copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

Documentary studies:
news from the front line

review by Russell Campbell

Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation by John Ellis (Routledge, 2011), 184 pages, $35.95 (pb), $125.00 (cloth).

Recording Reality, Desiring the Real by Elizabeth Cowie (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 217 pages, $25.00 (pb), $75.00 (cloth).

The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture by Belinda Smaill (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 221 pages, $80.00 (cloth).

Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary by Jonathan Kahana (Columbia University Press, 2008), 436 pages, $29.00 (pb), $90.00 (cloth).

The Right to Play Oneself: Looking Back on Documentary Film by Thomas Waugh (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 352 pages, $27.50 (pb), $82.50 (cloth).

These new books on documentary come from four corners of the English-speaking world. John Ellis’s Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation takes British television documentary as its principal point of reference and explores the impact of changing technology on the relationships between filmmakers and their subjects. Also from Britain, Elizabeth Cowie’s heavily theoretical Recording Reality, Desiring the Real marshals examples from both the UK and elsewhere to argue its case. From Australia, Belinda Smaill in The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture interrogates an international range of media productions in her study of the imbrication of emotional response in factual film. In Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary, Jonathan Kahana relates form to ideology in U.S. political documentary from the 1930s to the present day. Finally, Canadian Thomas Waugh gathers together the fruits of several decades of rumination on activist nonfiction filmmaking from around the globe in The Right to Play Oneself: Looking Back on Documentary Film.

Despite the diversity of their approaches, all the writers are predominantly concerned with social documentary and the role of nonfiction film in reflecting society and/or becoming a catalyst for social change. They do not dwell on the representation of penguins in Antarctica, migratory birds crossing the oceans or wild parrots in San Francisco. They betray little interest in Werner Herzog’s taste for exotica or the autobiographical peregrinations of Ross McElwee. As such they are especially apt objects for scrutiny in a journal devoted to the analysis of media from a leftwing perspective.

John Ellis’s Documentary reads like an introductory media studies text and that may well be the intention: the Routledge website claims that it is “ideal for students studying film, media studies and visual culture.” Principally known for his work on television – TV FAQ (2007), Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (1999), Visible Fictions (1982) – Ellis brings to bear on the book his extensive experience both as a university teacher (currently at Royal Holloway, University of London) and TV producer. In light of its evidently intended audience, the writing style is simple, almost conversational, without totally forgoing scholarly and theoretical pretensions.

Ellis divides documentary history into three phases. The first, he argues, lasted until roughly 1950 and was a period of productions for cinema in which reconstruction was the accepted norm. He cites as an example Fires Were Started (1943), Humphrey Jennings’s highly-regarded depiction of the work of London firefighters during the Blitz. In the second phase, from 1950 to the mid-1990s, television took over as the exhibition platform, 16mm largely supplanted 35mm, and observational or interview styles became predominant, with dramatisation regarded as anathema unless incorporated in the hybrid docudrama genre. The current era, he contends, began in the 1990s with the adoption of digital technologies and is marked by the diversity of viewing platforms as well as the wide availability and easy use of filming and editing equipment, resulting in more casual and intimate methods of working. (However, reconstruction has once again become acceptable, if stylistically marked as such, following the success of Errol Morris’s 1988 theatrical documentary The Thin Blue Line.

Such a schema is useful and uncontentious. But the real strength of Ellis’s history is the detailed and accurate account he gives of the development of documentary filmmaking technology and the standard methods of working professionally with it (at least within the generously-funded British TV system – few independents could match the six or seven member crew he cites as the norm for 16mm documentary). His argument that the size of the crew needed and the equipment available “produces characteristic ways of working which in turn produce documentaries that are characteristic of their time” is a valuable one and occasionally insightful. For example, he notes that the introduction of the flip-out viewfinder on digital cameras has altered the relationship between filmmaker and subject, making direct eye-contact engagement much easier.

