Prehistoric Park (2006), directed by Sid Bennett, Karen Kelly and Matthew
Thompson, Impossible Pictures, UK, television series.
Roscoe, J. (2001), ‘Real Entertainment: New Factual Hybrid Television’, Media
International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy, 100, pp. 9–20.
Roscoe, J. and Hight, C. (2001), Faking It: Mock-documentary and the Subversion of
Factuality, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Satava, R. (ed.) (1998), Cybersurgery: Advanced Technologies for Surgical Practice,
New York: Wiley-Liss.
Scott, K. and White, A. (2003), ‘Unnatural History? Deconstructing the Walking
with Dinosaurs phenomenon’, Media, Culture & Society, 25, pp. 315–32.
Seven Wonders of the Industrial World (2003), directed by Christopher Spencer,
British Broadcasting Corporation, UK, television programme.
Strøm, G. (2003), ‘The Animated Documentary’, Animation Journal, 11, pp. 46–63.
Superhuman (2001), directed by Judith Bunting, Liesl Evans and David Hickman,
British Broadcasting Corporation, UK, television series.
Tufte, E.R. (1990), Envisioning Information, Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.
—— (1997), Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative,
Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.
—— (2001), The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edn., Cheshire, CT:
Graphics Press.
Virtual History: The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler (2004), directed by David McNab,
Discovery Channel, US, television programme.
Walking with Cavemen (2003), directed by Richard Dale and Pierre de Lespinois,
British Broadcasting Corporation, UK, television series.
Walking with Dinosaurs (1999), directed by Tim Haines and Jasper James, British
Broadcasting Corporation, UK, television series.
War Game, The (1965), directed by Peter Watkins, British Broadcasting
Corporation, UK, television programme.
Ward, P. (2005), Documentary: The Margins of Reality, London: Wallflower Press.
Wells, P. (1997), ‘The Beautiful Village and the True Village: A Consideration of
Animation and the Documentary Aesthetic’, Art and Design, 53, pp. 40–45.
—— (1998), Understanding Animation, London: Routledge.
Why We Fight (1943–45), directed by Frank Capra, US Army Special Service
Division and US War Department, US, documentary films.
Winston, B. (1995), Claiming the Real: the Griersonian Documentary and its
Legitimations, London: British Film Institute.
30
Craig Hight
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 30
Suggested citation
Hight, C. (2008), ‘Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic
and graphic within play’, Studies in Documentary Film 2: 1, pp. 9–31,
doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.9/1.
Contributor details
Dr Craig Hight is a senior lecturer with the Screen and Media Studies Department
at the University of Waikato. His research interests focus on documentary theory,
including aspects of the production, construction and reception of documentary
hybrids and the relationship of digital media technologies to documentary practice.
With Dr Jane Roscoe he has co-written a book on mockumentary entitled Faking It:
Mock-Documentary and the Subversion of Factuality (Manchester University Press,
2001). He is currently writing a book on television mockumentary series. Contact:
Screen and Media Studies Department, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105,
Hamilton, New Zealand 3240.
E-mail: hight@waikato.ac.nz
31
Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 31
6^bhVcYHXdeZ
HijY^Zh^c6jhigVaVh^Vc8^cZbV^hVcZl^ciZgcVi^dcVagZ[ZgZZY
hX]daVgan_djgcVaYZkdiZYidX^cZbV[gdbi]Z6jhigVa^Vc!CZl
OZVaVcYVcYEVX^ÄXgZ\^dc#I]Z_djgcVa^hXVaa^c\[dgVXVYZb^X
Vgi^XaZhdcVaaVheZXihd[i]ZgZ\^dc¼hg^X]X^cZbVXjaijgZ#
I]Z6jhigVa^V!CZlOZVaVcYVcYdi]ZgEVX^ÄXgZ\^dchVgZ
]dbZidbVcn^cY^\ZcdjhcVi^dchVcY^bb^\gVciXjaijgZh
[gdbVaaVgdjcYi]ZldgaY#HijY^Zh^c6jhigVaVh^Vc8^cZbVl^aa
bV^ciV^cVcZbe]Vh^hdci]^hY^kZgh^inl^i]VheZX^Va^ciZgZhi
^cedhiXdadc^Vaeda^i^XhVcYXdciZmih#
^ciZaaZXi_djgcVah
>HHC&,*%"(&,*
HijY^Zh^c
6jhigVaVh^Vc8^cZbV
1el. -44 (0)¡¡¯ 9S899¡0 / crdersointellectbccks.ccn / www.intellectbccks.ccn
l88N ¡¯S0-3¡¯S / 1hree issues
lrint ö íull electrcnic access
<[`kfij
Lr lan Henderscn
ling's ccllege Lcndcn
ian.r.henderscnokcl.ac.uk
JlYjZi`Y`e^
8Ac is published three
tines per year. ccntact us
at. lntellect, 8ales,1he Hill,
larnall ld, 8ristcl, 88¡6
3lC, ul
:lii\ekjlYjZi`gk`feiXk\j1
™**g\ijfeXc&™)('
`ejk`k`klk`feXc (lcstage is
íree within the ul, £9 in the
Lu and £¡2 cutside the Lu.)
=i\\<$XZZ\jj
lntellect cííers íree access tc
all cur jcurnals in electrcnic
ícrn tc users in instituticns
where there is a library
subscripticn tc the print
versicn cí that jcurnal.
8[m\ik`j`e^<ehl`i`\j
and bcckings shculd be
addressed tc. lntellect,
lcurnals Harketing, 1he
Hill, larnall ld, 8ristcl,
88¡6 3lC, ul.
SDF 2.1_02_art_Hight 3/14/08 10:21 AM Page 32
Studies in Documentary Film Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd
Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.33/1
In and out of this world: digital video
and the aesthetics of realism in the
new hybrid documentary
Ohad Landesman New York University
Abstract
Digital technology, often perceived as complicating evidential claims about docu-
mentary representations, has been playing a significant role lately in formulating
new aesthetic grounds for the long-lasting hybridity formed between fact and fiction
in the genre. It has been doing so by cultivating a style of constructed camcorder
realism, utilizing the technology’s immediacy and intimacy predicated upon the
digital look in its various connotations of authenticity and credibility. This article
discusses the ways by which digital cinematography contributes to the challenging
interplay between reality and fiction in the new hybrid documentary form.
Focusing on several unclassifiable blends of document and story shot on digital
video (DV) and other hand-held cameras – Michael Winterbottom’s In This
World (2002), Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), and Hany Abu-Assad’s Ford
Transit (2002) – it accounts for how technologically oriented aesthetic variations
become signifiers of an artificial generic distinction, and raise questions and
concerns about the manufacturing of truth in documentaries.
Some artists turn from documentary to fiction because they feel it lets them
come closer to the truth, their truth. Some, it would appear, turn to docu-
mentary because it can make deception more plausible.
(Erik Barnouw 1993: 349)
When occupation becomes daily life, reality becomes like fiction [. . .] I like to
say that my work is 100 percent documentary and 100 percent fiction.
(Palestinian film-maker Hany Abu-Assad, on his Ford Transit (2002))
Capturing truth in the world of documentary film-making has always
been a complicated task. Traditionally praised in non-fiction scholarship
for its impersonal and unbiased capacity to mirror the profilmic with no
fictional artifice, the documentary film has been going through significant
formal changes since its early naïve days of observation and omniscient
narration, gradually abandoning its efforts to emphasize an impression of
objectivity. From the modernist phase of the self-reflexive essayistic form to
its recent performative structure, the documentary has been constantly
renewing interest in the rhetorical tropes of subjectivity and fiction, enter-
taining arguments based on uncertainties and incompleteness rather than
prioritizing disembodied knowledge and facts. As Michael Renov clearly
33 SDF 2 (1) pp. 33–45 © Intellect Ltd 2008
Keywords
hybrid documentary
digital video
realism
truth
indexicality
technology
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 33
points out, ‘Every documentary representation depends upon its own
detour from the real, through the defiles of the audio-visual signifier’
(Renov 1993: 7). Admittedly, contemporary documentaries only keep
revisiting their primordial assumptions, pressing harder on the thin line
between fiction and fact in an ongoing effort to redefine the genre’s aesthetic
and ethical doctrines.
1
Surely, the flip side of this interdependency is mirrored in fiction films
today. When fast-paced editing in tightly scripted big-budget blockbusters
becomes the norm, an alternative nostalgic longing for the real crystallizes
the two everlasting aspirations in cinema: the utopia of authenticity
against the antidote of falsification. Fiction films wholeheartedly embrace
non-fiction aesthetics, and move towards simplifying their film language
in order to abandon any illusionistic aspiration and obey a strong docu-
mentary impulse.
2
This aesthetic convergence is a central synthesis in film
history, when most of the idioms of documentary, as Dai Vaughan well
reminds us, have been at some point appropriated by the fiction film, in
which context becoming ‘an arbitrary signifier of realism’ (Vaughan 1999:
64, original emphasis).
Digital technology, often perceived as complicating evidential claims
about the representation of the world, has been playing a significant role
lately in formulating new aesthetic grounds for the hybridity between
fact and fiction in cinema. It has been doing so by cultivating a new
aesthetic style of ‘DV realism’,
3
utilizing the technology’s immediacy and
intimacy predicated upon the digital look in its various connotations of
authenticity and credibility. That privilege put on fidelity to the profilmic is
conceivably ironic, considering that the dominant scholarly discourse
about digitality in film has been focused so far on forming a sensational
rhetoric about the visual challenge digital is presenting for indexically
based notions of photographic realism. Conceptual and theoretical utopias
have been repeatedly proposed regarding digital visual representations,
delineating the new age as ‘a historic break in the nature of media and
representation’, exclusively emphasizing a referential ‘crisis’ which leads
to unprecedented capacities for visual manipulability (Rosen 2001: 302). In
fact, the ongoing expansion of film into the digital realm since the late
1980s and the upsurge in popularity of digital video cameras within the
last ten years have provoked countless scholarly attempts to situate digital
technology in opposition to traditional film, and to warn morosely against
its forthcoming obliteration of celluloid.
In so far as mechanically reproduced visual images are considered to be
indexical, providing some truth-value of their referent, digital technology is
characterized as an innovative modification allowing for a radical break
with traditional image qualities. William Mitchell, in his seminal account of
digital photography, cites 1989 as the dawn of the ‘post-photographic era’
in which traditional film-based photography has been replaced entirely by
computerized images, no longer guarantors of visual truths or even signi-
fiers of stable meaning and value. He declares, ‘The referent has come
unstuck’ (Mitchell 1992: 31). Similarly, new media theorist Lev Manovich
responds to the plasticity of the digital image by arguing that when cinema,
the art of the index, enters the digital age, it can no longer be distinguished
from animation; ‘it is no longer an indexical media technology but rather a
34
Ohad Landesman
1. There are countless
examples for
documentary’s
inclination towards
staging reality with
fictional inserts, or
emphasizing the
fact/fiction blur as the
centrepiece of the
document (e.g. films
by Michael Moore,
Errol Morris or
Andrew Jarecki are
only a few very
obvious cases).
2. Fiction films that
move away from
artifice and aspire
towards the
documentary are not
a new phenomenon
in any way, but the
current renaissance
for manufacturing the
‘Real’ cannot simply
be overlooked. Worth
mentioning are
Jean-Pierre and Luc
Dardenne’s minimalist
social documents The
Son (2003) or
L’Enfant (2006),
Apichatpong
Weerasethakul’s
hyper-naturalist
experiments in
storytelling Blissfully
Yours (2002) and
Tropical Malady
(2004), or even Chris
Kentis’s real-time
scare Open Water
(2004).
3. The term ‘DV realism’
was first coined, as far
as I am aware, by Lev
Manovich (2000),
referring to a recent
aesthetic emphasis
put on the authenticity
of actors’
performances by
independent film-
makers such as Mike
Figgis or the Dogme
95 group. These
film-makers, according
to Manovich, provide
an alternative to
digital special effects
by embracing a
documentary style
with handheld DV
cameras.
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 34
subgenre of painting’ (Manovich 2001: 295). The digital, it seems, has
come to function lately less as a technology ‘than as a “cultural metaphor”
of crisis and transition’ (Elsaesser 1998: 202), and it is often discussed
within a positivist rhetoric that overemphasizes the importance of defining
a digital image on the basis of surpassing its indexical ties.
The documentary, which holds a privileged relationship to reality, has
often been the site of heated discussions about epistemological distrust and
suspicion in the age of digital manipulation. Much of the existing scholarship on
digital documentaries puts a similar emphasis on documentary truth and the
risk of it being radically challenged by the new ontological status of digital
imagery: it seeks to explain the changes that digitization might bring to the
already highly problematic status of image as truth, evidence or document.
Dai Vaughan, for example, notes that the increased capacities of digital sys-
tems create a situation in which ‘for most people, and in most cultural con-
texts, a kind of fog, a flux, will have intruded between the image and our
assumptions about its origins.’ (Vaughan 1999:189). Brian Winston, worrying
about a fatal impact of digitality on documentaries, writes:
It is not hard to imagine that every documentarist will shortly (that is, in the
next fifty years) have to hand, in the form of a desktop personal video-image-
manipulating computer, the wherewithal for complete fakery. What can or
will be left of the relationship between image and reality?
(Winston 1995: 6)
Similarly, and with a specific focus on the possible implications that new
digital technologies might entail on mockumentaries, Roscoe and Hight
privilege too the anxiety of visual manipulability in the digital age: ‘. . . these
new technologies allow the referent itself to be manipulated – in other
words, the basic integrity of the camera as a recording instrument is funda-
mentally undermined’ (Roscoe and Hight 2001: 39, original emphasis).
4
There is no doubt that digital technology is gradually changing the
ways in which documentaries are shot, edited and exhibited. What
becomes crucial, however, and so far little discussed, is to study how the
different ways in which the digital format has been aesthetically realized
in documentary can challenge critical prophecies and predictions that
somehow fail to account for the complicated and inseparable ties it estab-
lishes with old traditions in the genre. Respectively, much less attention
today is given to theorizing digital film-making practices, which do not
necessarily lose their visual ties to the profilmic, lower-profile DV-shot projects
that foreground the current differentiation between digital and analogue
in a more nuanced and strategic way. Therefore, when DV is introduced to
the contemporary blend of fiction and documentary, it brings with it a
baggage of aesthetic and cultural connotations, heavily challenging our
ability to negotiate between image and reality.
In fact, digital cinematography has long been contributing to the for-
mulation of the challenging interplay in film between representation and
artifice. Perhaps the most well-known digital hybrid forerunner is Myrick
and Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999), a mockumentary that com-
piles a pseudo-video footage of three film students who set out into the
Black Hills Forest to make a documentary on the legendary Blair Witch.
35
In and out of this world: digital video and the aesthetics of realism. . .
4. Essential to Roscoe
and Hight’s
understanding of
mockumentaries is
their conviction that
‘parody is an
anti-normative
convention, a built-
in rejection of the
referential’ (Roscoe
and Hight 2001: 2).
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/17/08 1:52 PM Page 35
Foregrounding the amateurish technology utilized for the documenting
efforts as an object of study in itself, the film explores how the properties of
the DV camcorder can foster a documentary mode of engagement and
exploits its aesthetics through carefully calculated marketing strategies.
5
The spectator watching The Blair Witch Project is invited to perform an
ongoing process of generic indexing that relies heavily on what the aesthetics
of the camcorder stand for. The shaky frame, the movement in and out of
focus, the inability to keep the subject within the frame borders, and the
camera’s portability, all give the viewer the impression that he is watching
an amateurish video diary which unfolds in an unmediated way.
The Blair Witch Project officially belongs to the non-fiction subgenre of
the mockumentary. As such, it appears to the viewer as a formal conun-
drum placed at the meeting point of fiction and documentary, blurring
fact and fabrication with a twist of irony and parody. Any mockumentary,
for that matter, ridicules its own fictional efforts to document a non-
existing subject in order to make fun of the very feasibility of delineating
clear boundaries for the documentary category; or, as Alisa Lebow suggests,
to sneer at the genre’s ‘continued, head-on quest to pass itself off as the
forthright gaze onto the Real’ (Lebow 2006: 235). Mockumentaries seek
to challenge the ‘sober’ discourse in classic documentaries, and in particular
wish to make fun of ‘the beliefs in science (and scientific experts) and in the
essential integrity of the referential image’, long associated with an
unquestioned evidential status (Roscoe and Hight 2001: 8). These are
fictional texts that make concerted efforts to mimic and exhaust docu-
mentary codes and conventions, and require us to subsume a mode of
engagement in which we disavow momentarily their fictional fakeness.
Interestingly, many mockumentaries self-reflexively manifest their artifice,
exposing the production process and cinematic apparatus to deconstruct
their effect on the viewer. They seek to question our pre-given markers of
realism and the ways in which those are mediated through the rapidly
changing ‘technologies of truth telling’ (Juhasz and Lerner 2006: 165).
6
In
what follows, I will show how several recent experimental blends of docu-
ment and story shot on digital video raise similar questions and concerns
about the manufacturing of truth in documentaries. Without surrendering
entirely to the mockumentary mode, these films exemplify how technologi-
cally oriented aesthetic variations become signifiers of an artificial generic
distinction. The spectator watching these recent hybrids is invited to wel-
come and embrace the aesthetic hybridity as a formal strategy meant not so
much to dupe, mislead or mock, but to offer a different documenting tactic.
Films such as Michael Winterbottom’s immigrants road trip In This
World (2002) or Abbas Kiarostami’s claustrophobic car journey Ten
(2002) invite us to question their structure and form, and work hard to
obscure the boundaries between fiction and documentary. They make a
case for the constructedness and artificiality of this distinction, and for the
difficulty in discriminating between the discursive methods or aesthetic
conventions in both forms. These hybrids are neither simply fake docu-
mentaries, even if they quite similarly embrace a documentary style as a
strategy to bestow an impression of authenticity on their controlled fic-
tional content; nor they are a clear case of mockumentaries, having no
real expectations that an audience will know how to distinguish between
36
Ohad Landesman
5. On the unique
marketing efforts to
present The Blair
Witch Project as a
document of a real
incident, see J.P.
Telotte’s ‘The Blair
Witch Project Project:
Film and the Internet’
(2004).
6. For an illuminating
analysis of the ways
in which camcorder
aesthetics construct
and deconstruct the
authority of the
‘documentary look’ in
André Bonzel’s Man
Bites Dog (1992) in
order to encourage an
audience to enter into
a documentary mode
of engagement, see
Roscoe (2006).
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/17/08 1:52 PM Page 36
their fact and fiction tenets.
7
They move across a twilight zone of cinematic
categories and rigid definitions as they strive to reflect a multifaceted truth
rather than engage in a well-concealed lie. Respectively, these films ask
viewers to grant them a status of trustworthiness by expanding any
previous understanding of what a documentary might be.
Shot over five months on back roads, at border crossings and in refugee
camps, Winterbottom’s In This World (2002) starts out as a traditional doc-
umentary about the plight of Pakistani immigrants who travel by land to
London in search of a better life. An authoritative voice-over introduces
the social problem of the Pakistani refugee crisis, building directly on our
conditioned expectations from the documentary form: ‘it is estimated that
7.9 billion dollars were spent on bombing Afghanistan in 2001’, a sober
male voice announces; ‘Spending on refugees is far less generous.’
8
Very
abruptly, though, the film changes its tone and structure and transforms
into what seems to be a fictionalized document, closely following the jour-
ney of two characters, teenage refugees Jamal and Enayat, on their escape
from poverty to the promised life in London.
Re-enacting with painstaking details the treacherous and nightmarish
trip from Pakistan to London, In This World is a film that would have never
been made with more conventional cumbersome equipment, and could
have probably never achieved its smudgy visual look with a different tech-
nology. Literally made on the run with a small crew and one digital video
camera, In This World cleverly utilizes the technology’s immediacy and
portability, shooting its protagonists in unstaged street scenes, crowds and
marketplaces. The more we become entangled with the personal human
drama of the journey, the further the guerrilla camerawork will remind us,
by its free-floating movement from characters to real moments of local
scenery, that this is not a fictitious story per se. Circling freely around the
wandering refugees without any hope to conceal its operation, it will func-
tion as an object of their own gaze, allowing the characters to look at it
directly in a gesture often forbidden in the world of fiction. The vérité-like
documentary impression that In This World tries to bestow brings us to a
closer understanding of the social problem it refers to, encouraging us to
disavow momentarily that the plight of our two main characters is only
part of what is essentially a fictional narrative.
While Winterbottom utilizes the imperfect feel of the DV camcorder to
hint at an alternative mode of film-making disguised as an unmediated
representation of the ‘Real’, he still chooses to strategically insert a vast
range of fictional formal strategies. Animated geographical maps, sus-
penseful music, title cards and a politicized voice-over might seem, at first,
elements of the well-established docudrama form, but their seamless inte-
gration into the document makes an implicit argument for the limitedness
and insufficiency of the non-fiction model as a cinematic intermediary to
reality. Relying on the viewer’s familiarity with the conventions of both fic-
tion and documentary, the hybridity produced signals ‘the unavailability
of the real unless filtered through a range of artistic choices’ (Rodriguez-
Ortega 2007: 3).
9
The tension maintained between document and fiction
here rhymes with the balance between spontaneous extemporization and
scripted exactitude that the properties of the DV camera help to achieve.
The digital equipment, less intimidating in size and a more efficient tool in
37
In and out of this world: digital video and the aesthetics of realism. . .
7. A mockumentary (to
be distinguished from
‘hoax’ or ‘fake’
documentary),
according to Jane
Roscoe and Craig
Hight, does not only
operate through
parody, critique and
deconstruction; in a
‘contract’ set up
between a producer
and audience it
assumes that the
latter participates in
the playfulness of the
form, and ‘requires
the audience to
watch it as if at a
documentary
presentation, but in
the full knowledge of
an actual fictional
status’ (Roscoe and
Hight 2001: 17).
8. After all, the film’s
subject matter is in
itself a generic
marker: is there any
other cinematic mode
of expression we are
familiar with today
that narrativizes the
story of third-world
refugee camps?
9. A similar argument
in respect to the
proximity of the
fiction film to reality
was made by André
Bazin in his famous
claim that ‘realism in
art can only be
achieved in one way –
through artifice’
(Bazin 1971: 26).
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 37
shooting longer takes than with cumbersome 35mm, allows for a natural
and improvisatory performance, which in itself connotes the freedom asso-
ciated with documentary film-making.
10
When the film reaches its end, it falls back on its documentary coun-
terpart, inserting a title card that announces the fate of the actual actor
Jamal: after returning to Pakistan, he has been truly granted asylum in
London in accordance with the culmination of the fictional narrative. In
an ‘art meets life’ anecdote, Winterbottom is making a reference to the life
story of a real refugee documented by a camera, wedding a consistent
‘authenticated’ digital look with an aspiration to represent the real plight
of refugees.
No less a digital campaigner than Winterbottom, Iranian film-maker
Abbas Kiarostami, who has always been a quasi-documentarist thriving on
improvisation and unstaged realism, had even gone a step further to declare
his exclusive devotion to the new format after shooting ABC Africa (2001).
Though both directors garnish their unmediated digital film-making with an
interest in urgent political matters, the use of non-actors and the merging of
fiction with documentary, Kiarostami’s Ten (2002) stands out as a more
purist and idealized attempt to materialize the democratic and aesthetic
qualities of the new technology into an innovative cinematic form.
10 on Ten (2002), Kiarostami’s prescriptive theoretical lecture on the
promises of digital video, is an indispensable authorial confession which
reiterates quite pedagogically the obvious issues at stake in Ten.
Admittedly, the latter takes pride in its use of two DV cameras, mounted on
the car’s dashboard to capture, without any directorial mediation, inti-
mate political dialogues about life in contemporary Tehran. The surveil-
lance and voyeuristic ambience achieved by these two small cameras,
along with the unscripted text delivered by the non-actors, make Ten
another unclassifiable hybrid which leaves us constantly wondering about
its factual veracity. The technical means are of essence here, since
Kiarostami wishes to reach a technological utopia with digital video. The
technology, he is convinced, can display the ‘absolute truth’ rather than
forge one. Shooting with DV is nothing less than a moral decision, taken in
order to eliminate any artifice embedded in the cumbersome 35mm film-
making process, and allow a film-maker to remain faithful to his natural
settings. Although the device is obviously a product of the capitalist sys-
tem (manufactured by Sony!), he claims it can nonetheless free a film-
maker from ideological constraints when censorship becomes less of an
issue, and the simplicity and cheapness of shooting with it democratize the
film-making experience.
Ten is an experiment in minimalism, where aesthetic innovation is
achieved through omission rather than excessive abundance of technical
possibilities. Without much artistic direction or camera movement,
Kiarostami makes use of digital video to bring cinema back to its ‘point-
zero’, and fulfil the Bazinian aesthetic responsibility in its full extremity:
observing life without judging it or intervening in its natural flow.
11
Thus,
Kiarostami not only reroutes cinema back to its early days of unpreten-
tious and primitive stasis (recalling early documentaries by Auguste and
Louis Lumière), but also renews the dialogue between spectator and
screen originally proposed by the Italian neo-realists. Cesare Zavattini’s
38
Ohad Landesman
10. The contribution of
DV to an impromptu
acting style with no
predetermined inhibi-
tions was accentuated
as a case study in
formal experiments
such as Mike Figgis’s
TimeCode (2000) and
Kristian Levring’s The
King is Alive (2000).
11. Unsurprisingly,
Kiarostami would
later make Five: Five
Long Takes Dedicated to
Yasujiro Ozu (2004),
another digital
experiment that
consists of five long
shots of nature. For
each shot, Kiarostami
points his video
camera at the ocean
or a reflection of the
moon in a pond, and
holds it for 10 to 15
minutes.
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 38
post-war theories of a democratized cinema annihilating the distance
between art and life are the source of the moral responsibility to reality
that is advocated here; ‘the moral, like the artistic, problem lies in being
able to observe reality, not to extract fictions from it’ (Zavattini 1953: 43).
Respectively, Kiarostami avoids the use of an excessive plot or cinematic
action in order to prevent the spectator from locking herself into an illu-
sionary reality, an unnecessary artifice. By abolishing completely a world
of representations and placing austere and primitive images in opposition
to western cinematic practices, he proves to be an even more radical neo-
realist than Zavattini.
Kiarostami’s enthusiastic vision correlates in its rhetoric with many
earlier forecasts to the future of camera technology in film history. Jean
Rouch, following up on Dziga Vertov’s early analogy between a camera
and a human eye, predicted in 1973 that
. . . tomorrow will be the time of completely portable color video, video edit-
ing, and instant replay (‘instant feedback’). Which is to say, the time of the
joint dream of Vertov and Flaherty, of a mechanical cine-eye-ear and of a
camera that can so totally participate that it will automatically pass into the
hands of those who, until now, have always been in front of the lens.
(Rouch 1973: 46)
Eighteen years later, Francis Ford Coppola’s famous prophecy of cinematic
democratization supplied at the end of Hearts of Darkness (1991) saw the
future of film in the form of ‘some little girl in Ohio’, and imagined a new
apparatus that could enable such a girl to get her vision onto the screen.
12
While Kiarostami comes close to surrender again to what Philip Rosen
terms as the ‘rhetoric of the forecast’ (Rosen 2001: 316), to fall back on a
dominant discourse of digital utopia, his recent experiments comprise a
fascinating effort to resurrect old cinematic traditions with the aid of new
technologies. If nothing else, Ten is an exemplary case study in how tech-
nological modifications can simply help us do what we are already doing,
but only easier, faster and better.
To be sure, my wish here is not to propose medium-specific arguments
privileging the contribution of digital video to the aesthetics of hybridity, or
to fall back on a methodology of technological determinism that presup-
poses an idealized causality between technology and aesthetics. Obviously,
there are countless examples of earlier attempts to utilize unobtrusive
lightweight equipment for the construction of documentary-like aesthetics
within a fictional framework.
13
In fact, the prescribed purity or utopian
novelty often attributed to digital technology should be reconsidered in
this context once we place the aesthetic permutations of DV within histor-
ical crossroads and continuities. Therefore, it becomes imperative to dis-
cuss hybrid documentaries that use other types of portable technologies
for achieving a similar effect of obscured generic boundaries.
Such, for example, is the case of Ford Transit (2002). Palestinian film-
maker Hany Abu-Assad employs a unique conceptual strategy with his
use of a 16mm camera that directly confronts several theoretical issues
involved in the hybrid documentary. Ford Transit follows Rajai, a
Palestinian transit driver who transports locals between Israeli military
39
In and out of this world: digital video and the aesthetics of realism. . .
12. ‘To me the great hope
is that now these little
video recorders are
around and people
who normally
wouldn’t make
movies are going
to be making them.
And suddenly, one
day, some little girl in
Ohio is going to be
the new Mozart and
make a beautiful film
with her father’s
camcorder and for
once, the so-called
professionalism
about movies will be
destroyed, forever, and
it will really become
an art form’ (quote
taken from Hearts of
Darkness).
13. A few scattered cases
may include Jean-Luc
Godard’s landmark
debut Breathless
(1959), shot in real
locations with 16mm
equipment and non-
professional actors;
Woody Allen’s
handheld shaky
camerawork in
Husband and Wives
(1992); and many
of the mock-
documentaries shot
on 16mm as an
aesthetic strategy,
such as Stefan
Avalos’s The Last
Broadcast (1998) or
André Bonzel’s Man
Bites Dog (1992).
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 39
checkpoints inside the Occupied Territories in his battered Ford minivan.
The camera, almost never unhooked from its mount inside the van, docu-
ments brief and intense conversations between transient passengers,
always keeping tensions at boiling point. The intimate film-making style
achieved chronicles the impossible absurdity of the area, a deadlock situa-
tion that is occasionally surreal and mostly dangerous and violent.
Ford Transit, which won the Best Documentary award at the 2003
Jerusalem Film Festival, has been publicly ‘exposed’ as a fraud document a
few months after its release, a film whose central subject is not a
Palestinian driver after all, but an actor placed within staged circum-
stances of humiliation, violence and despair.
14
Abu-Assad, harshly criti-
cized for playing with generic categorizations to create a dangerous
political deception about the military oppression in the area, responded to
the accusations not by admitting to have employed a fake-documentary
format, but by surprisingly confessing that his distinctive film-making
approach involves ‘100% fiction and 100% documentary’ (Ramsey 2003).
Since Ford Transit has never been officially categorized as a documentary,
neither by Abu-Assad himself nor by the festival’s committee, it would be
reasonable to assume that it was critically perceived as one mainly
