Thursday, December 31, 2015

Visible Evidence CFP: Sound Design in the Feature Documentary

I am pulling together a panel on sound design for Visible Evidence XXIII, to take place in Bozeman, MT , August 11-14, 2016. I encourage anyone interested to let me know!

Panel Proposal/Call for Papers

Sound Design in the Feature Documentary

One of the focus themes for the 2016 Visible Evidence Conference is “Sonic Frontiers,” acknowledging the increasing (and long overdue) critical attention to documentary sound. In this move, documentary studies is responding to sonic experiments in contemporary documentary. By substituting source sound with electronic scoring (Rebecca Baron) or foley sound (Loznitsa, Ujica, Voignier, and Mansky), and by exploring the aesthetics of silence, contemporary nonfiction filmmakers challenge the notion of sound as a transparent conduit of information. Similarly, the boom in scholarship on the essay film has underscored the importance of the sound track as a crucial aesthetic and intellectual component of the nonfiction film.

As important as essay films and more experimental documentary soundtracks are, though, the critical attention on anti-realist practice obscures a parallel revolution in sound design among more mainstream documentaries. Enabled by affordable digital technologies and inspired by developments in fiction film sound, feature documentaries are developing richer soundtracks. 

This proposed panel will explore the sonic aesthetics of contemporary documentary. Theoretical papers, close readings, or historical case studies are welcome on any aspect of sound practice, including recording, sound mixing, and foley sound. While the panel will be open to a range of canonical and noncanonical documentary—from theatrical feature to public broadcast television to the creative documentary—the emphasis will be on documentary in its less experimental, more hegemonic forms.

Conference submission deadline is Jan 15. Please email me by Jan. 10 if you are interested in participating:

Monday, December 21, 2015

CFP: Rethinking Popular Documentary (anthology)


Rethinking Popular Documentary

The renewal of documentary over the past two decades has taken place across significant social, environmental, cultural, technological and geopolitical climate changes.  More than ever, in a time of proliferating voices, documentary may be said to function as a global commodity, its distribution enabled by the rise of digital and video technologies, the dramatic increase in “specialty” cable channel programming (Discovery/History/Biography Channel, Animal Planet, etc.), social media and, of course, the Internet.  Apart from a few notable exceptions, critical attention to “popular” documentary is relatively underdeveloped in the burgeoning field of documentary studies.  When media studies, film studies and cultural studies have expanded their objects of analyses so widely and productively, why have documentary studies scholars tended to ignore popular documentary in favor of films that are (arguably) more formally innovative, ideologically/politically complex and/or intellectually engaging? Does this lacuna relate to the relative lack of coordinated attention to spectatorial pleasure and reception in documentary film scholarship?  What does the florescence of certain popular subject areas or subgenres in documentary (e.g. wildlife, “charismatic mega-fauna”, food, water, oil and other ecodocumentaries) tell us about contemporary culture? How does the explosion of popular documentary trouble or enliven existing theories and critical methodologies for understanding and evaluating documentary?

Possible topics might include:

  • The relationship between documentary and entertainment
  • Popular documentary and/as genre
  • Interrogation of the popular in documentary
  • Popular documentary and popular music, or the documentary soundtrack
  • Social media, networked distribution, and/or web docs
  • The convergence of popular documentary and fiction techniques
  • Popular documentary and emotion (or affect)
  • Humor, irony or satire in popular documentary
  • Witness and intervention in popular documentary
  • Performativity, performance and/or reenactment
  • The documentary auteur and cult of personality
  • Popular documentary and the docu film festival circuit
  • Made-for-television documentaries: formats, constraints, ideologies
  • Netflix and other digital documentary databases
  • Neoliberalism and popular “committed” documentary
  • Popular documentary and the public sphere
  • New technology, delivery and production systems and their relationship to popular documentary
Please submit proposals to by February 1, 2016. Submissions should consist of an abstract (350-500 words), a bibliography (4-6 sources) and brief bio (100 words). If accepted, we will then request a 7,000-8,000 word essay.  Date: TBA.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Conferences Winter 2015-16 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 throughout the winter. (The NECS call should be online soon.)

