Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning; American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation; and The Right to Play Oneself: Looking Back at Documentary Film (Web Exclusive)
By Susan Ryan
Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning
by Louise Spence and Vinicius Navarro. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 281 pp., illus. Hardcover: $72.00 and Paperback: $26.95.
American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation
by Jeffrey Geiger. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (Distributed in the United States by Columbia University Press), 2011. 275 pp., illus. Hardcover: $90.00 and Paperback: $30.00.
The Right to Play Oneself: Looking Back at Documentary Film
by Thomas Waugh. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. 312 pp., illus. Hardcover: $82.50 and Paperback: $27.50.
Three recent books about documentary film explore the diverse and complex ways nonfictional modes of representation create meaning as well as the historical contexts in which they were produced. While not all of the books are completely successful, all have something to offer in the way of in-depth analysis and theoretical speculations on the ways that the documentary engages with reality and questions of authenticity and “truth.” Some of these debates go back to the earliest days of documentary with Robert Flaherty’s reconstructions of Eskimo life in Nanook of the North, while others concerning the perception of truth in the postmodern era are of a more recent vintage.
Beginning with the book aimed at the most general audience, Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning introduces readers to some of the basic questions guiding contemporary discussions of the documentary. Authors Louise Spence and Vinicius Navarro structure their book around thoughtful considerations of general concepts like authenticity, evidence, and responsibility; structural organization of rhetoric and argument; and formal techniques like editing, camerawork, and sound in order to ask: how do documentaries proclaim themselves authentic? How can you responsibly represent someone whose culture is far removed from your own? What formal devices help secure the authority and credibility of nonfiction films?
The authors draw upon the work of many documentary theorists who have come before them such as Bill Nichols, Carl Plantinga, and Michael Renov in investigating ways that aesthetic choices and innovations have often served political purposes in introducing audiences to new ways of looking at the world. As the authors note, both Joyce at 34 (Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill, 1972) and Sari Red (Pratibha Parmar, 1988) critique mainstream representations of women, yet are radically different in their approaches, with one using an observational style to create an intimate portrait of the filmmaker’s family life and the difficulties of childrearing and a career, while the other “questions the possibility of ever being able to re-present ‘reality’ and ‘experience’ unambiguously.”
Novices to the study of documentary will benefit by their lucid prose and clear organization; I assume that the book is aimed primarily at undergraduate students of documentary production and analysis. More sophisticated readers may find much of the material familiar, although some of their examples seem fresh and illuminating, such as their discussion of the violation of the contract between filmmaker and audience in terms of accuracy and evidence in Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury’s pseudoautobiographical Halving the Bones.
The latter portion of the book, dealing specifically with the formal techniques of editing, camerawork and sound employed by documentarians, is the one geared more specifically to future filmmakers. It was during this juncture that I found myself wondering why the authors had not consulted more interviews with filmmakers, or even well-written production textbooks, like Sheila Bernard’s Documentary Storytelling, as a part of their research and analysis. For example, in their discussion of editing and whether or not to include the voice of the filmmaker, the authors state that the choice depends on ethical considerations (how much the audience should be aware of the filmmaking process) or by continuity (the need to generate the appearance of uninterrupted testimony). Sometimes these decisions are based on something more mundane and practical—in some cases, the interviewee’s response will make sense only if some of the filmmaker’s questions are included. Documentary interviewing can be an imperfect art at best: without a script filmmakers are often forced to work with what they have and use it in a way that will reveal something about the subject rather than confuse an audience. The book ends rather abruptly after the final chapter on sound techniques, and while each chapter includes useful references to further readings and additional films, the lack of an overall conclusion left this reader puzzled.
Jeffrey Geiger’s American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation takes a narrower focus in order to provide a much deeper contextual analysis of historical and cultural issues related to the development and influence of the documentary film in the United States. His analysis examines the way that documentaries have engaged with U.S. national identity and perceptions of American belonging. Recognizing that the very idea of an “American” identity is a contested one, Geiger is indebted to other cultural studies theorists in looking at ways that documentaries negotiate national identities through cinematic discourse and institutional structures. For Geiger, American documentaries do not just reflect or engage with national consciousness, they also help to imagine ideas and futures, and potentially “transform the experience and comprehension of a national imaginary.”