because it employs familiar documentary-like aesthetics and strategies: a
mobile camerawork, an amateurish and intimate visual look and a talking-
heads interviewing structure. If so, it is probable that the bone of conten-
tion lying at the heart of the categorization issue is the schematically
artificial distinction still made today between the forms of documentary
and fiction, often applied to films that are too complex for easy classifica-
tion. Does it really matter what is staged and what is not, when ‘the events
we’re watching may be acted out, but they are not fictitious’ (Jones 2005:
33)? After all, everything that happens in the film could have easily hap-
pened on any other day in that reality; knowing that, Abu-Assad wishes
not to deceive, perhaps, but to contain typical reactions and events
without surrendering completely to the formal limitations of either
documentary or fiction.
No Lies (1974), Mitchell Block’s famous student experiment in generic
classification, is another case in point here, where spectatorial response is
manipulated and essentially varies according to the tag we are willing to
put on the film. No Lies begins by emulating and embracing the aesthetic
conventions of the vérité documentary style. We take the point of view of a
young man, well hidden behind a handheld 16mm camera, intruding on
a woman’s private moment while filming a casual conversation with her
in a bedroom space. Suddenly, the innocent and friendly chat turns into a
harrowing confession, as the woman claims to have been raped the night
before. Is the woman telling the truth to her interviewer, we wonder, and
are the vérité methods used morally acceptable means for unravelling
details of this painful story? As the woman’s tale culminates, generating
further anxiety and confusion about its veracity, we finally discover that
the film is not a documentary after all, and that both man and woman are
only fictional characters within this fabricated setting. A shaky handheld
camera, unmediated proximity to the subject and an intimate confession
may indeed connote a documentary mode, but are in no way guarantors
of a stable categorization.
40
Ohad Landesman
14. About three years
ago, Abu-Assad
was involved in an
international scandal
after admitting in an
exclusive interview to
the Israeli daily
newspaper Ha’aretz
that Ford Transit was
not a documentary,
but a staged
performance. The
story made waves at
every documentary
film festival in
which Abu-Assad
participated, and
sparked heated
discussions about
the limits of what is
permissible in the
genre.
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 40
It has been argued elsewhere that No Lies suggests an implied criticism
of cinéma-vérité by offering an analogy between the style’s obtrusive meth-
ods and a physical rape. Vivian Sobchack writes: ‘Block has found an ideal
metaphor for the physical act of rape in the methods and effects of cinéma-
vérité, what we now call direct cinema [. . .] Rape becomes interchangeable
with the act of cinema’ (Sobchack 1988: 335). It is not only the woman
who is raped (both literally, according to her story, and metaphorically by
the obtrusive methods of investigation), but we as viewers as well; we are
betrayed by the film-maker whom we knowingly trust to provide us with
images invested with truth-value, since ‘the very style of the film immedi-
ately authenticates its content’ (Sobchack 1988: 339). Surely, we learn
that a documentary style is only an artificial construct that can condition
us to read a film entirely differently from what it really is. However, we
must also remember that the veracity value of No Lies’s non-fiction facet as
a fake documentary is not to be dismissed entirely. The indexing process
we continually perform and the shattering of expectations that follows
prove, if nothing else, how the urgent need to make a sharp distinction
between documentary and fiction is only a futile academic exercise that
undermines and trivializes the film and its effects. After all, the moral cri-
tique that No Lies may be launching on cinéma-vérité filming methods
could not have been so powerfully illustrated within a more traditional
documentary form. The ending of No Lies resonates in our minds long
after the film is over partly because it makes an elusive truth-claim regard-
ing the traumatic events it so cleverly fakes. In the same way that real
political tension is contained within a form of fakery and deception in Ford
Transit, an ethical standpoint on documentary’s interviewing methods
finds its perfect form within this deceitful illusion of authenticity.
The documentary facet in the hybrid film, I argue, becomes less of a
clear genre indicator and more of an aesthetic strategy by which a film-
maker can choose to indicate familiar notions of authenticity or solicit the
viewer to embrace a documentary mode of engagement. This invitation is
predicated on the assumption that our relationship to various cinematic
objects is never textually determined a priori, but always also dependent
on our attitude towards them in respect to how familiar we are with dif-
ferent cinematic codes. Sobchack holds that the term ‘documentary’ ‘des-
ignates a particular subjective relation to an objective cinematic or
televisual text, and therefore is less a “thing” than an “experience”’
(Sobchack 1999: 241, original emphasis). Fiction films and documen-
taries, according to Sobchack, are never to be taken as discrete objects or
fixed categories; thus, ‘a fiction can be experienced as a home movie or
documentary, a documentary as a home movie or a fiction …’ (Sobchack
1999: 253). A similar suggestion to regard a documentary as merely an
invitation for trust is Noël Carroll’s analytical outlook on defining docu-
mentaries as ‘films of the presumptive assertion’, films in which the film-
maker intends that the audience entertains the propositional content of the
films as asserted (Carroll 1997: 186).
15
In other words, we may read in
both Carroll and Sobchack a need to shift focus from the properties of the
text itself (which may very well be of either fictional or real content)
towards the viewer’s engagement with it. A stronger version of under-
standing documentary in this way is an idealist account of non-fiction,
41
In and out of this world: digital video and the aesthetics of realism. . .
15. Carroll explains that
these films are
called ‘films of the
presumptive assertion’
because such films
may in fact lie: ‘That
is, they are presumed
to involve assertion
even in cases where
the film-maker is
intentionally
dissimulating at
the same time that
he is signaling an
assertoric intention’
(Carroll 1997: 187,
original emphasis).
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 41
according to which the characteristics of documentary are constructed by
the spectator, who forms and shapes the text as a piece of discourse.
16
It is
valuable, I argue, to theorize our engagement with hybrid documentaries
with a similar appeal to spectatorial reception, as long as we do not deny
the existence of a clear distinction between fiction and documentary in
more easily classifiable cases. It may simply be confusing, as Carl
Plantinga reminds us, ‘to deny an objective distinction between fiction and
nonfiction films, when such a distinction can clearly be made’ (Plantinga
1997: 20, original emphasis).
In the hybrid film, respectively, it is the viewer who ultimately deter-
mines the mode of engagement with the object at stake, sizing things up
and settling the balance between fiction and reality. The DV format, in that
respect, operates as a technological refinement to previously existing light-
weight equipment (16mm, Hi-8), entering an already developed cam-
corder aesthetics tradition. It is used strategically to achieve a strong
degree of intimacy, immediacy and weightlessness with an associated aes-
thetic of drabness that grants a criterion of credibility to the image. The overall
effect relies on the presumptive state of a receiving subject, ready to inter-
pret an image signifier as a reference to the primary act of alternative film-
making, the kinetics of amateurish or guerrilla camera operation. As Scott
McQuire affirms, ‘because of the extent to which audiences have internal-
ized the camera’s qualities as the hallmark of credibility, contemporary
cinema no longer aims to mime “reality”, but “camera reality”’ (McQuire
2000: 50). In other words, the digital video camcorder’s operation style
denotes and imitates a recognizable and well-established aesthetic tradi-
tion of realism which we have come to learn and accept over the years
based on our familiarity with other portable equipment.
Digital photographic practices are inseparable, of course, from cultural
conventions. Most audiences are tuned to invest a certain real-ness in DV
images because the format represents an antidote aesthetic of roughness,
a reaction against the perfection and polish of 35mm; or, as film critic
Kent Jones put it, ‘as long as DV is measured against the lush, elegant
35mm image, it makes a snug fit with amateur impulses (whether feigned
or real) and the casually observed reality of just-plain-folks aesthetics’
(Jones 2005: 31). Digital realism in the hybrid documentary is merely
another construct, a simulated special effect achieved by a conceptual strat-
egy. To put it differently, camcorder aesthetics here connote an effect of
realism that taps into, and is governed by, our familiarity with different
paradigms of representations. The question of realism naturally remains
intertwined with a complex set of discourses, conventions and cultural
changes, which safeguard or suspend the trust we are willing to invest in
a given form of representation.
17
The amateurish properties inherently associated nowadays with the DV
look rhyme with those attributed to video cameras in the 1980s. In ‘Looking
Through Video’ (1996), John Belton explains that over the years the differ-
ences between film and video ‘resulted in a kind of codification through which
each “look” has come to have a different value’ (Belton 1996: 67). Much
alike digital video (though quite different in its ontology and image quality),
the look of video could be attributed to a ‘psychology of the video’, which has
42
Ohad Landesman
16. On the idealist stance
on documentary, see
Casebier (1986). The
famous amateurish
Rodney Tape, shot by
the bystander George
Holliday, serves
as a fascinating
illustration of a how
a historical event
recorded on tape did
not provide a
stabilized meaning
as a ‘visible evidence’,
but actually well
depended on ‘the
psychological and
ideological
predispositions of
the spectators/jurors’
reading it (see, on this
matter, Renov (1993:
8–9)).
17. Several recent exam-
ples of these ‘false’
signifiers of reality
include Garry
Shandling’s The Larry
Sanders Show (1992),
in which fabricated
late-night talk-show
parts are shot on
video for creating an
‘on-air’ illusion, while
film stock is used for
‘off-air’ time; and
Steven Soderbergh’s
Full Frontal (2002), in
which a stylistic
strategic distinction is
constructed between
the film-within-the-
film (shot in 35mm)
and the ‘real-life’
behind the scenes
footage shot with a
DV camera.
18. Famously, Roland
Barthes’s analysis
of photographic
codification relies on
the same mode of
argumentation. In The
Rhetoric of the Image
(1977) Barthes
attempts to submit
the image ‘to a
spectral analysis of
the messages it may
contain’ (Barthes
1977: 33). By focusing
on the advertising
image, he provides an
explanation for how
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 42
come to signify greater realism, immediacy and presence (Belton 1996: 67).
18
But herein lies a certain paradox with both formats. Philip Lopate, dis-
cussing the Sony Portapak video camera, argues that ‘the videotape
image severely distorts reality’ in its scale, depth of focus, lighting, camera
movement, editing and other ways, but we learn to accept it as true to
reality only because of ‘highly contrived (if persuasive) conventions’
(Lopate 1974: 21). Quite similarly, digital images are ontologically made
of the unreal, but more than often associated with a heightened sense of
realism, a duality which is by now quite dominant in our current image
culture.
19
While video might have connoted a liveness effect associated with
television broadcasting, the DV image, I argue, mostly signifies the
unmediated realistic scent of amateurish home movies and the recent
trend of reality TV shows. We can relate the constructed DV world so easily
to our own simply because we do not only consume it in our daily reality
but also create it ourselves. Surely, the associations which reality TV
invokes share those related with virtual public spheres for home-movies
and amateur photography (e.g. YouTube, Flickr), as both reject the
professionalist tenet that has been dominating the genre of documentary
for so long.
20
The hybridity between fact and fiction in reality TV is also
often achieved through an aesthetic ‘illusion’, where shaky handheld
camera and unmediated spontaneous action create the impression of a
privileged representation of authenticity inside a fictional and staged
environment.
Surely, there are other examples for the contribution of digital video to
the formal mixed-breed of documentary and fiction, such as Jia Zhangke’s
Unknown Pleasures (2003), an improvisational study of Chinese alienation;
Khoa Do’s The Finished People (2003), a painful look at Australian home-
less people; Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), a disturbing psychological
study of outsiderness; or even Walid Raad’s Hostage: The Bachar Tapes
(2001), a faked video testimony of an Arab hostage in Lebanon. In these
and many other cases, the elusiveness produced between document and
fiction is mediated by technology and its aesthetic associations, forming a
critical strategy that puts documentary’s presumption of objectivity to
scrutiny. On the one hand, it seeks to engage the spectator in an active
process of classification and ‘framing’,
21
in which the dominant assump-
tions and codes behind the documentary project are exposed for revalua-
tion; borrowing Roland Barthes’s famous terminology, documentary
becomes not just a text, but a ‘Writerly Text’, whose reader is no longer
merely a consumer, but also the text’s own producer (Barthes 1974). On
the other hand, the viewer is invited to accept the obscurity of the distinc-
tion as an essential documenting strategy that points to a possible failure
of the traditional documentary project, and reassures the theoretical
assumption many recent documentaries seem to hold; namely, that the
genre cannot reveal an a priori self-evident truth, and should therefore
assert a more relative veracity by exercising strategies of fiction and
exploiting the grey area between story and fact. Hybrid documentaries
seek to achieve a higher, more slippery sense of truth, reaching at, but
never quite touching, the longed-for Real.
43
In and out of this world: digital video and the aesthetics of realism. . .
an image produces
signification.
19. Discussing
simultaneous
contemporary trends
of photographic
digital manipulation
and factual television,
Arild Fetveit suggests
that ‘ …we are
experiencing a
strengthening and
a weakening of the
credibility of
photographical
discourses at the
same time’ (Fetveit
1999: 787).
20. In her seminal study
of video home movies,
a discussion which
could benefit an
update in light of the
recent proliferation of
digital home clips,
Patricia Zimmermann
(1995) writes: ‘Video
lost its high-art aura
to become more
reproducible and
controllable in the
private sphere; it
moved from the
obscurity of the art
museum to the
solitude of the home’
(Zimmermann
1995: 156).
21. The idea of ‘framing’
is well explained by
Dirk Eitzen: ‘the form
of a text can cause
viewers to “frame” it
in a specific way; poor
lighting, a shaky
camera and bad
sound may suggest
cinéma-vérité, but it
doesn’t have to be!’
(Eitzen 1995: 91).
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 43
References
Barnouw, E. (1993), Documentary: A History of the Nonfiction Film, 2nd edn., New
York : Oxford University Press.
Barthes, R. (1974), S/Z: An Essay, New York: Hill&Wang.
—— (1977 [1964]), ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, in S. Heath (trans.), Image, Music,
Text, London: Fontana, pp. 32–51.
Bazin, A. (1971), What is Cinema? Volume 2, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Belton, J. (1996), ‘Looking Through Video: The Psychology of Video and Film’, in
Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg (eds), Resolutions: Contemporary Video
Practices, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 61–72.
Carroll, N. (1997), ‘Fiction, Non-fiction, and the Films of Presumptive Assertion:
A Conceptual Analysis’, in Richard Allen and Murray Smith (eds), Film Theory
and Philosophy, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 173–202.
Casebier, A. (1986), ‘Idealist and Realist Theories of the Documentary’, Post Script:
Essays in Film and the Humanities, 6: 1 (Fall), pp. 66–75.
Eitzen, D. (1995), ‘When is a Documentary: Documentary as a Mode of Reception’,
Cinema Journal, 35: 1, pp. 81–102.
Elsaesser, T. (1998), ‘Digital Cinema: Delivery, Event, Time’, in Thomas Elsaesser
and Kay Hoffmann (eds), Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable? The Screen Arts in
the Digital Age, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 201–22.
Fetveit, A. (1999), ‘Reality TV in the digital era: a paradox in visual culture?’,
Media, Culture & Society, 21, pp. 787–804.
Jones, K. (2005), ‘I Walk the Line: Hybrid Cinema’, Film Comment 41: 1
(January/February), pp. 30–33.
Juhasz, Alexandra and Lerner, Jesse (2006), ‘Introduction: Phony Definitions and
Troubling Taxonomies of the Fake Documentary’, in Alexandra Juhasz and
Jesse Lerner (eds), F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 1–35.
Lebow, A. (2006), ‘Faking What? Making a Mockery of Documentary’, in
Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner (eds), F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and
Truth’s Undoing, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 223–37.
Lopate, P. (1974), ‘Aesthetics of the Portapak’, Radical Software 2: 6, pp. 18–21.
Manovich, L. (2000), ‘From DV Realism to a Universal Recording Machine’,
http://www.manovich.net/DOCS/reality_media_final.doc.
Accessed September 2007.
—— (2001), The Language of New Media, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
McQuire, S. (2000), ‘Impact Aesthetics: Back to the Future in Digital Cinema?
Millennial Fantasies’, Convergence, 6: 2, 41-61.
Mitchell, J.W. (1992), The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era,
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Plantinga, C. (1997), Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film, New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Ramsey, N. (2003), ‘Drama Finds a Palestinian Film-maker’, New York Times
(12 June).
Renov, M. (1993), ‘Introduction: The Truth About Non-Fiction’, in Michael Renov
(ed.), Theorizing Documentary, New York: Routledge, pp. 1–11.
Rodriguez-Ortega, V. (2007), ‘Transnational Media Imaginaries: Cinema, Digital
Technology, and Uneven Globalization’, chapter 4, unpublished dissertation,
Department of Cinema Studies: New York University.
44
Ohad Landesman
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 44
Roscoe, J. (2006), ‘Man Bites Dog: Deconstructing the Documentary Look’, in Gary
D. Rhodes and John Parris Springer (eds), Docufictions: Essays on the Intersection
of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.,
pp. 205–15.
Roscoe, J. and Hight, C. (2001), Faking It: Mock-Documentary and the Subversion of
Factuality, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Rosen, P. (2001), ‘Old and New: Image, Indexicality, and Historicity in the Digital
Utopia’, in Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory, Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, pp. 301–49.
Rouch, J. (2003), Ciné-Ethnography, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Sobchack, V. (1988), ‘No Lies: Direct Cinema as Rape’, in Alan Rosenthal (ed.),
New Challenges for Documentary, Los Angeles: University of California Press,
pp. 332–41.
—— (1999), ‘Toward a Phenomenology of Non-fictional Film Experience’, in Jane
M. Gaines and Michael Renov (eds), Collecting Visible Evidence, Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, pp. 241–54.
Telotte, J.P. (2004), ‘The Blair Witch Project Project: Film and the Internet’, in Sarah
L. Higley and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (eds), Nothing That Is: Millennial Cinema
and the Blair Witch Controversies, Detroit: Wayne State University Press,
pp. 37–51.
Vaughan, D. (1999), For Documentary: Twelve Essays, Berkeley: University of
California Press.
Winston, B. (1995), Claiming the Real: The Documentary Film Revisited, London: BFI
Publishing.
Zavattini, C. (1953), ‘Some Ideas on the Cinema’ in Philip Simpson, Andrew
Utterson, and K.J. Shepherdson (eds) (2004) Film Theory: Critical Concepts in
Media and Cultural Studies. Vol. IV. London: Routledge, pp. 40–50.
Zimmermann, P. (1995), Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Suggested citation
Landesman, O. (2008), ‘In and out of this world: digital video and the aesthetics of
realism in the new hybrid documentary’, Studies in Documentary Film 2: 1,
pp. 33–45, doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.33/1
Contributor details
Ohad Landesman is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New
York University, from which he holds a Master’s degree too. In addition, he has a
bachelor degree in Film and Television and a LLB (Bachelor of Laws) from Tel-Aviv
University. He is currently working on a dissertation project exploring digital video
aesthetics in contemporary documentaries, and his writings have appeared in Film
Comment, Cineaste, Reverse Shot, IndieWIRE, and the Israeli daily newspaper
Ma’ariv. Contact: Ohad Landesman, New York University, Department of Cinema
Studies, 721 Broadway, New York, NY.
E-mail: ohad.landesman@nyu.edu
45
In and out of this world: digital video and the aesthetics of realism. . .
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 45
liIm 8tudies / 1heatre ö lerlcrnance / Art ö Leslgn / Hedla ö culture
DecIaratiens ef lndependence
Anerlcan clnena and the lartlallty cl lndependent lrcductlcn
Anerlcan lndependent clnena has
been a key cultural nedla scene lcr
the last lllteen years. lt appears
tc exlst as a nethcd cl cultural
prcductlcn and, slnultanecusly,
a relerence thrcugh whlch lllns
can be attached tc certaln scclc·
pclltlcal ncvenents. ;\ZcXiXk`fej
f]@e[\g\e[\eZ\ ccnslders whether
unlque lndependent llln can thrlve
cr even survlve ln an lndustry cl nass·
prcductlcn and prc6t. 1hls vclune
presents an acadenlc dlscusslcn cl the
genre wlth relerence tc wlder scclal
and eccncnlc ccntexts. 8erra's unlque
structural apprcach lnterrcgates
Anerlcan lndependent clnena wlth
a detalled understandlng cl the
prcductlcn prccess, ccnslderlng lts
ccre prcduct, audlences and audlences'
enthuslasn lcr alternatlve nedla. 8y
ccnblnlng bcth a strcng thecretlcal
basls wlth an awareness cl the
scclc·cultural ccntexts cl Anerlcan
lndependent clnena, ;\ZcXiXk`fejf]
@e[\g\e[\eZ\ cllers a ccnprehenslve
analysls cl an lncreaslngly pcpular
genre.
Æ
Æ
£I9.9ä
/ $40
8ccks
lnteIIect. ÞubIisbers ef eriginaI tbinking
1he Hlll, larnall ld, 8rlstcl 88¡6 !lC, ul
crders©lntellectbccks.ccn
www.lntellectbccks.ccn
8y lchn 8erra / l88N 9I8I84Iä0I8äI
SDF 2.1_03_art_Landesman.qxd 3/14/08 1:31 PM Page 46
Studies in Documentary Film Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd
Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.47/1
Digital video and Alexandre Astruc’s
caméra-stylo: the new avant-garde in
documentary realized?
Bjørn Sørenssen Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Abstract
In 1948 the French film maker and critic Alexandre Astruc published an essay
where he, inspired by the promises of new cinema technology (16mm,) prophe-
sied a breakthrough in patterns of production and distribution of the moving
picture. In the end Astruc envisaged the birth of a new cinema aesthetics drawing
on the experiences of the avantgarde. This article poses the question of whether
the breakthrough of digital production and distribution of documentary films has
brought us closer to Astruc´s vision in the field of documentary film. The article
poses the question: Does expanded access to digital production means and distrib-
ution channels of audiovisual media also imply an enhancement of the democratic
potential of these media, traditionally dominated by producers with access to
capital? Alternatively, will this development influence and change the dominating
media structure, or will it fall victim to a fragmentization into several non-
connected “partial public spaces”? These questions are discussed using an exam-
ple of how our concept of the documentary is challenged by a video blog from an
octogenarian using the pseudonym “Geriatric1927” on YouTube.
In 1948 the French film-maker and critic Alexandre Astruc published an
essay in the journal L’Écran français, No. 144 with the title ‘Naissance
d’une nouvelle avantgarde: La camera-stylo’ (‘The birth of a new avant-
garde: the caméra-stylo’). In this essay he used as his departure point
recent progress in cinema aesthetics represented by directors like Orson
Welles and Jean Renoir and drew attention to how this connected with
two recent technological advances in cinematography: the 16mm film for-
mat and television. Astruc envisioned a new breakthrough for film as a
medium, no longer only as an entertainment medium, but as a funda-
mental tool for human communication:
. . . with the development of 16mm and television, the day is not far off when
everyone will possess a projector, will go to the local bookstore and hire films
written on any subject, of any form, from literary criticism and novels to math-
ematics, history, and general science. From that moment on, it will no longer
be possible to speak of the cinema. There will be several cinemas just as today
there are several literatures, for the cinema, like literature, is not so much a
particular art as a language which can express any sphere of thought.
(Astruc in Graham 1968: 19)
47 SDF 2 (1) pp. 47–59 © Intellect Ltd 2008
Keywords
Documentary film
film history
web 2.0
public sphere
Habermas
digital documentary
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 47
In this article I intend to return to Astruc’s 1948 epiphany, which
implicitly makes a statement highly relevant for the contemporary dis-
course around ‘new’ media: by developing new media technology there is
also created a new and changed pattern of production and distribution and,
subsequently, a new aesthetics. It also raises significant questions about
the role of media in the public space. Does expanded access to the digital
production means and distribution channels of audio-visual media also
imply an enhancement of the democratic potential of these media, tra-
ditionally dominated by producers with access to capital? Alternatively,
will this development influence and change the dominating media
structure, or will it fall victim to a fragmentation into several non-
connected ‘partial public spaces’? Finally I will discuss an example of
how our concept of the documentary is challenged in the form of a
video blog by an octogenarian using the pseudonym ‘geriatric1927’ on
YouTube. Is this an example of the new and unexpected manifestations
of a ‘new’ documentary aesthetics?
It is always interesting to review old utopian visions, as they
remind us of our part in fulfilling or failing to fulfil the expectations of
earlier generations. In the present case one may safely say that the
technological vision of Astruc in 1948 managed to give a fairly accu-
rate description of the general access to audio-visual material
through DVD players (‘everyone will possess a projector’) and the
local bookstore as a source for films ‘written on any subject’ (admit-
tedly supplanted by the present-day supermarkets and drug stores). In
addition to this, there are now personal computers with broadband
connections in the majority of homes in western Europe and North
America, making it possible to fill the virtual shopping bag with a
plethora of audio-visual offerings. The vision of ‘literary criticism and
novels [...] mathematics, history, and general science’ as the main
content of the shopping bag is, however, more dubious. One may
safely assume that in terms of film aesthetics the offerings of the local
supermarkets and video stores are closer to the kind of superficial
entertainment the young Astruc polemicized against in 1948, and
that the following was just the plain wishful thinking of a French
post-war intellectual:
a Descartes of today would already have shut himself up in his bedroom with
a 16mm camera and some film, and would be writing his philosophy on
film: for his Discours de la Methode would today be of such a kind that only
the cinema could express it satisfactorily.
(Astruc in Graham 1968: 19)
At the time of writing the medium Alexandre Astruc discussed was a little
more than a century old and had undergone what for Astruc and his con-
temporaries appeared to be an astonishingly fast development. And the
leap from the images in Edison’s Kinetoscope and the Cinématograph to
an entertainment industry, which in the post-war year of 1948 was at its
apex, was indeed impressive. Astruc also had the foresight to mention
what in the ensuing years would challenge and surpass the cinema as the
primary audio-visual medium: television.
48
Bjørn Sørenssen
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 48
Astruc’s main worry for this new medium was primarily of an aes-
thetic kind. He maintained that the dominating film industry had failed to
grasp that the media products distributed every day to an audience of
millions were incomplete in that they were barely able to make use of the
communication possibilities inherent in the film medium as language and
culture. Like other film theoreticians at this time, for example André Bazin
and Sergei Eisenstein, Astruc was convinced that the most revolutionizing
potential in the film medium was of a linguistic character and that this
potential was still unfulfilled.
However, the vision presented by Astruc contains three implicit con-
clusions, in addition to the overarching one, that I shall attempt to apply
to the contemporary situation for audio-visual media:
1. New technology provides new means of expression. As a result of this
the film medium (i.e. forms of audio-visual expression) develops from
being exclusive and privileged to a common and publicly available form
of expression.
2. This, in turn, opens space for a more democratic use of the medium.
3. It also opens up new possibilities for modern (contemporary) and dif-
ferent forms and usages (avant-garde).
Moving images: from invention to industry – from industry
to common property?
At this point it would seem necessary to view these conclusions in a his-
torical context in order to highlight how the relationship between techno-
logical innovation, democratization and audio-visual aesthetics has
developed over the years since the breakthrough of the pioneers of the
moving images at the end of the nineteenth century.
1
It may appear paradoxical that when we go to a movie theatre in
2007 we are still at the mercy of George Eastman’s 35mm perforated
photographic film for the Edison Kinetoscope from 1892. This format is
still dominant in terms of large screen presentation of the products of the
motion picture industry for a mass audience, despite the fact that all edit-
ing and a substantial part of the recording of image and sound is done in
a digital format. The size of the photographically recorded image secures
the good image resolution so necessary for theatrical projection, and this
has been one of the main hindrances for those, like Astruc, who have
envisioned a film technology available for all. The development of the film
industry in the years around World War I was based on 35mm technol-
ogy, and in spite of the fact that the producers of photographic film, like
Kodak and Agfa, presented various alternative formats meant for ama-
teur use, these were still too expensive and complicated to become an
alternative to amateur still photography. Admittedly, there were smaller
and more accessible versions of the 35mm camera, but with the intro-
duction of sound film from 1927 onwards, the price of audio-visual state-
of-the-art recording equipment was beyond the means of the individual.
As shown by Patricia Zimmermann (1995) a certain niche culture
developed around the amateur film formats that were offered by the
producers of photographic film. The problems of expensive and bulky
49
Digital video and Alexandre Astruc’s caméra-stylo: the new avant-garde . . .
1. B. Ruby Rich has
remarked that
‘Documentary history
sometimes reads like a
patent-office log in
terms of its
generations of
machinery [...], with
endlessly renewed
promises of enhanced
access that
occasionally really
does follow’
(Rich 2006: 111).
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/17/08 1:42 PM Page 49
35mm equipment was met with various forms of narrow gauge film, for
example 17.5mm and 9.5mm, before Kodak in 1923 introduced the
16mm safety film on an acetate film base. In addition to the limitations
created by bulk and price connected with the 35mm format for those
wishing to make movies outside of the industry, the fact that the 35mm
film was produced on a highly flammable nitrate base was one of the
major hindrances for alternative forms of film production and exhibition.
Because of the fire danger, most countries had developed a strict set
of rules for the projection of nitrate-based motion pictures, rules that
frequently were used to bar films with a perceived ‘inflammatory’ content
from public exhibition.
In Astruc’s article, we can see how the elimination of some of these lim-
itations gave rise to an almost euphoric hope for a ‘liberation of the cinema’,
equal to the liberation Europe had experienced in the wake of the victory
over Nazism. As pointed out above, the article was written at the same
time as television had its definitive breakthrough as a mass medium in the
United States but it anticipated how television was to supplant cinema as
the most important audio-visual medium within the next decade. In this
development the 16mm film format would play an important role. The
better resolution of the 35mm image was not of importance when the
image was to be realized on a flickering 17- to 20-inch screen. This in turn
led to an upgrading and a professionalization of the 16mm format from an
amateur medium to an important production medium for the news and