Closed calls:
MLA - Austin, Texas, Jan 7-10, 2016 [website]
SCMS - Atlanta, Mar 30-Apr 3, 2016 [website]
ICA - Fukuoka, Japan June 9-13, 2016 [website]

Current calls:
due date: Dec 15, 2015 Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Images (SCSMI) Cornell Univ, Ithica, NY, June 1st – 4th, 2016 [website | call]
due date: Dec 15, 2015 The Annual Conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada May 31 -June 2, 2016 the University of Calgary, Theme: “Energizing Communities” [website | call]
due date: Jan 10, 2016 Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 24-26, 2016 [call]
due date: Jan 15, 2016 Visible Evidence XXIII - Bozeman, Montana, Aug 11-14, 2016 Theme: "New Frontiers in Documentary" [website | call]

Upcoming calls:
NECS - Potsdam, Germany, July, 28-30, 2016 [website]
UFVA - Las Vegas, August 1-4, 2016 [website]
MLA - Philadelphia, January 5-8, 2017 

CFP: Visible Evidence XXIII


Visible Evidence XXIII
Bozeman, MT
August 11-14, 2016

[website | call]

Visible Evidence, the international conference on documentary film and media, now in its 23rd year, will convene August 11-14, 2016 in Bozeman, MT. Hosted by the School of Film and Photography at Montana State University, Visible Evidence XXIII will address the history, theory, and practice of documentary and non-fiction cinema, television, video, audio recording, digital media, photography, and performance, in a wide range of panels, workshops, plenary sessions, screenings, and special events. Drawing inspiration from our Montana setting, we challenge participants to think about new frontiers in documentary theory and practice. While panels, presentations and screenings may address any aspect of documentary screen cultures, histories and practices, proposals related to the following themes are especially encouraged: Environmental Frontiers, Political Frontiers, Social Frontiers and Experimental Frontiers.

Submission Deadlines (by 5:00 pm MST):

Pre-Constituted Panels and Workshops: January 15, 2016

Individual Papers and Screenings: January 15, 2016

The Programming Committee will respond to all proposals by March 31, 2016.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Meta Ethical Documentary

Field Niggas
dir. Khalik Allah, 2014
Genre: Poetic/observational
currently showing theatrically in New York

I need to watch and reflect more widely, but I am not sure I've seen all that many documentaries aligned with portraiture photography. There are certainly portrait docs, both as a genre and as a mode, I would argue, but I am referring to documentaries that intersect with the operational aesthetics of still portraiture photography. They exist, certainly, but the examples elude me.

Field Niggas inhabits this intersection. The director Khalik Allah is a still photographer extending his street photography into cinema with gorgeous HD videography. Of course, high-definition digital cameras can make lovely images easy to capture, but even though I've gotten used to the proliferation of aestheticizing shooting in documentary, the work in Field Niggas is stunning. 

But the portraiture aesthetic is more than prettiness. I am thinking too of the photographer-subject rapport (important in documentary but crucial to the portrait photographer) and the spectator-subject relation, which since Diane Arbus at least often implicates the middle-class spectator in an uncomfortable social position of viewing subproletarian or outsider subjects.

Field Niggas takes on a similar project of photographing what might be ultimate outsiders - the mostly African-American, mostly homeless inhabitants of a Harlem street corner in New York, who spend the evening congregating, drinking, smoking synthetic marijuana, and arguing with themselves and with police officers.

Much could be said in a fuller essay about how the film negotiates the ethical dilemma of its project, but in general it seems to be use a twin strategy of aestheticization and metacritique. The former because it wants to show people commonly ignored or treated as an urban blight as full of a profound humanity. The latter because the film seems aware of the ethical pitfalls that aestheticizing can have. The structural devices from the sound-image disjunction, slow motion, and filmmaker's appearance all play a role in commenting on the image making and image perception of the documentary that we, the spectators are watching.

For me personally, it's an approach that could backfire but it worked quite well. The meta ethical critique felt organic, tied to the experience of the documentary, rather than told to me.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Fake Inductive Structure

The Search for General Tso
dir. Ian Cheney, 2014
Genre: Quirkumentary/Cultural documentary
Streaming on Netflix, available on instant video

For some reason it is hard for me to pinpoint the genre of The Search for General Tso, even though it is similar to many mainstream feature documentaries and even though the film fits pretty neatly with what I call postclassical documentary narration. The film, a cultural history of the Chinese-American restaurant staple, is a mix of expert testimony, interviews, B-roll, and illustrative animation graphics. In this sense, it is a formally safe rather than innovative doc, but is pitched as such, to a general interest audience. On these terms, the documentary does a terrific job of seeing the big picture in the small, by using culinary history as a hook for an exploration of Chinese diaspora, US immigration policy, and a series of secondary issues. 