Unsurprisingly Ellis devotes most of his book to the current situation, and there is much of value in his analysis. He writes perceptively on the way documentary performance has evolved now that cameras are ubiquitous, on the dynamics of the interview, on the dispersed control over editing that digital systems have facilitated, on the growing sophistication of audiences and the extensive extratextual discussion that now often surrounds the film itself, and on the increased concern among the general public with documentary ethics (e.g., regarding undercover filming).

There are problems, though. Often Ellis does not cite enough examples to make his case strongly. His excuse that many documentaries “which are important in their historical moment are extremely hard to access subsequently” and so might well not be “familiar to you the reader” is a weak one. This is especially so since the few works he does comment extensively on, such as Raymond Depardon’s Profils Paysans: L’Approche (2001) and Paul Watson’s Rain in My Heart (2006), are not readily available whereas thousands of other documentaries are within easy reach.

Ellis discusses Profils Paysans in the context of an extended plea for “Slow Film” — “the modern radical gesture” (on analogy with Slow Food). He contends that montage, while it may have been radical in the 1920s, cannot be so in the fast-cutting media-saturated environment of the 21st century. This idea is hardly debatable, but what is curious about this section of the text is that Ellis seems oblivious to the whole history and theory of the long take in documentary, especially in ethnographic filmmaking. The ideas are scarcely new: David MacDougall’s important article, “When Less is Less: the Long Take in Documentary” (Film Quarterly 46 No. 2), for example, was published nearly twenty years ago.

A major weakness of the book is its tendency to wander off the point. In a misguided attempt to widen the discussion out into other fields of the media and contemporary society generally, Ellis goes into extended digressions on widely varied subjects:

In all these cases the focus becomes blurred and the opportunity to develop an original, in-depth account of documentary film in its past and contemporary manifestations is lost. (Symptomatic perhaps is that in the final section Ellis virtually ceases speaking in his own voice, giving way to a collage of anonymous excerpts from his students’ work.)  

In many respects Documentary: Witness and Self-Revelation is a lively and stimulating introduction to the topic. But it would have been better if it had included a greater number of relevant film examples, had engaged more directly with documentary scholarship, and was more tightly edited.


If Ellis’s book is aimed at the beginning student, Elizabeth Cowie’s Recording Reality, Desiring the Real is definitely only for an advanced cultural theory readership. Professor of film studies at the University of Kent, Cowie is the author of Representing the Woman: Cinema and Psychoanalysis (1996). Here, with heavy dollops of Lacan and Foucault, a dash of Deleuze and seasoning from Zizek, she dishes up a psychoanalytical treatise on documentary that is likely to prove indigestible to all but gourmets. The book comes with strong endorsement from Mary Ann Doane: “This is an intricate and powerful treatment of our psychical investment in the representation of the real that will certainly have a major impact on our thinking about documentary,” reads the blurb. Cowie’s theoretical argument will undoubtedly receive the serious consideration it deserves in the relevant quarters. But for non-initiates, including the present reviewer, it is probably wiser to avert the danger of being engulfed in the giddying vortex of language:

“For while one cannot feign the act of feigning, one can lie about telling a lie, but in doing so one posits a truth knowable somewhere else, by some other who is witness to the lie as a lie and thus also to the truth of the lying speech.”

I found it better to concentrate on the actual film criticism, which constitutes a little under half of the book.
Cowie scrutinizes a mix of canonical standards and lesser-known works under theoretically-informed rubrics:

That said, Cowie’s critiques are for the most part not logically dependent on the theory that surrounds them. They may be read in their own right for the illumination that they offer on the films under discussion. And there are certainly flashes of insight to reward the reader. For example, Cowie singles out a moment from When the Levees Broke in which a hurricane victim directly addresses the camera operator or reporter, calling on help for her elderly mother. The sequence achieves its force, we can see, from the fact that it breaks a standard documentary convention. Cowie writes,

“Documentaries afford us another pleasure in identifying, for through them we can engage in situations in which we feel for others in order to assure or reassure ourselves that we are caring people.... For this we require victims, the less fortunate, for whom we can feel. Again, they must be properly helpless as well as voiceless, or at least voicing only their plight and suffering, and must not make an overt demand for help.”