actuality divisions of television companies. The new and largely improved
recording systems for 16mm film with synchronous sound became as eco-
nomically unattainable for amateurs as previously the 35mm had been
and as a consequence the photo industry introduced new, cheaper (and in
terms of technological aspects such as image resolution – inferior) alterna-
tives in the form of 8mm and, later super-8mm film.
This development, where the introduction of new and expensive tech-
nology eventually would spawn more consumer-friendly versions, was
repeated with the introduction of electronically stored moving pictures.
The videotape recorder was introduced during the mid-1950s and after
having existed during a decade as a very expensive production and storage
facility, the development of more effective and affordable technology led to
more accessible versions of this technology. First as half-inch video tape
recorders (Portapak) and later, in the 1970s, as video cassettes. The VHS-
VCR format, and later the Video-8/Hi-8 cassette system, gave users access
to mass-produced video cameras that more or less realized the vision
about a technology for video production as easily available as amateur still
photography.
But even after the video camcorder had made its way into millions of
homes, the quality gap between ‘real’ film and television products and
those of the merry multitudes of video amateurs was formidable. The place
of the amateur formats was the intimate family sphere, with family and
friends as an audience, while moving images in the public space were still
reserved for film and television companies with seemingly unlimited
access to capital. The technology for video editing was still directed
towards the professional market and thus well beyond the means for amateur
use. However, the real needle eye, in terms of opening up the relationship
50
Bjørn Sørenssen
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/17/08 1:42 PM Page 50
between the private and public sphere for video amateurs, was the system
of distribution. Admittedly, the broadcasters found ways to integrate and
use the new, wider accessibility of video-recording equipment through
programmes like America’s Funniest Home Movies, but the ideal of open
access media was as distant for the video enthusiasts of the 1980s as for
the amateur film enthusiasts in the pre-war years.
The most recent development in the relationship between amateur and
professional relates to the transition from analogue to digital media and
the emergence of the World Wide Web (WWW). During the 1990s the
film and television industry moved from analogue to digital technology,
first in editing, later also in camera technology. Midway into the first
decade of the twenty-first century, essentially all that remains of analogue
image technology in film and television are the end stations: television and
movie-theatre screens.
These breakthroughs in digital technology for the professional media
were soon taken up by the market for consumer and amateur video, where
the analogue Video-8 and Hi-8 formats were supplanted by digital tape for-
mats as Mini-DV cassettes in addition to the possibility of direct recording to
DVD or hard disk. Even more important was the fact that digital video-
editing technology now appeared as consumer products. An example of
this is that Apple’s iMovie editing program was delivered bundled with the
OS X operating system, facilitating relatively advanced editing possibilities
on a desktop personal computer or a laptop. American film-maker Jonathan
Caoutte’s documentary Tarnation, making quite an impact at the Cannes
Film Festival in 2004, was in its entirety edited with the help of iMovie.
At the same time there has, as a result of the development of the
Internet, been a marked change in the distribution situation for film and
video producers operating outside of the established media channels. With
the development of the World Wide Web combined with expanded access
to broadband services in Europe and North America, several alternative
possibilities of distribution have emerged. Through various forms of
streaming video formats, the personal computer has been turned into an
important distribution channel, opening up for the distribution of alterna-
tive forms and content compared to traditional television and cable channels.
In addition, the recent development in mobile telephony must be men-
tioned. The mobile telephone has in a very short time gone from being a
mobile version of the traditional phone to a digital media centre, able to
function as a combined source of music, pocket-sized PC and movie camera
as well as functioning as a telephone.
The developments described above, where apparently a new situation
for user participation within the audio-visual culture has risen, may be
summarized in three main points:
1. Economic availability: The gap in costs and quality between production
and editing equipment and software for professional and mass consumers
has closed up considerably.
2. Miniaturization: Equipment that previously demanded considerable
resources in terms of logistics has been replaced with equipment that is
lightweight, does not occupy much space and is well adapted for indi-
vidual operation.
51
Digital video and Alexandre Astruc’s caméra-stylo: the new avant-garde . . .
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 51
3. New and alternative forms of distribution: From being forced to circulate
in a very restricted public sphere, the establishment of distribution sites
on the World Wide Web has opened up possibilities for mass medial dis-
tribution for alternative audio-visual products.
On the possibilities for democratic participation in the public
sphere – ‘Gegenöffentlichkeit’.
This development may, with possible benefit, be described within the para-
digm of what is usually referred to as the public sphere in English. This term
is again closely connected with the theoretical work of Jürgen Habermas
from his 1962 book Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit published in English
27 years later as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An
Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. In the decade following the
English translation of Habermas’s seminal work, the concept of public sphere
has become a central theoretical aspect in describing the development of
the relationship between society and the individual in the twentieth century
and it has been actualized with the arrival of the Internet as a commu-
nication channel. (A recent Google search for ‘Habermas + blogosphere’
yielded 108,000 hits!).
2
In addition to having been included in the English-language discourse
on public sphere/space, there has been a renewed interest in Oskar Negt
and Alexander Kluge’s Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung (1972), (English trans-
lation Public Sphere and Experience: Towards an Analysis of the Bourgeois and
Proletarian Public Sphere (1993)) (see Hansen 1981/1982, 1983). In this
book, strongly influenced by the 1970s discourse on ideology, the authors
emphasize the necessity to take into consideration how the European
working class would relate to public space according to the experience of
its members. Habermas only referred in passing to this plebeian Öffentlichkeit.
They give several examples of how alternative forms of Öffentlichkeit were
organized in the interwar years in organized labour movements in Germany
and Austria, characterized as Gegenöffentlichkeit – public spheres organized
in response and opposition to the dominating public space, or counter pub-
licity as it has been referred to in English (Mark Poster, in fact, uses the
expression oppositional public sphere (Poster 2001: 179)). However, as Negt
and Kluge point out, these attempts, as represented by the German
Communist Party and the Austrian Social Democratic Party, soon ended
up in situations where they would merely establish parallel institutions
emulating the bourgeois public sphere, thus ending up as isolated social
organizations – what the authors refer to as Lageröffentlichkeit, or literally
encampment public spheres.
In the years following World War II we find similar attempts at using
available amateur technology to establish alternative ‘filmic oppositional
public spheres’ through the American avant-garde movement and in the
independent documentary movement. The main problem was, of course,
that since these movements existed well outside the public sphere of the
film industry, they would start out and end up as marginalized phenom-
ena. Attempts at establishing alternative distribution and exhibition chan-
nels through the 1960s and 1970s usually ended up as interesting
although isolated movements that resounded more with cineaste groups
than with a general audience.
52
Bjørn Sørenssen
2. In this context it
should be noted that
the English translation
of the German
Öffentlichkeit carries
over some translation
problems that public
sphere does not quite
cover. In her
introduction to Oskar
Negt and Alexander
Kluge’s Public Sphere
and Experience Miriam
Hansen expresses it in
this way:
‘The German term
Öffentlichkeit
encompasses a variety
of meanings that
elude its English
rendering as “public
sphere”. Like the
latter, it implies to a
spatial concept, the
social sites or arenas
where meanings are
articulated,
distributed, and
negotiated, as well as
the collective body
constituted by and in
this process, “the
public”. But
Öffentlichkeit also
denotes an ideational
substance or criterion –
“glasnost” – or
openness (which has
the same root in
German, “offen”) –
that is produced both
within these sites and
in larger,
deterritorialized
contexts; the English
word “publicity”
grasps this sense only
in its historically
alienated form. In the
dialectical tension
between these two
senses, Negt and
Kluge develop their
concept of
Öffentlichkeit as the
“general horizon of
social experience”’.
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 52
In the context of film history, however, these marginalized ‘mini-
publicities’ were to have an impression vastly larger than on their modest
audiences in the form that could be referred to as aesthetic counter-publicities.
One such case is the British Free Cinema documentary movement in the
1950s, which became influential not only in the field of documentary, but
also for British feature-film production in the ensuing years, inspiring a
new everyday style dubbed ‘kitchen-sink realism’. The groundbreaking
short documentary subjects of Free Cinema, produced as a response to the
perceived conservativism of the Griersonian documentary movement,
were only shown on six occasions at the National Film Theatre in London,
something that hardly may be termed a mass medial context. However,
the films became very influential in the ongoing public debate about docu-
mentary and feature films in post-war Britain (see Street 1997: 78–80
and Lovell: 1972: 142–156). Similarly, today we can see how amateurs
producing digital video within an experimental frame – video blogs, news-
groups, etc. – on the Internet very often represent an impact on commer-
cial and institutional audio-visual forms.
In the same vein, the expanded possibilities created by new media tech-
nology, in this case lightweight recording equipment for 16mm sound
film, revolutionized the field of anthropological film and brought about the
concept of cinéma-vérité. This direction, with its ambition to get closer to
everyday life than the classic documentary had been able to, originally
addressed a specialist audience in the field of ethnology and anthropology,
but it is today recognized as the precursor of the mass media phenomenon
of reality TV.
Online audio-visual culture – the realization of Astruc’s utopia?
In terms of history we have been able to examine how different forms of
‘alternative’ publicities have emerged in a media context, with movements
and phenomena suggesting a far wider scope than Habermas’s original
use of the concept Öffentlichkeit, but these alternative forms draw on the
type of human communicative interaction discussed in Theorie des kommu-
nikativen handelns (Habermas 1981). According to Douglas Kellner there is
a considerable widening of the Öffentlichkeit concept in contemporary soci-
ety due to the application of new media technology. This implies that it is
necessary to go beyond the defined historical context of Habermas and
view the ‘new’ public sphere as ‘a site of information, discussion, contesta-
tion, political struggle, and organization that includes the broadcasting
media and new cyberspaces as well as the face-to-face interactions of
everyday life’ (Kellner 2000).
It is possible to discern this convergence between the ‘great’ publicity
and the many ‘part’ and ‘counter’ publicities in what Kellner terms the
‘new cyberspace’, i.e. the World Wide Web and its repercussions on
contemporary life. The millions of personal computers in the industrial-
ized world have long ago been changed from one-way communication
receivers to potential media production tools, supported by a similar
number of mobile telephones with recording possibilities for sound and
moving images. The Web has become a rupture in the wall between the
private and the public sphere, challenging the dystopia of Habermas in
1962 – where the forces of the mass media industry had more or less
53
Digital video and Alexandre Astruc’s caméra-stylo: the new avant-garde . . .
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 53
successfully invaded the private sphere – and presenting a more opti-
mistic view, where the single individual can and will contribute to public
discourse.
However, Habermas still seems to maintain a pessimistic attitude
towards the supposed expansion of public discourse that the Web (or what
has been termed Web 2.0) may allow. In the acceptance speech for receiv-
ing the Bruno Kreisky Prize in Vienna on 9 March 2006 he said:
Use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of
communication. This is why the Internet can have a subversive effect on
intellectual life in authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, the less for-
mal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens the
achievements of traditional media. This focuses the attention of an anony-
mous and dispersed public on select topics and information, allowing citi-
zens to concentrate on the same critically filtered issues and journalistic
pieces at any given time. The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism
offered by the Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories. In
this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a
focus.
(Habermas 2006: 4)
This double-edged character of online society, vacillating between democ-
ratic potentiality and superficial vulgarity, emerges in several of the new
fora developing for the new production-empowered net users. An excellent
example in the field of moving pictures is the website YouTube.com.
YouTube is a very good example how and how fast innovation happens in
the world of WWW (a story not unlike that of Napster). The website was
established by three young enthusiasts, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and
Jawed Karim, in May 2005 in order to make a website allowing users to
upload video files for free use. It opened in November 2005 and by early
summer 2006 the net traffic gauge Alexia had already placed the site
among the top ten worldwide. When the film industry threatened
YouTube with legal action because of copyrighted material made available
on the website (an obvious parallel to the Napster case five years earlier),
YouTube in February 2006 decided to limit the length of non-registered
video uploads to 10 minutes. The media buzz around this gave extended
promotion of the website and eventually the media industry signalled another
and more accommodating approach than was the case in the Napster
debacle. In June 2006 NBC, after having initialized the threat of prosecu-
tion decided on a cooperative deal with YouTube, switching to using the
website instead as a promotion channel for its film and video products. By
October of that year YouTube had made deals with several music produc-
ers ensuring free distribution of music videos. At the same time it was
announced that Google had purchased the company for 1.6 billion dollars.
However, the main reason for the enormous success of YouTube lies in
the fact that it operates as an open channel for the teeming millions of
prospective content producers who, thanks to the technological and
economic development of digital media production equipment, now have
the possibilities to exchange meanings, experiences and – perhaps most
importantly – ways of expression through the film medium. Every day on
54
Bjørn Sørenssen
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 54
YouTube sees the debut of new pieces of audio-visual expression, from film
snippets to entire feature films, and some of these may generate millions of
hits attracted by digital word-of-mouth. By registering as a director with
the service, there is also the possibility of opening up a new ‘channel’,
where visitors can log on and give commentaries in text or in the form of
new video material. In this way a network of thousands (the auteurs of the
twenty-first century to use a parallel in film history) has been established
and these new auteurs have found a mass audience that would have been
inconceivable for an earlier amateur without economic and technological
access to mass media.
The main problem with YouTube as a distribution channel is the signal/
noise ratio: every item has to contend for space with an avalanche of
homebrew video snippets of laughing babies, stupid dogs, an unending
number of popular film and TV show emulations, in addition to the fact
the entertainment industry has belatedly acknowledged the marketing
potential of YouTube and is swamping the website with promotional mate-
rial. Thus, the site fully illustrates Habermas’s worry about the loss of
focus in the sea of individual contributions heavily reliant on the various
hegemonic forms of expression. An example of this may be found in one of
the great ‘rating successes’ on YouTube in Lizzie Palmer’s Remember Me,
catapulting a 15-year-old American high school student to national fame
with a still photo montage of American soldiers in Iraq accompanied by
New Age-style music and ending with the words: ‘Each and every soldier
needs our support [. . .] don’t let them down.’ Appealing to a large segment
of Americans, this modest production was able to reach a viewership of
more the 20 million by October 2007 after having been picked up and
shown on Fox News Channel in June the same year.
In spite of this, however, there are also numerous examples of innova-
tive formal experiments on YouTube, several of which have been able to
benefit from word-of-mouth promotion encouraged, among other factors,
by the website’s rating system.
Globalized and intergenerational communication: the case
of ‘geriatric1927’
An interesting phenomenon among YouTube ‘auteurs’ is the pseudonym
‘geriatric1927’ appearing on a website usually dominated by a very
youthful audience. After a short personal introduction with the title
‘Geriatric Grumbles’, the YouTube audience comes face to face with an
elderly British gentleman using a simple web camera to declare his enthu-
siasm for the YouTube community and declaring his intention to share his
life experiences with his audience. As over 4,000 YouTubers quickly sent
him positive feedback, ‘geriatric1927’ started a series with the title Telling
It All that by early January 2008 had reached 57 ‘episodes’.
3
In this auto-
biographic monologue the audience is informed about growing up in pre-
World War II class-dominated England, about the person behind the
pseudonym, whose first name is Peter and he was (as his moniker hinted)
79 years old at the first posting, a widower, has an education in the field of
mechanical engineering and has been working in the British health sector
prior to being self-employed and later having retired. He leads off every
new ‘episode’ with a short vignette of text and music – mainly classic
55
Digital video and Alexandre Astruc’s caméra-stylo: the new avant-garde . . .
3. The number of video
postings by ‘geriatric
1927’ had reached
100 as of January
2008, with less
emphasis on ‘Telling
it All’ and more on
contemporary issues,
especially about the
conditions for the
elderly in the United
Kingdom.
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 55
blues – before addressing his audience with: ‘Hello YouTubers!’ From this
point the web camera rests on him as he continues his monologue, with
an ample amount of digressions, about growing up in another age. The
response from his audience, which seems to have stabilized around
20,000–30,000, comes in the form of text and video blogs addressed to
him, parodies (most of them good-natured, with a few exceptions) and
responses sent to his new website (http://www.askgeriatric.com/). The
average viewer seems to be of a very young age, a fact that is interesting
and suggests a need with the present ‘Generation Y’ for a kind of grandfa-
ther figure.
4
With media exposure comes fame, and ‘Peter’ has been awarded con-
siderable attention in the regular media, with coverage on BBC radio and
the Washington Post as well as other media. However, he has refused to
‘come out’ on regular television and has managed to maintain his relative
anonymity. On several occasions he has broken off his autobiography to
comment on the kind of pressure that public media exerts and where he
maintains his loyalty to ‘his YouTubers’ and insists on the qualities of the
conversation and personal correspondence as preferable to being exposed
in the regular mass media – a point of view that undoubtedly appears sen-
sational for an audience led to believe that exposure via the mass media is
the meaning of life!
In a recent article Dave Harley and Geraldine Fitzpatrick have been look-
ing at geriatric1927 in the context of globalized and intergenerational com-
munication (Harley and Fitzpatrick 2008). In addition to pointing out that
the activities of Peter highlights the discrepancy between the increased life
length expectancy in present society and the distribution of Internet use in
age groups over 60, the authors draw attention to how the YouTube com-
munity may serve as a learning tool for the would-be digital video producer:
His confidence in his own abilities appears to be faltering at this point, both in
terms of his ability to express himself through his videos and in terms of pro-
ducing and uploading content onto the YouTube website. What begins as an
individual effort by Peter soon develops into a collaborative endeavour through
the comments he receives from his viewers. They give him feedback in a num-
ber of ways which help him to develop his video presence within YouTube. The
following are examples of viewers’ comments that critique the technical aspects
of his video production and give him technical advice on how to improve it:
‘Try putting music into the video through the program you are using, it would sound
much better :)’ [ZS
9
, 19, US – response to Video 1]
‘You can also change the colors on Windows Movie Maker. When you are typing
your text down by where it says animation or what ever to change the display of your
text it should be right there. Just click that and you can change the font and then
color is right under the font.’ [Gt, 21, US – response to Video 2]
Peter is quick to take advantage of the advice given and the changes in pro-
duction qualities and techniques in subsequent videos show evidence of the
results of his learning.
(Harley and Fitzpatrick 2008)
56
Bjørn Sørenssen
4. With a grandparent
generation living in
Florida or Arizona (or
Spain in the case of
northern European
youths) is it possible
that new living
patterns in the middle
class have opened up
an unexpected
deprivation?
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 56
All in all, it is remarkable to what extent the video blog of geriatric1927
appears as a collective enterprise actually enhancing the highly individual
character of the project. He has established what seems to be a solid ‘fan
base’ of younger people who, in addition to providing a continuous feed-
back on form and content matters, have also helped him in establishing
and maintaining a website. This dual character of collective support and
individual presentation presents an interesting contrast to Astruc’s individ-
ualized vision of a future Descartes holed up in his room with his camera.
Peter is writing his life with his camera pen, but he is not doing it alone.
In The Subject of Documentary (2004) Michael Renov points out that
over the last decades we have seen a shift in individual self-expression from
written media (diaries and other written material) to a culture of audio-
visual self-presentation both inside and outside of the documentary insti-
tution. Is this tendency to audio-visual self-presentation a ‘turn inwards’,
a retreat from the traditional societal role of documentary, a turn from
Paul Rotha’s ‘documentary as pulpit’ to the ‘documentary as a confes-
sional’? Renov does not see it that way:
. . . video confessions produced and exchanged in nonhegemonic contexts
can be powerful tools for self-understanding, as well as for two-way commu-
nication. [They] [. . .] afford a glimpse of a more utopian trajectory in which
cultural production and consumption mingle and interact, and in which the
media facilitate understanding across the gaps of human difference rather
than simply capitalizing on these differences in a rush to spectacle.
(Renov 2004: 215)
With Telling It All we can also glimpse the contours of an innovation in the
relationship with the ‘classic’ documentary, an innovation that to a large
extent may be ascribed to the change in forms of distribution represented
by digital audio-visual narrative. A recurring problem within documen-
tary theory and practice is the question of representation – or the burden of
representation, as documentary film-maker Isaac Julien has put it (Trinh
1992: s.193). The Griersonian project of the 1920s and 1930s was, to a
large extent, a pedagogical project. Grierson wanted to use the film
medium in order to illustrate the extent to which modern society was a
result of a complicated pattern of interaction among its citizens. The prob-
lem, as critics of Grierson have pointed out, was that British documentary
tended to reduce the subjects of the films to de-individualized, representa-
tive figures subjected to a master narrative they had no control over.
This problematic has led to several experiments in letting the subjects
in the documentary express themselves more directly, as in the Canadian
social documentary project Challenge for Change in the 1960s where
enthusiastic film-makers passed out cameras and sound equipment and
experimented with inclusive editing and distribution formats. The reason
this and other similar projects failed was that the distribution link was
marginalized and that however democratic the intensions were, the initia-
tive for and control of the film project came from outside and from above.
5
In Telling it All we have a case where the subject controls his own
narrative from the very first moment. In this way ‘Peter’ and his video
autobiography represent a dramatic challenge to a film genre that at
57
Digital video and Alexandre Astruc’s caméra-stylo: the new avant-garde . . .
5. About the perceived
failure of the Challenge
for Change programme,
see Marchessault
(1995: 131);
Kurchak (1972:
120); Svenstedt
(1970: 85).
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 57
times may seem at odds with its own proclaimed democratic potentiality.
Paula Rabinowitz sums up this problematic in the very title of her book
dealing with how social conditions have been described in theatre and
television documentaries throughout the twentieth century: They Must be
Represented. This title denotes a ‘they’ and a ‘we’, where all good intentions
of acting on behalf of others very often leads to a cementation of existing
social constellations – the subject of the documentary invariably becomes
trapped in the role of victim, as Brian Winston points out (Winston 1995).
This brings us back to Alexandre Astruc and his vision of the future
author (auteur) who writes, using a camera instead of a pen. A major
point for Astruc was that the perceived new media situation would open
up alternative ways and means of audio-visual expression, hence his insis-
tence of connecting the new technology with the aesthetics of the avant-
garde. For him, the new technological possibilities meant more than just a
democratization of the medium, instead he regarded it as a necessary reju-
venation of film form, liberating it from the old. Could it be that parts of
this vision are being realized today, in the unlikely figure of an 80-year-old
‘auteur’ using a global digital network to transfer his experiences and nar-
ratives to a younger generation?
References
Astruc, Alexandre (1968), ‘The birth of a new avant-garde: La caméra-stylo’, in
Peter Graham (ed.), The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, London: Secker &
Warburg in association with the British Film Institute.
Calhoun, Craig (1992), Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Corneil, Marit Kathryn (2003), Challenge for Change: An experiment in documentary
ethics at the National Film Board of Canada, Master’s thesis, Norwegian University
of Science and Technology, Trondheim.
Graham, Peter (ed.) (1968), The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, London: Secker &
Warburg in association with the British Film Institute.
Habermas, Jürgen (1981) Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, Frankfurt am Main:
Suhrkamp Verlag.
—— (1991), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a
Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
—— (1992), ‘Further Reflections on the Public Sphere’, in Craig Calhoun,
Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
—— (2006), Preisrede [. . .] anlässlich der Verleihung des Bruno-Kreisky-Preises für
das politische Buch 2005, Renner-Institut, Vienna.
Hansen, Miriam (1981/1982), ‘Cooperative Auteur Cinema and Oppositional
Public Sphere: Alexander Kluge’s Contribution to Germany in Autumn’, New
German Critique, 24/25 (Autumn 1981–Winter 1982), pp. 36–56.
—— (1983), ‘Early Silent Cinema: Whose Public Sphere?’, New German Critique,
29 (Spring–Summer), pp. 147–84.
Harley, Dave and Fitzpatrick, Geraldine (2008), ‘YouTube and Intergenerational
Communication: The Case of Geriatric1927’, Universal Access in the Information
Society, (special issue: ‘HCI and older people’).
Kellner, Douglas (2000), ‘Habermas, the Public Sphere, and Democracy: A Critical
Intervention’, in Perspectives on Habermas, Lewis Hahn (ed.) (2000) Chicago: Open
Court Press, http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/papers/habermas.htm
accessed November 2007.
58
Bjørn Sørenssen
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/17/08 1:42 PM Page 58
Kurchak, Marie (1972), ‘What Challenge? What Change’, reprinted from Take One,
4: 1 (September–October), in Seth Feldman and Joyce Nelson (eds) (1977), The
Canadian Film Reader, Toronto: Peter Martin Associates.
Lovell, Alan (1972), “Free Cinema” in Alan Lovell and Jim Hillier, Studies in
Documentary, London: Secker & Warburg in association with the British Film
Institute.
Marchessault, Janine (1995), ‘Reflections on the Dispossessed: Video and the
Challenge for Change experiment’, in Screen, 36: 2 (Summer), p. 131.
Negt, Oscar and Kluge, Alexander (1994), Public Sphere and Experience: Towards an
Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere, Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.
Poster, Mark (2001), What´s the Matter with the Internet?, Minneapolis/London:
University of Minnesota Press.
Renov, Michael (2004), The Subject of Documentary, Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.
Rich, B. Ruby (2006), ‘Documentary Disciplines: An Introduction’, Cinema Journal,
46: 1, pp 108–115.
Street, Sarah (1997), British National Cinema, London: Routledge.
Svenstedt, Carl Henrik (1970), Arbetarna Lamner Fabriken, Stockholm: Pan/
Norstedts.
Trinh T. Minh-Ha (1992), Framer Framed, New York: Routledge.
Winston, Brian (1995), Claiming the Real, London: British Film Institute.
Zimmermann, Patricia R. (1995), Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Suggested citation
Sørenssen, B. (2008), ‘Digital video and Alexandre Astruc’s caméra-stylo: the new
avant-garde in documentary realized?’, Studies in Documentary Film2: 1, pp. 47–59,
doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.47/1
Contributor details
Bjørn Sørenssen is Professor of Film and and Media at the Department of Art and
Media Studies at the The Norwegian University of Science and Technology,
Trondheim. His main research interests are in film history, documentary and new
media technology. He has published a considerable number of articles internation-
ally on these themes in addition to articles and books in Norwegian, among these
Å fange virkeligheten. Dokumentarfilmens århundre (Catching Reality. The Century of the
Documentary) (2001, 2nd edition 2007.) Contact: Bjørn Sørenssen, Department of
Art and Media Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, P.A.
Munchs gt.17, N-7030 Trondheim, Norway.
E-mail: bjosor@sigyn.hf.ntnu.no
59
Digital video and Alexandre Astruc’s caméra-stylo: the new avant-garde . . .
SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 59
liIm 8tudies /Art ö Leslgn / Hedla ö culture / 1heatre ö lerlcrnance
Heng Keng New wave 0inema
¡9¯8-2000
1he crltlcally acclalned and pcpular
Hcng lcng ' New wave' pl ayed
a hlstcrlcally, eccncnlcally and
culturally slgnlllcant rcle ln Hcng
lcng and chlna's clnena lndustrles.
?fe^Bfe^E\nNXm\:`e\dX presents
a ccnprehenslve thecretlcal analysls
cl the ncvenent, lccuslng cn lts
hlstcrlcal ccntext, style, and dlrectcrs.
cheuk engages wlth the aesthetlc
cl 'New wave', explcrlng narratlve
ccntent, structure and nlse·en·scène
tc cller a thcrcugh understandlng cl
the genre. Addltlcnally, cheuk dlscusses
the dlrectcrs, analyslng trends ln
thelr educatlcn (the najcrlty are
graduates lrcn western unlversltles)
and prcvldlng valuable lnslght lntc
the dlrectcrs' reccurrlng thenes-
cppcsltlcns between Last and west, rlch
and pccr, and ccncerns wlth ldentlty
ln Hcng lcng. ?fe^Bfe^E\nNXm\
:`e\dX cllers ccnprehenslve ccverage
cl the 'New wave', ccntextuallslng
the clnena and explalnlng lts ellects
wcrldwlde.
Æ
Æ
£I9.9ä
/ $40
8ccks
lnteIIect. ÞubIisbers ef eriginaI tbinking
1he Hlll, larnall ld, 8rlstcl 88¡6 !lC, ul
crders©lntellectbccks.ccn
www.lntellectbccks.ccn
8y lak 1cng cheuk / l88N 9I8I84Iä0I482

