La Pítite Bourgogne (Maurice Bulbulian, Canada, 1968)

Poster for Army of Lovers (Revolt of the Perverts) (Rosa von Praunheim, West Germany, 1979)

Three Songs of Lenin (Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1934): cult-of-personality politics

Three Songs of Lenin has visual parallels to ...

... Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, Germany, 1935)


Based at Concordia University in Montreal, Thomas Waugh has been well known as a champion of activist media work since the publication of his edited anthology “Show Us Life”: Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary in 1984. In The Right to Play Oneself he gathers up a number of essays dating from 1975 onwards, most previously published, and inserts an extensive running commentary to contextualize them. The style is readable, and the chatty, confessional tone of the commentary turns the collection into an amiable meander down memory lane.

Waugh writes on Vertov and Ivens and de Antonio; on performance in documentary and LGBTQ representation; on the practice of the National Film Board of Canada and on independent Indian documentary. Although weighted toward the mainstream canon (which Waugh has played his part in establishing) there is a refreshing openness to work outside it, as evidenced in his opening piece about the Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short, and Animation Films.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is in fact its treatment of lesser-known work. The chapter on the Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle program of the NFB is exemplary in focusing attention on some two hundred social-analysis films and videos produced by the Board between 1967 and 1980. Waugh both outlines the thrust of the program as a whole and discusses in depth a sample of five films:

  • La P’tite Bourgogne (1968), about a bilingual Montreal neighborhood;
  • Up Against the System (1969), dealing with Toronto welfare recipients;
  • La Noce est pas finie (1971), a Brechtian docu-fiction set in New Brunswick;
  • C’est nous c’est chez nous (1972), concerned with marginal farmlands of the Gaspé and other outlying regions; and
  • VTR Rosedale (1974), documenting local activism in an Alberta village.

In each case Waugh stresses the interactions of the filmmakers with the communities in which the films were made – bringing to mind his earlier admonition that committed documentary

“must be made not only about people directly implicated in change but with and for those people as well.”   

In discussing Indian documentaries such as Voices from Baliapal (Ranjan Palit, Vasudha Joshi, 1989) – a film about local people in the Bay of Bengal resisting expropriation of their lands for a missile base — Waugh focuses on the trope of the “talking group.” In terms similar to those used by Kahana in describing Underground, he contrasts this convention of the collective interview with “the long take, intimate close-up declarations of subjects” in much Euro-American documentary, which he claims are

“symptomatic of a social ideology organized around the individual, and what is more, a religiocultural tradition based on the confession.”

While the point is a good one, he then unfortunately veers off into a lengthy digression on Michael Moore, Wiseman, feminist documentary, Godard, et al., in order to elaborate on it, severely diluting his concentration on the ostensible subject of the essay.

Of great value from a historical point of view are two studies, from 1984 and 1997, surveying what were then known as lesbian and gay productions. Waugh inventories the corpus of work (bizarrely, as he admits, including the fully fictional Taxi zum Klo), reflects on the ambitions and tactics of the movement, and subjects some individual films to critical scrutiny. In doing so he identifies the double bind of the “positive image,” feistily arguing that

“we do ourselves a grave disservice in suppressing our sexuality, that factor of our identity that distinguishes us as a group.”

Track Two (Harry Sutherland, Gordon Keith, Jack Lemmon, 1982) – about resistance to police oppression of gays in Toronto – comes in for particular attack in this regard: “designed to build alliances with the straight liberal public” it “glows with self-righteous sanctity.” Waugh clearly prefers the down and dirty explicitness of Rosa von Praunheim’s Army of Lovers (Revolt of the Perverts) (1979),

“offering first-person sexual performance in defiance of privatized patriarchal, reproductive sexuality.”

