copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006
New worlds of documentary
by Julia Lesage
In one way, the title for this Special Section, "New Worlds of Documentary," refers concretely to the physical and historical "world" that documentary deals with, that is, the genre's information about the world and how we receive or use it. As makers and producers use documentary as a way to engage with and present social reality, their filmed "information" is also obviously constrained (and enabled) by the very mediation of film/video/television/Internet process they are working with. Three essays in this Special Section take up the theme of documentary images' global reach and the specific media forms in which these images appear and communicate information about the "world." The authors here analyze three different documentary moments, with each textual moment structuring an impression of the "world" in a different way. The documentary moments they take up include the ubiquitous image of the globe on TV news logos, graphically produced; an historically important archive of images from around the known world; and an experimental travel film. Other essays in the Special Section consider television and audio documentary, media sites which have seen the expansion of new offshoots of documentary and which cast new light on documentary studies as we analyze the genre in terms of its hybrids. And still other essays take the work of individual documentarists, who often work within a mode of social activist media or perhaps a more reflective and experimental mode, looking at the processes of film or videomaking itself.
Second, the essays here trace potential viewer response to documentary images and sounds and analyze how that response might be shaped — by economic and institutional imperatives, by social context, and by the media text's structure and connotations. The authors also evaluate how much of the social information conveyed by a text is tied to mechanisms of desire. Viewers may feel spectatorial desire fueled by the entertainment industry or perhaps a desire to see the exotic in a travel film, or to promote social action. Spectators interpret media along with a desire to read into that media their own concerns or goals. Thus four essays here that deal with the Terri Schiavo videos that circulated in a politicized way on the Internet before her death deal with the content and structure of the videos and also with the video images' potential emotional interpretation, which inflected their use.
Two essays take a large perspective and comment on documentary representation in terms of cartography, one of the discourses which Bill Nichols would call a "discourse of sobriety," with instrumental efficacy and a seemingly direct relation to the real. Looking at Frenchman Albert Kahn's massive early 20th century undertaking to create a "photographic inventory" of the inhabited world, Les Archives de la Planète, Teresa Castro finds a potential organizing model for the kinds of images and films Kahn had photographed and collected: the atlas, a book of maps. Atlases, Castro points out, detach a space from the spatiotemporal continuum to represent it on a printed page, often useful for travel. The succession of pages, each meant to be dwelt on, are organized in the book's own logic and progression. In that sense, the atlas has fit well into the widespread grasping of the world through vision, which has regularly accompanied projects of global domination. Looking at contemporary media in contemporary times, Sean Cubitt finds the atlas, and also "point of view" maps, now replaced by computer generated images of the spinning globe, seen frequently as part of TV news logos. Moral and political progress has hardly advanced as time has gone by, Cubitt writes, so that as we consider our place in the world "the abyss of uncertainty" opens up before. The CGI twirling globe as a corporate logo introducing the news offers both a kind of knowledge and a kind of comfort as it implies the viewer is part of a networked, ensemble subjectivity shaped by news gatherers. However, this subjectivity is not characterized by agency but only by the world presence of news coverage itself.
Offering more particular and localized views of places and people, three documentary films/videos are treated in depth: Dark Days by Marc Singer; Gambling, Gods and LSD by Peter Mettler; and Video Remains by Alex Juhasz. Joseph Heumann and Robin Murray write on Dark Days as a participatory ethnography, in which director Singer lived with homeless people underground in Amtrack tunnels in New York City and in which they participated actively to help him make the film. Singer manipulates the view of the city above ground to make it a barren and harsh place and the city below ground, in which the inhabitants create home and family. In contrast, Peter Mettler in Gambling, Gods, and LSD shows people trying to create transcendent experiences in often banal environments, through religious ecstasy, gambling, drugs, or visions. While Mettler, as the traveler, describes his film as a quest for a kind of knowledge, as writer Catherine Russell puts it, "through its own its transformation of experience into spectacle, in its indulgence in the otherness of exotic experience, the film itself provides a form of escape." Just as Mettler presents gamblers in his film, Russell draws on Walter Benjamin's explanation of the lure of gambling as spontaneity and contingency to explain the epistemology of this travel film and the fascination for the viewer of having the second-hand experience of grasping the world through film, that is, an explanation of cinephilia itself.
