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Docu-Demia: Film Scholars Michael Renov and Jane Gaines Present ‘Visible Evidence of the Nonfiction Culture Part II

By Mark Harris Guest

Left to right: The cast of Big Brother 1; Drew Pinsky appeared once a week on the series to discuss the events in the house.

Created in connection with an annual conference under the same name, Visible Evidence is a significant new series of books from the University of Minnesota Press that seeks to challenge prevailing notions of the “documentary tradition” and of nonfiction culture more generally. The on-going series is edited by Michael Renov, professor of critical studies in the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California; Faye Ginsburg, professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University; and Jane M.Gaines, associate professor of literature and English and director of the Program in Film and Video at Duke University. Last issue we spoke with Jane and Michael about theory and practice, the personal documentary and the political impact of documentaries. This month we continue our conversation continues...


The Documentary Impulse


How would you characterize the new academic approach to documentary? What’s different about the books in your series in terms of the way they address documentary?

JG: A funny thing has happened. At first, Michael and I were both quite excited about the blurring of fiction and nonfiction and the challenge to the notion that there was a distinct division between the two. The dilemma has been that at some point it seems there is nothing that defines what it is that makes a documentary. For a long time documentary was defined by its special relation to real events. So, a philosophical question that you find within documentary studies is the question of the status of the real world.

MR: The challenge for documentary studies is to use what we know about the world of nonfiction media to help us better understand the present historical moment or even the future. So much of what is motivating current popular programming on television, whether it’s Big Brother or Survivor or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, is related to the documentary impulse. Our job as documentary studies scholars is to use what critical skills and tools we have to analyze and help us understand the appeal of these new forms, as well as the digital arts, because that’s where things are going. I want to add one other thing which I think is important: in our series we are trying to create a notion of documentary studies—not just film, but video and photography as well. There is a continuum among all these media; they are all related. To talk about one helps us understand and talk about others.


Who Wants to Be a Reality-Based Star?

JG: I want to respond to Michael’s point about Big Brother and Survivor. I find it fascinating that in a period where deconstruction is still very much alive, where we no longer believe that there is a “real” to access, suddenly there is a series of television programs that depends on the audience’s belief that there was a real moment and that things did happen. So, this question of “reality,” of what really happened, is very much a popular question as well as a scholarly one.

MR: I think there’s a sort of paradox. We seem to be getting farther and farther away from authentic human contact these days. If you look at statistics, people don’t go to picnics together much any more, or have dinner parties or family reunions. Yet as we get less and less connected humanly and physically, we seem to be depending more and more on our media forms to reconnect us to reality. We have this tremendous hunger for contact, and yet we satisfy it in this ersatz way, sitting around the television set. I’m watching Big Brother too! I find it fascinating!


You talk about Big Brother and Survivor as forms of documentary, but I think they’re more extensions of game shows. It’s no longer what you know that gets you the prize, it’s who you are and how much of your person you’re willing to reveal on national TV.

MR: Absolutely. I remember a number of years ago at one of our conferences, we had a couple of presentations about various game show formats that were developing in Latin America. And now it looks like America is following the lead of other countries that have evolved these formats.


The Faux Documentary

JG: We hope that our audience would include makers, academics, students—even some of the general public. Consider a phenomenon like The Blair Witch Project. Suddenly people are talking about the faux documentary, and we discovered there’s a Spanish faux documentary, Train de Sombres, a kind of Spanish Blair Witch. There’s also Forgotten Silver, the important New Zealand documentary that invents early cinema for New Zealand. So we think we’ll consider a book on the faux documentary, which could possibly have a popular readership out there.


Speaking of the faux documentary, you mentioned before, Jane, how the lines between fiction and nonfiction are becoming more and more blurred. I wonder if you could talk about the implications of that blurring.

JG: This topic comes up a lot. I remember about seven years ago when George Stoney was at one of our earlier meetings and he was talking about the making of Uprising of 34, and people seemed concerned when he said, “I always set my shots up. I’m always fudging and faking it to get it right.” That was at a time historically when there was still this kind of moral concern about setting things up. It’s interesting, Michael, that I hear this raised less and less in conversations, not only at Visible Evidence but also in the classroom. This year one of my teaching assistants in my documentary film history class said he’d noticed that the students no longer seemed to be raising this question about faking it. Instead, they seem to have come over to the other side and now believe that everything is, in fact, constructed anyway, which is what for years we worked as academics to get them to understand. My sense of things from one Flaherty seminar that we hosted at Duke last June was that some filmmakers are still concerned about “manipulation.”

MR: One of the benefits of a series like this is that we are able to historicize some of these questions. I think this is a key especially for American filmmakers who have been so influenced by the direct cinema of the ‘60s. If we look, prior to 1960, at the history of documentary film as it evolved and developed, there weren’t the same scruples surrounding this issue. If you go back to the guy who invented the word “documentary,” John Grierson—my goodness! Look at Night Mail, and you realize that what seems to be the interior of a post office train has really been built on rockers in some studio. So from the beginning, documentary was conceived of as a “creative treatment of actuality” and was not dependent upon the complete abstinence of any intervention in what’s occuring before the camera.

JG: That was a legacy of direct cinema, and it was only really post-1960 and mostly in this country.

MR: Many American filmmakers have this kind of phobia about tampering with what’s in front of the camera when, in fact, the history of the medium tells us that tampering was part of it from the get-go.


For Flaherty as well.

MR: The cut-away igloo.


Right. More and more people have come to accept that films are a construct. We’re much more sophisticated now about distinguishing what is constructed and what isn’t. As a filmmaker, I’m willing to use all those elements as long as it’s clear what they are.

JG: I think the exciting thing is that people are mixing and matching, “found footage,” reality moments, fictional moments, constructed moments. Blair Witch is a kind of a milestone in this. It gives us something to discuss as a culture and to explore as a marker of this shift.


Thanks to you both for speaking with ID about the books and for sharing your thoughts on contemporary film and video. I look forward to reading the future volumes of Visible Evidence you’ve discussed with us.


Mark Jonathan Harris is an Academy-Award winning documentary filmmaker and professor in the School of Cinema-Television at USC. His new film, Into the Arms of Strangers, was released theatrically in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston and Washington D.C. on September 15.