The Right to Play Oneself collects for the first time Thomas Waugh’s essays on the politics, history, and aesthetics of documentary film, written between 1974 and 2008. Together with the introduction by the author, Waugh’s essays advance a defiantly and persuasively personal point of view on the history and significance of documentary film.

Thomas Waugh

The title of Thomas Waugh’s most recent book The Right To Play Oneself is somewhat misleading. This is not (only) a book about performance and acting in documentary – even though the chapter on performance is one of the book’s best chapters. No, it is altogether a collection of Waugh’s most important essays spanning four decades and thus providing a thorough examination of the development of international documentary. Waugh started working professionally with film criticism in the 1970s when film studies was just starting to stand on its own legs – after “moralism, journalism, and advocacy” had been more or less in charge of films for a long time. But even though Waugh is rounded by more scientific methodologies, he never loses track of his curiosity and most often writes in a way that is accessible and digestible. This is almost always true but not in the chapter “Joris Ivens and the Legacy of Committed Documentary” where the sentences are weighed down with parentheses such as: “(…which he warned at Nijmegen should not be taken too reductively as a Darwinian model of documentary evolution but which I affectionately caricature all the same as the expository mode connected to the observational connected to the interactive connected to the reflexive connected to the performative).” I have no idea what Waugh is saying in this sentence; I am just left with the feeling that the editor could have been a little stricter and either erased or transformed sentences like the one quoted above into more fluent language.

But it is fair to say that most of the book is written with curiosity and a personal touch. Waugh admires the more transgressive parts of documentary and is keen on dealing with minority self-images such as gay and lesbian documentaries, as well as paying attention to seldom addressed industries such as Indian independent documentary. The result is a fragmentary collection depicting a critic always on the go to discover new connections, new methods, new thoughts. Every essay in the collection is cleverly introduced with some of Waugh’s present day thoughts. This helps to put the essays into perspective and gives some background information but also tracks Waugh’s own development as a critic.

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