The film presents itself as a detective story (the search for origins) and unlike some investigative documentaries, this one does not filter it through a 1st person persona (The Jinx) but rather moves the investigative narrative onto an objective narrative structure. The decision pays benefits, as when the an initial framing of General Tso Chicken as (inauthentically) Chinese-American starts with juxtapositions of the U.S. and Hunan province.

Eventually, though, the film confounds a one-note critique of inauthenticity, and the structure subverts spectator expectation.

The 3rd person nature of the investigation does highlight the artifice of the detective story hook to begin with. The documentary withholds information that the filmmaker very likely would have had at the beginning in order to create the enigma and the clues for solving it. One could see this as a MacGuffin (The Search for General Tso is not the most engaging mystery, though I found the cultural history fascinating). But I see a larger principle at stake, namely the false-inductive structure of postclassical documentary. The film positions the spectator to have an experiential relation to the revelation of information when in fact the revelation has been overdetermined from the outset of either filming or editing.

The stakes of this fake-inductive form varies considerably from the two modalities of postclassical doc: character-driven (observational) or expository. The Search for General Tso is the latter and therefore does not "breathe" as much as something like The Overnighters does. But a similar backward plotting is involved.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Medium Term Scales of Innovation

Costa da Morte
dir. Lois Patiño, 2013
Genre: poetic documentary
Not currently in wide distribution

There is currently an excitement that generates a lot of documentary work that is in a similar vein. Static shots, locked down camera, often in telephoto or at least long shot, digital cinematography, and sound design done in "close up." I thought of these when watching Costa da Morte, a poetic documentary about the Galician coast and the villagers' relation to their landscape. I do think that Lois Patiño has a distinctive eye and that Costa da Morte activates the tropes of contemporary poetic doc for interesting thematic ends. And at times (such as the passage of the seasons), it departed from a strictly contemplative pace. But in so many ways, it feels like one example of a larger genre and hews fairly closely to that genre.

Which makes me wonder about the time-scale of aesthetic innovation. I still think the poetic approach seems fresh, in part because so many technological and narratological developments are interacting in various permutations. But at some point, maybe soon, maybe in the medium term, these tropes will likely seem like cliché.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Documentary Taste Formations

dir. Sergei Loznitsa, 2014
Genre: experimental/observational
on home video from Cinema Guild, via VOD, and on Netflix (US)

I have been reflecting a lot of just what I am trying to do with documentary criticism, both in my research project and on this blog. I am not a documentary critic and am not trying to be one, strictly speaking. I write as a scholar, with a scholar's perspective. At the same time, film studies has reenergized by a dialogue with film criticism, and it's something I've been mulling over. And most of all, the documentaries themselves are driving my interest, and I want to grapple seriously with what they do, and that's a process that's not too different than film criticism.

I still don't have a full answer, but I think one difference is that I have a different relationship to the evaluative than film critics do. I have judgments and they inform what I do, but I am trying not to be invested in what I see as sometimes narrow polemics of what documentary should do. As I wrote in an earlier post, I seek to walk the line between omnivorism (loving all documentaries for the sake of their nonfiction-ness) and discernment (loving only a narrow and particular kind of nonfiction practice). To be honest, I see this as not too different than some of the discussions that goes on in TV studies, between those invested in a historically far-reaching TV canon and those champion contemporary long-form prestige TV.

I had this in mind watching Maidan, the poetic-observational portrait of the Euromaidan, a series of protests and police action in Independence Square, Kiev. Loznitsa works in a range of styles but the hallmark perhaps has been the importation of certain experimental techniques (for instance structural filmmaking) into documentary. Maidan works in this structural vein, featuring a series of long-takes that have the immediacy of capturing the protests but are clinically detached from them.

The film was a fairly big festival and critical hit, so at first glance it doesn't need any defenders. But it is a difficult film, in large part because of the gap between the current events hook (Maidan gives a close-up look missed by many journalists) and the minimal, even evasive narration. The film consists mostly of static, (very) long takes. Beyond some basic intertitles, the film gives the spectator no indication of any particular political meaning of the shots.

