Documentary as an ecological system


CINEMA: A glimpse into the ever-evolving way in which documentaries investigate, engage with, and interrogate the world.

Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor.
Published date: September 21, 2020
       
Documentary Across Platforms: Reverse Engineering Media, Place, and Politics
Author: Patricia R. Zimmermann
Indiana University Press, USA

Patricia Zimmermann’s book Documentary Across Platforms provides a knowledgeable insight into the ever-evolving practices beyond conventional non-fiction cinema. It is an important contribution to contemporary documentary studies and also a must-read for all filmmakers and audiences who consider the genre a conceptual practice to think about themselves and the world – how it is and how it might be.

Alternative practices

Zimmermann, a professor of Screen Studies at Ithaca College and co-director of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, is a leading expert in documentary theory, new media, film history. and social critique. She is the author and editor of numerous titles. Unlike her more academic works, Documentary Across Platforms is a «collection of essays and speculations about the documentary and experimental media work». They engage innovative and alternative documentary practices, produced with modest resources, often in a liminal zone between arts and political engagement, between a documentary vision and communication. These practices apply both sophisticated, high-end professional and amateur, consumer-grade technologies. Many are modular, adaptive to their context, and unfixed, migrating through different political terrains, platforms, and exhibition contexts. Unlike long-form documentaries screened by TV networks and international film festivals, the subjects of this book are marginal works, from home movies to environmental agitprop, but, in Zimmermann’s view, they address key questions such as «What is evidence, what are useful analytical models, what is significant, and how can we understand the world better?»

For me, the most fascinating aspect of her particular scholarly interest in innovative forms and practices is the ethics that Zimmermann adopted through her personal development as a film scholar. In her own words, «To think intellectually about cinema, one needed also to be part of cinema culture in as many ways as possible, to be in the world, to consider theory and practice and cinema and politics as continually paired and intertwined. It demanded looking at how cinema engaged politics and people.»

Unlike long-form documentaries screened by TV networks and international film festivals, the subjects of this book are marginal works

Equally important is the scientific rigour that shapes every page. To talk about the new, one needs new concepts too. Zimmermann introduced two such concepts. One is the notion of documentary as «ecological system» of various technologies, practices, and specific relationships to communities, politics, and social struggles. This enabled her to study projects often excluded from academic research. It also provided a way to bypass «unproductive binaries» between documentary and experimental works, between feature films and community media, between film and photography, between the moving image in a theatre and the art installation in the gallery. Through her second concept, «reverse engineering», that is the notion that ideas, just like objects, can be disassembled to learn how they work and then be rebuilt into something new and better, Zimmermann introduced a notion of the documentary not simply as a representation or argument about the historical world, but also as «dismantling and rebuilding of the world through conceptual redesign.»

The complexity of history

The documentary practices and platforms addressed by Zimmermann have various themes. Let me focus on one of them: the war. I was born in Slovenia in times when it was still part of the former Yugoslavia. During the 1980s, I was working as an editor and journalist at Mladina, a weekly news magazine that, at that time, was often described as a «bastion of free thought in the socialist world». So it was with a great interest that I read the essay Matrices of War, where Zimmermann addressed the issues of war imagery, archives, and historiography in relation to the Serbian ethnically based nationalist war that «unfurled in the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 2001» after Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence. I am usually curious about how well those experts looking at us and our history from the distance managed to grasp the complexity of these events, but I am also looking forward to new interpretations since the totalitarian outcome of what we believed was a pro-democracy movement was both big surprise and great disappointment. Of course, the goal of Zimmerman’s book is not to explain historical events but is tightly tied to it and I appreciate very much her well-informed outline of the situation. Similarly fascinating is her selection of documentary projects that point to the conclusion that no master interpretation will ever fit the complexity of history.

the goal of Zimmerman’s book is not to explain historical events

The major focus is on the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. It aimed at ending the massacre and atrocities against Kosovo’s Albanian population but was later defined as «a huge shift from weaponry to computers» and called by military analysts «the revolution in military affairs». Zimmermann summarises various readings, but she diverges importantly from the concept of simulacrum as that which lost any relation to reality, proposed by Jean Baudrillard in various writings, for example in his January 1991 essay with the title The Gulf War will not take place (La guerre du Golfe n’aura pas lieu). He wrote about the War in the Persian Gulf and it was that war that marked the beginning of the digitalisation of war, a process in which digital technologies, to use the words of Zimmermann, «promoted warfare without bodies,» and «reduced war to screens». War became «a flat image to be manipulated and calculated by anyone and everyone,» yet the artworks, analysed by Zimmerman, «did not manufacture new imagery to counter ideologically contaminated dominant commercial imagery» but «radically recalibrated war through digitality». A website by the artists’ collective «jodi.org» for example was programmed in such a way that the users were automatically redirected to the website of the B92 (a Belgrade based oppositional radio station), which delivered news of the bombings from a Serbian dissident point of view. Thus «jodi.org» deconstructed the discontinuities of the digital networks with directionality and contiguity. NATO Targets (1999), a twenty-minute videotape by Gloria La Riva, featured former Attorney General Ramsey Clark touring Serbia to assess the bombing. The documentary intercuts news footage of the city of Pristina after the bombings with camcorder shots recorded during the destruction. In this way, the film demonstrated that, contrary to the idea of the simulacrum, there are real people on the other side of the images, distributed on the screens. Besides, Zimmermann observes, rerouting the high-tech air war through on-the-ground bodies and places, NATO Targets invented a new matrix that restored context and consequence to historical actions.