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Soul of the Documentary

Soul of the Documentary: Framing, Expression, Ethics

Ilona Hongisto
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 202
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  • Book Info
    Soul of the Documentary
    Book Description:

    Soul of the Documentaryoffers a groundbreaking new approach to documentary cinema.Ilona Hongisto stirs current thinking by suggesting that the work of documentary films is not reducible to representing what already exists. By closely reading a diverse body of films-fromThe Last BolsheviktoGrey Gardens-Hongisto shows how documentary cinema intervenes in the real by framing it and creatively contributes to its perpetual unfolding. The emphasis on framing brings new urgency to the documentary tradition and its objectives, and provokes significant novel possibilities for thinking about the documentary's ethical and political potentials in the contemporary world.

    eISBN: 978-90-485-2529-4
    Subjects: Art & Art History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. 5-6)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. 7-10)
  4. Prologue Capturing a world of becoming (pp. 11-24)

    What distinguishes the documentary from other cinematic modalities is its involvement with a world that continues beyond the film’s frame. Documentaries depict individual lives, political events, and social hierarchies that keep acting and transforming in myriad connections even after films come to an end. In documentary cinema, “the end” is merely a threshold to the ever-varying processes in which we and the world around us take shape.

    Yet, despite the moving compositions of the real, prevailing understandings of documentary cinema tend to posit the world depicted in documentary films as relatively stable and thus rationally verifiable. Although we readily claim...

  5. Imagination:: Relational documents
    • [Introduction] (pp. 25-30)

      The use of archival footage in documentary films brings forth questions of referentiality, temporality, and materiality. Most obviously, archival documents such as personal photographs or institutionally commissioned films offer documentaries a referential connection to a past moment. This evidentiary quality of documents is then foregrounded, appropriated, or re-appropriated in the representation of a past event in a documentary work. Perhaps most interestingly, documents in documentary films do not necessarily offer a cohesive view of the past, but institute cuts, intervals, and changing perspectives to the documentary composition. This raises a number of questions that steer the present discussion toward an...

    • 1. Frames of the photograph (pp. 31-48)

      A male voice reads a letter on the soundtrack: “May 10, 1938. Dear sister, here come some questions you should answer in Swedish and German. 1: name, 2: profession, 3: nationality […]” Simultaneously, a man approaches the camera in the aisle of a train. He is framed in a frontal silhouette, the shadowy black of his figure merging with enveloping beams of light. As he walks directly toward the camera, the silhouette grows darker. The man stops and turns to look into a compartment, and again the camera frames him from the front, this time in closer proximity. The man,...

    • 2. A documentary fable (pp. 49-64)

      Chris Marker’sThe Last Bolshevik (Le tombeau d’Alexandre, France 1993) is a documentary film about the late Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin and his century.¹ Marker’s film discusses an era through the portrait of one man, and it fashions Medvedkin’s portrait with photographs, film stills, and film fragments that belong to the Soviet century. Archival documents from Medvedkin’s epoch intertwine with six letters that Marker directs at Medvedkin on the soundtrack.

      The Last Bolshevikaligns in style with Jean-Luc Godard’s exploration of the twentieth century inHistoire(s) du cinéma(France 1988–1998). Both explore the history of cinema through its images,...

  6. Fabulation:: Documentary visions
    • [Introduction] (pp. 65-70)

      Fabulation is an act that involves invention. It involves composing and telling stories, such as fables. As a compositional modality, fabulation has been linked to such genres as magical realism and fantasy, but as an act of telling, fabulation belongs equally to the world of the documentary.² It occupies the space in between people who tell stories and the documentary camera that observes these fabulous acts. The relationship between the two creates documentary visions that undo the antagonistic dichotomy between the true and the false.

      In a rare tip of the hat to documentary cinema, Gilles Deleuze defines fabulation as...

    • 3. Making up legends (pp. 71-82)

      Grey Gardensis now a classic. Opening to mixed reviews in 1975, the documentary has since been adapted to Broadway and dramatized into a television feature; it has inspired pop songs and received a sequel. The lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie have spread through a variety of media to an array of audiences.¹ However, whenGrey Gardensfirst came out, it was met with accusations of unethical filmmaking and inauthenticity. The directors David and Albert Maysles were blamed for framing the Beales in a manner that took advantage of the women and presented them in an...

    • 4. Acts of resistance (pp. 83-98)

      During her travels in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, the Finnish documentary filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo came across a monastery located in the village of Vasknarva on the Narva River in Northeastern Estonia. After some time, Honkasalo returned to the village with the idea of making a film about Father Vassily, the Orthodox priest at the monastery. Upon her return, she encountered Tanyusha, a 12-year-old girl who had not left the premises of the church for six months.

      The filmmaker describes the initial encounter in the introductory sequence of the ensuing film,Tanyusha and the 7 Devils (Tanjuska ja 7...

  7. Affection:: Documenting the potential
    • [Introduction] (pp. 99-106)

      Politics has concerned documentary filmmakers and theorists ever since Grierson’s days and it continues to be one of the attributes with which the documentary genre is set apart from others. On the one hand, there is a strong general consensus that the documentary is politically committed and that it is even capable of changing the world; on the other hand, there is no fundamental agreement on how political dedication is transferred to audiences and how documentary film participates in larger socio-political transformations.

      Common faith in the documentary’s capabilities to inspire political action and to produce social change has, in recent...

    • 5. Moments of affection (pp. 107-118)

      One of the most ubiquitous documentary forms one encounters in art galleries and museums today is the talking head. This seemingly blunt audiovisual composition is striking for at least two reasons. Firstly, one is often perplexed by the presumed objectivity in the uses of the form: the visual frame is frequently used as a simple mediator of the experiences verbalized by the person in front of the camera. The relationship between testimonial speech and the talking head frame has become a pervasive “moment of truth” recognizable across media, ranging from confessional videos posted online and television talk shows to video...

    • 6. The primacy of feeling (pp. 119-134)

      After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe was in a state of tumult. States that had previously been directly or indirectly under Soviet rule were suddenly independent and the rest of Europe had to review its relationship with both the newly organized East and its own ideological convictions. The situation created a commotion in bodies and thought as people could move more freely and as the physical and mental borders with which the continent had been divided needed redrawing.

      Chantal Akerman approaches this agitation in her documentary filmFrom the East (D’Est, Belgium 1993).¹...

  8. Epilogue: Ethics of sustainability (pp. 135-138)

    Documentary cinema operates in the real by framing it and, therefore, also engages with what remains beyond the frame. This endows documentary films with a particular agency in the real and issues them with a related ethical prerogative. Framing comes with the double bond of capturing and expressing, which locates documentary agency in capturing the world in its becoming and expressing it as a sensation of the real’s continuous unfolding. When a documentary intervenes in the real as process, it highlights that the lives and events depicted in its frames continue beyond the film. The ethical stakes in working with...

  9. Notes (pp. 139-166)
  10. Works cited (pp. 167-174)
  11. Index (pp. 175-178)