SDF 2.1_04_art_Sorensson.qxd 3/14/08 10:22 AM Page 60
Studies in Documentary Film Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd
Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.61/1
Documentary expression online: The
Wrong Crowd, a history documentary
for an ‘electrate’ audience
Debra Beattie Griffith University
Abstract
The Wrong Crowd is a history documentary produced with funding from the
Australian Film Commission for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s
Internet portal in 2003. Key issues encountered in producing within the computer-
mediated parameters of an online screen are contained in the debates around con-
structing a digitized reality within a non-linear format, the attendant resolution
of tension between narration and navigation as well as the enhanced audience
experience of interaction in the unfolding of the historical argument.
In 2001 I was funded to create a history documentary for the Australian
Broadcasting Corporation’s Internet portal. As writer, producer and director
I worked with computer artist and web designer Scott Bennett to create a
seventeen-scene online documentary. This collaboration between film-
maker and web artist working together to create a new form of documentary
content was the result of an innovative policy initiative that year from the
Australian Film Commission. This article discusses the key issues encoun-
tered in creating documentary content within a computer-mediated
environment. Constructing a digitized reality in a non-linear format,
where the user becomes integral to the flow of the narrative, required
challenging creative decisions to be made.
Overall there were three key issues that arose in the production of The
Wrong Crowd:
• The uncharted waters of the audience/user reception within this new
delivery platform
• The competing needs of organizing a non-linear database and scripting
a linear narrative
• ‘Warranting’ of evidence to support a history documentary exacer-
bated by the verisimilitude of digital media
History documentaries made for television already occupy a contentious
space in the public sphere. In claiming to convey the ‘truth’ of the past, the
documentary-maker has traditionally taken earlier documents of the
media – radio, television, newspapers – and placed them in a linear narra-
tive context thus allowing the audience, under the direction of the film-
maker, to reflect on a sequence of images detailing the unfolding of an
61 SDF 2 (1) pp. 61–78 © Intellect Ltd 2008
Keywords
electrate
virtual reality
QTVR
interactive
mise-en-scène
verisimilitude
bildungsroman
Annalistes
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 2:46 PM Page 61
event or events. In addition to these media ‘documents’, photographs, film
and video footage, archival records and primary source documents con-
tribute to the documentary’s evidentiary status. Indeed the documentary
form needs to contain this visible evidence to stake its claim as ‘actuality’.
Within the documentary toolbox, as well as prima facie evidence and
eyewitness accounts, the film-maker also has recourse to re-enactments or
re-creations in the unfolding of the documentary argument. So often are
re-enactments used as key planks in the production of the history docu-
mentary that the genre would be seen to fit comfortably within the hybrid
form of drama-documentary, carefully articulated by Derek Paget (1998: 5)
as the form in which ‘the drama diverts the documentary element into
dramatic structuring’. These documentaries rely heavily on the signifiers
of re-creation, and the use of narrative strategies to convey the partici-
pants’ point of view within a broader historical context.
Some examples of re-enactment have been highly successful in staking
their ‘truth-claim’. Ken Burns’s direction of actors shivering on the site of
a battlefield describing their experiences as soldiers in The Civil War (1990)
for instance, was so skilful that university students in the twenty-first
century, uneducated about the history of camera recording, were sur-
prised to be told that these were not ‘real’ interviews with ‘real’ soldiers
(Beattie 2006). Bill Nichols (1993: 176) warns of this inherent danger
that ‘re-enactments risk implying greater truth-value for the recreated
event than it deserves when it is merely an imitation or copy of what has
already happened’ [original emphasis].
Representations, re-creations, re-enactments are necessary risks in
producing history documentaries. Within the liminal spaces provided by
these constructions, perhaps the most striking conundrum in the evidentiary
status of the documentary has been the rise of ‘fly on the wall’ film-making
whose enthusiasts support this as the purest form of documentary- making.
In an opposing view, Baudrillard (1988) has suggested that ‘cinéma vérité’
is a dissolution of the representation of the real into a form of simulation
and that this constitutes its disqualification from competing for truth-
claims. Using the example of the 1973 documentary series An American
Family,
1
Baudrillard questioned how much of the behaviour within the
family was modified by the presence of the camera crew and how different
the participants’ interactions would have been had the camera not been
there. Baudrillard argued that what was being observed were ‘simulated’
behaviours constructed for public viewing rather than the more private
and therefore ‘real’ interactions that would have occurred without the
camera’s presence and concomitant observation/mediation/ intervention
(Baudrillard 1988: 79).
With the rise of ‘reality television’, Brian Winston addressed this debate
(Winston 2003) over the changing nature of the documentary form.
Citing the 1943 classic Fires Were Started by Humphrey Jennings, Winston
described how the audience for this film accepted the footage as
actual/’real’ examples of the London Blitz. Jennings and his crew, however,
had started the fires, in a controlled situation, for the purposes of filming
the necessary dramatic footage, and therefore the footage had no eviden-
tiary status at all. The question arises here too as to how this intervention
on the part of the documentary-maker vitiates the authenticity of the images.
62
Debra Beattie
1. Similar to Paul
Watson’s 1974 UK
version The Family
(BBC) and precursor
to the first Australian
example in 1992,
Sylvannia Waters.
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 62
Winston argued convincingly that what differentiated the ‘simulations’ by
Jennings from the current crop of ‘fly on the wall’ reality television pro-
grammes was the fact that Jennings’s images were manufactured as a
result of ‘prior witnessing’.
It is the Griersonian description of the documentary as a ‘creative
treatment of actuality’ that is most often used to define the form. Grierson
first used the term in the early twentieth century to describe the films of
Robert Flaherty, citing particularly Nanook of the North in which Flaherty’s
‘creative treatment’ included a re-enactment of the results of a hunt, set
up for the camera, in order to show the audience details of the hunters’
return. This set-up however, was scripted from Flaherty’s ‘prior witness-
ing’ and so fits within Brian Winston’s parameter.
The American Errol Morris, known for his documentaries on the reality
of modern life, directed The Thin Blue Line (1988) by presenting narrative
moments of re-enactments and interviews to camera of the protagonists
involved in the shooting murder of a Dallas police officer. Rather than
attempting to present authentic re-enactments, Morris’s scenes are
directed as iconic representations. The audience, familiar with cinematic
techniques, knows that the shadowy figures captured by the camera are
meant to represent the protagonists, and there is no pretence that this is
who he is actually filming. Moreover, the scene of the policeman being
shot is re-enacted a number of times from a number of different perspec-
tives further displacing any ‘actuality’ claims. The film does, however, fit
comfortably within the genre of Derek Paget’s docudrama.
Within the documentary form, this fragmentary and often ephemeral
experience of representation in contemporary culture is on the increase,
particularly on the Internet. The question arises as to how the fragmented
nature of non-linear narrative and the audience’s requirement to find
their own pathway through this narrative might impede their understand-
ing. Without a constructed linear pathway, the audience is left without a
self-evident narrative arc. In Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices (1996),
Renov argues that despite the fragmentary nature of the presentation, the
fundamental structure operating within the audience of the ‘ordering of
the real’ remains in our reception of the documentary form. There is a
protocol, Renov argues, in our engagement with and prior experience of
the language of cinema that operates within us, as an audience, to make
sense within this structure.
In writing the documentary script for The Wrong Crowd,
2
a public his-
tory of police corruption as it intersected with a personal coming-of-age
story, my objective was to allow for this ‘ordering of the real’ to continue in
a documentary work that was to be web-based, where the structure could
not be linear. The challenge of working within this change of screen, from
television to computer as a reception point for the documentary form, was
how to pre-empt the effect on the audience’s ‘ordering of the real’ as they
sat, hand at the ready, to point and click to another image.
This case study, seen as an innovative intervention in the form in
which it was published five years ago, was created within the infrastruc-
ture of audience reception of broadband in Australia as it was then,
3
at
around 30 per cent, with the average modem having only a 56k capacity.
The work was designed to be an ‘immersive cinematic experience in
63
Documentary expression online: The Wrong Crowd, a history documentary. . .
2. Written, directed and
co-produced by Debra
Beattie in conjunction
with ToadShow;
digital artist, Scott
Bennett; music, Rick
Caskey; sound, Tone
Culture; voice, Lisa
Jane Stockwell.
3. http://www.aph.gov.
au/Library/Pubs/rn/
2001-02/02rn34.htm
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 63
QuickTime 5’ which dates its creation quite clearly to 2002. In ‘e-docu-
drama’, terms, this is electronic publishing of a generation ago. A produc-
tion using this technology in 2008 would have a much greater capacity
for creating ‘virtual reality’ in an immersive approach than was available
for this case study, restricted as it was by maintaining manageable down-
load times and files sizes (Figure 1).
The speaking position, from which the script was written, is declared
through the spine of a narrative bildungsroman, a story of character devel-
opment during the early years of a life. In this instance, from ‘1950s:
FJ Holden’, through adolescence in the late 1960s, young adulthood in
the early 1970s to an epilogue of ‘1980s: Shredded’. In the late 1980s the
police files of many radical citizens were shredded by a government appa-
ratchik, depicted in the final scene as a faceless ‘agent of the apparatus’.
I chose this structure of the coming-of-age story set within a police
family to link events covering decades of a cultural hegemony of government-
backed police corruption. The documentary script was framed within this
context of a heavily mediated police/government history and begins in the
Scenes Menu (Figure 2). The public history recorded in the press and television
64
Debra Beattie
Figure 1: The page after the cinematic introduction explains the structure.
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 64
of the times provides for a rich database of audio and visual material to
embed within the seventeen scenes.
The roadmap for the journey is conveyed as a series of Proustian memory-
moments, digitally ‘recorded’ and ‘painted’ and embedded with this
detailed metadata and visible evidence in the form of ‘hotspots’. The
‘hotspots’ were created with the intention of providing ‘flickers of authen-
ticity’ (Roscoe 2001: 13) for the audience.
4
The ‘truth-claim’ for ‘what really happened’ presents these memory-
moments in the style of Errol Morris-inspired ‘iconic representations’.
These were moments of character building within a conflicted family and
within a community operating from a deeply layered hypocrisy. These
moments were recreated by distilling their essence into frozen tableaux –
mise-en-scène – revealing the key ingredients of the personal narrative as it
intersected with that moment in public history.
These scenes as ‘representations’ were shot, Photoshopped within Live
Stage Professional® software and then contained within the series of sev-
enteen QTVR® (QuickTime Virtual Reality) scenes. Based on my ‘prior
witnessing’ of public events as they unfolded in my young life, the narra-
tive became a sequence of those scenes from childhood to adulthood, a
journey constructed from these ‘memory-moments’ (Beattie 2003c: 58).
Through the skill of the digital artist, these scenes became ‘animated
paintings’ (McQuire 1997). Utilizing LSP® software within a QTVR®
authoring environment meant that the frozen mise-en-scène could be
transformed into moving images with synchronous sound effects and
dialogue. Clicking the ‘auto’ button, the viewer experiences the director’s
cut, a version of moving image and soundtrack from the particular ‘point
65
Documentary expression online: The Wrong Crowd, a history documentary. . .
4. Jane Roscoe first used
this term to describe
moments in reality
television and
docudrama when the
performative moment
falters and in a
‘flicker’, we think we
see the real person.
In this, she recalls
Barthes’s earlier
notion of the
‘punctum’ whereby a
photograph can
impact on a viewer in
a manner unintended
by the photographer,
where the viewer’s
experience,
completely subjective,
stirs a private
emotional response.
Figure 2: The narrative as bildungsroman.
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 65
of view’ of the director of the scene. There is then the option to move on to
the next scene in a linear sequence devised by the writer or to stay in
‘manual’ mode and ‘hotspot’ through the scene to detailed documents of
the day – still photos, newspaper reports, state archive documents, death
certificates, and so forth, providing immediate evidentiary status for the
contextualization of the recreated ‘memory-moment’.
The web designer created still further levels of navigation to be made
available for the audience/user to access then or at a later time. Parallel to
the spine of the seventeen scenes are ‘Storyboards’ and the ‘Director’s
Notes’ for each scene. Designed to represent pages from my notebook,
these allow the user to literally go ‘behind the scenes’ providing informa-
tion that would be unavailable to a broadcast audience. Drilling further
into the database from the ‘Notes’ pages, the user can find historical
resources significant to the moment in time of the scene by choosing the
‘World Events’ link. With yet another link, the user is invited to ‘Add Your
Story’ and many have provided feedback to me through an e-mail link.
This was an important aspect of the project because in creating this par-
ticular hybrid docudrama on the web form, I had been increasingly drawn
to the approach of historians such as the Annalistes (Ludtke 1995) – a
66
Debra Beattie
Figure 3: Police corruption inquiry and escalation of domestic abuse.
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 66
movement that developed around the journal Annales founded in 1929 by
Febvre and Bloch as a counter to historical positivism. The Annalistes
pioneered an approach to history that privileged the study of long-term
evolutions (la longue duree) over singular events or ‘event history’.
In large measure, The Wrong Crowd addresses how individual memory
intersects with collective memory. The English historian whose work most
supports this approach to historical narrative is Eric Hobsbawm. In On History
(1997) Hobsbawm argued for the place of ‘remembered history’ or ‘history
from below’: ‘what ordinary people remember of big events as distinct from
what their betters think they should remember’ (Hobsbawm 1997: 273).
The Wrong Crowd sought to maintain a historical argument about police
in Queensland during the 1950s and 1960s, modelled on recorded ‘history
from below’. Within the context of a cultural climate in which the stories of
political activists were buried, the documentary argument of The Wrong
Crowd sought to construct the period as an era of police bullying within a
pervasive culture of intimidation. This argument is presented through pow-
erful visible evidence in the form of artefacts such as a coroner’s report and
police charge sheets as well as the first-person testimony of eyewitnesses.
Within the online environment, the uncovering of this history had to
be presented in a navigable non-linear form. This provoked some creative
tension in that I needed to depart from my experience as a broadcast tele-
vision producer who was used to creating a rhythm that sustained a
coherent linear documentary argument. Unlike a broadcast audience, a
broadband audience is proactive and, by nature of the form, can partici-
pate in the construction of the pathway to be navigated, and thus the
sequence in which the narration will unfold. The fixed temporal montage
of the linear television documentary becomes an ad hoc spatial montage, a
series of arbitrarily open windows on the computer screen, a sequence of
visual, potential non sequiturs of the viewer’s individual choice.
As a documentary producer committed to producing a credible history,
I needed to ensure that the navigation of the database, the repository of
the verifications, was navigable in a way that supported the unfolding of a
particular historical argument. The context of the search for the visible
and auditory evidence, the foundation for any historical documentary
account, had to be negotiated intuitively by the viewer and yet still conform
to the requirement that the documentary maintain an overall coherence
as a logical argument.
Computer mediated communication – CMC
Computer-based media are by definition interactive as they involve click-
ing icons, choosing links and making decisions about the pathway to be
taken through the website. This near ‘random’ access allows the sequence
and duration of images to be determined at the time of presentation rather
than fixed in the production process. The film-makers’ standard tools of
fixed sequence and fixed timing of narrative moments are eliminated.
These are the very tools the film-maker uses to create moments of emo-
tional catharsis, timed in the linear format to reach a narrative climax. In
a linear format this narration is delivered sequentially, in accord with
Paget’s rules of ‘dramatic structuring’. With stand-alone data allowing for
every event to be linked with the previous event at any moment, and with
67
Documentary expression online: The Wrong Crowd, a history documentary. . .
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 67
multiple entry points, the chronology and dramatic structuring of the
story is largely left up to the viewer.
The Wrong Crowd was created with a recognition that the viewer’s
engagement with the mouse was going to be quite different to his/her
engagement with a remote control. From qualitative feedback from visitors
to The Wrong Crowd site (collated from e-mails sent directly to me) the
audience still engages in Renov’s ‘ordering of the real’ even in this
allegedly non-narrative environment. Michael Nash has argued that the
‘death of the narrative is a hugely misunderstood notion in the new media
discourse’, that ‘jumping from one place in a text, film or song to any
other place in any other text, film or song doesn’t actually constitute a
“non-narrative experience”’ (Nash 1996: 392). Nash references Julian
Jaynes’s Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in
which Jaynes’s research led him to believe that the defining human action of
retrospection actually has a ‘large element of [. . .] what we call narratiz-
ing’ (Jaynes 1993: 29).
This very human inclination on the part of the audience to ‘narratize’,
even within the changed and fragmentary reception platform of the com-
puter screen can provide the documentary-maker with a renewed oppor-
tunity to engage the empathy of the viewer. It is possible to present a
well-researched database of verifiable documents embedded in cinematic
images, which sustain in a fragmentary manner the essence of the docu-
mentary argument. The viewer, even within the non-linear environment,
can build a trajectory based on these evidentiary links that derives the
meaning at the heart of the construction of the historical argument, and
also at the core of the narrative structure. It is the persuasive practice of
the docudrama that allows this meaning to be derived.
Steve Lipkin in his discussion of this persuasive practice introduces the
notion of ‘warranting’ within the docudrama form. Lipkin argues that a
warrant ‘locates the basis (of the dramadoc) in [...] the rules of logic that
allow an argument to make the necessary shift from fact to value’ (Lipkin
2002: 5). The audience is given facts and factual documents embedded in
the cinematic images of The Wrong Crowd and the scriptwriting challenge
was then to ‘warrant’ the audience’s sequencing of these facts to produce the
value of statement that is at the heart of the argument that the documentary-
maker was seeking to make.
Lipkin asks ‘what warrants the choices made in constructing
docudramatic performance’. This question goes to the core of the ‘truth-
claim’ status of the documentary. Karl Popper (1979) gives the example of
how he might go about verifying whether he has a particular coin in his
pocket, describing the changes in the strength of verifications required as
determined by the context of the question. If the question is asked without
consequence, about whether he has a particular coin, he may simply feel the
size and shape of the coin without looking at it, and verify its existence. If
it is important to the questioner that it is that particular coin, on the
increased strength of the need for verification, he may take it out of his
pocket and look directly at it. If the need for verification is even more sig-
nificant, he may take the coin to a bank and request some form of certifi-
cation that it is the legal tender it appears to be. As John Tosh describes it
in The Pursuit of History (1991) for the history documentary-maker, the
68
Debra Beattie
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 68
context of the historical argument is often ‘a political battleground’, one
littered with vehement contentious assertions and warranting a need for
robust verification. The selection and arranging of the facts within the
narrative from which meaning is derived in turn informs the value judge-
ments of the audience.
This discussion of facts and values when it arises in the pursuit of a his-
torical truth becomes increasingly problematic. If we accept that the historian
always interprets the past from the point of view of his/her present, as E.H.
Carr argues in What is History?, then the selection of facts will change accord-
ing to the prevailing values of the day. Carr discusses this dual character of
the word ‘truth’ as it straddles facts and values. In English it is the truth, in
the Latin veritas, the German wahrheit and the Russian pravda: ‘Somewhere
between these two poles – the north pole for valueless facts and the south pole
of value judgments still struggling to form themselves into facts – lies the
realm of historical truth’ (Carr 1964: 126) This search for ‘historical truth’ is
often conducted on the battleground of competing narratives.
Narrative of the non-linear kind
As theorists have increasingly studied the key elements of narrative, what
is often emphasized is the breakdown of the elements of storytelling into a
neat dichotomy between ‘narration – that which moves the plot forward –
and description – that which doesn’t’ (Bal 1985: 120). In writing the
visual plan/interface design for online documentary, there is a need to
meld the narration and the description into a navigable form. The narrative
has to be constructed by linking the elements of a database in a particular
order. The trajectory within the QTVR® ‘Scenes Menu’ of The Wrong Crowd
leads the user from childhood through adolescence. The script maintains
the cinematic logic of replacement, characteristic of the language under-
stood by an audience in a temporal montage, while utilizing the ‘electracy’
or electronic literacy (Ulmer 2003) currently evolving within an audience
increasingly engaged in the spatial montage potentiality of a computer
screen. It is in recognizing the added intervention of the audience as an
advantage, in building on the audience’s growing sophistication, with
their added skill base around electronic computer-mediated communication,
that we can perceive documentary online as a set of opportunities to engage
with this new ‘electrate’ generation.
In an initial attempt to subvert the multiple windows of conventional
interface design, each of the seventeen QTVR® scenes of The Wrong Crowd
was designed to be played as full screen, with the viewer encouraged to
choose ‘auto’ rather than ‘manual’ to take advantage of the ‘cinematic’
experience. In ‘auto’ mode the scene plays according to the documentary-
maker’s direction. In ‘manual’ mode, the viewer navigates the scene at
will. Within ‘auto’ mode, the viewer can ‘lean back’ and watch. In manual
mode, the viewer will ‘lean forward’ to engage with the mouse, exploring
the layers contained within each ‘memory-moment’. For an audience to
be able to move at will around a visual representation heralds a radical
change in documentary reception and presents a real challenge to the
documentary-maker in the viewer’s creation of their own ordering of
the narrative structure from fragments. The potential for misreading
the information can be mitigated by embedding prima facie documentary
69
Documentary expression online: The Wrong Crowd, a history documentary. . .
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 69
evidence within the QTVR® scenes, which move the audience to a pre-
ferred reading, or in Lipkin’s terminology, which ‘warrant’ a reading that
moves from facts to values.
Within this evolving form of narrative, Lev Manovich calls for a theo-
retical language to engage with digital media content by constructing
terms and concepts, for example, appropriate to multiple windows
(Manovich 2001: 104). In The Language of New Media he gives examples of
Hollywood films, like Blade Runner (1982) in which Harrison Ford’s char-
acter talks with a computer instructing it to zoom in, closer and closer, to
one particular photographic image as he searches for the origins of the
beautiful, mysterious cyborg. Manovich also cites the frames within
frames of Greenaway’s Draughtman’s Contract (1982) arguing that these
examples of late twentieth-century cinema can be seen as two early
pointers to the converging of the art-form platforms of cinema screen and
computer screen. Transforming the conventional documentary-makers’
practice of the temporal montage necessitates a learning curve for digital
content creators to explore the possibilities of a language/grammar of
spatial montage, a skill traditionally used by visual artists.
Long before digitization, with the emergence of an understanding based
in film language, as viewers we learnt to read sequences of montage. Our
understanding of what constituted reality was modified by our willingness to
