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.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The Documentary Pretext

Tea Time
dir. Maite Alberdi, 2014, Chile
genre: longitudinal/observational-portrait documentary
screening free on PBS website through June 21

This is a type of documentary with an understandable hook - the juxtaposition of a documentary about Chilean culture and politics with an avowedly feminine and middle-class space of a domestic tea. And it combines a somewhat unusual observational style (heavy on tight framings) with a portraiture of engaging "characters," the women who are friends and keep in touch despite the changes that aging brings into their lives.

But one thing the film underscored for me is how one production convention of the doc is to create a situation to film. Nothing happens in Tea Time other than gatherings filmed by the filmmakers and possibly convened by the filmmakers. In other words, a documentary pretext organizes the filming and the profilmic. This is common to other films, as well, but Tea Time at times foregrounds this, using transition shots of the host posing in her living space and stylized shots which suggest an artificiality to the proceedings.

At other times, the film effaces the sense of staging. 

Documentary studies (Nichols, Gaines, Kahana) has been drawn to reenactment as a recurring theoretical issue in documentary. What interests me is that documentary pretext is a subcategory or reenactment, but at a different level. Unlike reenactment per se, pretext is generally recognized only by other documentary makers or those familiar with the production process. And it speaks to the spectator with a different reality effect. Perhaps more properly it is not reenactment but enactment.