Cowie’s criticism is however vitiated at times by a surprising inattention to the text. There are a few minor descriptive slips which do not affect the thrust of the analysis.[2] But beyond this, there are partial or inaccurate observations which problematize the interpretations based on them. Thus Cowie contends that because the workers in Coal Face are “silent” (and do not look at the camera), address by the “social actors” has been banished. She is ignoring, however, the snatches of (non-sync, Welsh-accented) conversation heard when the miners take a break. It is only a brief moment, but it stands out because of the contrast with the voice of the narrator. Again, discussing Housing Problems, Cowie writes that one of the “authoritative” voice-overs is by “Councillor Lauder, a local Labour Party politician and chairman of the Stepney Housing Committee.” This gives a completely false impression that the film is engaging in party politics, for in fact Lauder’s Labour Party affiliation is not mentioned. 

But Cowie’s most strangely askew analysis is of Five and Under (Donald Alexander, 1941), about childcare for women workers in the wartime situation. She argues that the documentary,

“like Coal Face, speaks for the subjects it presents, but unlike that film, it fails to represent the women and their achievements inclusively, as part of making ‘Britain’ great, or as war workers, victorious.”

It is very hard to see how this interpretation can be sustained in the light of the following aspects the film:

When Cowie’s film criticism does hit the target, it may be seen as a plea for the ongoing political functioning of documentaries (now that more and more are becoming available) long after their initial release. A case in point is the Brechtian feminist documentary The Nightcleaners Part One (Berwick Street Collective, 1975), whose makers admitted that it was badly received in the women’s movement and did not prove to be a useful campaign tool for the cleaners’ struggle.[4] Cowie does not acknowledge this – in fact citing to the contrary an activist miner who claimed that working-class women at screenings he attended “responded very well” to the radical style. But she does build a compelling case for her assertion that the film leaves the spectator

“with haunting images recalled long after that become a remembering not only of these particular women at this moment in time, during a strike, but also of any women at all, any place at all.”    

The documentary criticism contained in Recording Reality, Desiring the Real is thus of variable quality, but at its best it is perceptive and provocative. Unfortunately it is unlikely to be widely disseminated, for it is planted in the midst of a theoretical thicket that for the non-specialist is very hard going indeed.


Belinda Smaill teaches at Monash University in Melbourne. She has published previously on nonfiction film and her book The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture incorporates several pieces which have appeared elsewhere, including a study of the pornography documentary in Jump Cut. Like Cowie, she engages with a range of cultural theorists, but here the film criticism is foregrounded. Moving on from Bill Nichols’s characterization of documentary as one of the “discourses of sobriety,” she defines her project as

“an investigation into how individuals are positioned by documentary representation as subjects that are entrenched in the emotions.”

Her choice of case studies is wide ranging. She writes of British filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s work in Iran and Africa; of “dissent documentaries” (such as The Corporation [2003], an analysis of the workings of capitalism) from the United States; of Fix (shot in Vancouver), Rize (Los Angeles) and Born into Brothels (2004, Kolkata); of Asian Australian documentaries, and more. It is a pity that her last example is the Australian Idol television series. Here the book loses its concentration on documentary and veers off into the new direction of reality TV.

Often Smaill’s writing is lucid and penetrating. She studies Fix: The Story of an Addicted City (Nettie Wild, 2002), for example, in relation to Wendy Brown’s concept of “wounded attachments.” By that Brown refers to the way people from an under-class often define their self-identity in terms of their exclusion from and subordination to the dominant social structure. Here the addicted inhabitants of a poor section of Vancouver are the subjects of a documentary which through its techniques transcends empathy for the suffering victim and becomes the catalyst for political action. In fact, as Smaill recounts, soon after the film’s release, a council was elected which authorized North America’s first safe injection site. 

