Experiments in Documentary: Contradiction, Uncertainty, Change

Lucas Hilderbrand

At the center of the campus where I now teach is a verdant park with grassy hills, monumental trees, and eclectic fauna. Given its location in an arid part of Southern California, most of these plants are not indigenous and necessitate extensive irrigation. Although the plants are all living, they are not exactly natural, prompting a friend concerned with environmental sustainability to refer to this lush patch of land as “a beautiful lie.” Indeed, it is. And yet, it’s not. This park, from its inception, reveals another controversy. According to local folklore, the park, the logical place on campus for student congregations, was designed in the 1960s to facilitate the quick containment of any uprisings. Today, however, this park is the only area that could be called lovely, and it offers a retreat from the blight of the consistently beige architecture and concrete walks. The park is alive with contradictions.

Inherently, so is documentary. From the start, documentarians have wrestled with a central tension between reality and construction. John Grierson recognized this when he called the emergent mode of documentary the “creative treatment of actuality” in 1929.1 Eight decades later, Jonathan Kahana revisited this assertion, remarking that this phrase “functions as a moment of origin for documentary precisely because it is ambivalent, or simply uncertain, about what the term ‘documentary’ stands for.”2 Typically, the concerns with the contradictions of documentary have spurred debates about truth, ideology, and power—important issues, no doubt, but not exhaustive. The “creative” part of the documentary equation at times gets lost, even though many key works of the documentary canon—and those most often claimed as part of its innovative edge—have not only made claims for truth but have also striven for beauty.

If documentary was first conceived as the “creative treatment of actuality,” influential filmmakers of the American avant-garde, such as Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage, offered creative treatments of experience. These works opened up alternatives to mainstream film that shifted focus from the state of the world to states of being. Because so much of this work is formally innovative and the subjective perspectives so interior, at times we forget to ponder how such films speak to the world at large.

At the intersection of documentary and experimental practices, the duality of actuality and creativity energizes artists to make work that is radically beautiful and fantastically true. Authenticity and analogy, indexicality and abstraction become symbiotic rather than oppositional principles. For the past decade or so, artists have created an explosion of moving image works that hybridize documentary and experimental, video art and essay modes; although rarely conceptualized as a coherent or prevalent mode, experimental documentary work screens widely in galleries, film festivals, classrooms, and at Flaherty seminars.3 These artists challenge the way we see (and hear) documentary—and at the same time bring documentary back to its essence. Such artists explore issues that are central to documentary: how historical consciousness is mediated through documents, how individual subjectivity is interlaced with cultural heritage and political traumas, how we understand institutions and power, how to change the world. They have also changed the ways we see the world and its history, opening up new ways of examining how we understand both as they engage with images and institutions, ambiguity and revelation. This work is often self-reflexive, episodic, academic, and even impulsive. While visually and aurally innovative, these films, videos, and installations are also socially engaged, offering complicated cultural critiques that cannot be reduced to simple, specific agendas. Experimental documentary makers’ investigation of their own subjectivities, the variability of truth, and the pursuit of efficacy reveal a complex search for an ethical way of being in the world, one that is explored and achieved through explorations in sound and image.

You could say that any documentary that is interesting is an exploration. And any experiment has the potential to reveal some truth. Some key experimental documentary works have been so extensively written about or taught that they suggest an already-established canon that precedes the recent wave of work:4 Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955), Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Reassemblage (1983), Marlon Rigg’s Tongues Untied (1990), Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory (1991), and Sadie Benning’s video diaries (1989-93). Certainly, there are many ways to experiment with documentary: for instance, with playful reflexivity, which becomes a hall of mirrors (as in William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Take One, 1968) or with truth-based simulations, which stand in for events that cannot be documented firsthand (as in Jill Godmilow’s Far from Poland, 1984). There is also, often, a shift in register from the subjective to the subjunctive, suggesting the utopian what-might-be (as in the “film truth” or kino pravda that superseded human reality in Vertov’s Man) or the retrospective what-might-have-been (as in the most mainstream of experimental documentaries, Errol Morris’ investigative The Thin Blue Line, 1988). And, sometimes, the world is just so weird that it can only be represented creatively (as in Jean Painleve’s poetic aquatic science films L’hippocampe, 1934, and Acera, or the Witches’ Dance, 1972). Works such as these—and many more could be listed—have become central to documentary history’s shifts and transformations; they have also inspired generations of media practitioners.

As a term, “experimental documentary” is both ugly and vague. Many of the artists in this issue agree on this point, as do I. The “essay film” might be a more elegant term; for me, this concept suggests a process of working through, of making transparent the maker’s processes of thought and discovery. In a useful exegesis of the essay film, Nora Alter writes, “The essay, [Georg Lukács] suggests, is ‘criticism as a form of art.’... the essay is fragmentary, wandering, and does not seek to find absolute truths - as would, for instance, the documentary genre - but rather ‘finds its unity in and through breaks and not by glossing them over.’”5 This formulation, what might be called “critical subjectiveness,” pervades the experimental documentary, a mode of non-fiction that is concerned with the personal or poetic interpretation of history and experience.

