Baby and Bathwater of Documentary Criticism

Just in time for my spring course on Documentary Fiction, which sorely needed decent texts to use, comes a new volume from Minnesota Press, F Is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner, eds. I'll review it more fully when I get a hold of a copy, but from the contents at least, it's a promising collection.

One bit caught my eye, though: the blurb proclaims that "Defining the borderline between fact and fiction, the contributors reveal what fake documentaries imply and usually make explicit: that many documentaries lie to tell the truth, and that the truth is relative." As a way to sell a book, I'm sure it distills and distorts the contents considerably, but it got me thinking nonetheless.

Now, fake and hybrid documentary studies seem to have gained a new vitality now, driven from twin directions of documentary critique of the real and the proliferation of reflexive and mock documentary production itself. But I do worry that a critical circuitry between the two lapses into a facile critique of documentary as ideology and merely ideology.

The issue came up in my Intro course, where one of the TAs raised the perceptive objection that in teaching how to read truth-production in documentary, we were merely setting up documentary as a bad object, particularly in relation to fiction filmmaking. It's an excellent caveat: we need to throw out the bathwater of ideological transparency of meaning but keep a sense of what documentary does in the positive sense, both artistically and intellectually. Even with bad object Direct Cinema, I always respect the Bazinian preservation of the profilmic and think that news television production could really be improved by returning some to its golden age.

I was rereading Phil Rosen's "Document and Documentary" lately and there is an excellent observation he makes: "[T]he task of [elites responsible for making documentary and history] with respect to the poles of media reproduction is not just re-presenting the real in ways that might be culturally guaranteed by an indexical technology, but with constructing and organizing it... The profusion of indexial signs may make the documentary mode and the historicity it embodies not less but more pertinent to understanding contemporary culture and politics." (Renov Theorizing Documentary, 88-89)

It would be a shame if the excitement that pseudodocumentary studies is bringing to the table was put to the ends merely of dismantling a useful form of knowledge production. (I'm not claiming that this is what F is for Phony or other docufiction studies necessarily do.) As academics, we're perfectly capable of making truth claims and mobilizing an apparatus of documentation. The fact that a scholar could lie or make up stuff (think of Laurie Anderson's made-up art history lectures) doesn't mean the methods and communities of scholarship are meaningless. Mutatis mutandis - and there is a lot that is different - the same generous spirit should apply to documentary.


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