Thursday, January 12, 2017

Conferences Winter 2017 Edition

Here is my current list of English-language conferences of interest to those in film studies (and some for TV and media studies). Upcoming conferences are listed in order by date or, for open calls, by abstract due date. Please let me know if I should add anything.

Closed calls:
SCMS - Chicago, Mar. 22-26, 2017 [website]
ICA 2017 - San Diego, California, 25-29 May 2017 [call]
Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image (SCSMI) - Helsinki, June 11-14, 2017 [website]
Women and the Silent Screen - Shanghai, June 16-18, 2017 [website]
Circuits of Cinema (Histories of Movie/Media Distribution) - Ryerson Univ., June 22-24, 2017 [website]
Visible Evidence XXIV - Buenos Aires, Aug. 2-5, 2017 [website]

Current calls:
due date: January 15, 2017 Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 23-25, 2017 [website]
due date: January 16, 2017 Console-ing Passions - East Carolina Univ., July 27-29, 2017 [call]
due date: January 31, 2017 NECS - Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and Université Paris Diderot, Paris, June 29 - July 1, 2017 [website | call]
due date: January 31, 2017 (revised) Poetics and Politics of Documentary - Univ. of Sussex, Brighton, June 2-4, 2017 [call]
due date: February 1, 2017 UFVA - California State Univ. Los Angeles, July 30-Aug. 2, 2017 [website]
due date: February 3, 2017 Black Film British Cinema Conference 2017 - Goldsmiths & Institute of Contemporary Art, London, May 17-18, 2017 [call]
due date: February 28, 2017. MLA - New York, Jan. 2018 [website | call]
due date: April 15, 2017 Rethinking Film Genres: East Asian Cinema and Beyond - Univ. of Hull, Sept. 14-16, 2017 [call]

Upcoming calls:
Domitor (early cinema) - Rochester, June 13-16, 2018 [website]
Film and History conference - Milwaukee, Nov. 1-5, 2017 [website]
ICA 2018 - Prague, May 24-28, 2018 [website]
Visible Evidence XXV - Bloomington, Indiana, second week of August 2018

Graduate student conferences:
due date: January 31, 2017 Trauma & Melodrama - Univ. of Chicago, April 21-22, 2017 [call]

CFP: Black Film British Cinema Conference 2017


Black Film British Cinema Conference 2017
The Politics of Race in Contemporary Film and Digital Practice

Goldsmiths, University of London (Day One)
& Institute of Contemporary Arts (Day Two)
17-18 May 2017

abstracts due 3rd February 2017


Professor Sarita Malik, Brunel University
Dr Kara Keeling, University of Southern California
June Givanni, Pan African Cinema Archives
Additional speakers will be announced as they are confirmed.


Whether we consider the rise of the concept of diversity, the on-screen representation of identities, the off-screen workforce, the production trends of film institutions, new forms of independent production opened up by new media, or film education and talent development, questions of race and ethnicity remain central to contemporary British film.

This conference will mark nearly 30 years since the original Black Film, British Cinema conference at the ICA and its subsequent publication, which has been a huge influence on scholars exploring race, culture and the politics of representation.  Some of its core thinking by Kobena Mercer, Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy and others remains an excellent point to consider what has, and has not, become of black and Asian film and TV production in the UK.

The aim of this two-day conference is to consider the politics of race in contemporary British cinema and visual practice and reflect on almost 30 years of black film production vis-a-vis the institutional, technological, textual, cultural and political shifts that have occurred during this period.  We invite scholars, early career researchers, postgraduate students and practitioners working at the intersection of film, TV, Moving Image, Media and Communication studies, Sociology, Politics and Cultural Studies. We would encourage contributors to reflect on themes, challenges and questions central to race and British film in terms of governance, production, representation, exhibition and spectatorship. These include (but are not limited to):

The politics of representation in contemporary film and digital practice

  • Diversity and film policy
  • The representation/politics of race in new digital platforms
  • Understandings of 'Black film' in the context of recent social, political and cultural change
  • The politics of gender and sexuality and intersectional approaches to black and Asian film and visual practice
  • The political economy of 'Black film'
  • The cultural, geographical and political contexts of black and Asian film production
  • Participatory film cultures and movements
  • Methodologies for understanding contemporary film, representation and access.
  • Film in postcolonial and race critical theory
  • The relevance and cohesiveness of 'black' as an ethnic category in film production, policy and criticism
  • New Ethnicities, the Black intelligentsia and film and TV production
  • The emergence of new sub genres (i.e Urban Film)
  • Higher Education, film studies and race, and approaches to Black film pedagogy
  • Race and diaspora in international cinema
  • Representation, identity and the ideology of race and ethnicity  

Abstract Deadlines and Submission Process:

3rd February 2017. Deadline for paper submission. Please submit proposals for 15 minute papers here. The submission should include the following: title and name, institutional affiliation and address, and email address, together with a paper title and abstract of not more than 300 words.

