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

By Mark Harris Guest

Marlon Riggs'<em>Tongues United</em> is looked at as an exploration of regional exile in tandem with personal exile in <em>Between the Sheets, in the Streets Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary.</em>

In 1993 film scholars held the first Visible Evidence conference devoted exclusively to “strategies and practices in documentary film and video.” The event at Duke University was so productive that it has been repeated annually at other locations ever since. (This year’s conference took place last month in Utrecht in The Netherlands) The conferences represent an important reconfiguration and redefinition of documentary studies in the academy. They have also given birth to a significant new series of books under the same title from the University of Minnesota Press that seek to challenge prevailing notions of the “documentary tradition” and of nonfiction culture more generally. Since 1997, eight volumes have been published in the series, covering an array of topics from queer and feminist documentaries, to representations of the Holocaust, to the threats that technology and globilization pose to independent filmmaking. 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. Recently I had the opportunity to speak to Michael and Jane about their provocative series.


Academia Reconsiders the Documentary

Why, at this moment in time, do you think academics have rediscovered the documentary media and become so interested in the “representation of the real”?

MR: In the early 90’s, when the Visible Evidence Conference got off the ground, documentary scholarship was really, really out of date. The standard texts in the field were typically all written in the 70’s. Erik Barnouw’s Documentary was published in 1974 with a second edition in 1993. There was almost nothing that had been written with an awareness of the changes that had taken place in media studies since the 70’s. An entire generation of scholars -- my generation -- really had not been part of a scholarly conversation about documentary. There simply wasn’t the same level of contemporary analysis and study of documentary as there was for television and narrative feature filmmaking. So, one of the reasons there was so much interest and excitement around the subject was because of the sense of how much there was to be done.

JG: I also think we were seeing a changing world and a changing form of documentary. When we first began to bring the subject up again, people would say, “Oh, there are so many more documentaries on television!” Suddenly, huge sections of cable TV were devoted to interesting documentaries, docudramas and reality TV. Remember, Michael, our first couple of years people always wanted to talk about reality TV at Visible Evidence conferences.

MR: Don’t forget to add that in 1989 Michael Moore’s Roger & Me had been a commercial success... I’d say the interest in documentary was growing on both sides, from practice as well as history and criticism.

JG: Many of us saw it as a kind of pivotal moment.


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 that 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!

MH: 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 which have evolved these formats.


Theory & Practice

We’ve been talking about critical theory here, but most of the readers of this journal will be filmmakers. What do you think is the importance of theory to this audience and how would you advise them to approach your books?

MR: That’s a great point, and I’m glad you raised it because when I’ve described our Visible Evidence conferences, and the book series as well, I’ve always claimed that one of the excitements is that it is an opportunity for scholars and for artist/practitioners to get together and to have productive dialogues. I think the most exciting kinds of exchanges that we can possibly create through our annual event is to have people who are on the front lines -- in both theory and practice -- share their experience, compare notes. I know that this is what’s going to be happening this year in The Netherlands.

JG: This divide between theory and practice is one of the issues addressed in the fifth volume in our series. Feminism and Documentary, edited by Diane Waldman and Janet Walker. Although feminist makers in the 1970’s were very attracted to documentary, there was a kind of feminist hard line among theorists that maintained that you couldn’t just turn the camera unproblematically on the world and capture the truth of women’s oppression. A challenge to this split comes from Alexandra Juhasz, whose essay Michael and I included in the Collecting Visible Evidence book in our series. Alex examines the issue in terms of AIDS videos and says, “Look, it’s extremely important to make anything if we’re talking about a historic problem that needs to be addressed. We don’t have to restrict ourselves to a particular form. The question is how can we talk about these forms in political ways and how do we use them politically.” So the books are trying to build bridges between theorists and filmmakers as well.

MR: At least one of our books, Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, is written by a filmmaker, Michelle Citron, and may be the place to start for people who read the ID magazine. It’s a fabulous book and very accessible.


I agree. I found Michelle’s book both moving and provocative. It’s a wonderful meditation on filmmaking, memory and the construction of identity through autobiography and narrative. As a filmmaker, another virtue I appreciated in your books was that they exposed me to a number of films and videos I wasn’t familiar with. The series extends the range of what’s possible in documentary by introducing filmmakers to work that they probably haven’t seen or heard of before.

Certainly one of our intentions is that the books have a global reach, that our treatment of films, videotapes and photographs draws from a broader field than any single individual is likely to have access to. We really want some of the books in the series to be developed from international sources, on international topics, written by international authors. We have one book coming up on Native American documentary, by and for Native Americans. That’s something that most of us have pretty little understanding of or exposure to. That’s why it’s important that the book be in the series. One of the things that a series can do is to provide a context, a frame in which an author’s work will resonate in a fuller way than it would if it stood alone..


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. I think this is a question a lot of filmmakers are wrestling with, and I wonder what you think about the general issue.