Another documentary is considered which looks at national history from the viewpoint of the particular. Video Remains is rooted in both personal and social history. Director Alex Juhasz returns to video footage of a beloved friend lost to AIDS over a decade ago. She also takes the occasion to reflect on an AIDS activist movement that came and went in the 80s. This is a social movement that was partly created and sustained by video activism, documented in Juhasz' earlier book AIDS TV. Now, in a work that is structured around personal emotion and social urgency, Juhasz speaks from a perspective of grief and love. Video Remains poses these questions about representation and history and media makers' continuing social effort:
"Do the massive AIDS deaths and activism of the 1980s affect us today? What remains from that remarkable and gruesome period? Do we learn from the dead, from the past, and does video help?"
Interestingly, this kind of perspective which mingles intensely personal imagery about loss with intent to shape social life is also found in image material propagated from the other end of the U.S. political spectrum. That is the Internet campaign, especially with video, to keep Terri Schaivo alive. Four of our writers agreed to prepare papers on the same in the spirit of "emergency analysis" for a cultural studies conference. Shortly before the conference they agreed on the topic of Terri Schiavo's life and death. Together, the papers offer a constellation of ways to approach politically charged image clusters, with the goal, as author Janet Staiger puts it, of creating "discourses, symbolism, emotions, and narratives" that speak to viewers' emotions and understanding, and also enlist them in progressive action. Catherine Preston points out that the Schiavo videos and discussions about Schiavo on the Internet fall into a larger category of "media event," and that when there is a politically charged image or set of images, we have to trace its "cultural biography." Which images seem to define an event, by what processes have they acquired resonance, in what spheres do they circulate, how is emotion read into them, what are their institutional conditions of production and consumption, and how do they iconically condense an historical moment?
Considering how the images were presented in a way calculated to shape affect, Diane Waldman analyzes how the videos themselves and their circulation on the Internet and among politicians constituted a "court of public opinion," after the courts had made their final rulings. Waldman points out that the same images elicited various interpretations, all intended to be definitive, ranging from "Terri lives" to "nobody's in there" to the more measured pleas for Terri's life from disability activists. Finally Janet Walker takes up the continuing emotional uncanniness of the videos, in the context of the strange relation of photography to death, especially to images of loved ones now dead. In Camera Lucida, Barthes commented on this aspect of looking at a photo and contemplating the sense of presence the image gives us and also the picture's definitive registration of the past. Walker extends this to how Holocaust survivors may regard photos of those dead. She notes that Schiavo's own parents may have needed the video traces, almost an animation, to "disseminate the collective mirage they projected in the daily acts of care-giving." If photos of the dead are a revenant, a ghostly presence of those passed, Janet Walker finds the Schiavo videos offer the "anterior future at a double remove," since we see someone who was once fully vital now in a vegetative state and about to die. These four perspectives on the Schiavo videos effectively offer a way to consider both what and how important political information is disseminated, and also a way to analyze those images' potential emotional effect.
Finally, over the last ten years, documentary studies has been especially influenced by the new forms of documentary emerging on television, both because of the diversity of channels available on cable television and the rapid expansion of lower cost reality TV shows across channels on both network and cable. Four of our writers specifically address television and documentary. They take up topics as diverse as animal television, shame television (e.g., programs like Cops), docudrama on a political theme, and a new genre, the documentary musical. In general, the imperative for entertainment shapes television programming but the newer formats have also expanded documentary's repertoire, often mixing it with other forms of narrative. Melodrama, comedy, action filming, audio enhancement, and surveillance give an added emotional impact to much of the documentary material, perhaps reducing the informational value of scenes filmed but perhaps also enhancing the documentary's memorable quality and impact.