27th February 2017 Paper proposers notified of decision by conference committee. Conference registration opens.

Thursday 17th May 2017. Conference starts in London.

Conference Organisers: Dr Clive James Nwonka (University of Greenwich), Dr Anamik Saha (Goldsmiths, University of London)


CFP: Rethinking Film Genres: East Asian Cinema and Beyond


Rethinking Film Genres: East Asian Cinema and Beyond 
University of Hull
14-15 September 2017

abstracts due 15 April 2017

What is film genre? Does it still matter in today’s film production, distribution and consumption? How have some film genres become so closely associated with a nation or region, such as Chinese martial arts films, Japanese horror, and Korean melodrama? The fact that genre is widely discussed by the general public suggests that it is still important. However, the examination of genre theory and the scholarly discussion of genres have remained predominantly focussed on Hollywood and European cinemas, as exemplified by the work of scholars such as Thomas Schatz, Steve Neale, Barry Keith Grant, Rick Altman, Belén Vidal, and Antonio Lázaro-Reboll. Despite their rich screen culture and their influence within and beyond the Pacific region, East Asian cinemas remain underexplored. In today’s context of increasingly international filmmaking, we would aim to explore the ways in which film genres underpin cultural translation between East Asia and beyond.

As the theme of "Rethinking Film Genres: East Asian Cinema and Beyond" suggests, the conference intends not only to celebrate cinematic creativity through the interrogation of the narrative and aesthetics of film genres developed in East Asian (including mainland Chinese, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Korean) cinemas, but also seek to expand scholarly discussion of the rich heritage and fast changing landscape of filmmaking of East Asian cinemas by examining the international co-production and cross-cultural consumption of film genres.

We therefore invite papers based on either theoretical research or on case studies to address any of following themes:

  • Narrative, style and aesthetics of various genres of East Asian cinemas
  • Film genre and local, regional, national and global identities of East Asian cinemas
  • Cross-cultural consumption of East Asian film genres
  • Fandom and East Asian film genres
  • Creative professionals (e.g. stars, directors, producers, production designers) and film genres of East Asian cinemas
  • Cross-border mobility (e.g. talents, finance, ideas) and the development of film genres in East Asian cinemas
  • International filmmaking, coproduction and genre crossing between East Asian cinemas and other screen cultures
  • Remaking and adaptation of East Asian films
  • Sound, music and language (e.g. dubbing, subtitles, dialects) of East Asian film genres
  • International distribution and exhibition of East Asian film genres
  • Genre as a reflection of cultural flow, social economics, media policies, and political history

This is not an exhaustive list of thematic strands that we hope to explore at the conference.  We particularly encourage submissions from those whose papers promote cross-disciplinary dialogue and critical debate in area studies, genre theory, film studies and cultural studies.

Confirmed keynote speakers:
Professor Chris Berry, King’s College London
Professor Michael Berry, University of California, Los Angeles
Professor Shaoyi Sun, Shanghai Theatre Academy

Please submit your proposal (maximum 250 words), together with a short biography (maximum 50 words) and affiliation information to Dr. Lin Feng at by 15 April 2017.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

What Makes Film Sociological?

I’m belated in responding to this, but several months ago, sociologist Jeff Guhin raised an interesting question in relation to The Wire: what makes a novel or movie or television program sociological? As he notes, “the problem is that if sociology is the study of the social, then what show or movie or book isn’t sociological?” As the question implies, we’re torn between a strict definition of the sociological and a sense that sociology has particular attitudes in the study of the social.

But I thought this was a question I would be qualified to weigh in on, at least partly. My new book, Sociology on Film: Postwar Hollywood’s Prestige Commodity, explicitly takes up this question, and its publication now has made me think more about the questions Guhin raises. After all, my book circles around this problem without answering it outright. I am basically concerned with how Hollywood social problem films in the 1940s began popularizing academic sociology. And I argue that this change was not merely discursive (involving the way people talked about movies) but also aesthetic.