Widening out the discussion, Waugh perceptively notes that bold works like von Praunheim’s opened the way for “coming out” narratives (inspired also by feminist consciousness-raising practices), and “expressive elements that were more theatrical than the standard documentary idiom of the day allowed.” Performance in documentary becomes the subject of a dedicated chapter (which the book’s title references). Here Waugh effectively distinguishes between presentational and representational modes, and takes a provocative poke at first-person performance which, he contends,

“too often limits documentary to the exploratory phase and pegs it at the level of political evasion, bewildering empiricism, and individual moral or metaphysical floundering.”

(He instances Michael Rubbo and Werner Herzog; von Praunheim is spared this critique.)  

For all its virtues, The Right to Play Oneself suffers from a certain revolutionary romanticism that deters the author from asking hard questions of his heroes. He is slightly more rigorous than Kahana in dealing with de Antonio’s Underground, noting that an “unfortunate gap” is “an explicit analysis of the group’s current tactics,” but even so, for Waugh it is not the use of violence but “whether their revolutionary practice is rooted in relations with working class or radical communities” – whatever the latter might be – which is at stake. (In a later addendum to the piece, Waugh does describe Underground’s portrait of the Weatherpeople as “almost hagiographic” but takes the observation no further.)  

Hagiography is certainly the issue in the case of Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin (USSR, 1934). But from Waugh’s rhapsodic account of it – “an achievement of great power and beauty,” “a masterpiece of simple and straightforward elegance,” an “extraordinary film” – one would never know. A certain indulgence towards the idolizing of the police-state socialist leader may have been excusable in 1975, when the piece was written (as an extended polemic against his teacher Annette Michelson, who preferred the formalist Vertov), but in the light of historical scholarship since that time it is questionable to say the least.[6] [open endnotes in new window]

Of the cult-of-personality politics in this relentless paean to the dead dictator (“No father ever did as much for his children / As Lenin did for us,” and on and on) Waugh says not a whit. Nor does he notice, for example, that the imagery of ranks of Red Army battalions bears a close resemblance to Leni Riefenstahl’s of Nazi troops (which he elsewhere compares unfavourably to Ivens’s images of a people’s army in The Spanish Earth).[7] Waugh defines “commitment” as “a declaration of solidarity with the goal of radical sociopolitical transformation” and hails Vertov as a pioneer of the committed documentary. But in 1934 Three Songs of Lenin would have had no other political function than to shore up support for a totalitarian regime which at that moment was condemning five million or more of its citizens to death through man-made famine.[8] 

Overall The Right to Play Oneself is an enjoyable read and a valuable source of information and commentary on activist documentary. Its weakness lies, perhaps, in a sentimental commitment to a vaguely-defined revolutionary cause that leads at times to precisely that political evasion of which Waugh accuses some filmmakers.    


The appearance of these five books provides an occasion to reflect on the current state of English-language documentary studies. Clearly there is strong interest in the topic within academia, fuelled by a number of developments, including

  • the success of feature documentaries in theatrical release,
  • the international spread of documentary festivals,
  • the emergence of documentary channels on television,
  • the popularity of reality-TV formats,
  • the spurt in production enabled by digital technology,
  • the proliferation of exhibition platforms, and
  • the unprecedented access scholars now have to work from the past and from around the globe.

This has stimulated new approaches to documentary theory, as evidenced in the books by Cowie, Smaill, and Kahana, as well as reflections on the impact of changing technology (Ellis) and on the shifting preoccupations of activist media workers (Waugh). All this is welcome, but these particular publications suggest the need to keep sharply focused on the subject at hand, paying scrupulous attention to textual detail and curbing the tendency to digress. In addition, theoretical approaches need to be clearly thought through, applied integrally to the related film criticism, and worded in ways that excite rather than deter the non-specialist reader. In terms of the political functioning of documentary, criticism would benefit from a more rigorous questioning of just what the politics are. And perhaps in the future, documentary scholars might pay more attention to the crucial issues of funding and distribution. They also could fruitfully extend their sights beyond the traditional sociopolitical field to take in the vast uncharted terrain of factual filmmaking devoted to science and nature, sports, arts and music, crime, biography, and history.  

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