Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is Documentary Studies Self-Hating?

I've spent the last few days at Visible Evidence XX, the 20th anniversary for what was, by happenstance, the first academic conference I ever attended. I think I've written before how I like mid-sized conferences and VE in particular. It's a great community and manages to strike the right balance between substance and social-ness. It's international, at least considering its US origins, and manage to be a home for theoretically inclined media makers as well as scholars. This conference lived up to my expectations and was four days of smart, energizing papers. 

As I reflect on the conference, though, I want to focus on the aporia and the areas that could be explored further. Perhaps the oddest thing to me was the repeated tendency to repeat the post-structuralist critique of documentary truth to the point of dismissing documentary as it's usually practiced and consumed. On top of which is a political-institutional critique of ways that docs have furthered the goals of corporations or he bureaucratic state. Now, I'm highly sympathetic to both critiques and in many contexts they are useful. But there were two upshots of it that bothered me a little. 

First is the incessant apology for documentary film. It's like going to a conference on Hollywood cinema where every speaker asserted something like, "Of course we all know that Hollywood cinema is an instrument of domestic hegemony and global domination, though an invisible storytelling style that makes ideology seem natural." As a field we're able to understand the critique and also know there's much more going on in Hollywood films, aesthetically and politically. 

Second is the unstated political modernist reading which picks non-conventional documentaries that partly theorize themselves. Look through the program and you'll see several papers on Act of Killing, Leviathan, and Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu. Non traditional documentaries are doing interesting things and the field certainly needs to be attune to changes in the nonfiction media scape. Getting lost, however, are more typical works that are the mainstay of broadcast, theatrical, and festival documentary. The implication I was getting was that these were bad objects, but to my eye a lot of politically and artistically vital work is being done even in less flashy texts. 

I guess what I'm looking for is something perched between the documentary field itself and the post-structuralist critique. Or, in the meantime, for documentary scholars to stop apologizing so much for documentary. 

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