Which leads me to pose some possible answers to “what makes a book/movie/TV show sociological.”

Objectifying narration. There’s a rich tradition of subjectivist sociology, but in looking for “sociological” narrative art, we’re often looking for a narrative form that places characters in their social milieu. In the 19th century realist and naturalist novel, this often meant class and gender as primary determinants, and where Guhin raises the example of Dickens, a better choice might be Dreiser. One strand I examined is the form of the realist novel in 1940s cinema, which brings some of this objectifying narrative.

Sociologist characters. Sociologists do not appear in fiction, film or TV very often. But other social scientists and experts do and these may broadly stand in for what film scholar John Hill calls the social problem discourse.  Of course sociology is more than social problem sociology, but the social problem orientation is strong in cinema that strives to be - or is read as - sociological.

Sociological references. My book traces how films like Pinky and Intruder in the Dust cited ideas from sociology books, in this case An American Dilemma. Magic Town was clearly inspired by the Lynds' study, Middletown. William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm adapted its title from a now obscure social science concept.

Nonfiction aesthetics. There’s a broader discussion to be had about how sociological documentary is. But here I’m referring to something more basic: the fact that expository material in the narrative may take on the form of academic or policy writing. The most striking example is the opening titles of The Sniper, which immediately frame the narrative as sociological (in a policy orientation).

Audience reception. This is a little tautological and unsatisfying, but there’s an extent that the very act of perceiving a film/show/novel as sociological goes a long way to making it sociological. More concretely: in the 1940s film I examine, there are demonstrable sociological references and these films circulated in a discourse that labeled them as “sociological.” Sociologists studied their public opinion impact. Yet many viewers consumed them primarily as entertainment, albeit thematically topical and serious entertainment. There were multiple reading formations around them. The Wire works this way, too, as the critical writing on the series, focusing on the division into seasons each corresponding to social institutions, leads more viewers to read the series this way.

In practice, seemingly no art or entertainment works fit all of the above, and I suspect it takes more than one trait to make a work sociological. In fact, it's the reinforcement between two or more of these that seems important.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Book announcement

I am pleased to announce that my book, Sociology on Film: Postwar Hollywood's Prestige Commodity, is out now from Rutgers University Press. The shipping date will take a few more days or so, but you can order the book now. Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other book retailers should have it. Or you can order it directly from Rutgers University Press. In past years, Rutgers has had a good holiday sale, and I will update if they offer one this year.
I'm very pleased to see the final product. The press's production team did a great job, and it's just gratifying to see the end result of a long process, from dissertation to the final form this book took. I'll have a few more posts to talk about the book and give some preview of its contents.

For those who have helped along the way, you're probably in the acknowledgments but in any case I appreciate all the support. It's a paradox of academic writing that it is both a profoundly solitary exercise and reliant on the intellectual and personal contributions of others.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Conferences Fall-Winter 2016/7 edition

Here is my current list of English-language conferences of interest to those in film studies (and some for TV and media studies). Upcoming conferences are listed in order by date or, for open calls, by abstract due date. Please let me know if I should add anything.  I will update this post when the NECS call for papers is posted.

Closed calls:
MLA - Philadelphia, January 5-8, 2017  [website]
SCMS - Chicago, Mar 22-26, 2017 [website]
ICA 2017 - San Diego, California, 25-29 May 2017 [call]

Current calls:
due date: November 1, 2016 Women and the Silent Screen - Shanghai, June 16-18, 2017 [website | call]
due date: November 4, 2016 Visible Evidence XXIV - Buenos Aires, August 2-5, 2017 [website | call]
due date: November 30, 2016 Circuits of Cinema (Histories of Movie/Media Distribution) - Ryerson Univ., June 22-24, 2017 [website | call]
due date: January 15, 2017 Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 23-25, 2017 [website]
due date: January 16, 2017 Console-ing Passions - East Carolina Univ., July 27-29, 2017 [call]

Upcoming calls:
Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image (SCSMI) - Helsinki, June 11-14, 2017 [website]
NECS - Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and Université Paris Diderot, Paris, 29 June - July 1, 2017 [website | call]
MLA - New York, January, 2018 [website]

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Machine Gun or Typewriter?