embrace the new conventions of the cinema. Lev Kuleshov, an early twenti-
eth-century Russian film-maker, was one of the first to explore the possibili-
ties of cinematographic montage. In an interview in Cinema in Revolution
Kuleshov described how, as a teaching exercise, he once created a movie of a
woman who did not exist. He did this by filming the face, head, hair, hands,
legs and feet of different women and editing the images together in a mon-
tage. The students accepted that it was a continuous depiction of only one
woman, and accepted the ‘truth’ of that woman’s existence, reading the
montage as that of a ‘real’ woman (Leyda 1977: 249).
This historic point of reference shows how temporal montage coerced
cinema enthusiasts to blend their identification with the realism of an
individual shot, in order to establish a new relation to film as a text com-
posed of multiple shots, and in so doing, developed a new skill negotiating
the transitions between cinematic images. To understand further this
dynamic in early cinema, narrative theorists have stressed the importance
of the psychoanalytical concept of ‘suture’, the process whereby we make
connections between disparate items of information (Altman 1977).
Instead of fragmentation and reassemblage of the image over time,
which was the crux of classical cinema montage, audiences in the digital
realm are engaging in the suture of a new type of montage: a fluid mon-
tage of frames within the frame. The split-screen technique was initially a
way for the film-maker to offer another shot of the same scene from a dif-
ferent point of view. ABC Online, in one of its early forays into documen-
tary online, used this technique in Long Way to the Top (2001), displaying
moving images of the performance on stage and the view from backstage.
Within the QTVR® scene Dad Dies, the digital artist Scott Bennett was
directed to ‘stitch together’ three different narrative moments, shot in
three different locations, juxtaposing these images to carry a number of
distinct narrative threads within one temporal space (Figures 4 and 5).
70
Debra Beattie
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 70
71
Documentary expression online: The Wrong Crowd, a history documentary. . .
Figure 4: The left-hand side of the triptych.
Figure 5: The third panel of the triptych.
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 71
The first image was of an actor, in performance as the narrator at the
stage of an adolescent studying for matriculation exams; the second image
was dominated by the lavender of the jacaranda trees, in blossom in
October in a suburban Brisbane street; and the third was another actor,
performing as the adolescent girl’s father as he leaned out his bedroom
window, trying to catch his dying breath. The idiosyncratic nature of psy-
choanalytic ‘suture’ meant that some of the audience relayed via feedback
that they constructed the three scenes as one continuous image to create
a narrative of the father dying at the exact same moment that the student
was studying, whereas others constructed the narrative in the vein of a
Proustian moment, lost in memory, a fragmented collage of remembrance.
Within these ‘enactments’, there was always the question of how this
form of documentary expression was relating to the physicality of the
object world. The documentary ambition is ‘to use the particular to illumi-
nate the general and to take the world of appearances as a route into more
abstract engagement with the conditions of the social and historical’
(Corner 2007). It was my concern for the ‘obdurate real’ (Stern 2003) in
creating the visuals and the audio ‘to illuminate’ the more general zeitgeist
in which I grew up. In writing for this cross-media platform where the
audience would be clicking from moving visuals to text, the ‘World Events’
pages were created to be as easily identifiable as possible to an age group
who were 15–20 years of age during the early 1970s. The ‘world events’
chosen are idiosyncratic but also easily recognizable to a large cohort of a
specific sociocultural grouping (Figure 6).
Verisimilitude
In tandem with the changes in the audience’s relationship to the screen as
they take on the role of co-narrator, there are the changes wrought, as
flagged by Nichols in 1986, by developments in digitization. The very
process of digitization, as Bill Nichols (1993: 56) noted in Renov’s
Theorising Documentary, has meant a ‘nuclear explosion’ in the ontological
72
Debra Beattie
Figure 6: The pop-up of the World Events link for 1968.
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 72
status of the documentary form, where reality can be altered right down
to the minutiae of the pixel. With the emergence of the non-linear format,
the ability of the film-maker to unfold a documentary argument in a
sequential fashion has also been challenged and the ontology of the docu-
mentary is even further under pressure.
A major impact of the digital revolution on our notion of documentary
evidence has been in this changing nature of ‘digital realism’ and how it
differs from our earlier notions of ‘the real’ in cinematic images. In
Crossing the Digital Threshold Scott McQuire (1997: 57) takes up this issue
querying our fascination with ‘perceptually realistic’ images of dinosaurs
or intergalactic spaceships when neither have any point of reference in our
own real world.
The ‘desire underpinning the documentary impulse’, the classic phrase
coined in Bazin’s ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ (1967: 14), is
potentially lessened by photographic images against which no authentica-
tion is possible. As we move into the emerging digital platform of deliver-
ing programs over the Internet, Thomas Elsaesser (1998: 21) suggests
that the documentary is to be the first casualty. We are entering an era
where ‘actuality’, the core of the definition of the documentary genre,
inhabits an increasingly fluid space. In the digital world, distinctions
between the real and the fake are blurring. The digital domain extends in
an unprecedented way the ability of the film-maker to control the image,
providing for a level of intervention that includes manipulation of the pixels
from which the image is constructed. The role of the digital artist working
from an electronic palette is more akin these days to that of the painter in
a Renaissance studio. Once the image is digitized, it becomes another form
of graphic. Regardless of its origin, it becomes pixels, easily altered, substi-
tuted one for another, an atomic rearrangement of the dimension of Bill
Nichols’s 1995 ‘nuclear explosion’ as he described the impact of then new
technology, ‘to scitex’ or to digitally manipulate an image.
‘Crossing the digital threshold’ can provide for another level in the
process of psychoanalytic ‘suture’, creating a new type of mise-en-scène, in
the arrangement of pixels rather than people and sets. The first scene of
the online history documentary The Wrong Crowd is titled ‘FJ Holden’, in
reference to a model of car reminiscent of this optimistic era, and a model
of car afforded the status of an icon in Australian graphics culture. This
first QTVR® was positioned within the narrative to set the scene for
Queensland in the 1950s, ‘a golden circle beach’ and to provide the back-
story to the bildungsroman. The mise-en-scène of the FJ Holden car parked
near a beach at Greenmount in south-eastern Queensland is an ‘enact-
ment’ of a time and place that my family regularly visited in the late 1950s
(Figure 7). Bennett and I drove to the very same spot of my childhood
memory and documented as a QTVR® the exact place we visited and the
exact model of FJ Holden car that my parents owned.
The pixels in this image were manipulated in order to achieve the
erasure of the current Gold Coast skyscrapers. Although the digital image
was manipulated, the digital artist worked according to the ‘prior witness-
ing’ of the documentary-maker in order to convey a mise-en-scène of a
‘memory-moment’ that ‘really happened’ at Greenmount in the 1950s.
With digitization, the documentary image is increasingly staking a claim
73
Documentary expression online: The Wrong Crowd, a history documentary. . .
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 73
74
Debra Beattie
Figure 8: Representation of the tin shed in which prisoners were kept in rural Queensland.
Figure 7: The ‘first’ scene setting time and place.
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 74
to verisimilitude rather than veracity. Nevertheless, as Martin Kemp reminds
us, as audience, ‘we are perceptually addicted to the illusion of reality in
whatever medium’ (cited in Hockney 2001: 230). Ross Gibson argues that
it is important for digital content creators in this new medium to acknowl-
edge this and to recognize that the emerging art forms offer structures and
dynamics for testing and strengthening the imagination of both the audi-
ence and the film-maker (Gibson 2003). Given that these new forms have
not yet been constrained within generic orthodoxies, they need to be
understood and interrogated as cultural forms reflecting the way more and
more audiences experience ‘reality’ and ‘the illusion of reality’ in cyberspace.
This has potential for seious-minded research into both the production
and reception of the digital documentary online and with emerging
notions of spatialized narrative.
Digital sound
To an unprecedented degree, the new digital delivery platform of the
Internet for the documentary form has been heavily shaped by recent
developments in digital sound technology. Content creators now have an
improved ability to ‘spatialize’ discrete sound elements and to utilize sound
as a visually contrapuntal element that draws on the cinematic experi-
ence. In the construction of the QTVR® scene ‘The Watchhouse’, the
image is deliberately lacking in detail, an ‘enactment’ of a black, white and
grey interior of a tin shed used to hold prisoners in Mount Isa in the 1950s
(Figure 8). The intensity of the violence inflicted on the prisoner by the
police officer is conveyed by aural stimuli to stimulate a visceral response
in the audience. There is a complex soundtrack of the fists and the boots
pounding into the flesh overlaying the cries and gasps of the victim with
the exertions and grunts of the aggressor. The track is laid over the empty
space of the slowly moving image, of corrugated iron walls and wooden
floorboards, thus leaving the viewer with a vicarious experience, akin to
standing in that space and listening to the ghosts of the past, with the
emotional intensity associated with the injustice of a death in custody.
Coming from the tradition of producing both for cinema and for broad-
cast television, it was important to engage the viewer in an aesthetic
transformative moment based on a particular reading of a historical event.
When the audience’s hand is ever ready to disengage in the search for
further information, the cinematic gaze is potentially on the verge of being
broken at any moment by a glance outside the frame to the interface, and
with its potential to move the viewer in another direction, to link to
another image. The human tendency towards temporal narrative struc-
tures, however, is arguably ‘endemic to the structure of consciousness’,
and these structures are drawn upon in all storytelling environments,
even in this new spatial/navigable environment. Images are moved within,
and around, in a new kinaesthetic participation, providing for an open-
ended storyline but all operating within a consciousness that inherently
constructs a temporal ‘suture’.
In his address of the emergence of the online delivery of creative
content, Lev Manovich (2001: 217) has called for a new branch of study,
the ‘theoretical analysis of the aesthetics of information access’, his term
for this being ‘info-aesthetics’. The Wrong Crowd provides for one of the first
75
Documentary expression online: The Wrong Crowd, a history documentary. . .
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 75
Internet-based case studies for this kind of theoretical analysis. As one of a
group of only four funded (the others: Long Journey, Homeless and Year On
The Wing) by the Australian Film Commission in 2001, The Wrong Crowd is
unique amongst these four in seeking a ‘cinematic’ approach to the reso-
lution of the often-competing needs within the online environment of
organizing the database and constructing the narrative.
The Wrong Crowd takes the traditional film-maker’s tool of temporal mon-
tage and plays with the audience experience by embracing the web designer’s
appreciation of spatial montage. The digital revolution that allowed for the
malleability of sound and image files has been explored within the parameters
of a 56k modem delivery platform, this being the constraint of the equity pro-
visions by which the national broadcaster was expected to deliver in 2002. In
that year The Wrong Crowd launched into the uncharted waters of audience
reception within this new delivery platform and, through the qualitative feed-
back of direct e-mails to the documentary-maker, has provided valuable infor-
mation regarding the nature of this emerging audience and their response to
this new form of ‘documentary expression’ and digital distribution.
References
ABC Online (2001), Long Way to the Top, http://www.abc.net.au/longway/con-
cert/itv.htm
Accessed 30 October 2007.
Altman, C. (1977), ‘Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Discourse’,
Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 3 (2 August) pp. 257–72.
An American Family (1973), directed by Alan and Susan Raymond, PBS.
Australian Broadcasting Authority (2004), Documentary Guidelines Draft:
Interpretation of ‘Documentary’ for the Australian Content Standard,Sydney.
Baudrillard, Jean (1988), ‘Simulacra and Simulations’, in Mark Poster (ed.), Jean
Baudrillard, Selected Writings, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Bal, Mieke (1985), Narratology – Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, Toronto:
University of Toronto Press.
Bazin, Andre (1967), ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, in What is
Cinema?, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Beattie, Debra (2003a), The Wrong Crowd, Ph.D. thesis,Queensland University of
Technology.
—— (2003b), ‘Show and Tell’, Desktop, Australian Design: Digital Culture, 180,
pp. 38–40.
—— (2006) Lecture, New Communication Technologies, Griffith University.
Bennett, S. and Beattie, D. (2003), ‘Live Stage Professional 3 Software and its
Application in The Wrong Crowd, an online documentary for ABC Online’,
Metro, Film Television, Radio Multimedia, 135, pp. 242–243.
Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott, Warner Brothers, Warner Home
Video, DVD.
Carr, E.H. (1964), What is History? London: Macmillan.
Corner, John, (2007), ‘Documentary expression and the physicality of the referent:
observations on writing, painting and photography’, Studies in Documentary
Film, 1: 1, pp. 5–20.
Draughtman’s Contract (1982), directed by Peter Greenaway, British Film Institute,
DVD.
76
Debra Beattie
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 76
Elsaesser, Thomas (1998), ‘Cinema Futures: Convergence, Divergence, Difference’,
in T. Elsaesser and K. Hoffman (eds) Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable?: The
Screen Arts in the Digital Age, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Fires Were Started (1943), directed by Humphrey Jennings, Crown Film Unit, Image
Entertainment, DVD.
Gibson, Ross (2003), Memories + The Moving Image, Australian Centre for the
Moving Image, Flinders Lane, Melbourne.
Hill, Brian and Woods, Kate (1992), Sylvania Waters Part 1, TV series, Australian
Broadcasting Commission.
Hobsbawm, Eric (1997), On History, London: Abacus.
Hockney, David (2001), Secret Knowledge, London and New York: Penguin, Putnam.
Jaynes, Julian (1993), Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,
Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Leyda, J. (ed.) (1977), Voices of Film Experience, 1894 to the Present, New York:
Macmillan.
Lipkin, Steve (2002), Real Emotional Logic: Docudrama as Persuasive Practice,
Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Ludtke, Alf (1995), Alltagsgeschichte - History of Everyday Life, Princeton: Princeton
University.
McQuire, Scott (1997), Crossing the Digital Threshold, Brisbane: Australian Key
Centre for Cultural and Media Policy.
Manovich, Lev (2001), The Language of New Media, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Nanook of the North (1922), directed by Robert Flaherty, Les Frères Revillon and
Pathé Exchange, Criterion Collection, DVD.
Nash, Michael (1996), ‘Vision After Television: Technocultural Convergence,
Hypermedia, and the New Media Arts Field’, in M. Renov and E. Suderberg
(eds), Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.
Negroponte, N. (1995), Being Digital: The Road Map For Survival on the Information
Superhighway, London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Nichols, Bill (1993), ‘Getting To Know You, Knowledge, Power, and the Body’, in
M. Renov (ed.), Theorizing Documentary, New York: Routledge.
Paget, Derek (1998), No Other Way To Tell It, Manchester: Manchester University
Press.
Popper, Karl (1979), Truth, Rationality and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge,
Frankfurt Am Main: Klostermann.
Renov, M. and Suderberg, E. (eds) (1996), Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Roscoe, Jane (2001), ‘Real entertainment: new factual hybrid television’, Media
International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy, 100, pp. 9–20.
Stern, Lesley (2003), ‘Truth is a Cow’, paper presented at Australian International
Documentary Conference, Byron Bay.
The Civil War (1990), directed by Ken Burns, PBS, DVD. http://www.pbs.org/
civilwar/war/
Accessed 11 February 2008.
The Thin Blue Line (1988), directed by Errol Morris, American Playhouse, DVD.
The Wrong Crowd (2003), directed by Debra Beattie, ABC online documentary,
http://www.abc.net.au/wrongcrowd. Accessed 11 February 2008.
77
Documentary expression online: The Wrong Crowd, a history documentary. . .
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 77
Tosh, John (1991), The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods, and New Directions in the
Study of Modern History, 2nd edn., London and New York: Longman.
Totally Hip Technologies Inc. Live Stage Professional software, available from
http://www.totallyhip.com/livestage.html
Accessed 30 October 2007.
Ulmer, Greg (2003), Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy, London and New
York: Longman.
Winston, Brian (2003), ‘Serious Intent’, keynote address, Australian International
Documentary Conference, Byron Bay.
Suggested citation
Beattie, D. (2008), ‘Documentary expression online: The Wrong Crowd, a history
documentary for an ‘electrate’ audience’, Studies in Documentary Film 2: 1, pp.
61–78, doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.61/1.
Contributor details
Dr Debra Beattie trained at the Victorian College of the Arts and has had a long
career as a producer, writer and director of broadcast television documentary, and
more recently in the broadband platform. The Wrong Crowd can be found at
www.abc.net.au/wrongcrowd. Contact: Debra Beattie, Lecturer and Convenor of
Masters Programs in Arts and Media, Multimedia Building, School of Arts, Gold
Coast Campus, Griffith University, Parklands Drive, Southport, Queensland 4222.
E-mail: debra.beattie@griffith.edu.au
78
Debra Beattie
SDF 2.1_05_art_Beattie 3/14/08 10:23 AM Page 78
Studies in Documentary Film Volume 2 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd
Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.79/1
Undisclosed Recipients: documentary in
an era of digital convergence
Sharon Lin Tay Middlesex University
Abstract
As part of ‘two essays in dialogue’ with a piece written by Dale Hudson, this arti-
cle advances critical discussions of the documentary film given the context of, and
challenges posed by, digitality. Specifically, it analyses ‘the digital’ in Michael
Takeo Magruder’s {transcription} and [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004] and
Christina McPhee’s La Conchita mon amour as a means to advance discussion
of documentary beyond claims to realism and documentary truth towards what
Trinh T. Minh-ha calls ‘boundary events’. Tay argues that digital video, editing
and compositing expose the limitations of visual evidence to represent trauma.
Undisclosed Recipients: database
documentaries and the Internet
Dale Hudson Amherst College
Abstract
This article argues that new media disrupt the linear structures conventionally
ascribed to documentary, emphasizing spatiality and relationality. On the
Internet, ‘database documentaries’ facilitate selection and recombination of ‘docu-
ments’ (audio-visual evidence) through user acts, hypertext, algorithms and ran-
dom access memory. Specifically, the article examines two pieces that address the
controversial subjects of globalization and war. As database documentaries,
Eduardo Navas’s Goobalization and the collaborative Permanent Transit:
net.remix by Mariam Ghani, Zohra Saed, Qasim Naqvi and Edward Potter desta-
bilize quests for ‘totalizing meaning’ by emphasizing interactivity, contestation
and multiplicities of meanings. The database evokes endless recombinations, so
that meaning, Hudson argues in relation to these works, is explicitly polyvocal,
unstable and contested.
79 SDF 2 (1) pp. 79–98 © Intellect Ltd 2008
Keywords
digital
news media
trauma
documentary
environmentalism
festival
Keywords
Internet
globalization
database
documentary
environmentalism
festival
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 79
Preamble
Curated by Dale Hudson and Sharon Lin Tay for the 2007 Finger Lakes
Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF), the online exhibit ‘Undisclosed
Recipients’ situates documentary praxes in relation to the festival’s potent
re-imagination of environmentalism. The festival challenges assumptions
that environmentalism concerns itself primarily with ecology and preser-
vation, arguing instead that environmentalism demands to be recognized
within a broader framework, a ‘complicated nexus of the social, political,
aesthetic, technological, economic, physical, and natural’. Sustainability
becomes the nodal point at the intersections of nature and culture. ‘An
ecological way of thinking, then, demands tracing these complex intersec-
tions in order to understand them – and then act on them’, explain FLEFF
co-directors Thomas Shevory and Patricia R. Zimmermann; ‘Ecology
means understanding how things, people, and ideas are interconnected’
(2007: n.p.). Comparably, the online exhibit complicates assumptions
about documentary’s primary concern with ‘truth’ and ‘evidence’, partic-
ularly in relation to the theme of sustainability and the environment
within a large global conversation that extends across issues of labour,
war, health, disease, intellectual property, archives, HIV/AIDS, women’s
rights and human rights. ‘Undisclosed Recipients’ brings together artisti-
cally innovative, socially engaged and politically urgent work to a larger
audience of ‘undisclosed recipients’, exploring the Internet’s potential both
as a medium of production and a mode of distribution. The exhibit fore-
grounds ways that digital video and the Internet can re-imagine and
reclaim the documentary praxes that recognize meaning as process,
rather than as product. Documentary is reinvigorated as collaborative,
interactive and polyvocal – as open to the complexities of debate, rather
than closed to the simplicities of certainty.
Adopting these strategies, the following two essays explore related
arguments about digital images and digital structures in selected works
from the ‘Undisclosed Recipients’ exhibit. The essays aim to propose ways
of rethinking documentary’s ostensibly contradictory impulses of a desire
for immediacy and the necessity for mediation. Tay focuses on the chal-
lenge of ‘the digital’ to images as documentary evidence in terms of fidelity
of representation and mediation. She analyses Michael Takeo Magruder’s
{transcription} and [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004] and Christina
McPhee’s La Conchita mon amour as a means to advance discussion of doc-
umentary beyond claims to realism and documentary truth towards what
Trinh T. Minh-ha calls ‘boundary events’. She argues that digital video,
editing and compositing expose the limitations of visual evidence to repre-
sent trauma, ‘natural’ disasters and war. Drawing upon these ideas,
Hudson turns his analysis to digital structures for documentary on the
Internet. He explores ways that Eduardo Navas’s Goobalization and the
collaborative Permanent Transit: net.remix by Mariam Ghani, Zohra Saed,
Qasim Naqvi and Edward Potter may be understood as database documen-
taries that destabilize quests for ‘totalizing meaning’ by emphasizing inter-
activity, contestation and multiplicities of meanings in relation to the
controversial issues of globalization and war. Meaning, he argues in rela-
tion to these works, is explicitly polyvocal, unstable and mutable. Together,
80
Sharon Lin Tay and Dale Hudson
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 80
these essays trace two possible contours to ways that digital media and the
Internet challenge assumptions about documentary in ways much like
FLEFF challenges assumptions about environmentalism. Internet docu-
mentaries demonstrate ways that digital technologies have applications to
documentary practices that extend beyond the faith in the authenticity
and immediacy of the audio-visual images that it captures and renders.
Acts of witnessing, recording and showing are extended by acts of recom-
bining, filtering and processing.
81
Undisclosed Recipients: . . .
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 81
Undisclosed Recipients: documentary in
an era of digital convergence
Sharon Lin Tay
Speaking about her digital documentary, The Fourth Dimension (2001),
Trinh T. Minh-ha observes that she produces films that she considers to be
‘first and foremost “boundary events”’ through which ‘one can view them
as different ways of working with the freedom in experiencing the self and
the world’ rather than endorsing categories ‘by which the film world
largely abides’ (Trinh 2005: 28). According to Trinh (2005: 28), The
Fourth Dimension
has less to do with the nonstaged nature of the material shot than with the
process of documenting its unfolding: it documents its own time, its creation
in megahertz, the different paths and layers of time-light that are involved in
the production of images and meanings.
Discursively, the documentary film has had a rich and complex historical
trajectory that effectively gave rise to its particular rhetoric and theoretical
orientation. The post-war rise of Italian neo-realism that strives towards
truth in the uncontrolled event, the technological innovations of the
1950s that provided film-makers with the portable equipment with which
to make documentaries that appear to further eliminate artifice, the rise of
various film movements such as Direct Cinema in the United States and
Canada, Free Cinema in Britain, and cinéma-vérité in France all contribute
to the alignment of the documentary film with ideas of realism and truth.
The emergence of new media, with the consequent loosening of the index-
ical relationship between signifier and signified, resulting in doubts about
the fidelity of representation to its referent that digital media casts, has sig-
nificant implications for documentary practice in the digital age. Using