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 60’s. If we look prior to 1960 to the history of documentary film as it evolved and developed, there weren’t the same scruples surrounding this issue. I mean, 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. I thought your point was interesting, Jane, that 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. I know, 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.


The Personal Documentary—Person-Ality

In your own scholarly work, you each have particular areas of interest, and I wanted to speak to each of you about them. Michael, your recent area of research has been autobiographical and performance films. I wonder if you could talk about the proliferation of this kind of film. I’ve noticed that in the documentary classes that I teach at USC there has been a growing trend on the part of students to make autobiographical films. I wonder if the shift from observational film into personal film mirrors a larger shift in our society from a politics of social movements to a politics of identity.

MR: This topic is the subject of an upcoming book that I’m writing called The Subject of Documentary that will be part of the series. I agree that personal filmmaking is very much on the rise. I think, we have to be sensitive to generational shifts--the transition from movement based politics to identity politics, as you mentioned. Here, I think feminism has helped us a lot to recognize that there’s a continuum between movement politics and personal politics or identity politics, so that the personal does not signify a departure from political matters. It’s rather an extension of the political. Our very first book in the Visible Evidence series was Between the Sheets, In the Streets, a book devoted to gay, lesbian, and bisexual documentary. The title kind of says it all, that between the sheets/in the streets means sexual politics, and sexual politics are very much of the same order as the politics of class conflict and union struggles. So the personal is not necessarily to be opposed to the political, but it’s in league with it.

I also think that living in a multicultural and increasingly globalized society, as we do in the United States, that it’s a very compelling question to ask. Who am I? What am I? How do I understand myself in this world, especially surrounded by all the things we’ve just been discussing? Namely the proliferation of various new technologies and media forms: Virtual Reality, the Internet, cell phones and all these things which create a very different kind of media environment. And this same technology, which includes digital video cameras and other relatively inexpensive ways to make our own images, also makes it possible for us to say who we are--not just to think who we are, feel who we are—but to actively construct ourselves.

I also think that personal filmmaking and autobiographical film making often is the interface between traditional documentary forms and the avant-garde, that experimental and innovative work. I went to a film festival in May in Copenhagen called Crossing Boundaries that was all about experimental documentary work being produced mostly in Europe and some from North America. It was very exciting for me to see that much of this work was very personal. It issued from an exploration of one’s history and identity and it was trying to discover new ways of talking about these issues of the self and the right forms through which to present these explorations.

Finally, I would say that one facet of the autobiographical explosion has to do with the Internet. If you take a look at the personal Web pages on Yahoo or other portals, you’ll find tens of thousands of them. What we’re talking about for documentary filmmakers is just the tip of the iceberg. A similar impulse appears to be driving people, by the thousands, to construct themselves and to make statements about who they are through these web pages.


Up Against the Screen—How Docs Can Shake the World

Jane, some of your recent work has been on the social impact of documentary and how we evaluate that impact.

JG: I’m still thinking about Michael’s last comment about the Internet. As a young scholar Michael did a lot of his original work on the history of Newsreel Film. And to some degree his work on Newsreel made me interested in the kinds of things that people do when they see political films. Columbia Revolts, for example, a film that documents the moment in the Columbia University student movement when people were going into the streets to make a difference. And I’m thinking now, well, have these terms changed? Is our sense of political impact based on our having a romantic relationship with the 60’s or the 30’s? It’s a question of what we count as social change. For so long we were counting bodies in the streets. Now it seems like what’s happening is people are taking action based on something they’ve accessed on the Internet. The reception of radical work is a very complicated question, difficult to measure. But we don’t want to give up using images and sounds to try to transform the world.


For myself, I think it’s one of the things that still draws people to documentary. The idea that they can contribute to social change

MR: People in my classes who are interested in documentary, both from the critical studies side as well as from the production/writing side, are very often drawn to this work out of passion. Because they still have a feeling that they can make a difference. They don’t want to get involved with the entertainment industry just to make a buck. They also have a deep-seated need to be involved with some kind of social enterprise. I think documentary continues to tap into that passion even if it is about the rediscovery of one’s roots, rather than creating some kind of new social movement.

JG: I think we all want to transform things. And, it seems to me, the image does it so much more magically than the word. The first makers of film must have been attracted to this possibility, too -- it’s incredible power and the possibility that masses would be moved. Film studies came about in the 60’s, you know, right at the time when we could make choices as far as what we did with the rest of our lives. I think a lot of us wanted to make work that would alter consciousness. I suppose that some of us are still waiting to make those works. Working with Visible Evidence seems to me is very much working with other people who see the close connection between what you want to make as a creative person and what you want to say as a critic. Ideally, we should get to the point where we don’t make a distinction between those two possibilities. Right now, we really do, but it’s a thrilling possibility that the creative work could come together with the theoretical work at the same moment and make a big splash, right?


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, will be released theatrically in selected cities in September.