Machine Gun or Typewriter
Dir. Travis Wilkerson, US, 2016
Genre: doc-fiction hybrid

I’ve been overdue reporting on my time at FIDMarseille this year, taking in a festival that has a dual distinct niche on the European documentary film festival circuit. First, its programming has a pan-Mediterranean orientation, including a good number of works from the Maghreb and from the Levant. Second, it gravitates toward “difficult” works, particularly slow-paced contemplative docs or rule-breaking essay film style works. However, my biggest surprise in encountering the FIDMarseille program was seeing the inclusion of fiction films amid a program of documentaries, essay films, and hybrid works, and absolutely no marking of films according to genre.

There are some disadvantages of this approach (which I’ll get to in another post), but it had the advantage of making me encounter each film on its own terms, to gauge not only its facticity but also its narrational system in the process of watching. I think this paid off for Machine Gun or Typewriter, a film which like many at the festival only really gripped me in the second half, as I got a feel for its narrative rhythms and tone.

And at heart, the film is a narrative, based on a fictional script and with the feel of a short story or novella. The narrator in this instance is a literal storyteller, a pirate radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles (real? fictional?) recounting his story of political and romantic involvement with a committed and radicalized leftist.

However the story lacks the enactment of the script, relying instead on the relation of voiceover to nonfiction image common to essay films. Moreover, the narrator ventures into nonfiction asides, in the manner of Thomas Pynchon or from the other angle, Mike Davis, whose City of Quartz seems a touchstone here. So much of Davis’s vision of Los Angeles is here: the references to the Black Dahlia, the iconography of Bunker Hill, or the half-forgotten genealogy of the Los Angelino Left.

It is on these grounds that inclusion in my doc blogging seems fitting. The part of the film devoted to an East Los Angeles cemetery is one of the most effective and affecting doc sequences I’ve seen this year.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

CFP: Visible Evidence XXIV Buenos Aires


Visible Evidence XXIV
Buenos Aires
2-5 August, 2017

Visible Evidence, the international conference on documentary film and media, will convene for its 24th year in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 2-5, 2017. VE2017 is hosted in collaboration with the National University of Tres de Febrero (UNTREF), Revista Cine Documental and the Argentine Association of Cinema and Audiovisual Studies (AsAECA). The conference will take place at the Centro Cultural Borges (Borges Cultural Center) above the traditional Galerías Pacífico and at the Margarita Xirgu theater in the historical neighborhood of San Telmo.

Visible Evidence Buenos Aires (2017) coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and marks fifty years since Che Guevara’s assassination in Bolivia. These two transcendental events compel us to contemplate anew the relationship between documentary film and revolutionary movements. In the 1960s, Argentina and other Latin American nations were at the center of a transnational debate about the role of film as a tool for social change in a regional movement called “New Latin American Cinema.” In the next decade, many filmmakers were disappeared or killed and many others were forced into exile. From abroad, or clandestinely in their own countries, filmmakers thought deeply about the ethical, moral, aesthetic, and political dimensions of their practices, in particular about how to represent individuals as political agents. An important aspect of their work was to foster political alliances with their colleagues, producers and film distributors in other developing countries. In spite of the brutal political persecution, their activist approach to filmmaking had an enormous influence on younger generations, particularly after the economic crisis at the turn of the twenty first century and the popular insurrections that disrupted the neoliberal takeover of the economy, society, and culture in many Latin American countries. The Latin American documentary film tradition followed these popular revolts closely, gradually incorporating many of the organizing structures of progressive social movements. Thus, while notions of Third Cinema or Political Cinema may seem less prominent in recent years, it is productive to think about the elements of the traditions that live on in contemporary Latin American film and beyond in the ‘Global South.’

At the beginning of the new millennium, one sees a fruitful and combative debate about the efficacy of documentation, understood within the historiography of human rights abuses, indigenous rights, marginalized communitiesand genocide. There has also been an increase in interest in documentary film in the last two decades in Argentina and other countries in Latin America. Progressive governments throughout the continent have increased funding for non-fiction films, strengthening ongoing discussions in academic circles about the role of the state as a patron of the arts. We believe that the time is ripe to rethink the relations between documentary film and national cinemas, as currently, state-funded progressive films are not always in agreement with transnational trends in contemporary cinema.