Of course it's the minimalism that endears it to critics. After all, a less minimal approach can pose easy answers to to complex political problems. But it also poses problems. If there is an opportunity to illuminate the events of Euromaidan, not simply phenomenologically but politically, historically, and analytically, Maidan's structural approach does not allow it. The disadvantage of poetic and experimental documentary can be its refusal to analyze.

So I can imagine two sides of a polemical debate, or really two documentary taste formations. My impulse is to value both formations without taking sides. Though to do so without losing the sense of critical perspective on the film or on doc aesthetics.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Personal Documentary and the Collective Subject

Do I Sound Gay? 
dir. David Thorpe, 2015, US
Genre: Personal, issue documentary
currently in theaters in the US; available cable on-demand (US)

After watching Do I Sound Gay? I wondered if I saw the same film that Clayton Dillard did for his Slant Magazine review. On a literal level, yes, but I had a very different take than this impression:
Do I Sound Gay? is another link in an increasingly tiresome chain of navel-gazing think pieces posing as personal documentary.... Thorpe's approach is less historical or experimental than staid and solipsistic, as his own biography, which includes growing up in South Carolina and not acknowledging his own homosexuality until reaching college, is dutifully presented as a series of facts and tidbits which are meant to substantiate the film's interest in cultural norms regarding homosexual behavior and self-acceptance. 
Part of me understands where the review is coming from. I'm not always fond of personal documentaries and for instance dislike ones like My Architect where the more broadly interesting subject matter is deflected toward personal emotional therapy of the filmmaker. And like or dislike the genre, there's a real aesthetic dilemma in the choice to make the filmmaker a character: is the showmanship and box office hook of a personal story worth losing some of the objectivist dimensions (or just aesthetic evocativeness) that documentary can excel at?

But the other part of me has to ask: who are you calling solipsistic? The plural of anecdote is data, but Do I Sound Gay? has as a reasonable a claim as any personal or portrait documentary that its main subject represents something broader, much broader. The very point of the film is that the personal is political. Falling back on "critical, scholarly, or journalistic investigation" would be interesting (one can imagine any number of ways of making a documentary) but would not capture the subjective experience that gay men have of their voice. It's not an essential gay experience - not all gay men identify their voice as an issue -  but it's a common one. The experience, I would argue, and the film argues, is a collective one. 

To put my cards on the table, I too have had similar ambivalence about my own gay voice and mannerisms. So perhaps I'm the target demographic. And perhaps I prefer "communal confirmation over more rigorous, troubled grapplings." But I would argue it's bigger than me or Thorpe. With the gay marriage victory in the US legal system, gay rights has had a success that arguably gay liberation has not. It's a real crisis of sorts for the queer left, and it also poses an issue even for more assimilated gay culture. Are there still structures of oppression that (objectively) police gay people and (subjectively) act as self-oppression? These are not legal questions, and I think the documentary is timely to raise them.

Certainly, the documentary form is conventional and the narration cloying at times. But even here, voiceover narration serves the role of reminding the spectator of the sexuality of voice. It's not political modernism, yet there is some interesting work on the signifier going on. 

I do agree with Dillard that the conflict resolution is too tidy, or at least it feels like an imposition of the character-driven three-act structure on historical reality, which in fact offers no real resolution. Oe problem is that a film that does not adopt this narrative structure has a hard time for broad documentary distribution. But more charitably, I see the film in the tradition of feminist and gay liberation consciousness-raising, or a collective catharsis that's about connecting personal experience to social structures. Perhaps with that comes a desire for a progress narrative.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Conspiracy Documentary as Puzzle Films

The Forecaster
dir. Marcus Vetter, Karin Steinberger, 2014, Germany
Genre: Issue documentary
available German DVD ( and on VOD (for $50!)

I've been following the Greek crisis as it unfolds, and since the US news outlets have been frankly doing a miserable job at covering other than in the business press, this means a few overseas websites and lots of Twitter. One thing that is striking is how the situation seems to illustrate ideology in Mannheim's sense - a scattershot of versions of reality based in social situatedness. And, broadly speaking, there is the oddness of witnessing this from overseas. On one hand the crisis has brought out international alignment of right and left sentiment along the battle lines of austerity and anti-austerity. On the other hand 

I bring this up because I keep thinking back to the screening of the Forecaster that I attended at Transilvania Film Fest. The documentary is about financier Martin Armstrong, a fund manager who was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme in the 1990s. Armstrong in turn claims that it’s the financial system that is a Ponzi scheme and he is being persecuted for being a Cassandra and for his forecasting models. He presents the claim on the basis of both a “common sense” stance and a secret computer model based on cycles of the number Pi.