Smaill also explores the representation of pain in four documentaries by Kim Longinotto (usually in collaboration with a local co-director): Divorce Iranian Style (1998) and Runaway (2001) made in Iran, The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) made in Kenya, and Sisters in Law (2005) made in Cameroon. In the Iranian films, she argues, “pain and anguish becomes visible as performance” when the female subjects plead their case in the divorce court or at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. In the African films, on the other hand, “the affect of physical pain” is to the forefront, whether it is the excruciating agony of female genital cutting or the wounds inflicted by an aunt on a six-year-old girl with a coat hanger. Smaill’s insightful analysis focuses on the depiction of women who in “negotiating the intersection of modernity and traditional or religious law” become political subjects, and as in Fix the narrative is directed away from empathetic identification towards social action. Here Longinotto’s observational style and collaborative method of working are, Smaill convincingly argues, crucial to the functioning of the documentaries as activist interventions.       

Yet the discussion of “pain” in these analyses at times feels forced, and one has the sense that Smaill is struggling to fit her material into the mould she has cast for it. The main figures in Sisters in Law, for example, are not the victims of violence she concentrates on, but the highly proficient and professional female state prosecutor and court president, who are by no means constituted as emotional subjects. The straining for sustained coherence becomes even clearer in Smaill’s treatment of Rize (David LaChapelle, 2005), a film discussed alongside Fix in terms of its depiction of the figure of the injured subject. The protagonists of the documentary are disadvantaged youth from African American neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, yet the film pays much more attention to the frenetic style of dance, “krumping,” that they have created than it does to their social deprivation. Occasionally pain is evoked, as in the recounted incident of a 15-year-old girl being gunned down by gang members on her way to the corner shop, but it is utterly washed out by the exhilaration, astonishment and sheer joy generated by the dancing, not to mention desire for the beautiful bodies on display. Attention to these emotions – and earlier Smaill does in fact reference Richard Dyer’s work on the utopian sensibility in musicals – would be more apposite than stretching a parallel with the social-problem documentary Fix.

However there is a more fundamental conceptual difficulty. Attempting to apprehend a documentary in terms of singular “emotions,” as Smaill does (in addition to pain, she examines “pleasure and disgust,” “loss and care,” “civic love,” “futurity and hope,” and “nostalgia”) neglects the dynamic ebb and flow of feelings that characterizes viewers’ experiences of films as they unfold. In fact, one could argue that a constant flux is vital to achieving the satisfaction of spectatorial desires that Smaill refers to in her introduction. And there is, too, a vagueness about certain emotions that Smaill pins her analyses to, such as the nebulous “civic love,” as well as about whose emotions are being discussed. Smaill writes, “The individuals [entrenched in the emotions] I am referring to are, in some instances, film-makers, and in others, those who are featured in the documentary” – but it is also frequently viewers who are clearly being referenced.

Uncertainty surfaces again in Smaill’s discussion of Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (Gough Lewis, 2000), which she considers along with two other pornography documentaries. Smaill argues that Chong is positioned as a female desiring subject, but that her performance of sexuality is ambivalent. Furthermore, Smaill asserts, “The endeavour to render subjectivity in the documentary narrative ... is constantly troubled by the body’s status as sexual and cinematic object,” evoking feelings of disgust as well as pleasure. This is a persuasive reading, but it is a partial one. It ignores the many other ways in which Chong (real name Grace Quek) is portrayed as an emotional subject in the course of the film: the shame she exhibits when her middle-class Singaporean mother learns of her occupation as a porn star, her despair when she self-mutilates, her muted anger in returning to the site where she was raped, and so on. A full consideration of subjectivity in the film would also need to extend to the question of authorship. The director Lewis was Quek’s boyfriend at the time of filming, which helps to explain the intimacy of some of the footage as well as the film’s reluctance to explore the impact of her work on Quek’s personal relationships. Quek has in fact insisted in interviews that directorial decisions were entirely Lewis’s and that there are aspects of the representation of herself she disagrees with.[5]

Overall Smaill has made a bold move in attempting to draw the question of emotion into documentary studies, but her methodology is flawed and the concept remains elusive. The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture is best seen as a collection of individual studies, some of them very fine, and as the first stabs towards expanding the notion of documentary beyond seeing it as primarily a discourse of sobriety.