In line with previous conferences, Visible Evidence XXIV will address the history, theory, and practice of documentary cinema, television, video, digital media, photography, and performance. Proposals for panels and workshops may address, but are not limited to, the following themes:

  • Documenting social movements
  • Revolutionary filmographies
  • Documenting Latin America, documenting “the South”
  • Experimental and non-conventional non-fiction cinema
  • Documenting the “global North” and/or “the global South”
  • Hypertextuality practices in documentary cinema
  • First person documentary film
  • Frictions between performativity, fiction and documentary
  • New technology issues: dispositives, interfaces, internet, television and other media experiences
  • Documentary between national/regional tradition and transnational trends
  • Scopes and limits of contemporary documentary theory
  • Transmedia and Interactive Documentary. New Problems
  • Documenting human rights abuses
  • Discourses of neo-colonialism in the 21st century

Submission deadline: November 4, 2016 (by 5:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time) For the full call, including Spanish-language call, see the conference website.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

CFP: Symposium on Structural Documentary

I am pleased to announced that our department is hosting this event in October.


Temple University’s Film and Media Arts department invites proposals for its
2nd Documentary Theory-Practice Symposium 

on the topic of Structural Documentary

One-day symposium, Friday, October 14, 2016
Temple Performing Arts Center
Temple University, Philadelphia

Keynote speakers:
Pacho Velez, co-director of Manakamana
Catherine Russell (Concordia University), author of Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video 

One of the most striking trends in nonfiction film over the last decade has been the intersection between documentary and what has been called “structural filmmaking,” an approach to experimental cinema with a lineage back to the 1960s. Whether in the art gallery context or in feature documentaries geared toward theatrical or film festival release, documentarians have experimented with appropriating elements of structural film: repeated structures, arbitrary conceits, and an overall play with the elements of time and framing. 

Recent retrospectives of pioneering 1970s and 80s filmmakers Chantal Akerman and James Benning have highlighted the long-standing affinity of nonfiction subject matter for this detached, intellectualized approach to filming. While these earlier makers have always been influential, in a sense their time has caught up with them, as once marginal practices have increasingly influenced more aesthetically oriented documentary. Structural-inspired work today is wide ranging, from auteur-identified “creative documentaries” to experimental work shown in galleries. Contemporary makers may or may not take up the mantle of “structural filmmaking,” but increasingly in creative and experimental documentary, predetermined structures and formal devices shape the raw material of reality into conceptual puzzles for the viewer.

This one-day symposium will bring together filmmakers, critics, and scholars to examine the aesthetics of structural documentary, past and present, and related expanded nonfiction forms. The event will interrogate the label of “structural documentary” itself, posing a debate between broadly (inclusive) and narrow (exclusive) definitions, and assessing the relationship between between structural documentary and other experimental documentary approaches. 

On the one hand, structural filmmaking can seem a nostalgic style, a harkening back to an earlier movement. On the other hand, digital video, newer sound and editing capabilities, and expanded installation contexts have breathed new life into the expressive possibilities of structural devices.  

Proposals are invited on any of the above questions or on topics related to any theoretical or historical dimension of structural documentary as well as current practice in structural documentary. Possible areas include:

The relationship between contemporary structural documentary and earlier schools or movements of experimental documentary 
Analyses of individual works or filmmakers 
The impact of the digital age on structural cinema’s material (media-reflexive) orientation
Expanded documentary forms in the Global South or in minor cinemas.
The mainstreaming of structural technique
Structuralism in the art world: video art, the gallery film, and installation
Structural documentary and the historiography of experimental cinema
Structural film and the documentary canon

We encourage scholarly papers as well as talks by critics, filmmakers, and media artists. The morning session will be devoted to scholarly talks and an afternoon session to presentations by filmmakers and practitioners. 

Please send a précis or abstract (300 words max.) and a brief bio to Chris Cagle ( by Tuesday, Sept. 6. Notification of accepted proposals will go out by the following week. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

CFP: Documenting the Visual Arts


Documenting the Visual Arts 
(edited collection)
deadline: Nov 1, 2016

The proliferation and popularity of visual arts documentaries are a major component of the recent international documentary boom, but they tend to be overlooked in film criticism and scholarship in favor of documentaries framed more explicitly in social and political terms. Yet visual arts documentaries remain on the cutting edge of documentary innovation, from 3D cinema (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) to questioning documentary truths (Exit Through the Gift Shop). Moreover, visual arts documentaries have long played significant roles in various historical formations around documentary politics (e.g. USIA films in the Cold War, the Left Bank essay films of 1950s and Channel Four programming in the 1980s).