I am reminded of the Marxist economist Kondrateieff and his cycles (Amstrong seems influenced by him) but mostly, from my American vantage, this all seems like trumped up Ron Paul-ism, and in fact Paul has a new informercial peddling this very type of economic apocalypse. (I'm not the only one cynical about the film.) But the largely Romanian and presumably left-leaning audience I saw the film responded very well to its message. And I have to guess that it's inclusion in film festivals, including IDFA, speaks to the way its polemic speaks to the European left's suspicions about global capital and the US government. It's not that those suspicions are absent in the U.S. but they're tempered by the libertarian hard right's mobilization of anti-monestarism.

So, there is often a tendency for transnational ideological sympathy: those on the left in one country identify with depictions of political struggle in another. But sometimes, the nationally specific context changes this identification.

But I think there's something about the film itself and its documentary genre that's at play. Formally, The Forecaster is not a straightforward issue documentary and in fact would not be getting much play if it were. Rather something about the narration introduces both suspense and surprise. In their book on the puzzle film, Warren Buckland refer to “mind fuck” movies and Thomas Elsaesser refers to the genre as “mind game” movies. The analogy to the puzzle film is not perfect, but this film does rely on revelations of surprise information that is meant to retroactively provide the answer key for the enigmas of the film. 

By now we have witnessed a cycle of lefty conspiracy documentaries that have some variant on this technique. Art of the Steal comes to mind. I can see the appeal to filmmakers, since the genre provides an entertainment hook to otherwise dry material and a moral political clarity to what otherwise might be confusing or arcane economics. But the genre also imposes its own politics and own problems. I'm reminded of 1970s film theory's take on the matter - say, John Hill's reading of the conspiracy film. If anything, the conspiracy documentary is an even better example.

cited: John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach 

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Touristic Gaze of Festival Documentary

The Domino Effect (Efekt Domina)
dir. Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosołowski, 2014, Germany/Poland 
Genre: Character-Driven

There are so many critiques that festival documentaries can and do face, and my impulse as a scholar is to take seriously these critiques but also think if there can be fresh ways to frame the aesthetic and political problems at stake. An overriding criticism of these documentaries is that they compromise their politics for a global (privileged) spectator, yet I think there is not a sufficient case to be made for the complexity of transnational spectatorship. I don't have a workable theory of this idea, but the answer may lie in the “touristic” shot common to documentaries.

The Domino Effect is a good example. It is a character-driven documentary about a mixed-nationality couple in the breakaway region of Abkhazia - not recognized as an independent country but not functionally integrated with Russia, either. The protagonists, Natasha and Rafael, feel the strain in their relationship as is unable to fit into Abkhazian society and is unwilling to give up his pro-bono efforts to build a national profile. 

The film opens with a series of shots of the beach and many of the former Black Sea resort architecture now in a state of decay. Although not typically pretty, the treatment of the imagery falls into what Alina Predescu discusses as the picturesque in documentary. These shots stand in for the otherness of place and spectator. Even if the viewer is Abkhazian, she understands a hypothetical gaze from outside, appraising the country for its beauty. 

These are all limiting things, which might be corroborated by the dripping condescension of HotDoc’s program blurb (though in fairness some of it is lifted from the promotional material):
In Abkhazia, an unrecognized “country” in Russia’s Caucasus, patriotism runs rather deep. In this Black Sea black comedy, its self-appointed sports minister must choose between his foreign wife and a bizarre tournament that will surely put them on the map.
And, yet, the touristic gaze is sometimes a useful hook for spectatorial engagement. The touristic shots figure the ideal spectator epistemology, since we are to balance socially objectifying knowledge (Abkhazia has insurmountable problems) and humanistic empathy (cross-cultural connection is a tough thing to maintain). And The Domino Effect does thematically present the shoreline as a space that is experiences with local in addition to touristic meaning. In fact, the Sea is one of the few resources Abkhazia has its disposal.