Trinh’s point about freedom from the constraints of conventional docu-
mentary practice, I would like to explore in this essay the extent to which
digital and Internet technologies can enable the move beyond certain lim-
itations that continue to affect conventional documentary practices. As
the companion piece to Dale Hudson’s discussion about database aesthet-
ics and the processes of online documentaries, this essay will open up
some ideas about the image and representation in documentary film
within the context of digital convergence.
The documentary tradition’s discursive currency has traded upon sev-
eral fundamental theoretical premises, of which access to unmediated
reality is often simultaneously contentious and prized. The discrepancy
between the necessity of mediation and a desire for immediacy is that
which pervades much of documentary studies; in another conversation, it
is also a central concern in thinking about mediation and the convergence
to digital. This seeming conundrum in documentary, however, may be
theoretically resolved by seeking recourse to various strategies that circumvent
82
Sharon Lin Tay
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 82
the rhetoric of, and discursive construction around, the documentary film.
Laura Mulvey, for instance, explains the intricacies of weaving together the
fictional and the documentary in the last shots of Roberto Rossellini’s
Journey to Italy (1953). As the fictional couple reconcile and kiss on the
crowded street, the camera pans away to follow the spectacle of the street
procession. For Mulvey,
the [fictional] film simply fades away as the local brass band plays and people
drift past. Life goes on. One ending halts, the other flows. One is a concen-
tration focused on the stars’ role in producing the fiction and its coherence,
and the other is a distraction, the film’s tendency to wander off in search of
another kind of cinema.
(Mulvey 2006: 121–22)
Mulvey also uses examples from Abbas Kiarostami’s films to think through
this theoretical conundrum about mediation and access to reality.
Kiarostami’s tendency to construct the fictional narrative and documen-
tary aspects of his films much in the model of a Möbius strip expresses, for
Mulvey (2006: 131), ‘the gap in time, the delay, that separates an event
and its representation, its process of translation in thought and creativity’.
These examples are myriad in Kiarostami’s films, for instance, in the last
shots of A Taste of Cherry (1994) where the fictional story wraps and the
character that has apparently committed suicide (or rather, the actor play-
ing the character) is seen smoking and talking with the film crew. The
complex construction of Close-Up (1989) calls into question, at each nar-
rative turn, the documentary and/or fictional status of what the viewer
sees. These ways of advancing critical discussions of the documentary film
beyond claims to realism and documentary truth are useful gestures to the
need to critically reassess certain assumptions of documentary studies
towards more constructive premises, especially given the context of, and
challenges posed by, digitality.
Digital transcriptions: remediation and the news media
In The Powers of Nightmare (2004), the three-part documentary series
made for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Adam Curtis illus-
trates the argument about the regime of fear instituted by political leaders
that then lends legitimacy to their rule. The end of the Cold War and the
absence of a definitive enemy left a political vacuum. As Curtis reiterates
in the prologue of each episode, ‘In an age when all the grand ideas have
lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to
maintain their power.’ Post-9/11 panic about al-Qaida, terror cells and
terrorist attacks establishes psychic and social boundaries between those
experiencing panic and paranoia and those generating these feelings. The
exploitation of panic serves profit and power, and the role that the media
plays in the exploitation of panic and irrational fears for the benefit of the
powerful needs consideration. Michael Takeo Magruder, a US-born artist
based in the United Kingdom, explores these ethical issues of mediation in
his online digital works. Straddling the aesthetics of digital art and the
expository impetus of the documentary, Magruder’s works raise questions
about the relationship between news reportage and live events. Both
83
Undisclosed Recipients: . . .
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 83
{transcription} and [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004] examine questionable
media coverage of events that confuse real and imagined situations.
As its title suggests, {transcription} is a digital project that attempts the
creative transcription of 24-hour news coverage, in the process raising
questions about the mediation and remediation of real events in our
consumption of current affairs. Processed in real time, {transcription}
samples live BBC news coverage, effectively severing the relationship
between news broadcast and the events that are being reported. Familiar
images taken from BBC news footage slowly and arbitrarily appear on
screen, layered on by a digital skin that obscures the clarity of the image.
These images are accompanied initially by the sound of scratching, and
then one gradually hears the news being read. Scratching and voices are
then layered on with more voices of different newsreaders, which are then
continuously repeated and layered. The disjuncture between image, voice
and sound that {transcription} effects produces an uncanny experience for
the user, oscillating between familiarity and strangeness; an effect
achieved by the use of an algorithm to disrupt the linearity and veracity of
news broadcasts. Rendering the meanings generated by the news broadcast
confused and multiple, {transcription} becomes a stream-of-consciousness
experience, although not an unfamiliar one. In fact, this stream-of-con-
sciousness effect replicates the all too familiar experience of consuming
round-the-clock news broadcasts, where the supposed acquisition of infor-
mation and knowledge through news broadcast instead becomes a form of
simulation, alerting us to the often-unquestioning way in which we
consume the news. In {transcription}, constant ‘artefacts’ (scratching
sounds added to behave like ‘video noise’, like images added to replicate
film grain) and the imposition of a ‘digital skin’ (another visual layer on
top of the remediated news footage) accentuate the mediation of the news.
Causing a radical disjuncture between sound and image, the processes of
remediation that these scratching electronic noises and digital skins
emphasize alert us to the constant deluge of round-the-clock news coverage,
and the perpetual sense of panic and paranoia that the news ultimately
engenders.
The political implications of such mediation that {transcription} engenders
are brought home in [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004]. The latter piece
ponders on the relationship between ethical filtering and manipulative
remixing of the news, the significance of which increases with technological
advances that enable the generation of history in ‘real time’. Similar to
{transcription}, [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004] involves the use of digital
skins and the disconnection between voice and image to highlight the
prevalence and signification of mediation. Made up of two versions, each
consisting of several manipulated moving images, [FALLUJAH. IRAQ.
31/03/2004] accentuates the extent, and effects, of mediation. In one ver-
sion, familiar images of the casualties of war such as billowing black
smoke, fire, deserted roads, bombed-out cars, and the inevitable clusters of
shocked, outraged and/or injured passers-by are at times composited with
other similar images. In other instances, large images of the aftermath of
an attack, complete with raging fires spewing clouds of black smoke,
would be gradually layered on with texts from news reportage, usually filling
(and completely obscuring) the image with thick newsprint within a matter
84
Sharon Lin Tay
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 84
of seconds. The need to evaluate the ethical premises of the digital docu-
mentary is especially urgent; such urgency becomes obvious when one
considers, for example, the political reasons that may lie behind particular
news coverage leading to the massacre in Fallujah, Iraq. That the attack
on Fallujah and the US presidential election both took place in the early
days of November 2004 is no coincidence for many. As Magruder explains
in the notes that accompany the piece, [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004] is
set within the context of the news report that Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah
killed four US civilians. The bodies were then dragged, paraded and muti-
lated by the town’s people, footage of which was broadcast around the
world. On the basis of these reports, US forces then attacked the city.
However, Magruder notes his reservations to the message conveyed by
international news coverage: one, the US citizens were not civilians as
reported, but mercenaries employed by a private US security firm; two, the
entire scene of desecration was filmed by one Associated Press camera
crew; three, there was no US or coalition forces intervention in neither the
attack nor the subsequent mutilation; and four, coverage was highly
censored by international media networks. These reservations question
the veracity of the news coverage by raising questions about context. In
other words, the media processes involved in representing the events lead-
ing up to the US attack on Fallujah, that [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004]
interrogates provided no real comprehension of the event that took place.
The notion of documentary truth, premised upon the indexical relation-
ship between the event and its representation, is thus destabilized via the
algorithmic processes through which [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004]
operates. The meanings that one may take away from the news about
Fallujah are at best contingent and equivocal.
Considered together, {transcription} and [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004]
note the perils of mediation without context, the disassociation of the signi-
fied from its signifier, a situation made infinitely more possible by digitiza-
tion. On a more innocuous level, {transcription} considers the ethical
questions implicit in the consumption of network news: whether knowl-
edge or currency is that which has priority, and what does one do with
this surfeit of (mostly bad) news from the television set, and increasingly,
from the computer? How may ethical spectatorial positions for the con-
sumption of network news be constructed? Much in the way that Edward
Navas’s Goobalization explores the issue of surveillance in digital media,
whether for commercial exploitation or political control, as Hudson dis-
cusses below, [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004] reminds us of the political
agendas to which such a discrepancy between mediation and actual
events may avail itself.
The idea of embedding journalists with soldiers in warfare adds a new
implication to reportage, suggesting the ethical issues around representa-
tion, perspective and the eventual media decontextualization of events
that take place at a distance. The ethics of recording, documenting and
reporting are raised in terms of the value of different types of images: if
images gleaned from the event are more valuable than archival footage,
that would raise the question of whether knowledge or currency has pri-
ority in our consumption of current affairs. Does the mediation involved in
the reporting of violence and unrest render these events mere electronic
85
Undisclosed Recipients: . . .
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 85
white noise that emanates from the television sets that ultimately depoliti-
cizes current events into byte-sized news packages? Collectively, these
works reveal that conventional news media have not only averted their
gaze from documentary’s historical preoccupation with truth, but also
often collaborated in camouflaging truth for political exigencies. The con-
tingency of meaning is thus heightened within the context of digital
convergence, given the non-linear, non-representational, evocative and
interactive characteristics of digital media, as the discussion below of
Christina McPhee’s La Conchita mon amour furthers.
Documenting unspeakable trauma
Ethical questions around documentation and reportage that {transcrip-
tion} and [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004] raise are also pertinent to the
works of the California-based digital artist, Christina McPhee. In particular,
her project La Conchita mon amour taps into the states of panic and paranoia
that characterize political events post-9/11, albeit in a different way. La
Conchita mon amour references in its title the trauma of the atomic bombing
of Hiroshima that could not be fully articulated in Alain Resnais and
Marguerite Duras’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1960). Studying the struggles
of life in the beach community of La Conchita in California that was inun-
dated by debris flow after a devastating mudslide, the panic that La
Conchita mon armor highlights refers to the heightened awareness and fear
that living with the aftermath of the mudslide, and continuing fears of its
recurrence, brings. Caused by increased winter rain that comes as an
effect of global warming, this digital video project documents the interface
between human response and geological data, when governmental assis-
tance for victims of cyclical recursion of disaster is not forthcoming. As
McPhee notes in the statement accompanying the project, the aftermath
of this environmental disaster is one from which La Conchita residents
cannot escape and are forced to live through, both literally and financially,
given that their properties are rendered worthless by the mudslide; it
therefore becomes impossible for the residents to re-mortgage their damaged
homes and/or move away from the area.
As a performative act of witnessing, La Conchita updates the cinematic
manifestations of political modernism, as articulated through the documen-
taries of film-makers such as Resnais, Marguerite Duras, Agnès Varda and
Chris Marker; thereby bringing a formal discourse of the expository docu-
mentary into the Internet age at the same time that it transcends the
expository mode in specific ways. In her search for meaning after the
destruction of the landscape, McPhee records the rituals that the commu-
nity performs to grieve for those who died in the mudslide as well as to sur-
vive as a community abandoned by the state. As a digital project, La
Conchita imbues documentary realism with subjective evocation to such
an extent that the project effectively displaces the importance of the docu-
mentary image’s indexicality. Instead of contemplating the impossibility of
representing trauma in, for instance Night and Fog (Resnais, 1955) or
Hiroshima mon armor, La Conchita attempts the evocation of trauma via the
algorithmic processes of selection and combination. The viewer’s experience
of La Conchita is contingent and interactive, and not unlike the notion of
mining for geological information. Still photographs, composited images
86
Sharon Lin Tay
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 86
and video clips of the landscape, environment and vernacular shrines
allow the viewer to piece together the relationship between geological
instability and psychological trauma. In this case, the evidentiary is not
dependent on the indexical relationship between signifier and signified.
Instead, the viewer arrives at ‘evidence’ of the trauma suffered by the La
Conchita residents by looking at the mudslide in terms of its geological
impact on the psychological subject. As McPhee notes in the essay accom-
panying the project,
La Conchita stores landscapes of information beyond what the obvious visible
evidence discloses. The site is marked by the invisible mathematics of large-
scale disturbances from seismicity patterns (there is a major fault, called Red
Mountain Fault, running through the sea cliff upon which the village rests), to
tidal patterns now altered by rising marine temperatures since the seventies.
(McPhee 2006: n.p.)
In this sense, the work interrogates the relationship between the visible
and the evidentiary, and shows the limits of representation in instances of
panic and trauma. The instability and contingency of meaning that La
Conchita conveys differs from the notions of unspeakable trauma or the
sublime in which many modernist expository documentaries are often
invested. Instead, McPhee gestures towards a non-representational strat-
egy, given the limits of representation, via the database aesthetics of her
performative documentary that pivots on the algorithmic processes that
Hudson observes as being key in the production of the plurality of meanings.
Images and field recordings of vernacular shrines, graffiti, chain-mail
fencing and barricades in the aftermath of the mudslide, alongside images
of the physical landscape make up the La Conchita project. Geological data
and human responses to the disaster quantify the impact of the environ-
mental disaster, in the process broadening an understanding of what the
environment means and encompasses. By amplifying the leaps and eli-
sions between observed facts culled from geological readings and the com-
munity’s trauma as a subjective response to the disaster, evidence is
therefore rendered materialist; effectively harnessing the digital and vir-
tual to the material and the political. In some ways similar to how Hudson
understands the intersection between various historical legacies and the
technologies that they deploy in relation to, for instance, war and race,
gender and class oppressions, digitality may be for us the means through
which to explore the relationship between the environmental, psychical
and political. Whenever visible evidence fails to articulate the situation
involved, ethical questions surrounding the act of representation come
into play. La Conchita mon amour seeks recourse in the poetic rendering of
the trauma that environmental destruction brings. McPhee’s use of field
recordings and a particular operatic soundtrack featuring a mournful
female voice adds to the subjective evocation of the natural disaster. Her
documentation of the landscape and instances of human response to the
loss of lives, the aftermath of the mudslide and its continuing threat
refuses the creation of spectacle. As McPhee claims in her project essay,
‘disaster images become pornography almost by default’; she also asks
‘how to generate narrative about a place of continuing catastrophe in a
87
Undisclosed Recipients: . . .
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 87
way that occludes spectacle? Is there a way to escape the anaesthetic of
the daily news, and its remains online?’ (McPhee 2006: n.p.).
Conclusions
Conceding that the documentary film often exceeds, and is more intricate
and complex, than much of the theoretical enterprise that surrounds its
practice thus requires some more enabling and constructive bases from
which to speak and think about it. Vivian Sobchack, writing about the
representation of death in documentary and non-fiction films, delineates
an ethical space from which to discuss the limits to, and impossibility of,
representing death. She writes,
the textual vision inscribed in and as documentary space is never seen as a
space alternative or transcendental to the viewer’s lifeworld and its values.
That is, this textual vision and its activity reflexively point to a lived body
occupying concrete space and shaping it with others in concrete social rela-
tions that describe a moral structure.
(Sobchack 2004: 248)
The ethical space that Sobchack demarcates derives from cultural norms
about death; which, for instance, gives rise to the peculiar situation where
death is more often portrayed as being violent and unnatural than ordi-
nary and acceptable, because of our culture’s increasing unfamiliarity
with such a state of being. The ethics around various representations of
death in the non-fiction film is thus intimately related to the social and the
cultural. Short of death, I would argue that this ethical space that
Sobchack distinguishes for the documentary is also political and part of
the complex media and cultural ecology in which we inhabit. The works
that I discuss above thus explore, interrogate and expand on the different
and complex ways in which they articulate their relation to the material
beyond the issues of representation. While Magruder employs the creative
transcription of television news in the process to seek understanding
despite media obfuscation, McPhee’s strategy involves delineating the lim-
itations of visible evidence in rendering truth.
88
Sharon Lin Tay
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 88
Undisclosed Recipients: database
documentaries and the Internet
Dale Hudson
As Sharon Lin Tay demonstrates in her analysis of three works from the
‘Undisclosed Recipients’ exhibit, digital images provide a means to advance
discussion of documentary beyond claims to mediation (‘realism’) and
immediacy (‘truth’) and signal the limitations of audio-visual evidence. In
this essay, I turn to an analysis of digital structures, looking at two other
works from the exhibit. I suggest ways that principles of new media disrupt
the linear structures conventionally ascribed to documentary practices
and prompt a rethinking of the concept of documentary, not only in
terms of spatiality but also in terms of relationality. Adapting Marsha
Kinder’s concept of ‘database narratives’, in which a surplus of informa-
tion emphasizes a ‘dual process of selection and combination’ (Kinder
2002: 6), I argue that database documentaries loosen assumptions about
documentary from fixed modes (expository, observational, personal) and
towards open modes (collaborative, reflexive, interactive). Documentary,
then, moves as a concept from object-based ‘push’ media (celluloid, video,
even visual display of a graphical user interface (GUI)) towards act-based
‘pull’ media (user acts, hyperlinks, algorithms). Indeed, the open-source
potentiality of the Internet, fuelled by digitization of audio-visual images
into code that can be accessed randomly, labelled and sorted, then distrib-
uted (relatively) instantaneously, prompts reflection upon the historical
and cultural assumptions that determine and manage meaning for many
of the key terms (evidence, witnessing, testimony, etc.) associated with
documentary. A defining characteristic of new media is its ability to orga-
nize information in databases, so that information may be rendered into a
theoretically infinite number of discrete sequences via user acts and algo-
rithmic operations. Meaning is not fixed as it is on celluloid; rather, mean-
ing is malleable, destabilizing the certainties of positivist constructions of
knowledge and opening meaning for ongoing debate. Digital structures,
then, offer a means to address controversial subjects, such as globalization
and the displacements of populations by war, in ways that open meaning
to debate rather than attempt to circumscribe the contours of meaning.
From its etymological roots in the word documentaire, roughly translat-
ing into English as ‘travelogue’, documentary film foregrounds its ability to
present (or transport) audio-visual images (‘documents’) across time and
space. Historically, documentary film constructs meaning through the tem-
poral sequencing of audio-visual images onto reels of celluloid, or onto ana-
logue and magnetic tapes. Since digital images are not recorded as a direct
representation of a continuous process, they are produced as a process of
encoding information as data that can be searched, selected, combined
and converted back into an analogue signal that can be displayed on a
screen and played through a speaker (Enticknap 2005: 203). Vivian
Sobchack (2005: 132) argues that ‘presence’ in electronic (new) media is
89
Undisclosed Recipients: . . .
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 89
‘absolute presence’ or ‘being-in-itself ’. Rather than a ‘presence’ confined to
the past, as with photographic media, or a ‘presence’ forever constituting
itself as ‘presence’, as with cinematic media, the absolute presence of new
media is centre-less, a network-like structure of instant simulation and
desire, rather than in nostalgia for the past or anticipation for the future, so
that qualities of the photographic and the cinematic are schematized into
discrete pixels and bits of information, ‘each bit being-in-itself even as it is
part of a system’ (Sobchack 2005: 136). Digitality, then, implies an opening
to ways of conceiving one’s place in the world that is not constrained to the
linearity of most analogue formats and has the potential to challenge the
historical legacies that have deployed such technologies as they have inter-
sected with colonialism, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, class oppression,
homophobia, religious fundamentalism and war. Content is reconfigured
via RAM (random access memory) that permits immediate access to any
part of the ‘new media object’ (Manovich 2001: 20–22, 77). New media
emphasizes programmability (Chun 2006: 1–2), so that interactivity operates
in ways that exceed the reading strategies offered by reception theory (i.e.
interpretation of different meanings from a single text). Users manipulate
information, actively exploring hyperlinked web pages and performing
other acts. In particular, the database model facilitates selection and recom-
bination of ‘documents’, thereby offering a mode of documentary that more
closely resembles an archive which, in Foucault’s terms, ‘defines at the
onset the system of its enunciability’ and ‘causes a multiplicity of statements
to emerge, as so many things to be dealt with and manipulated’ (Foucault
1972: 129). More than a system of display and distribution, then, the data-
base becomes a mode for Internet-based documentary where meaning is
subjected to endless recombinations, operating within a simultaneously
constructive and destructive ‘archive fever’ that Derrida (1996: 19) has
described. Like analogue video archives, online digital archives are open to
receive new documents, suggesting that meaning is a constant process of
accumulation; unlike their analogue counterparts, however, online digital
archives mobilize the randomaccess of digital code and the remote access of
computer networks as a means of facilitating user participation in this
process. Polyvocal, unstable and contested meanings, rather than fixed
ones, become a means of politicizing online and offline environments in
Eduardo Navas’s Goobalization and the collaborative Permanent Transit:
net.remix by Mariam Ghani, Zohra Saed, Qasim Naqvi and Edward Potter.
Goobalization
Contextualized within the FLEFF exhibit, Goobalization documents ubiqui-
tous corporate logos as one of the most visible markers of globalization
that define the environment, both online and offline. Like the terms
‘Coca-Colaization’, ‘McDonaldization’ and ‘Hollywoodization’, the title to
Eduardo Navas’s work takes the brand name of the globally dominant cor-
poration – here, the Internet search engine Google – as a prefix to the
name of a dominant process of post-Cold War/World Trade Organization