This edited collection will examine the significance of visual arts documentaries from a range of critical perspectives and methodologies. The book will explore not only how documentaries from around the globe exploit the formal properties of film and video to illuminate the aesthetic specificities and intersections of other visual arts, but also how they elucidate the material and cultural conditions in which visual arts are produced and experienced (e.g. the discourse of the artist, museums and galleries, activist art, religious practice, commercial design etc.). To complement these interpretative contributions, the book will also include critical analyses of the political economy of visual arts documentaries, especially the geopolitics of the genre. As an interdisciplinary and intermedial project, I am particularly interested in contributions that connect film studies to other disciplines and fields, including anthropology, art history, architecture, communication, rhetoric, performance studies and visual studies, among others. Consideration will be given to submissions about any historical period or cultural/national/regional context (the book aims for genuinely global scope). Contributions may focus on a single film, a body of work (organized around filmmaker, artist or subject) or a particular institutional context. I am defining visual arts broadly to include applied arts, such as fashion, architecture and design, as well as film, video, photography, painting, sculpture, illustration and performance art etc.

Possible topics include (but are not limited to):

  • Medium specificity and the visual arts documentary
  • Cultural politics of visual arts television programming
  • Documentary film and arts education
  • Visual arts documentary as cultural diplomacy
  • Post/colonial appropriation and resistance in visual arts documentaries
  • Representing visual aesthetic practices in ethnographic film
  • Documenting performance and collaboration in the visual arts
  • Documenting activist art practices
  • Discourses of the visual artist in documentary film
  • Documentaries about art institutions and markets
  • Visual arts documentary as paratext (making of documentaries, exhibition documentaries)
  • Relationship between documentary filmmaking and archival documentation of visual arts
  • Histories of arts television networks and series
  • Film technologies and the visual arts documentary
  • Fakery, forgery and mockumentary 

Deadline for electronic submission of 350-400 word abstract (plus brief biographical statement and sample 5-item bibliography): November 1, 2016.  Notification by December 1, 2016.

Commissioned chapters should not exceed 5,000 words and must be completed by October 1, 2017.

Please send submissions and inquiries via email to Roger Hallas, Associate Professor of English (Film & Screen Studies), Syracuse University, USA: rhallas -AT- syr -DOT- edu

Resources for Documentary Releases

I have occasionally been asked how I hear about recent documentaries. I try to be open to a number of sources, but it's worth highlighting a couple of news sources and a few streaming sources:

What Not to Doc. Basil Tsiokos maintains an incomparably complete and amazingly useful blog with documentary release news and festival roundups. This should be a regular read for anyone with a strong interest in documentary. His Twitter feed mirrors the site for those who prefer to access it that way.

POV. The Public Broadcasting System's documentary showcase has a good blog with weekly updates, including links to doc-oriented magazine features and festival news. The site also has regular streaming of documentaries that have broadcast. [Twitter]

Netflix. This is obvious, but I'm surprised how many documentary gems I stumble across on Netflix, both mainstream doc releases and more obscure fare. While the streaming site has given up on its former cinephile offerings in favor of television, its documentary holdings are still strong.

DocAlliance. I've mentioned them often, but this compendium of various doc festivals deserve a plug for providing an excellent streaming service of (mostly European) festival documentaries that otherwise do not see video distribution. Charges are minimal, and each week there are free streams as part of a featured event. [Twitter]

Short of the Week. Shorts are another overlooked niche in the documentary distribution market, and it can be hard to hear of new shorts. As with other film shorts, Short of the Week has a channel dedicated to documentary.

These are not exhaustive, and I've put the emphasis on resources for documentaries accessible to a wide audience rather than ones viewable only at festivals or in major cities. I welcome other tips.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Character-Driven Variations

The Successor (Il successore)
dir. Mattia Epifani, Bosnia-Herzegovina/Italy, 2015
Genre: Character-driven
Not currently in wide distribution

I mentioned in a recent post that there are important variations on the character-driven format. This is especially true in European documentaries and those oriented toward the festival circuit. There’s a wide range of experiments with the character-driven template, and the creativity with the form interests me in some ways more than the form itself. That said, it’s worth pointing to a common variation in the European/festival context.

The Successor is a documentary about the aftermath of land mines from the Bosnian war of the 1990s. It follows Vita Alfieri Fontana, a former owner of Tecnovar, the Italian company that produced the mines used in Bosnia and elsewhere. Eventually, Fontana had a sense of guilt about the use of his company’s products, shut down the company, and spent the following decade helping the mine removal process.

The documentary is not longitudinal but rather uses the pretext of Fontana’s journey to Bosnia to meet up with Nijaz Nemez, a Bosnian mine removal expert dealing with an explosion injury to his leg. The two were coworkers and are now friends.

