Documentary and Political Modernism

I have a feeling I'm going to have more research and thoughts to develop about the legacy of political modernism in documentary. As a child of 1970s film theory, I'm drawn to political modernism as an agenda for film theory, not because of the normative claims that 1970s film theorists made about cinema (I tend to disagree with those) but because they give a continued opportunity to think through the relation of ideology and aesthetics. Documentary has always given political modernist theorists a particular frisson because of its spectatorial experience of the real is such a tempting target for debunking. And yet I have a similar relation to these theories: sympathetic with their agenda but disagree with their normative claims.

Having recently watched Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture, I've been mulling over these issues. Not primarily because the film invokes self-reflexivity in its theme (clay figures capture what images don't, spectator wants to see the real of genocide in dodgy ways, etc). But because the film does a terrific job at having a polemic while understanding its opposite. Colin McCabe's 1970s formulation that realism cannot understand the real as contradictory is apt here.

And yet, it's not merely self-reflexive documentaries that understand the real as contradictory, more traditional ones do - quite frequently in fact. Take as an example another documentary I recently watched, The Other Chelsea: A Story from Donetsk (Jakob Preuss and Radim Proch├ízka, 2010), a German documentary that gives a portrait of a city in Eastern Ukraine and its strong support for the Blue party and by extension Russia. There's nothing radical about the filmmaking, essentially a Europeanized version of the character-driven/issue doc hybrid. And yet, it gives voice to a young Blue Party politician who is able to articulate a view the film and its intended spectator are probably initially not in agreement with. The film is critical, yet it also presents the Real in Ukraine as precisely contradictory. It does so through structure and narration, but also through the relation of documentarist to social actor. And its means of suggesting contradiction are not rare in documentary.

So we have two means of suggesting historical contradiction. The first is to have a voiceover/filmmaker say in essence "the real is contradictory." The second is to have the social actor say it. I'm not sure one approach is inherently superior to the other.


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