Jonathan Kahana, associate professor at the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, has previously published essays on documentary, the avant-garde, and U.S. film culture. In Intelligence Work, a sprawling and often dense treatise, he ambitiously surveys a wide range of U.S. political filmmaking and its cultural contexts from the days of the New Deal welfare state (“partly defined by the documentary forms that made it seem necessary”) to the current era of its “decisive abandonment.” Kahana notes that documentary has appealed “to both state and capitalist institutions and their critics.” But once he moves past the brief New Deal period of government-sponsored production, the films he examines are chiefly oppositional, mirroring the shift in public attitude from trust in to suspicion of the state.

Kahana devotes major sections of the book to different periods and purposes for documentary:

His approach veers, almost bewilderingly at times, from the broadly contextual to the minutely textual. Thus in Chapter 2 he examines at some length the books You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, Land of the Free by Archibald MacLeish, and Our Government by James M. Cain before homing in on a tracking shot in Joris Ivens’s Power and the Land in which farmers are framed in profile to emphasise their ears.  

The title of the book derives from Walter Lippmann’s identification, in Public Opinion (1922), of a group of intellectuals who mediated between state institutions and ordinary Americans. Documentary, whether mainstream or marginal, can be said to perform, Kahana argues, similar “intelligence work.” He draws on Lippmann (as pioneering documentary theorist John Grierson did) as well as on the ideas of Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas in conceptualizing the public sphere and the role that documentary (“a practice of knowledge unto itself”) plays within it. He also utilizes James Clifford’s notion of allegory, a mode that

“allows the local or particular to retain its specificity and authenticity while serving as the medium for a lesson of general significance for others.”

Thus, in this vein, Kahana consistently demonstrates how concrete depictions of individual situations, whether an Ohio farm being wired for electricity or the bloody repression of a prison uprising in upstate New York, can be read as statements on the functioning of the U.S. political system as a whole.

Kahana’s heterogeneous methodology tends to work best when the documentaries themselves are the central focus. Thus Chapter 4 dilates upon such cultural phenomena of the time as Tom Wicker’s book A Time to Die, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, and Bob Dylan’s ballad “George Jackson”, but most attention is paid, in a series of revealing juxtapositions, to The People Versus Paul Crump (William Friedkin, 1962), Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman), Attica (Cinda Firestone), and Teach Our Children (Third World Newsreel, 1972). The shifting forms, from dramatized reenactment through cinema verité, found footage collage, and avant-garde montage are perceptively dissected in the interests of exposing the evolving political representation of U.S. prisons. Likewise the discussion of Newsreel productions – including Black Panther (1968), No Game (1968), San Francisco State: On Strike (1969), and People’s War (1969) – benefits from their being considered together as a group, in the way, for example, they audaciously challenged codes of public discourse.

Less successful is the treatment of 1930s nonfictional expression in Chapter 1, which wanders arbitrarily it seems from Dorothea Lange’s photography to Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Sherwood Anderson’s Puzzled America to Erskine Caldwell’s Some American People and Say, Is This the U.S.A., Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “The Book of the Dead” to Carl Becker’s 1931 Presidential Address to the American Historical Association, Leo Hurwitz’s fascination with montage to the 1935 American Writers’ Congress, before finally coming to rest on the Frontier Films documentary, People of the Cumberland.  

The book’s discursive style is not helped by Kahana’s disconcerting practice of approaching his subjects nonchronologically, of offering, for example, an extended examination of the work of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock before launching into an account of the “documentary front” in the New Deal, or dealing with The Weather Underground (Sam Green, Bill Siegel, 2002) before embarking on a discussion of documentaries from the 60s and 70s. But it is with his treatment of The Weather Underground and its predecessor, Underground (Emile de Antonio, Mary Lampson, Haskell Wexler) that what are perhaps more serious issues, of political interpretation and descriptive accuracy, arise.

The Weather Underground was responsible for a string of bombings of U.S. governmental and corporate targets in the 1970s. Political criticism of documentaries devoted to the group must surely interrogate how they handle the question of the legitimacy of revolutionary violence in the historical period that it took place. Yet Kahana scarcely broaches the topic. His discussion of The Weather Underground focuses on the soundtrack, which expresses, he claims,

“by its very resistance to the conventions of documentary sound, a kind of solidarity with Weatherman’s radical mission.”

