New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses


Guest post from Kate Nash, one of our keynote speakers at i-Docs 2014.

How can we begin to conceptualise the way in which documentary is being re-thought in light of contemporary media cultures and technologies? This is the central question that the contributors to New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses explore. Taking ‘the ecological’ as a heuristic that foregrounds contexts and interdependences and the relative instability of traditional categories such as text, audience, and documentary maker.

The collection is organized into three broad sections. The first, Expanding Documentary focuses attention on theoretical questions. The first two chapters respond to the complexity of the political-economic environment of digital production. Jon Dovey identifies two competing dynamics – collaboration and exploitation – that drive production and distribution. His analysis highlights the central ethical dimension of collaborative production. Alex Juhasz questions the very possibility of digital activist documentary on commercial platforms like Facebook. Ultimately, she suggests that committed documentary makers must cede the digital in favour of embodied connections in physical space.

Coming from distinct theoretical perspectives Adrian Miles and I both consider interactivity as an emerging feature of documentary.  Drawing on Deleuze’s concept of the affect image, Miles argues that interactivity expands the interval between perception and action, creating a decision space that opens spaces of understanding. In my own analysis the relationship between user actions and documentary voice is suggested as a key dimension in any analysis of the politics of interactivity.

Staying with affect, Catherine Summerhayes uses Brecht’s concept of gest to explore the Web as a documentary ecos, drawing attention to the performative dimension of the creation and circulation of documentary images. In the new documentary ecology technology and celebrity facilitate the spread of images, raising ethical questions about the representation of trauma.

In the second part of the collection attention shifts to consider the ways in which production practices are altered by new technologies and digital cultures. Elizabeth Coffman explores links between filmmakers, producers, audiences and institutions drawing on two case studies, Kartemquin Films’ The Interrupters (2011) and Mary Kay Cosmetics’ user-produced, trilogy of domestic violence, Inspiring Dreams (2011).  Taking a different perspective on participation and collaboration Sandra Gaudenzi focuses on the importance of technology, community and collaborative production cycles. Focusing on who is participating at what point in the production process, she identifies several key logics of participation.

Matt Soar is both an academic and documentary maker. In his contribution to the collection he reflects on his experience of developing and using Korsakow a software tool designed for the creation of database ‘film’. Matt draws on articulation theory to offer an argument about contemporary processes of storytelling and narrative construction (chiefly, design and ‘algorithmic’ editing) in this formative moment of the ‘web doc’. From the emergence of digital animation and film editing tools in the 1990s to the impact of the Internet as an alternative distribution platform, Annabel Honess Roe explores the complex contexts in which animated documentary is produced, distributed and consumed. While new distribution options are increasingly available for animated documentary makers, they are also challenging established business models and practitioner identities.

Throughout this section of the book interviews with practitioners provide additional insight into the changing contexts of documentary production and consumption. Director of Digital Initiatives Tribeca Film Institute Ingrid Kopp describes the media industries as existing in a permanent state of research and development while acknowledging the economic and creative challenges of interactive production. Jigar Mehta, Producer of 18 Days in Egypt and now Director of Operations at Matter, talks about the challenges of creating a collaborative community around a documentary project. Finally Florian Thalhofer, creator of Korsakow provides tremendous insight into the complexities of software development.

Finally we consider the changing documentary audience and the complex ethics of documentary production and reception. Bjørn Sørenssen considers conspiracy documentaries that seem to have found a receptive new home online. As mainstream and fringe content blurs the conventions of documentary are deployed to lend credibility to conspiracy theories. Craig Hight considers video production cultures through the lens of software with a study of the Flip camera and its associated editing software. He describes the emergence of a ‘shoot, edit, share’ culture that challenges conventional practices surrounding editing.

Patricia Aufderheide closes the collection by exploring the challenges of producing documentary content in the digital environment. While we have traditionally focused on the need for documentary makers to build trust with audiences, sponsors and subjects while maintaining artistic integrity, the digital era complicates this model. However complex this emerging communications space might seem, Aufderheide suggests that there are new ways for documentary makers to build trust with their audiences.

If you want to hear more from Kate, come to i-Docs next week where she’ll be discussing this and more in her keynote: Interrogating audiences: What do we mean by engagement and evaluation?