In "A Walk on the Wild Side: the Changing Face of TV Wildlife Documentary," Richard Kilborn discusses how the entertainment imperative has transformed the genre. Bigger than life promoters engage in spectacular encounters with animals, the more threatening the better. At the same time, new kinds of historical presentations, such as Walking with Dinosaurs, have developed new forms of story telling and new kinds of animation, and have an international appeal. Messages about conservation have far less of a place on animal TV, and especially left behind is the most important message, that the true wilderness has disappeared. The main site for wildlife and animal activism is now the Internet.
Also looking at genre television, but also its video and Internet extensions, Gareth Palmer analyzes how the production of shame both makes good television and serves governmentality. In England, closed circuit television, CCTV, is used on the streets and by businesses for public surveillance, and some of that footage is shown on a number of television shows. A similar phenomenon takes place with Cops in the U.S., which uses footage shot by camera crews following police on the beat, often in patrol cars depicting chases or on foot making arrests. In particular, Palmer analyzes shame as a way of reinforcing correct or model behavior, the kind of shame elicited by Cops or CCTV, which he calls "authoritarian." More elusive in terms of identifying viewer positioning is TV programming about what Palmer calls the "new vigilantes," including Dog, the Bounty Hunter, or shows like Video Vigilantes or Cheaters that capture cheating spouses. These shows, and often also Internet sites, make the pursuer look as incorrigible or "shameful" as the wrongdoer. Viewers make take a great deal of pleasure in the very ambiguity of who or what is shameful, and indeed such ambiguity is carried to an extreme in such programs as the Jerry Springer Show, which Palmer types as depicting "willing victims." Finally, Palmer also describes how shaming is a tactic used by video activists for righteous exposés against the corrupt. In all cases, shame calls up a sense of community and of the role of correct, perhaps supervised or surveilled, behavior in maintaining that community. In some cases, the shame is seen as inconsequential and used for amusement value; in other cases, it is meant to be instructional.
Also dealing with the theme of how television represents the government and governmental processes, Steve Lipkin offers a close reading of a docudrama, Strange Justice, a Showtime special that offers a look-back summation of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation and the Senate Judiciary Committee's response to it at the time of Thomas' confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court. Moments that the docudrama takes from the record include Senator Orrin Hatch's reading from The Exorcist, Thomas' using his tie to simulate a lynching noose, and Hill's never being given the chance to respond to Hatch's re-framing of her testimony. What Lipkin demonstrates is that the program's construction echoes the Right's own campaign to nominate and confirm Thomas. As Lipkin describes his goal in analyzing this docudrama,
"Strange Justice provides an analysis of spin. Its own suturing of real and recreated materials models the very processes it exposes of shaping public perception and opinion. By analyzing and exposing where and how the real and the fabricated interact in the program's construction, I hope also to reveal how Thomas became an effective construction of the political right. In its audio-visual shaping, Strange Justice forecasts how those same strategies of suturing real and recreated material would be brought into play in present-day politics of presidential power and Supreme Court nominations."
In a very different way from docudrama, emotion and affect reinforce documentary expression in one of the genre's new offshoots, the documusical. We have become used to television's ever expanding development of new documentary hybrids, and the study of those hybrids now illuminates for us what documentary consists of and might become. The documusical, especially as currently practiced by U.K. documentarist Brian Hill, uses purpose-composed verse, music, and song within a documentary setting. Derek Paget and Jane Roscoe consider the achievements of Hill's work and also in broader terms, how song as well as speech might structure documentary expression. As the figures in Hill's documentaries — which have dealt with such social issues as prison, drinking, and porn acting — work with songwriters and voice coaches to develop verse or song about their individual situation, they develop a version of self they "seem most comfortable to own," and they extend and expand the conventional modalities of voice to a new expressive range that potentially will reveal new levels of character.