(WTO) interdependence: globalization. Google declares its mission as ‘to
organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and
useful’, but it is a publicly traded corporation that specializes in online
advertising and generates revenue in the billions of US dollars. In this
90
Dale Hudson
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 90
sense, the ‘world’s information’ includes the location of the search
engine’s users – information that Google uses to target users of its search
engines with Geo-ID. Advertisements automatically display in local lan-
guages (Goldsmith and Wu 2006: 61), prompting reflection about user
complicity with the surveillance and mediation embedded in everyday
acts, comparable to the complicity with corporate news media that Tay
describes in her analysis of {transcription}.
Goobalization is an ongoing series of short Flash animations that recom-
bine images retrieved through Google, downloaded from the Web, and
labelled by Navas according to their relationship with the project’s four
key terms: surveillance, difference, resistance and globalization. Navas
programs the images to appear on the media-player screen in proximity to
his key terms – surveillance in the upper left; difference, upper right; resis-
tance, lower left; and globalization, lower right – to prompt contemplation
about the algorithms within the Google search engine that appears to exe-
cute the task of linking terms with images; that is, the animations ques-
tion ways that search engines construct meaning. As the images appear
on screen, however, their juxtapositions expose the complexities of power
struggles and notions of progress at play in the online world. The hierar-
chy within Google search results is disrupted, so that the production of
meaning becomes more apparent. Images fade in and out at different
intervals, so that the user experiences the often-uncomfortable proximity
between the ostensibly incompatible social, economic, cultural, political
and ideological processes of globalization and the mundane and familiar
acts of performing a Google search.
Goobalization does not hack or modify the Google search engine; rather,
it turns the logic of the search engine and its parent corporation somewhat
against itself, interrogating expectations for what the search engine will
produce when presented with highly contested key terms concerning glob-
alization. Google boasts that its search engine is trusted by users due to its
quality of being ‘untainted’ by human involvement or paid advertisements.
Its patented ‘hypertext-matching analysis’ and ‘page rank’ algorithms
decreases the calculation time for searches by examining page content and
page relationships, rather than simply the frequency of word appearance on
a particular page, and by pre-selecting web pages that the search engine
determines to be more relevant to the user. Google’s image search, however,
does rely upon human involvement in the absence of algorithms that can
efficiently identify and label visual images, pointing back to the questions
posed by Tay in relation to types of mediation that circumscribe the fidelity
of visual representation. Google’s image search functions somewhat like an
open-content model of the Internet that allows copying and modifying of
information by any user. The search engine relies on users to provide index-
ing via tags (‘image labels’), encouraging users to strive for detail and accu-
racy through a system of points based upon the amount of detail within
label descriptions. In its own example, an image of a large tropical seabird
in flight against a blue sky receives successively higher points for the labels
‘sky’ (background image), ‘bird’ (foreground image), ‘soaring’ (action), and
‘frigate bird’ (more detailed description of foreground image). The labels
link key words to visual images, so that the latter serve as a visual docu-
ment or illustration of the former.
91
Undisclosed Recipients: . . .
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 91
In terms of critical praxis, Goobalization mimics the database logic of
Google search engines while adapting the logic of ‘web application
mashups’. Such mashups extend the sampling principles of music remixes
that emerged during the 1970s but are not merely consumed for enter-
tainment because they serve a practical function. Users customize
Internet technologies, so that ‘the purpose of a typical Web 2.0 mashup’,
Navas argues, is ‘to subvert applications to perform something they could
not do otherwise by themselves’ (Navas 2007: 3). CrimeChicago.org, for
example, overlays data from the Chicago Police Department onto Google
maps, so that crimes may be mapped according to date, type and location,
as readily as directions between home and a holiday or shopping destination
can be mapped. Unlike hacks or mods, mashups mobilize and combine
existing technologies, leaving the underlying code intact. Web application
mashups materially copy data from various sources and constantly update
this data, thereby utilizing the open archives, random access and search
filters of the Internet. At first glance Goobalization appears to adopt the
strategy of a mashup that matches images with words on a separate web
site, such as a commercial news organization, based on information in the
images’ metadata (‘tags’ such as the equipment and settings used to pro-
duce the image, the owner of the equipment, the subject or date).
Rejecting Google’s conceits of objectivity and consensus within its text
searches and image searches, Goobalization defines globalization, surveil-
lance, resistance and difference in political terms. For Navas, globalization
is an expression of transnational corporate control over international
activity that facilitates the increasing global inequalities between haves
and have-nots. He identifies surveillance as a complementary term that
describes a primary mode by which globalization is enacted upon its bod-
ies of the world’s populations, as well as upon their online activities.
Corporations, governments, and hackers deploy surveillance for purposes
that range from commercial exploitation to political control. As a counter-
balance to globalization and surveillance, Navas understands resistance to
suggest critical positions that interrogate structures of power, positions
that simultaneously mobilize and are enabled by difference. Although the
terms would seem to posit simple binaries, Navas’s selection and composit-
ing of images complicate initial suppositions.
Goobalization-I, for example, opens with a black-and-white image of
‘surveillance’, depicting a woman tourist taking a photograph of a man,
who poses by swinging from a lamp post, above a colour image as ‘resis-
tance’ depicting the Zapatista liberation army (Ejército Zapatista de
Liberación Nacional), known for their mobilization of Internet technolo-
gies for cyber-activism and anti-globalization. Differentiations and rela-
tions within structures of power come more sharply into focus as the user
witnesses the momentary proximity of two very different subject positions
under globalization – positions that are intimately connected yet effectively
segregated by globalization. As the images fade in and out, composite
images are formed momentarily in the overlapping areas between the four
key terms. Plants, for example, merge with men holding machine guns. In
Goobalization-III, ‘difference’ is represented with a stock advertising image
of US multiculturalism (smiling African American, Asian American,
European American, Latino/a American – yet, predictably, no Native
92
Dale Hudson
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 92
American – faces) as ‘globalization’ is represented by an image of a pair of
Gap jeans with a label reading ‘made in a sweatshop’. Soon the images
shift to a logo for a reforestation movement for ‘difference’ whose text
(‘you can make a difference’) is quickly covered by an image of three smil-
ing waitresses wearing the trademark tight singlet for the Hooters chain of
fast-food restaurants for ‘globalization’. The animations highlight the
imbrications of purportedly oppositional discourses, that is, the works in
the series animate ways that anti-globalization discourses are appropriated
by agents of globalization, as well as the inverse. The digital structure of
the documentary, then, determines meaning more than the actual content
of the images, updating the political avant-garde strategies of Soviet mon-
tage and Third Cinema for what might be called the post-ideological
moment. The overlapping images challenge the conventions of expository
documentary where text, whether spoken in voice-over or written as inter-
titles or subtitles, reigns over images and causality in argument is para-
mount (Nichols 1991: 35). By mimicking an actual mashup that selects
images based upon Google’s own rankings, the Goobalization animations
pose questions about ways that information is labelled, tagged, and
processed through search engines, ways that documents are interpreted as
documentation by search engines, to expose meaning as polyvocal, unstable,
and contested around ethically urgent questions concerning corporate
control of meaning in the current moment of globalization.
Permanent transit
Created by media artist Mariam Ghani in collaboration with programmer
Ed Potter, Kabul: Reconstructions was originally launched in 2003 as an
interactive documentary and public dialogue project to document recon-
struction projects in Kabul at yearly intervals. By adopting both a conven-
tional documentary mode (representing) and a less conventional mode
(dialoguing), the Internet documentary seeks to offer multiple perspectives
of particular situations, emphasizing movements towards collaborative,
open-ended knowledge rather than single perspectives or closed structures
of constructing and transmitting knowledge that Goobalization compli-
cates. The first two sections of Kabul: Reconstructions, which were active
from March 2003 to March 2006 and are archived on the website,
include data about Kabul’s reconstruction gleaned from the official net-
works of international media coverage, as well as data about the recon-
struction transmitted via Afghani diasporic and exilic networks in
response to questions posted on the website by users. The third and fourth
sections of the project turn their attention to the constitutional assembly
and national election, posing questions about the ‘architectures of democ-
racy proposed and promoted through the reconstruction efforts during
that window of possibility which now seems to be closing’. The project
deploys Internet communications peer-to-peer (P2P) technologies to dis-
rupt the authority of centralized models of distribution.
As part of Kabul: Reconstruction, the collaborative project Permanent
Transit: net.remix by media artist Mariam Ghani, poet Zohra Saed, com-
poser Qasim Naqvi, and programmer Edward Potter considers the instabil-
ity of states of being through migration in response to political events.
Permanent Transit is a database documentary about the anxieties and
93
Undisclosed Recipients: . . .
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/17/08 1:45 PM Page 93
recoveries, disorientations and reorientations, associated with the contin-
ual migrations of expatriates, exiles, refugees, immigrants and itinerants.
Shot on DV through the windows of planes, buildings and vehicles on
location in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Turkey, Armenia, Italy, the
Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, looped
video and fragmented sounds of the twelve windows of Permanent Transit
result in ‘experimental documentary reconstituted as a documented
experiment’ (Ghani 2004). Designed to relocate viewers from state-bound
lives to the crossroads that are experienced by the ‘hybrid generation’ of
stateless populations that Ghani defines as ‘difficult, absurd, productive
zone where locations and cultures blur, intersect, overlap and exchange’,
while political borders reify. Experience, memory and identity are not
merely fragmented, as articulated by postcolonial theories and echoed by
postmodernist ideas. Instead, experience, memory and identity are dis-
tanced, blocked and often mediated in self-alienating ways that find
description in views through the glass of windows of moving vehicles and
temporary lodgings. In this sense the images share less in common with
the ideologically ambiguous images in Goobalization than they do with
images in La Conchita mon amour, which, as Tay argues, are infused with
subjective evocations, thereby displacing indexicality as a primary mode of
making meaning from visual representation.
To enter Permanent Transit, the user opens a browser that is divided into
a dozen windows, manipulating the content by clicking on the ‘mix’ button
to download one single-channel video after another from the video subset
of the database, as well as the ‘play’ and ‘pause’ buttons of the media player
in each window. Sound tracks are selected by algorithm from the audio
subset of the database. In this way, the documentary enacts functions of the
user interface that Goobalization represents. In ten of the twelve windows,
the short videos loop automatically. The audio track plays only once. The
seventh and tenth windows contain text that appears and disappears in
sections. The only window that does not automatically loop is the first win-
dow, which contains the title in white capital lettering against a black
screen. The letters rotate through the alphabet faintly behind the words
‘permanent transit’ as images appear and disappear in clusters in a visual
representation of the transience of memories and sensory impressions. The
audio track of the title window generates anticipation of change that is sug-
gested by the rapid beat of percussion instruments, punctuated by the occa-
sional clanking noise of a metal instrument.
Fidelity of visual representation to experience comes into question.
Indeed, sound often compensates for the people and places that vision can-
not produce. Handshakes and hugs find approximate substitutes in long-
distance telephone conversations, so that the sound of voices fills in the
gaps left by the absence of faces. The documentary explores substitutions
and partial equivalences of being in a state of permanent transit where
environments seemingly always shift underfoot. Structured as a database,
Permanent Transit would seem to question the very assumptions of data-
base search engines to produce meaningful results. Although the videos
document travel through eleven states, images of these disparate places
are seen only through the windows of vehicles and locations of transit.
Cultural and political constructions of ‘the East’ and ‘the West’ collapse
94
Dale Hudson
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/17/08 1:45 PM Page 94
upon themselves when the visual markers of familiar and foreign are
largely obliterated in partial views. Memories of one flight splinter into
memories of a thousand flights. ‘What was the order of cities?’, asks Saed’s
text; ‘Beirut
. . .
Baghdad
. . .
Damascus
. . .
New York
. . .
Baghdad again
. . .
Amman
. . .
New York. In the ellipses we find only war.’ Memories become
sites for contestation between generations. Meaning of images for one gen-
eration is produced in relation to the meaning of another generation.
As an unreliable structuring narrative for the piece, Rula Ghani
recounts her memories of Syrian comedian Doreid Laham’s absurdist tale of
a man trapped in a no-man’s land. The gaps in Ghani’s memory of Laham’s
tale, originally televised in 1981 but only remembered and recorded
decades later, are evocative of the work’s attempts to document what is lost
every day. ‘How many windows can we look from? How many rooftops
await our return?’, asks the text alongside the images. The clicking and
chiming of clocks in the waiting rooms of airports, bus depots, railway sta-
tions and checkpoints comes to replace the call to prayers once heard from
the local mosque. In another segment, sounds of prayers mix with sounds
of traffic as a woman eats a meal by a window. ‘God and radio hold hands
in the eternity of no-man zones’, suggests the text at one point. Although
‘bells, work, clock – all cut up the day as neatly as a traffic jam’, little relives
the sense of being in a state of ‘permanent waiting’, emphasized by looped
video across a multiplicity of screens. Permanent Transit also explores possi-
bilities for recuperation of identity and grounding: ‘There are borders, there
are checkpoints, and there are our mother’s stories to undo them all with
one twist of a tale and a gentle laugh like glass breaking.’ To break the glass
of the windows that stand as barriers between modes and sites of perma-
nent transit suggests a substitute for home, particularly home for families
whose individual members may have strikingly different memories of home
due to histories of movement across borders. For the hybrid generation, the
sound of the mother’s voice is perhaps all that binds identity at times.
Perhaps the most sobering feature of Permanent Transit’s documenta-
tion of the disorientations of expatriates, exiles, refugees, immigrants and
itinerants is its remix feature that causes the images in all of the windows
except the seventh and tenth, which contain text, to shuffle. New images
appear; old images disappear. The same images may appear more than
once within the grid structure of the windows. The user’s ability to remix
the videos and audio, paired at random by the project algorithm, suggests
that meaning cannot be contained within linear temporality, rather it
spills over into circular loops and is mapped onto multiple screens that
suggest spatial and experiential relationships. According to Ghani, there is
only a one in four chance that audio and video will align as they were
recorded. Ultimately, images are interchangeable due to the transience of
what they represent. Memories cannot be anchored to fixed locations of
home and homeland, so that identity is diffused and subject to atrophy.
The absolute presence of the images guarantees nothing, so that ‘we are
all in imminent danger of becoming merely ghosts in the machine’ in
Sobchack’s terms (2005: 140). The Internet documentary mobilizes the
database structure of the Internet and digital video’s ability to loop end-
lessly to reconfigure documentary via temporal and relational dimensions
not possible with analogue technologies that demand a linear structure.
95
Undisclosed Recipients: . . .
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 95
Conclusions
As an interactive documentary, Permanent Transit harkens back to documen-
tary’s etymological origin in ‘travelogue’ (documentaire). The user’s experience
mimics the overlapping and easily confused memories of place of the experi-
ences of travel that Permanent Transit documents. Comparably, Goobalization
recognizes that the Internet is a part of the everyday landscape of a global
environment that defines the frontier of the digital divide. Although some
new media scholars dismiss the notion of interactivity as anything possible
beyond user ‘reactivity’ within a vast network of choices, David Hogarth
(2006: 127–29) argues that ‘interactive technologies could extend and
deepen modes of engagement’ and that ‘digital documentaries promise to
make sense of the world in less restrictive ways’, such as online productions
that ‘may allow new forms of dialogue with documentary form, undermining
authoritative (and authoritarian) modes of communication along the way’.
In some ways, his ideas extend ones made by Trinh T. Minh-ha before the
popularization of digital video through consumer-grade cameras and the
Internet through the World Wide Web. Trinh (1993: 90) asserts that there is
no such thing as documentary, whether a category of material, a genre, an
approach or a set of techniques, and that the old antagonism between names
and reality needs to be incessantly restated because truth is produced
between regimes of power. She argues that ‘the present situation of critical
inquiry seems much less one of attacking the illusion of reality as one of dis-
placing and emptying out the establishment of totality’ (Trinh 1993: 107).
Interactive and database formats for Internet documentaries refigure conven-
tions of collaborative and self-conscious documentary. The ‘absolute presence’
of new media suggests a potential for emphasis on relationality that differs
from relations based on temporal and spatial coordinates to those based upon
a database format of potentially endless recombinations. Transcending obser-
vational, expository, self-reflexive and interactive modes of documentary,
database documentaries like Goobalization and Permanent Transit reposition
audience and events in ways that exceed the discursive spaces that can be
contained on a single screen, via conventions of direct sound or voice-over
and, more significantly, within the linear progression of projected film or
video or within the fixed site of installations. Database documentaries prompt
recognition that meaning is always polyvocal, unstable and contested –
always in a moment of transition towards movement and contestation.
Appendix: Undisclosed Recipients by festival content stream
Brief descriptions and links to all works can be found online at http://
www.ithaca.edu/fleff07/selected_works.html
MAPS AND MEMES
North-South-East-West 1.0 by Graham Thompson (Metis Nation/Canada).
Surreal Scania by Robert Willim and Anders Weberg as Recycled Image Studio (Sweden).
Flag Metamorphoses complied by Myriam Thyes (Germany).
Entre Deux by Donald Abad and Cyriac Allard (France).
METROPOLI
The Kabul Project by Mariam Ghani (USA).
Ectropy and The Network of No_des by Jeebesh Bagchi, Mrityunjay Chatterjee, Iram
Ghufran, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta as Sarai Media Lab (India).
96
Dale Hudson
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 96
The Trustfiles by Nadine Hilbert and Gast Bouschet (Belgium).
Anima by Jim Grafsgaard and P.J. Tracy (USA).
SOUNDSCAPES
thefLuteintheworLdthefLuteistheworLd by Henry Gwiazda (USA).
aux2mondes by collaborative of Nicolas Malevé, Pascal Mélédandri, Chantal Dumas
and Isabelle Massu (USA/France).
SameSameButDifferent v.02 by Thor and Runar Magnusson (Iceland).
Untitled (FLEFF) by Catherine Clover (UK/Australia).
PANIC ATTACKS
La Conchita mon amour by Christina McPhee (USA).
Goobalization by Eduardo Navas (USA).
{transcription} and [FALLUJAH. IRAQ. 31/03/2004] by Michael Takeo Magruder
(USA/UK).
Pandemic Rooms by Jason Nelson (USA/Australia).
The Samaras Project by Dara Greenwald and Josh MacPhee (USA).
Acknowledgements
The authors would like to thank Thomas Shevory and Patricia R. Zimmermann for
their support and encouragement, as well as Craig Hight and the anonymous read-
ers at Studies in Documentary Film for their insights and suggestions that con-
tributed immensely to this work.
References
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong (2006), ‘Introduction: Did Somebody Say New Media?’,
in Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (eds), New Media, Old Media:
A History and Theory Reader, New York and London: Routledge: pp. 1–10.
Derrida, Jacques (1996), Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (trans. Eric Prenowitz),
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in
French in 1995.
Enticknap, Leo (2005), Moving Image Technology: From Zoetrope to Digital, London:
Wallflower.
Foucault, Michel (1972 [1969]), The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on
Language (trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith), New York: Pantheon.
Ghani, Mariam (2004). ‘Permanent Transit: net.remix’, artwurl, republished on
Rhizome, http://rhizome.org/discuss/view/14265/.
Accessed 7 March 2008.
Goldsmith, Jack and Wu, Tim (2006), Who Controls the Internet?: Illusions of a
Borderless World, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Hogarth, David (2006), Realer than Reel: Global Dimensions in Documentary, Austin:
University of Texas Press.
Kinder, Marsha (2002), ‘Hot Spots, Avatars, and Narrative Fields Forever: Buñuel’s
Legacy for New Digital Media and Interactive Database Narrative’, Film
Quarterly, 55: 4, pp. 2–15.
Manovich, Lev (2001), The Language of New Media, Cambridge, MA and London:
The MIT Press.
McPhee, Christina (2006), La Conchita mon armor project essay, http://www.christi-
namcphee.net/la_conchita.html
Accessed 9 September 2007.
97
Undisclosed Recipients: . . .
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 97
Mulvey, Laura (2006), Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, London:
Reaktion.
Navas, Eduardo (2007), ‘Regressive and Reflexive Mashups in Sampling Culture’, Vague
Terrain, 7: sample culture, http://www.vagueterrain.net/content/archives/
journal07/navas01.html.
Accessed 12 November 2007.
Nichols, Bill (1991), Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary,
Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Shevory, Thomas and Zimmermann, Patricia (2007), ‘Festival Codirectors’
Welcome’, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival catalogue, Ithaca, NY:
Ithaca College, n.p.
Sobchack, Vivian (2004), Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture,
Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.
—— (2005 [1994]), ‘The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Cinematic and
Electronic “Presence”’, in Andrew Utterson (ed.), Technology and Culture, New
York and London: Routledge, 2005: pp. 127–42.
Trinh T. Minh-ha (1993), ‘The Totalizing Quest for Meaning’, in Michael Renov
(ed.), Theorizing Documentary, New York and London: Routledge, pp. 90–107.
—— (2005), The Digital Film Event, London and New York: Routledge.
Suggested citation
Tay, S. L. (2008), ‘Undisclosed Recipients: documentary in an era of digital conver-
gence’, Studies in Documentary Film 2: 1, pp. 79–98, doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.79/1.
Contributor details
Sharon Lin Tay is Lecturer in Film Studies at Middlesex University in London, UK,
where she teaches world cinema, film theory and digital culture. Her work is sus-
tained by a commitment to feminist politics, and revolves around film theory and
film-making practices. She has published articles in the journal Women: A Cultural
Review, chapters in the anthologies Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers (Routledge,
2002), Femme Fatalities: Representations of Strong Women in the Media (Nordicom,
2004) and Northern Constellations: New Readings in Nordic Cinema (Norvik Press,
2006). She is preparing a book about feminist ethics and women’s film-making
practices. Contact: Sharon Lin Tay, Middlesex University, School of Arts, Cat Hill,
London, EN4 8HT England.
E-mail: S.Tay@mdx.ac.uk
Suggested citation
Hudson, D. (2008), ‘Undisclosed Recipients: database documentaries and the
Internet’, Studies in Documentary Film 2: 1, pp. 79–98, doi: 10.1386/sdf.2.1.79/1.
Contributor details
Dale Hudson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film Studies in the Department of
English at Amherst College. His work on cinema and new media appears in the
journals Screen and Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, the anthology The Persistence of
Whiteness: Race and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (Routledge, 2007), and is
forthcoming in the Journal of Film and Video. He contributes reviews to Afterimage.
Contact: Dale Hudson, Visiting Assistant Professor of Film Studies, Amherst
College, PO Box 5000, Amherst, MA 01002 USA.
E-mail: dhudson@amherst.edu
98
Dale Hudson
SDF 2.1_06_art_Tay+Hudson.qxd 3/14/08 10:24 AM Page 98
Studies in
Documentary
Film
S
t
u
d
i
e
s

