¡Documentary Now!

A guest post from Adina Bradeanu, originally published on DocWest.

Set up to explore the ‘contexts and possibilities’ of past and recent docu-output, and organized by documentary scholars Alisa Lebow and Michael Chanan, the ¡Documentary Now! conference has joined forces this year with Open City London Documentary Festival, and moved to a new location within the UCL.

I only attended a few presentations during each of the two days, which means that most of the exciting papers and panels presented (abstracts here) will not be mentioned in this review, which will only discus the panel on ‘Documentary, Montage, and the Sea of Data’.

When Florence Nightingale developed her coxcomb charts to visualize the causes of mortality in the Crimean War, nobody could have imagined the amazing increase in data and information that would become available in the future due to technological developments and leading – among others – to new forms of reality-based cinema fit for the age of Information is Beautiful.

Earlier this year, at the i-docs conference in Bristol, Jigar Mehta started his presentation with a photo of – what he called – ‘the documentary universe’: at the centre of it were established film-makers such as Frederick Wiseman and series such as Storyville, while at the edge, somehow at the intersection of documentary storytelling with technology, barely holding on to what used to be formerly called ‘documentary cinema’, was the relatively young interactive documentary (and Mehta himself). At the same conference, Max Whitby confessed that he set up Touchpress to see whether the iPad could be a platform for something ‘conceived in the tradition of the Horizon documentary’. I was reminded of that during the ‘sea of data’ panel at ¡Documentary Now!, while counting the number of times that the speakers mentioned the powerful tradition of linear documentary, allegedly still acting as a reference term for many i-doc practitioners today (at least for the ones with a background in documentary cinema; statistics suggest that today we are seeing more professionals moving to i-docs from multimedia rather than from linear documentary per se, but, who knows,  that ratio may change in the future). Classics such as Video DiariesSeven Up and Chronique d’un Ete were repeatedly mentioned during the panel, which attempted to map some of the changes that affected documentary in the digital age, taking as a motto a quote from O’Reilly: “There is an industrial revolution of data coming. The power of data will change us as surely as the power of steam did a century ago”.

To chart what changes or gets remediated, one needs to keep an eye on the past and the canon. John Dovey and Mandy Rose, both of the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of the West of England, started with an open question regarding the  new forms of aesthetics and social practice available for the new type of ‘data documentary’, and continued by looking at a range of projects which, although having at their core the same preoccupation for happiness –  a governmental as well as individual fixation of the recent years – put forth different strategies of engagement with the  excess of ‘documentary fragments’ floating in the online world today.

We Feel Fine, an original ‘almanac of emotion’ built from snatches of human self-expression available online, was the first work mentioned as a form of ‘living documentary’ whose concept involves the collection of digital footprints left by online interactions and by the general flow of social media – a form of ‘raw’ online material and, according to the two speakers, a  new type of ‘footage for the digital age’.

 Mappinness, an app launched by the London School of Economics  and meant to assess how people’s levels of happiness are affected by their local environment, was briefly discussed by Dovey before Rose moved on to Are you happy, her own work-in-progress. Are you happy revisits Rouch & Morin’s Chronique d’un Été thematically while re-writing it for the present in terms of the aesthetics and technology mobilized – among others, by incorporating Twitter and Flickr as part of a more complex attempt to experiment with new forms of spatial montage.

Agnieszka Zwiefka, a Polish researcher and film-maker, attempted a taxonomy of interactive documentary and discussed the ‘negotiation of reality’ in i-docs with reference to works such as Journey at the End of Coal and The Cat and the Coup. To me, the most appealing part of her presentation was her (too brief) discussion of her own upcoming cross-platform production Albert Cinema, currently fundraising on indiegogo and documenting a group of homeless  people during their process of discovering film-making and using it to mend their lives.

Schmulik Duvdevani looked at patterns of communication between the field of linear observational documentary and new documentary forms such as the crowd-sourced and, to a lesser extent, the interactive documentary. He discussed Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day as a document of 21st Century documentary aesthetics articulated onto the diaristic tradition, and examined it in relation to Alexander Gutman’s August 17, another ‘day in the life’ type of documentary, also built around a arbitrarily chosen day which becomes a metaphor foran entire life (of the individual and, respectively, of humankind).