Also focusing on sound is Chuck Kleinhans' presentation on audio documentary — "for the visual studies crowd." Many people regularly listen to audio documentary in the United States on NPR (National Public Radio) but audio documentary production is larger than that. On the one hand, many documentary films are commonly edited by first constructing the sound track, both written narration and interviews, and then finding cutaways to smooth over jump cuts and selecting other visual footage to illustrate conceptual points. Audio documentary, meant for listening, not viewing, also encompasses many kinds of formats, purposes, and production conditions — from grass roots and street level fieldwork, personal narratives, audio essays, soundscapes and experimental audio art. Included in Kleinhans' essay are links to Internet sites, to lure ejumpcut readers into exploring this pervasive documentary form, one too little celebrated or studied.
The essays in this New Worlds of Documentary special section indicate how much the framework for thinking about, making, and distributing documentaries has expanded over the last twenty years. Twenty years ago, the major documentary type taken up by film studies was the social documentary. Other documentary genres, of course, existed, including broadcast television documentary, instructional media, and media of record, including video and audiotaped legal depositions, home movies, and anthropological and sociological documentation. But theorists of the documentary focused primarily on exploring documentary film's rhetorical strategies of argumentation (e.g., Bill Nichols, Representing Reality, 1991) or documentary photography's use of historically conditioned codes of visual realism (e.g., John Tagg, The Burden of Representation, 1988). Few studying documentary would have speculated on the meaning of a CGI representation of a spinning globe, used to introduce TV news shows, as Sean Cubitt does here to demonstrate how such an image hails our "networked subjectivity" to observe the world without agency. Many of the writers here look at these new aspects of documentary with a sense of social urgency, but it is also important to note how the range of topics the essays take up for analysis and the actual range of documentary expression considered has also expanded.
In particular, television has changed, and its changes affect how documentary studies is expanding. The advent of cable television, with hundreds of channels available to viewers in some urban areas or with satellite reception, means that there is a much greater market for documentary film product. Small companies have sprung up that provide programming for niche markets such as animal TV, travel shows, HGTV (Home and Garden Television), the Food Channel, Court TV, and what Gareth Palmer calls "shame" television. Interestingly, certain motifs or structuring devices such as travel go across networks and genres. For example, Pilot Productions, producers of the long-running PBS Globe Trekker series are now trying their hand at a food series, Planet Food. In addition to cable television's growth and need for product, the major networks have found it far more economical to produce reality shows than primetime quality dramatic narrative, which in the United States now cosst between $1.2 million - $2 million to make per episode.
The leader for promoting documentary on cable television is HBO and its subsidiary Cinemax, especially under executive producer for documentaries Sheila Nevins. HBO became a product pioneer for documentary and remains strong in this area; for HBO this format is the least expensive to produce or acquire and it turns the greatest profit. In addition to HBO's weekly sexploitation "documentaries," series such as America Undercover and other HBO specials have either co-produced or bought rights to many important contemporary documentaries, including The Celluloid Closet (dir. Vito Russo, 1995), 4 Little Girls (Spike Lee, 1997), Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jareki, 2003), and Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter's Story (dir. Ivy Meeropol, 2004). The content of these shows often places them well outside the range of the more conservative PBS, so that cable television is now often the market of choice for independent producers dealing with socially sensitive themes.
In general, television today exhibits a new synergy between TV programming and Internet sites, commonly set up by producers and networks, but also linked to other venues, especially in the case of social action media. Sometimes the Internet is the origin of the documentary media that becomes important politically; it's then picked up by network news and enters into major social and political discourse. Such is the case with the videos taken by Terri Schiavo's parents to appeal to the court of public opinion, after her parents' attempts to keep her on life support had been rejected by the courts. In this case and in the case of all the television and Internet footage dealing with Hurricane Katrina, the imagery becomes part of a "media event." Our writers here analyzing the Schiavo videos on the Internet demonstrate how effective it is to analyze the circulation and ongoing reinterpretation of such politically charged documentary "events" and the resonances they accrue.
