Documentary, fiction and the problem of truth

The documentary chronotope, Michael Chanan

from Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 56-61
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2000, 2006

“When Bakhtin speaks of how “space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history,” he is advancing a notion which becomes more concrete in Henri Lefebvre’s work on representational space. In Lefebvre, a representational space is a system of symbolic representations, constituted by artistic and other media and forms, each with its own material characteristics, comprising a culturally and historically specific system which in some way maps the elements and relations of the physical, the social and the mental worlds. In doing so, the medium incorporates or signifies the physical space of the actually existing world, and makes symbolic use of it. Representational spaces thus tend towards a more or less coherent system of nonverbal symbols and signs. The products of representational spaces (to follow Lefebvre) are symbolic works, in this case, films, either fiction or documentary, or some admixture of the two. Does this also mean we can distinguish different types of representational space which correspond to different modes of filmic utterance? Is documentary perhaps a different screen world from fiction?”

“the almost universal prohibition in fiction (with certain notable exceptions) against actors looking directly at the camera, so as not to be seen by the spectator as staring directly at them. […] The rule functioned to maintain the illusion of the camera as an unseen observer, always in the right position to show the unfolding action, the appropriate scene; thus transporting the disembodied viewer into the space of the screen world. This ban does not have the same force in documentary, even in the most conventional examples. In documentary, the illusion the camera seeks to maintain is unnecessary. Indeed, it may well go against a stronger imperative — to present a sense of actuality, of testimony, and of the presence of the camera as a witness in the same space as the events unfolding. […] the acknowledgment of the camera serves to reinforce the reality effect, whereas later, in fiction, it will break it.”

“Fiction is the work of pro-filmic construction, even, one might add, when it is constructed in order to imitate documentary. Documentary, however, even when it imitates fiction, is a form of selection from the actually existing world. Although it runs the gamut from the filmographic interpretation of what is already there, to a constructed or reconstructed rendering of selected elements, the incursion of noise and accident provides evidence that the image is taken from the space of lived experience. Therefore it has a quality or degree of veracity which is not greater than that of fiction, but different. In short, the representational space produced by documentary has different co-ordinates from those of fiction.”

“If documentary depends on a disposition to believe, then fiction evokes what is traditionally spoken of as “the suspension of disbelief””

“Fictional screen space creates the unities of the scene and the plot. Through the ubiquitous camera and altering frame, the spectator becomes a vicarious unseen observer, transported into an imaginary space which is very similar to real space but behaves according to its own generic rules. These rules are different in the case of documentary from those of fiction. Where the space of the fictional narrative produces continuity, documentary space is composed of discontinuities, both spatial and temporal, produced by dialectical (and dialogical) associations across time and space. Neither of these modes of articulation is absolute or totalizing, but fictional screen space, ever since the ban was first raised against the actor gazing at the camera, has an ineluctable tendency towards closure and abstraction from lived experience. In contrast, in the space of documentary the represented world is not separated from the viewer by reason of narrative principle. On the contrary, the social reality portrayed here is one in which a viewer could in principle find themselves present, putatively, or as a potential historical subject, and sometimes palpably. It is a world, in other words, which is continuous with the space in which the viewer lives their own life, not separate from it.”

Wreckage upon Wreckage: History, Documentary and the Ruins of Memory, Paula Rabinowitz, 1993

“The sense of immediacy-as-truth/truth-as-immediacy was central to the earliest scientific and modernist uses of the cinema”

“History is where pain and death occur but it is in representation that the facts and events gain meaning.” As “star” of the documentary, the presence of the body, especially the body in pain, signifies a truth and realness which seems to defy contextualization.”
Bill Nichols, Representing Reality (Bloomington, Ind., 1991), 265.
“the purely psychosexual manifestations of lack and plenitude, differentiation and identification, which characterize the fetishistic forms of narrative desire”
“The spectator of documentary, this subject of agency, also desires, but desires to remember and to remake history. But how is this spectator hailed by the documentary if the psychosexual processes of identification and disavowal central to narrative address are routed away from interiority and located in evidence? Primarily through an appeal to feeling over thinking.”

“the fragmentary quality of truth”

Jill Godmilow, director of Far from Poland (1984) calls for “deconstructing the documentary . . . to reformulate language -not just verbal language but visual language as well. To poke holes in the existing language, to make spaces, so that there is a possibility for imagination and action to work through it.”
Jill Godmilow, “Far from Finished: Deconstructing the Documentary, An Interview by Brooke Jacobson,” in Reimagining America: The Arts of Social Change, ed. Mark O’Brien and Craig Little (Philadelphia, 1990), 181.

“This desire to dream, to provoke imagination, seems to lead the documentary away from the realm of history and truth into the realm of art and artifice. How are we to judge historical documentaries if they call themselves dreams? In documentary the viewer is asked to participate in a series of contracts -between film and its object, between filmmaker and audience, between reality and representation. In the traditional documentary- including its use for historians -the response to the film is usually confined to whether the viewer agrees or disagrees with the content. On rare occasions the “protagonist” of the film succeeds in convincing the viewer to follow its position- save the dolphins by boycotting tuna, for example- but the construction of the cinematic argument is left unexamined. In the deconstructionist documentary like Shoah and Far From Poland, the object of the film is to produce a new and disturbing knowledge of history and of its rhetoric-of both its content and its form. Like the Angel of History, we are asked to become complicit in the process of making meaning, of making history. We are made uncomfortable, not by images of cute dolphins bleeding on the deck of the tuna boat or by the emaciated limbs and swollen bellies of hungry children in Somalia, but by the codes which allow the images to make us say “Oh, how awful” and go on about our lives.”

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