A Companion to Documentary Film History
Author: Joshua Malitsky [Editor]
Documentary media has a long history. It goes back to the beginnings of the film where the common distinction between the two film forms originates: the fictional form is believed to start with the films by Georges Méliès and the documentary with the films by the Lumière brothers. This distinction is itself ambiguous because, as the late Jean-Luc Godard observed, every fictional film is, in a certain sense, also a document. Seen from this broader, more philosophical perspective, the history of the documentary goes back to the beginnings of time, as it is thanks to documentary media that we are aware of our past. Only the past that has been, in one way or another, recorded and its’ memory preserved is known to us. This, among other things, is the rationale for Modern Times Review, dedicated to covering those nonfiction films that address the world’s most acute problems today, international conflicts, control (power, surveillance, finance, big tech), and deeper ecological and existential issues. However, the MTR only exists since 2017. Today, documentary films are viewed in cinemas, galleries, and museums. They form a significant part of traditional and on-demand TV programs and streaming platforms. They became the prevalent source of information about the world and, to a significant degree, took over the role once played by journalists and traditional news sources.
This massive interest in the documentary film itself is a rather recent phenomenon. And so is the scholarship on documentary and nonfiction film – the major subject of the Companion. The purview of what counts as a documentary also expanded along with the increased interest. Recent years have witnessed growth in scholarship on nonfiction film practices that are seen to be peripheral to documentary, writes in his introduction the editor of this rich and illuminating collection Joshua Malitsky, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies and Director of the Center for Documentary Research and Practice at Indiana University. Newsreels, film diaries and travelogues, industrial films, educational films and home movies, science films and promotional films only recently found a place in the documentary tradition. This scholarship has transformed the field of documentary history. It has challenged dominant auteurist and national cinema paradigms and highlighted film production conditions and its use context. Malitsky’s goal was to endorse the creation of an expanded, enriched sense of documentary and nonfiction film studies, knowing that «the new and expanded history of documentary films is also a new way of understanding what documentary is and how it has functioned over time».
Seen from this broader, more philosophical perspective, the history of the documentary goes back to the beginnings of time, as it is thanks to documentary media that we are aware of our past.
The best scholarship
In a more narrow sense, documentary studies began to develop as a subfield of Cinema and Media Studies in the 1990s. This development was strongly associated with the academic conference Visible Evidence. Taking place every year since 1993 in academic centres on five continents, Visible Evidence evolved into a global community of scholars and practitioners engaged in research and debates on historical and contemporary documentary practice and nonfiction media culture. Malitsky, an active member of this community, invited scholars across the globe to write original articles and organized their work in thematic strands that cover both «dominant and emerging approaches to understanding the history of documentary film and video». The Companion, a thick book of more than 500 pages, is divided into five chapters: Documentary Borders and Geographies, Authors Authorship and Authoring Agencies, Films and Film Movements, Media Archaeologies and Audiences and Circulation, each consisting of an introduction by an expert and three to five essays. Altogether, the companion is composed of 20 essays, each of which is a fine example of the editor’s aim «to provide an overview of the best historical scholarship being done on documentary and nonfiction film at the present moment». I want to draw your attention to two of them. One directed to the future, the other bringing new information about the past. Still, both contributing to one of the most vivid fields of documentary scholarship today, the examination of the audience.
«From Media Effects to the Empathy Machine: The Nature of the Audience and the Persistence of Wishful Thinking» is a fascinating insight into the contemporary digital documentary scene. William Uricchio, the founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, conceives the audience as a conceptual construct «and a contested one at that». The affordances of digital technologies used for producing and distributing documentary and nonfiction media of today justify his focus on the audiences. The novelty of Uricchio’s approach is his consideration of the technological and, in the first place, the economic context. He points to the «need created by key funders of documentaries in search of evidence that their money is responsibly spent» as the motive for the development of data-centric tools of today and as what connects these with the research of the previous decades. Uricchio points out three distinct modes of «producerly» audience participation: navigational, contributory, and co-creative. He also identifies «algorithmic audiences» as «a fast-emerging audience form» that presently exist in two versions, as «receivers of texts» and as «generators of texts». These second generate text on demand for the user in such a way that the algorithm, using backlogged user data, anticipates users’ interests and makes the decision preemptively. Applications such as «VR goggles equipped with pupil-trackers calculate what the user is viewing and even extrapolate an assumed level of user interest by observing pupillary dilation and heart rate». They pose, writes Uricchio, «significant ethical challenges regarding agency and privacy» and require new approaches in terms of theory but also policy.
The Third Cinema audience
Mariano Mestman, in the essay «Every spectator is either a coward or a traitor’: Watching The Hour of the Furnaces», reveals important and by now unknown facts about the film movement known as Third Cinema. The essay is based on an internal document produced by one of the groups that formed the movement and reprinted in its entirety at the end of the essay. Third Cinema was one of the most important movements in film history. The name itself conveys the basic idea: the films of Third Cinema differed from the first, that is, the commercial films of Hollywood, as well as from the second, that is, European art films. Third Cinema films were conceived as means of historical change, and the audience’s active engagement was their main goal. This essay reveals how this aim was approached in practice. Third Cinema films were films of «cultural decolonization», and diverse filmmakers aimed to produce such films in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. Therefore, claims Mestman, a history of the audience of the Third Cinema «requires extensive research into the countries where it took place». Still, Mestman’s research relates to the film The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), one of the most important films of the movement, and its’ significance transcends the differences. The authors of the film, Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas, Octavio Getino and their colleagues from the group Cine Liberación, are also the authors of the most widely disseminated and reprinted document about the movement, the manifest «Towards a Third Cinema». The Hour of the Furnaces was made to oppose the military regime in power in Argentina from 1966 to 1973. During this time, the screenings were «subject to various levels of clandestinity». The film is more than four hours long and is split into three parts, screened separately and combined in different ways. These ways depended on the audience, divided into three groups – workers, students, and middle classes – each addressed in a different manner. The document presented by Mestman, an internal report by one of the groups responsible for screening the film, provides a detailed description of screening events. It reports on film debates held in conjunction with the screenings and on different reactions of audiences. These new revelations point to a surprising proximity between the opposing notions of the audience as passive consumers and active agents of history, as both are subjected to control and prove the need for further explorations of the audience as an elusive and shifting concept.