The film has a few important characteristics of the character-driven documentary. It explores a broader historical and sociopolitical issue through the personal experience of those who face it directly rather than through abstract, expository means. It combines observational footage with a significant amount of testimonial interview to anchor the interiority of the “characters.” (See left.) And it is structured around the emotional journeys of Fontana and Nemez.

However, in look and experience, The Successor does not feel like an American-style character-driven doc. There are some stylistic reasons for this, including the poetic-doc style framing and composition…

But mostly, the difference boils down to some important distinctions in structure from the typical character-driven documentary:

  • There are two characters rather than one. The alternation in structure sets up a dialectical relation between the two men and what they represent.
  • The structure is closer to the epiphany structure of the art film or narrative short than the three-act structure of the postclassical film.
  • Accordingly, the film has a significant amount of “dead time,” especially for a mid-length documentary. This dead time allows the film to suggest an anomie of the characters standing in for a broader abstract but ineffable moral problem. (as in B-roll shot of Fontana, below)
  • The Successor relies far more on testimony than others, lending a sense of pastness rather than presentness which is the hallmark of the character-driven doc.

I do think these differences are attuned to a specific historicity of integrating Europe. It foregrounds the moral reckoning between Western and (South)Eastern Europe, depicting the civil war’s trauma as past but also a public sphere challenge for the present.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Aesthetics of the Festival Documentary

Roundabout in My Head (Fi rassi rond-point)
dir. Hassen Ferhani, 2015, Algeria/France/Qatar/Lebanon/Netherlands
Genre: Poetic-Observational

There is one shot in Roundabout in My Head that encapsulates for me so much of what makes watching contemporary festival documentary exciting. The film is a composite portrait of workers at a slaughterhouse in Algiers. Unlike other famous documentaries of slaughterhouses, Ferhani shows very little of the carnage; rather the film focuses on the worker’s interactions and unguarded moments. 

The shot in question is an interior long take of a television screen visible at the threshold of a doorway. Close to the camera, and partially captured at the frame’s edge are an older adult and a younger worker, watching what turns out to be a soccer match on the TV. Other workers walk between us/spectators and the television and more and more activity develops in this hallway until a group of workers is holding a rope, pulling on something heavy and urging other to help. 

The spectator can likely infer what is off screen: a cow being led to slaughter. But the shot takes some time to reveal this, instead presenting a balletic interplay between the action shown and the action concealed, including the soccer match. Eventually, the rope goes slack and the workers rush back, frame left, while the steer enters the frame and looks at the camera. 
As a man stands in front of the camera, his white clothing blocking the view, the shot either elides time or the action of moving the bull along quickly transpires. As the view of the room reappears, the favored team in the soccer match score, leading the workers to rush in and cheer. 
I signal out this shot because on one hand it’s resolutely observational and documentary in ethos (though Ferhani may be fudging with the time ellipsis), yet it also presents the spectator with a play in narration that like much art cinema or structural film works because the static frame contrasts with a staging of action that is anything but static. Only the action is not staged (mostly). It feels serendipitous precisely because it doesn’t look serendipitous.  
Which raises the question of how typical this shot is. At a most basic level it’s distinctive, a happy accident. But it’s also an accident of the sort that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in the festival-oriented or “creative” documentary lately - not shots exactly like this but ones with a similar aesthetic. Ferhani has a particularly good idea for shooting moments like this and keeping them in the edited film, but it’s also the matter of a collective “eye” (and “ear”).

I have been formulating various blurbs about what my next book will be about, but this is as good a summary as any: it will analyze what comprises this collective eye in documenting the historical world.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Character-Driven Documentary

A Young Patriot
dir. Du Haibin, 2015, China
genre: character-driven documentary
not currently in video distribution (though may have upcoming ITVS screening on some PBS channels in the US)

By now I have seen a few character-driven documentaries coming from China, and of those, A Young Patriot is one of the more gripping. The documentary follows Xiao Zhao, a patriotic and ambitious teen from Pingyao, Shanxi as he goes to university and comes of age. I know a lot of filmmaker and documentary students bristle at the formula-oriented nature and funding strictures of the character-driven doc (and maybe many more embrace it, I don't know). But to me, A Young Patriot shows how at its best the formula can be a template for strong works. One thing I found so powerful about the film is that it works on levels beyond the central conceit (in which Zhao's conflicts speak to broader issues of Chinese politics). Like other longitudinal docs, this one captures the coming of age process with observational detail and poignancy. And in simple contrast, it captures the disparity between city and country in modern China.