Offering a complementary analysis, Jörg Huber allows us to think through this critical subjectiveness as one that is highly self-conscious of the ways we can only understand events through individual perception and a personal relationship to the greater public:

The essayistic exposes the process of subjective perception and associative thinking; it is involved in translation and transition; it focuses on the ambulatory character of imagination, far removed from any programmatic statements. … Essayist video works are interesting exactly because of the way in which they take their point of departure … from a perception which marks the specific ways and opportunities of everyday experience, of being-in-the-world, of opening the world.6

But this “being-in-the-world” is a process for the viewer as well as the artist, which complicates—and perhaps even makes possible—connections between the artist, the text, and the spectator. In the midst of the most thorough article attempting to survey and define the term “essay film,” Laura Rascaoli suggests a process of personal address and communication between the work and the viewer:

each spectator, as an individual and not as a member of an anonymous, collective audience, is called upon to engage in a dialogic relationship with the enunciator, to become active, intellectually and emotionally, and interact with the text. … Humanism is, indeed, implicit in the essay structure—the assumption of a certain unity of the human experience, which allows two subjects to meet and communicate on the basis of this shared experience.7

This humanism is perhaps what most appeals to me about these works, and it would also seem to be at the root of any socially committed documentary endeavor. The experimental spin on traditional documentary comes when this humanism has been articulated through a kind of critical subjectiveness. Although I feel an affinity for the essay film form, I remain reluctant to apply the term full-stop for this special issue because it may not always apply: first, with “film” potentially excluding video and installation work, and second, with “essay” implying a specific emphasis on language, whether as text on screen or voice-over narration. As editors, Lynne Sachs and I choose not to limit our concerns to the essay film, nor to create a more eloquent moniker for “experimental documentary” because our investment in this special issue has not been to define categories and pin down definitions but to suggest and revel in the field’s possibilities.

While clinging to the porosity of the concept of experimental documentary, I should, perhaps, offer some claims as to its more coherent shared attributes. The element of experimentation suggests, at the very least, a concern with form and mediation; the documentary suggests an engagement with the realities of history, politics, and culture. While film has a form and comes out of a cultural context, there is something medium-specific and innovative in experimental documentary that relies upon visuality (cinematography that does not strive toward commercial production values, layered images, non-plot driven digital effects) and temporality (fragmented narrative structures, contrapuntal sounds, pensive silences). Such aesthetic elements are the means through which historical revision, contemporary politics, and alternative futures are explored. These artists’ works might be described as reflexive interventions: critiques of power and social relations that are aware of their subjective positions and the politics of representation. In effect, these artists create alternative portraits of history and negotiate the complex reconciliation of their own experiences and ideologies with capital-H History.

My own investment in “experimental documentary” comes from the exhilaration I’ve felt in seeing work that was new, mobilizing, profound, challenging—that is, from the work itself rather than from my schooling in historiography or critical theory. The works that have been formative in shaping my own attention to this field of creative non-fiction have tended to be wildly imaginary—so much so that the term “documentary” hardly suffices, if it applies at all—yet so deeply humanist that they nonetheless suggest some kind of profundity that cannot be dismissed as mere fantasy. A few examples: Paul Chan’s single-channel video RE:The_Operation (2003), an attempt at “radical empathy” that imagines the Bush cabinet on the front lines in Afghanistan, writing to loved ones, and expressing a philosophical depth they almost certainly lack. Chan’s work was such an unexpected method of dissent: a disorientingly humanized vision of the war.8 I first saw this video with a group of festival programmers, and there was a charge in the room that we had shared something that made us see the war in a new way without letting anyone off the hook. Steven Matheson’s Apple Grown in Wind Tunnel (2000) presents an entirely fictional account that seems true in spite of its unlikely premise: an underground network of people exchange toxic homeopathic recipes via pirate radio frequencies and truck-stop bulletin boards. The video points to the breakdown of the U.S. healthcare system and the rise of environmental diseases, a world that is simultaneously liberating (people curing themselves) and terrifying (people poisoning themselves). Jacqueline Goss’s How to Fix the World (2004) animates the accounts of cognitive sociology to demonstrate how logic, mediated by language, is culturally specific; enlightening and comic, the video is wholly both non-fiction and simulated. I could go on, talking about other favorites, such as Jorge Furtado’s Isle of Flowers (1990), Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), Jem Cohen’s Lost Book Found (1996), Allyson Mitchell’s My Life in Five Minutes (2000), Pierre Huyghe’s The Third Memory (2000), Steve Reinke’s Sad Disco Fantasia (2001), and Ben Russell’s Black and White Trypps Number Three (2007)—not to mention work by the artists in this issue.