The three presentations were followed by an animated discussion which, after a quick round of the ‘usual suspects’ (i.e. authorship vs. participation, the author’s loss of power etc), reached into a more urgent and less frequently addressed area of inquiry: that of the capacity of each of these new forms of documentary to foreground an argument. While participants appeared inclined to believe that interactive documentaries were particularly unprepared to do that – due to the very possibility to constantly re-organize the material and therefore to shatter any argument intended by the ‘author’ – a few  intervened in favour of the argumentative power carried by i-docs: Rose and Dovey argued that the political and the argumentative potential are always there, and that it depends on the ways in which the ‘author’ or ‘experience-designer’ curates her space to actualize it (NFB’s BEAR 71 was recommended as an example for that activated potential); Sandra Gaudenzi highlighted the  type of engagement built in the design of each i-doc and pointed to Miami Havana as an example of interactive work which integrates the comments of the participants into the structure of the ‘text’, adding layers which can in time constitute the line of an argument. Produced by Upian for Arte, somehow in the line of Gaza Sderot, Miami Havana takes the initial structure further by integrating comments in a more fluid fashion, which encourages people to participate and relate to the comments contributed by others without taking distance from the main narrative.

Different positions were also expressed relative to the current excess of technology which, according to some voices, tends to take people ‘away from the ground’; however, a recent  example that participation depends on the integrity of each transmedia project and that ‘online’ can also mean fully rooted in the social fabric might be the Next-Gen project attached to Highrise, which involved a coding workshop for girls from the Kipling Highrise building in Toronto. It is possible today to imagine projects which enable participants to ‘drive’ them and to benefit from them rather than take on somebody else’s editorial agenda; to better understand the inner mechanisms of such projects, Mandy Rose  pleaded for more time being devoted, from the academia, to ethnographic work and audience participation research, as opposed to conventional ‘user-testing’.

Brian Winston, the chair of the panel, remained doubtful whether we are truly witnessing a paradigm shift or, rather, ‘just a number of accumulating anomalies’, while others appeared truly excited by the recent mutations visible on the documentary body ‘as we knew it’, and inspired by the wide range of questions which emerged towards the final minutes of the panel: how are emotional experiences created on the web? how do we put an end to this type of ‘accumulative’ (crowd-sourced) projects (or, rather, do they ever end)? which would be the best analytical and theoretical strategies to address the journey of the subject on the way from linear documentary to web product?  what happens with the subject who opens up to a single person or small crew, just to end up on the web, having her life challenged or commented upon by a worldwide audience of internet users? if i-docs present no definitive version and each participant creates her own version of the documentary product, then how is the old practice of showing the final version to the people involved in it, rewritten for the multiplatform documentaries of the future?

A final point to take in was made by Dovey with regards to the current technological moment which, in his view, ‘calls for both enthusiasm and caution’: on the one hand, by requiring ‘new Kuleshovs and Eisensteins’ able to come  up with a new aesthetics for the future and, on the other hand, by pointing to the urgent need for new levels of visual literacy required to understand that, rather than being neutral, data is selective and political. Having plunged in the ‘sea of data’, documentary remains a complex encounter that is fundamentally relational,  contingent, and emergent.

To find out more about ¡Documentary Now! click here.

Adina Bradeanu – Web and Project Consultant, DocWest
Adina Bradeanu is completing a Ph.D. in Documentary Film Studies while teaching for the BA in Contemporary Media Practice and researching an interactive documentary project. A member of FIPRESCI, she contributed to publications such as Sight & Sound, Third Text, Kinokultura, DOX (EDN), and served in international documentary film juries for a number of festivals such as DOK Leipzig, MIFF Mumbai and Thessaloniki Doc. Adina has curated or contributed to a number of film-related events, mainly on Eastern and Central European documentary cinema.