i
n

D
o
c
u
m
e
n
t
a
r
y

F
i
l
m


|


V
o
l
u
m
e

T
w
o


N
u
m
b
e
r

O
n
e

ISSN 1750-3280
2.1

i
n
t
e
l
l
e
c
t
www.intellectbooks.com
V
o
l
u
m
e

T
w
o

N
u
m
b
e
r

O
n
e


i
n
t
e
l
l
e
c
t

J
o
u
r
n
a
l
s

|

F
i
l
m

S
t
u
d
i
e
s
9 771750 328003
ISSN 1750-3280
2 1
Studies in
Documentary Film
Volume 2 Number 1 – 2008
3–7 Editorial
The field of digital documentary: a challenge to documentary theorists
Craig Hight
Articles
9–31 Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic
within play
Craig Hight
33–45 In and out of this world: digital video and the aesthetics of realism in the
new hybrid documentary
Ohad Landesman
47–59 Digital video and Alexandre Astruc’s caméra-stylo: the new avant-garde in
documentary realized?
Bjorn Sorenssen
61–78 Documentary expression online: The Wrong Crowd, a history documentary
for an ‘electrate’ audience
Debra Beattie
79–98 Undisclosed Recipients: documentary in an era of digital convergence
Sharon Lin Tay
79–98 Undisclosed Recipients: database documentaries and the Internet
Dale Hudson
Studies in Documentary Film gratefully acknowledges the
assistance of Monash University Publications Grants Committee
SDF 2.1_cover.indd 1 3/26/08 9:48:33 PM

You're Reading a Free Preview

Download
scribd
/*********** DO NOT ALTER ANYTHING BELOW THIS LINE ! ************/ var s_code=s.t();if(s_code)document.write(s_code)//-->