Establishing shots are frequently overdetermined in their meaning. But they are also part of a stable narrational disposition that can be a way of engage spectator’s attention without the traditional crutches of documentary features (expository voiceover, titles, talking head expertise). The recent festival documentaries make a strong turn toward art cinema style minimalism but the tradeoff is that they rely on underlying stable representational tropes to anchor the spectator's experience.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Documentary Personality vs. Biography

Stream of Love
dir. Ágnes Sós, 2013, Hungary
Genre: Character-Driven Observational
Not currently in distribution

There is something that strikes me as typical of Stream of Love – typical of a distinctly European approach to television documentary that’s pitched somewhere between observational and character-driven forms. From its editing to its composition and approach to transitions, it exemplifies the well-made doc in many ways. In my research, I’d like to tease out how I see these are ultimately different narrational approaches that happen to overlap in a continuum of popular practices in documentary today.

Setting aside the issues of categorization, though, I find Stream of Love instructive for what it says about documentary character. The documentary follows a number of Hungarian-speaking peasants living in Transylvania, Romania as they discuss romance and sexuality. Again, we have a film at partial battle with its (justifiably catchy) logline:
Love and desire fill the minds of villagers in a Hungarian speaking village in Transylvania, Romania, even in their old age. Time has stood still here, and although most of the village’s inhabitants are elderly, they are refreshingly young at heart. 
Feri, for example, is an incurable romantic. Way past his 80th year, he’s still making moves on the village’s 25 widows – although he claims that only two or three of them are really worth the effort. And the women speak plainly when sharing their most intimate thoughts and dreams to the camera. 
Stream of Love is funny, surprising and heartwarming, revealing how these tragicomic tales prove the ancient game of love and romance is still being played in this remote village, with its aura of bygone days.
There are elements of this, but two layers of pathos challenge the feel-good ethos. First, the characters are responding to the twin changes of feminism and the sexual revolution, which if not exactly fully foregrounded in village life nonetheless have raised the consciousness of women that patriarchal culture never maximized their sexual needs – and led the men to feel a sense of historical loss of traditional sexual norms. Second, the women in particular feel that just as they come into sexual consciousness, the opportunities for expressing it have been denied by their age.

So, like many documentaries, the characters come to stand in for something broader, more historical. And like character-driven docs, Stream of Love accomplishes this standing-in quality by treating character testimony as expository “expertise.”

Yet questions remain. What exactly is the social dynamic in the village? One of the men, Feri, says at the beginning that widows outnumber the widowers by a considerable number, which sets up an expectation that the documentary will be about the village’s dating culture (and maybe a metaphor for aging villages themselves). But any sense of this is oblique.

Ultimately, the film finds such dynamic, engaging characters (and gets them to open up about sexuality, which might not have been easy to do), but it offers little sense of biography. The viewer learns little of their lives other than their discussions of their romantic and sexual pasts (and present-day shots of their doing typically peasant work of farming and cooking). Of course a documentary cannot depict the entirety of a characters life and sometimes there are practical and ethical reasons of respect not to tell too much about a social actor. In any case “biography” in a film is a construct, the inclusion of non-instrumental details, along the lines that Barthes discusses as the Reality Effect in literature. But as a spectator, I can’t help but think there’s a symbiotic relationship between (expository) biography and (charismatic) personality. The character-driven funding infrastructure privileges personality as a selling point for a documentary, but biography is what allows the documentary and its thesis to breathe.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Non-Circuit Festival

This week I am attending the Transilvania International Film Festival in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. It's part of my goal to attend more film festivals - I'm a newcomer to festivals and festival studies - and the dates lined up for me for this one. Also, I have seen a couple of very strong Romanian documentaries and am curious how nonfiction might be in dialogue with recent Romanian New Wave  films.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me has been how local this festival feels. Unlike Sarajevo Film Festival, which is split between a local audience, regional industry participants, and members of the international film circuit, TIFF (not to be confused with Toronto, of course) draws an overwhelmingly Romanian audience. At some screenings, in fact, I have been the only non-Romanian in attendance. This is not to deny the national significance of the festival (it's the most important one for Romanian fiction film) and the international nature of European coproduction and distribution. And mostly it's a bilingual festival, in Romanian and English. But the overall feel is of an inward looking festival, trying to imagine a Romanian cinephile sense of self.