A much more ordinary kind of documentary imagery occurs because of the availability of inexpensive video cameras and the ubiquity of the Internet, leading to an expansion of surveillance video, as discussed here by Gareth Palmer, who sets out the parameters of the usefulness to the community of shame and surveillance, and how viewers may respond to that kind of documentary footage particularly in its voyeuristic aspect. Inexpensive digital video cameras make it possible to begin making documentaries with varying degrees of skill and rigor but very low entry costs. With single camera and small crew work, directors have shot everything from gonzo pornography (with one male actor/cameraman and a string of "amateur" talent) to the commercially successful Supersize Me (documenting a clever premise). Sometimes amateur video footage is reworked by other, more commercially established filmmakers, as happened with the film Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog, who edited video footage shot in the wild by Timothy Treadwell, who was then killed, along with Amie Huguenard, and both were eaten by a bear. The drama behind the Tredwell footage accrues to the commercial success of Herzog's film.
An example of the use of surveillance footage to produce inexpensive yet "gripping" programming can be seen in Dateline NBC's third special on Internet predators. To prepare for Dateline's Feb. 4, 2006, show, volunteers working with a dedicated surveillance website, perverted-justice.com, posed as underage 12-13 year old girls and boys in chatrooms like myspace.com, using fake screen-names. They entered into ongoing online conversations with men, trying to gather evidence that would help in a conviction, such as receiving pornography or being encouraged to enter frankly sexual discussions. Finally they let the perpetrator know their "address" and that their "parents will not be home."
Perverted-Justice.com's free labor and the willing participation of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, then, provide NBC with an inexpensive show to produce. The show presents the same ritual over and over again for two hours, with teasers just before the commercial break. Inside the house where the parents are supposed to be absent, the man enters, finds NBC anchor Chris Hansen waiting for him, and is taped by several stationary cameras in the kitchen. At the end, two camera people enter and continue to record, often scaring the perp so that he leaves or runs away. But sometime he stays and talks. Outside he is caught. Over a three-night period of the sting operation, fifty-one men are caught and fifty arrested. It is a cheap show to produce, and the topic of teen girls and boys in sexual peril give it an automatic hook to entice viewers.
Many elements of such a show deserve further study. In relation to this kind of surveillance, we are particularly interested in seeing more work done on the state's relation to surveillance and to the multinational business networks and databases already in place, including the Internet. It is also useful to consider the kinds of emotions that reality TV elicits and capitalizes on or the fact that much non-fiction television is pitched to class and gender. Television non-fiction has greatly expanded what we can imagine "documentary" to be, even if constrained by the imperatives of entertainment. At the same time, a new wave of theatrical documentaries, ranging from Winged Migration and March of the Penguins to Fahrenheit 9/11 and Supersize Me have also revived the place of documentaries in terms of entertainment, box office success, and cultural resonance.
In addition to changes in media institutions, there has been important new media scholarship over the last fifteen years in terms of documentary studies. The essays on the Terri Schiavo Internet videos as a media event were first presented at the 2005 conference of the U.S. Cultural Studies Association; those on cinematic and televisual global representation and three of the essays on television and audio documentary were first presented at the 2005 Visible Evidence Conference in Montreal. And previous Jump Cut essays on documentary also originated with Visible Evidence papers, such as those of Jean-Luc Lioult on "Framing the Unexpected" and Steve Lipkin on Saving Jessica Lynch in our last issue. In relation to the yearly Visible Evidence conference which takes up a wide variety of topics related to documentary, in the broadest sense, a book series published by the University of Minnesota Press and edited by Jane Gaines, Faye Ginsberg, and Michael Renov now has seventeen titles, many of which include work by Jump Cut editors and contributors. Some of the topics treated in these books include fake documentary, subjectivity, ethnography, home video, radical media making, Native American film and video, Holocaust photography, feminism and documentary, and gay and lesbian work. The editors of Jump Cut have played an active role in the Visible Evidence conferences and this renewed interest in and international networking around documentary studies has greatly influenced our work. In a larger sense, participating in this global conversation has deepened our commitment to expanding the definition of documentary, that is, to studying the broad range of documentary's "representations of reality" and how they change with history as we live it.