It's worth noting what I mean by character-driven documentary. I've written about the form before (in a Cinema Journal essay on postclassical doc) but there's still not a lot of scholarship on the form, to my knowledge, nor systematic criticism on the form. Yet it's arguably the most influential form for the feature documentary today. And while practitioners use the term regularly, there's not exactly a consensus on what character-driven means. As with many definitions, one might start with a number of qualities, while acknowledging that not all films will have all of these. I would see these as essential traits:

  1. Is focused on a social actor subject whose portraiture forms the "character" of the film
  2. Is filmed with a variant on observational style, sometimes but not always in what I describe as postclassical doc style (the use of social actor testimony in place of voiceover narration)
  3. Contains a fiction-style narrative structure, with the cinematic construction of internal conflict, plot points, and narrative acts (often but not necessarily three-act)
  4. Uses the individual's story as a means to explore broader abstract/social stakes similar to those of issue documentaries (but in a different way)

I've noticed that the last part is often missing from many working definitions, but I do think that's one thing that distinguishes a character-driven from a portrait doc. In any case, I would expect most of the above to be a part of a character-driven doc, though there might be exceptions and variations. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few important caveats:

  • While I think the purest form of character-driven doc follows one "character" to develop a clear line for the internal conflict, there are documentaries that follow multiple characters. I do think more needs to be done to theorize these multi-focal docs. 
  • As I suggest above, not all structure is three-act. But more importantly, the acts don't develop with the linearity of fictional structure. Rather, they are defined by ruptures in the status quo which serve as plot points. 
  • Parts of the definition, therefore, rely on analogy. Structure in a doc is never exactly like a fiction film, not is character exactly like a fictional character. That said, it cannot be too analogous. Not every documentary subject or social actor is a "character" if we want that word to maintain any critical value. 
  • Although the character-driven form is usually a hegemonic one for funding and broadcast, it is possible to experiment with it. I personally am researching and writing on some of these experiments.
  • It might be possible to find a "character" in one sense and build a documetnary around her  without committing fully to the character driven form.

Why do I emphasize a definition heavy on the prescriptive dimension? A couple of reasons. First, this is a narrational form that filmmakers and other practitioners themselves often approach in highly prescriptive ways, including workshops on how to find a character and structure a character-driven doc. Second, it is a little frustrating that a form so widely used has had little critical explanation. Rule-breaking documentaries may be sexier in doc-studies circles, but I do think it's worth identifying dominant narrational patterns in documentary. And once you start looking, the character-driven form is everywhere.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Stylistic Bricolage

Trading Germans (Pașaport de Germania)
dir. Răzvan Georgescu, 2014, Romania/Germany
available as Romanian imprint DVD (w/ Eng. subtitles) here

I had mentioned in my post on Tea Time, the unusual status of the enactment footage rather than the reenactment. But watching Trading Germans, I noticed a different variation of enactment/reenactment. Trading Germans is a documentary about the emigration of ethnic Germans (Saxons and Swabians) from Romania as well as the diplomatic negotiations between West Germany and Romanian government to achieve the permission to emigrate. At times the latter takes precedence, and like many other theatrical documentaries, Trading Germans borrows from fiction and lends a suspense quality to the international intrigue segment. We see German negotiator Heinz-Günther Hüsch pack money in a suitcase, get on a plane and stay in a brutalist Bucharest hotel. Clearly, the actions mirror the events described in the voiceover narration and in many respects substitute for them; the cinematography and scoring lend an aura of reenactment, of fictiveness. (The cinematographer, Alexandru Solomon, is known for similar fiction-doc hybrid work in his documentaries.) However, at no point is the footage exactly reenactment. The documentary never shifts register from actuality to reenactment, and we perceive the footage as a present-day re-performance of the events. The difference is subtle but significant.

Perhaps just as importantly, Trading Germans, is only partly in this fiction-inspired register. Compared to a film like Man on Wire, which tries its best to be “not a typical documentary” and to adopt the crossover aesthetics of the fiction film, Trading Germans quite happily switches back to a postclassical talking-head issue film much like many other issue films geared toward European television. I happen to think it’s a well-done and dialectical exploration of its issue, but the documentary probably will not circulate broadly on its aesthetic merits alone. But one lesson I’ve learned from the film is how mainstream documentary can be free to shift tonal registers, to adopt a posture of stylistic bricolage, in distinction to the often tonally rigorous approaches of festival-oriented doc.