This placement has implications in the program. A lot of the program comprises "best of fests" samplings - this is true of many festivals, but with TIFF the proportion seems higher. For the documentary program, which I'm most interested in, there is not an overriding identity guiding the selection in the way I've seen other festivals have. On the other hand, TIFF does have a competition program and special focus series. These, to my surprise, are not regionally focused in Southeast Europe but rather along thematic and tonal lines. Whereas Sarajevo (to use my best point of comparison) privileged a synthesis of humanist art cinema and political filmmaking amenable to human rights discourse, TIFF at least this year gravitates to the épater-la-bourgeousie side of art cinema: dark subject matter, downbeat tone, and more violent narratives. I would love to know what drives this identity.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Radicality of the New Archival Doc

A German Youth (Une jeunessse allemande)
dir. Jean-Gabriel Périot, 2015, France/Switzerland/Germany
Genre: historical compilation film

There's been a lot of exploration lately within the historical documentary that has opened up the archival footage to function in different ways than a typical recollective documentary, which subsumes the meaning of the archival footage to a rigid historical idea. In one direction, documentaries have understood the document as an artifact to be highlighted and explored for its own meaning, its own historicity and texture - I'm thinking for instance of the home movies in Our Nixon. In the other direction, the found footage film has an influence on documentarians who want to presignify official history by treating archival footage differently, obliquely - Loznitsa's or Forgacs's work comes to mind.

But what if we push both directions simultaneously? A German Youth does just that and in the process raises the question of how we apprehend the archival without a clear hierarchy of information. Mind you, the film itself is not hard to follow in its general sense: it tracks the radical German youth movement from its beginnings to the formation of the Red Army Faction (the Baader-Meinhof group) and its terror campaign. In its account, it uses only archival footage with very minimal attribution (only a few of the students' films are introduced with a title).

But if the broad strokes are easy enough to follow (and it helps that I know a little about the RAF and have seen fiction and documentary films about them), the specifics are trickier. A German Youth strives for a seamless spectator experience - and the producer answers that the filmmakers considered attribution but deemed it too confusing for so many sources - but part of me wanted some disjunction to know when I was watching contemporary news accounts or student-made footage. In fact, these distinction are crucial for me to know fully what is going on. Similarly, major political and intellectual figures pass on screen, but not being German I could have used far more attribution of them. (Wait, was that Habermas?)

It's about my limitations as a viewer, of course, but also about the blurring of lines between primary and secondary text, to use historiographic terms. One of the most interesting contributions of A German Youth is its exploration of the youth/RAF filmmaking as a cultural practice that documented and commented on the historical moment. These are both documents of the time and documentaries-within-the-documentary.

I don't disagree with the producer in one sense, since I think it's a powerful documentary, but as a viewer I found the approach far more destabilizing than he acknowledged. Just a comparison to recent American doc, Let the Fires Burn - a film that on paper should be very similar yet is not - shows the distinctiveness of the approach.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Conferences Summer 2015 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 throughout the summer.

Closed calls:
ICA - San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 21-25, 2014 [website ]
Console-ing Passions - Dublin, Ireland, June 18-20, 2015 [website]
The Annual Conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada - June 2-4, 2015 Theme: “Capital Ideas” [website]
Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Images (SCSMI) Jun 17-20, 2015, Birkbeck, University of London [website]
NECS - Łódź, Poland, June 18-20, 2015 Theme: "Archives of/for the Future" [website]
Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 26-28, 2015 Theme: "Screening Animals and the Inhuman" [website]
Visible Evidence XXII - Toronto, Aug 19-23, 2015 [website]
UFVA - American University, Washington, DC, Aug 4-8, 2015 [website]
Screenwriting Research Network Conference - London, Sept 10-12, 2015 [website]
The Resnais Archipelago conference - Duke University, October 29-31, 2015 [website]
MLA - Austin, Texas, Jan 7-10, 2016

Current calls:
Due date: May 17, 2015 European Cinema, Intercultural Meetings: Aesthetics, Politics, Industry, History (ECREA) - Copenhagen, November 13-14, 2015 [call]
Due date: June 1, 2015  Film and History Conference - Madison, Wisconsin, November 4-8, 2015 [website and call]
Due date: June 14, 2015 World Picture Conference - Toronto, November 13-14, 2015 [website and call]
Due date: August 28, 2015 SCMS - Atlanta, Mar 30-Apr 3, 2016 [website]

Upcoming calls:
NECS - Potsdam, Germany, July, 26-30, 2016
Visible Evidence XXIII - Bozeman, Montana, Aug 11-14, 2016