Like several of the other authors under discussion, Geiger stresses the importance of analyzing how documentaries construct their realities as well as the social contexts that produced them. Although the book is arranged chronologically, each chapter deals with specific themes and political and historical movements as well as close readings of individual films. A chapter devoted to the travel film links this genre not only to the development of documentary aesthetics but also to the “shoring up of emerging American, Western, and imperial identities.” Geiger is certainly not the first to observe the relationship between the travel film and American hegemony, but his discussion of Hale’s Tours and other early travelogues provide ample evidence to support his argument of the “us vs. them” dynamic created by these documentary projections.
Overall, American Documentary is well-reasoned and well-written. Familiar subjects like the relationship between documentary form and New Deal politics with groups like Nykino and the Film and Photo League resonate within his argument for documentary as the coalescence of personal and organizational links between practitioners and theorists, radical politics and aesthetic experience. Not surprisingly, Geiger analyzes Pare Lorentz’s 1936 examination of the Dust Bowl, The Plow That Broke the Plains, extensively both in terms of its production history and its formal uses of sound and image to create a “melodrama of nature” as well as the way it persuasively stimulates public sympathies for New Deal programs. While authors like Paula Rabinowitz and Russell Campbell have written effectively about this era before, Geiger adds to their analyses by drawing comparisons with more contemporary documentary projects as the site of collective social engagement.
Thomas Waugh’s collection of essays, The Right To Play Oneself: Looking Back at Documentary Film, is perhaps the most enjoyable of the three books under discussion due to its engaging and provocative analysis of both well-known and obscure films. The ten essays collected in the volume were written over three decades, with most previously published in some form. The essays show Waugh’s deep commitment to documentary as both a mode of expression and means for political activism. Ever since his first book,Show Us Life: A History and Theory of the Committed Documentary, first published in 1984, Waugh has remained an astute observer of and advocate for politically engaged documentaries. As he writes in the revised version of the introduction to that collection reprinted here, “If films are to be instrumental in the process of change, they must be made not only about people directly implicated in change but with and for those people as well.” The limits and contradictions of the political documentary are as interesting to Waugh as their successes. As he puts it, “it is only by exploring how committed artists of the past have come to grips with—or failed to come to grips with—their historical contexts that we can learn how to act within our own.”
Waugh’s interest in documentary form is evident as well in the extensive range of documentaries and filmmakers he writes about—from Dziga Vertov, Joris Ivens, and Emile de Antonio, to gay and lesbian documentaries of the post-Stonewall era and Indian independent documentaries. Waugh was an early champion of the films of Emile de Antonio and the comprehensive essay included here contains close, insightful analyses of not only his better-known archival compilations like Point of Order and In the Year of the Pig, but also his later works like In The King of Prussia and Mr. Hoover and I, which many consider unsuccessful or even indulgent. He perceptively analyzes the performative as well as the political aspects of both films and makes a good argument that they were “fully in step with the aesthetic and political issues of the moment” despite being panned by contemporary critics.
Waugh’s lively and often humorous writing style, particularly in the introductions to each of the essays, position them in terms of the development of the field of documentary studies as well as his own evolution as a film scholar. The hilarious preface to his previously unpublished essay on Vertov, which details his principled disagreements over documentary ethics with Annette Michelson during a fabled seminar at Anthology Film Archives, proves particularly amusing. He could have, however, also used this introduction to temper his original enthusiasm of the propagandistic Three Songs of Lenin. His passionate belief in the power of documentary, as well as his urgent call for greater recognition of the documentaries of Joris Ivens and other committed filmmakers by a new generation of filmmakers, makes this anthology far more than another arid academic exercise.
Susan Ryan teaches documentary production and film studies at The college of New Jersey and is a regular contributor to Cineaste.
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