He cites Kirkpatrick Sale’s criticism of the group (its “only real principle, according to Sale, was contrition, its members’ regret that they had not been born black or poor”). But he completely neglects to mention the cogent critique of the bombing campaign offered within the film both by Todd Gitlin and by former Weatherman Brian Flanagan, who remarks,

“When you feel that you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things.”

On Underground, Kahana argues that the film offers a challenge to “the bourgeois ideology of the individual” and attempts to “thwart the liberal rhetoric of democracy” through presenting a collective perspective:

“In the opening minutes, the film provides a history of the group’s origins in the guise of personal accounts by each of the members present at the meeting. But these stories are never identified with a member by name.”

This statement, however, is quite inaccurate. Cathy Wilkerson, Bernardine Dohrn, Kathy Boudin and Billy Ayers all introduce themselves vocally, while Jeff Jones is identified by a subtitle. Underground’s “formal primer on the strategies of anti-imperialist politics and their incorporation into filmmaking” is perhaps not as clear cut as Kahana would have it. And those politics themselves receive as little scrutiny from Kahana as they do from the filmmakers who are interviewing the protagonists.  

The treatment of the Weather Underground films points to a tendency in Intelligence Work towards a formalism which at times threatens to blunt the acuity of its ideological critique. But Kahana’s valiant attempt to integrate a whole swathe of U.S. political documentary into a cultural history that is as alert to parallel developments in other fields as it is to the stylistic details of individual works is welcome, and a short review cannot begin to do justice to the book’s many intricate analyses.  


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:

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]

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

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.      


1. The canonical status of this key work of the British documentary movement is reaffirmed by the fact that it is one of the few films referenced by all five books reviewed here. Thomas Waugh inaccurately attributes it to John Grierson. Curiously Grierson himself, in spite of speaking highly of Housing Problems in his writing (and the fact that his sister Ruby Grierson worked on it), was vague about the film’s authorship – in a piece published in 1939 he attributed it (“I think I am right in saying”) to John Taylor, who was the cameraman. Grierson on Documentary, ed. Forsyth Hardy (New York: Praeger, 1966), p 215. 

2. For example, Cowie writes that in A Day in the Life of a Coalminer, “Scenes are filmed in long shot with a single, fixed camera position,” but she herself illustrates a medium shot, and there are two very noticeable pans; in Housing Problems, the single-toilet facility is not something that Mrs. Hill points out.

3. Even in its details, Cowie’s critique is misleading. The claim that the film represents working mothers as “failing their children” can hardly be sustained, since it shows those women placing their children in the care of highly satisfactory (for the most part) child minders and nurseries; while the alleged “solution” – “its answer is for the children to become weekly or monthly boarders at nursery homes in the country” – is one which is suggested only for workers rostered on night shift or whose homes have been bombed, since others are well catered for by registered baby minders, nursery schools and day nurseries.

4. See Claire Johnston and Paul Willemen, “Brecht in Britain: The Nightcleaners and the Independent Political Film,” in Thomas Waugh, ed., “Show Us Life”:  Toward a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary (Metuchen, N.J., and London: Scarecrow, 1984), esp. p 206.

5. See Mark Penny, “One on One with Annabel Chong,” Offscreen, 15 October 1999, (accessed 25 April 2011).
and Robin Askew, “Annabel Chong: Sex: The Annabel Chong Story,” Spike Magazine, 17 September 2010, (accessed 25 April 2011).

6. Lenin eliminated his political opponents through a reign of terror implemented by the Cheka. Dissidents were sent to concentration camps or killed. It is estimated that Cheka executions numbered 250,000 in the civil war years alone. See Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (London: Allen Lane, 1999), p 37. See also Dmitri Volkogonov, Lenin: A New Biography (New York: The Free Press, 1994) and Richard Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924 (London: Fontana, 1995).

7. Edvins Snore demonstrates close correspondences between Soviet and Nazi iconography in his documentary The Soviet Story (Latvia, 2008).

8. See e.g. Robert Conquest, The Great Terror (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), pp 45-6.

To topJC 53 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.