Book critique: Thomas Waugh’s book essays show a firm believer in activist media and a strong film scholar who never lets go of his curiosity and the importance of linking scholarly definitions to useable critiques.

Steffen Moestrup
Regular critic in ModernTimes.review and NY TID, the Monthly Norwegian newspaper. He is also doing his PhD in Aarhus, Denmark.

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.

«not just to make films about somebody but also to make films with and for somebody »

The best chapter in the book is the one on performance in documentary which was written in 1990. In this essay Waugh clearly examines the use of social actors in documentary by taking as a starting point Joris Ivens’ thoughts and reflections of his experience with people playing themselves on-screen. Waugh distinguishes between representational and presentational performance. The former defined as when the social actor is being used to represent their lives in a natural way, without paying attention to the camera, whereas the latter is understood as a more posing type of performance, during which the presence of the camera is acknowledged. Waugh then uses this distinction to look diachronically at documentary history and, through some clear examples, he identifies a number of hybrid forms such as when professional and non-professional performers construct intertextual essays on socio-political situations, as done in Far From Poland (1984, directed by Jill Godmilow).

But Waugh does not stop there. He never loses track of himself as both a film scholar and a critic and thus uses his scholarly definitions as guidelines when offering an extensive and convincing critique of two films dealing with the same topic, namely Bonnie Klein’s feature Not a Love Story: A Film about Pornography (1981) and Kay Armatage’s short Strip Tease (1980) which also deals with aspects of the sex industry. Waugh tracks the two films’ usage of performance and finds Klein’s film especially problematic as he argues: “Caught up in the emotional charge of the subject, the audience may not notice that the distribution of representational and presentational roles in the film follows a certain hierarchy. The former sex worker Tracy is caught in a representational role, while the recruited intellectuals perform their role of analysis and polemics within the presentational interview formats. It is not difficult to conclude that the democratic ideals of feminism have been sacrified in the process – are sex workers themselves less entitled than intellectuals to verbalize directly about the sex industry?” Here Waugh discovers how the methods are used, not only how they intertwine, but also the kind of perspectives and consequences they bring about.

Another dimension of Waugh’s work that is very dominant in the collection is his thoughts on activist media. His work on political documentary formats and especially oppositional film practice and committed documentary is extensive. Waugh points to committed documentary filmmaking as a means not just to make films about somebody but also to make films with and for somebody. He is a firm believer in an ideological undertaking where the filmmaker declares solidarity with the themes and people in the film. To me this is without doubt an admirable viewpoint, even though I see clear risks in becoming too closely connected with somebody: a romanticising or sentimental element seldom does a film much good


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