At the limits of documentary—and arguably, experimental documentary—are fantastic works that imagine or re-animate the real: works such as Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One (2002), Omer Fast’s The Casting (2007), and Walid Ra’ad’s and The Atlas Group’s various videos and installations of forged documents. Such radical documentary forgery has, of course, been explored before with such seminal works as The Inextinguishable Fire (Harun Farocki, 1969) and Daughter Rite (Michelle Citron, 1979). One of the most productive sites for video and installation work has been the imagination of alternative realities or constructions that stand in for lost evidence. This form of work parallels Caroline A. Jones’ suggestion that “Cultural history is alter-topia; its scholarly care in charting the past is part of a struggle to ‘envision’ other possible modes of being.”9 Perhaps this altertopia is where Vertovian politics and Brakhagian phenomenological formalism intersect; it is also the place where we might “envision other possible modes” of documentary.

One might suggest that central to any conception of experimental documentary is that it breaks from a certain realist, objective, authentic tradition of non-fiction filmmaking.10 Jeffrey Skoller recognizes a strain of avant-garde films that engages with questions of history and historiography:

They work to undermine such gaps between past and present by using a range of cinematic strategies to consider elements of the past that are unseen, unspeakable, ephemeral, and defy representations not necessarily verifiable through the normal empirical means. At the same time, these films often foreground the constructed nature of narrative forms and the materiality of the film medium, both being integral parts of the meaning-making process. … their formal and aesthetic aspects are foregrounded to become the generative element that releases history as a force acting on the present.11

So many of our recent political crises have been in large part caused by short-term thinking, failures to learn from history or to think ahead and plan for a future beyond the immediate gratification of opinion polls or momentary profits. The “end of history” has been hailed by theorists for some time, and perhaps there is something to that. I find it striking, then, that one of the primary resistant gestures (resisting both our global political problems and the calcification of “documentary”) of these experimental docs is a return to history: a break from the documentary tradition or the disastrous present by re-exploring the past. These works are often explicitly concerned with re-rereading documents, the tensions between memory and what was, and the recognition that historiography is interpretive. Experimental documentaries allow for—maybe even necessitate—critical subjectiveness, humanist connections, recognition of historical wrongs, and speculation toward more progressive ways of being and representing.

Mapping a field of artistic practice and editing a journal issue about it both necessitate making choices. Certainly, as editors, Lynne and I have made many choices in exploring the boundaries of the category “experimental documentary.” Perhaps the first of a series of choices was to conceive of the field as broadly as possible, to include artists primarily associated with the gallery scene, feature filmmakers who have achieved a degree of mainstream prominence, avant-garde filmmakers who prize the sanctity of celluloid, video artists who create idiosyncratic non-fiction explorations, and the numerous people in-between. Regardless of site, scale, or medium, all of these artists examine the truths and fictions at work in documents and the stakes of subjectively interpreting them. For us, another important and early choice was to let the artists express themselves, whether through personal statements or in dialogue with critics, about the categories they innovate, interrogate, or even reject. When we decided for this discussion about experimental documentary to take the form of a journal issue, the choice of venue was immediately obvious: Millennium Film Journal. Although it may make the journal administration blush for me to publish such a self-congratulatory statement in its own pages, MFJ seemed to us the right fit, as the journal has long been committed to both artists’ writings and critical essays that actually communicate with the artists, programmers, and audiences that constitute the experimental media milieu.

The contributors to this issue are largely those doing the envisioning of other modes of documentary—in other words, artists. In late 2007, Lynne and I sent a questionnaire to dozens of artists; we cast a wide net, seeking a range of responses—from artists who created some of the seminal works in this field, from mid-career artists whose work is occasionally designated as “experimental documentary” or “essayistic” in program notes for screenings, and from emerging artists whose recent works have specifically excited us. Not everyone wrote responses (without naming names, many of these artists have been referenced in this introduction), but when so many of them did reply to my out-of-the-blue queries, I was delighted and even a bit star-struck. Those who participated reflected upon their own work, agendas, and inspirations in relation to the category of experimental documentary.

For this issue, artists have also contributed a photo essay (New York-based artist Peggy Ahwesh), an artist’s statement (a reflection on interactive activist performances by Buffalo/NYC artist Caroline Koebel), and documentation (photos of a performance and an email exchange with herself by Southern California artist Chie Yamayoshi). In addition, two insightful, rigorous dialogues between artists and scholars (Brooklyn filmmaker Liza Johnson in dialogue with scholar Jonathan Kahana, Los Angeles-based collaborators Julia Meltzer and David Thorne in dialogue with scholar Tess Takahashi) productively open up questions of method, intention, and interpretation. This issue’s critical writings include a manifesto-style essay that takes its structure from the film that inspired it (Konrad Steiner on Craig Baldwin’s RocketKitKongoKit, 1986), a review of a certain tendency among films at the 2008 Tribecca Film Festival (by Grahame Weinbren), and a personal examination (by Greg Youmans) of the form, politics, and affect of Chantal Akerman’s Là-bas (2006) that frankly articulates how experimental documentary can stir up compelling, if difficult, resonances. Each of these critical writings, rather than being a distanced scholarly article about the work analyzed, actively mirrors or strives to make connections to the texts.12

Like the films, videos, and installations described in this special issue, this collection itself comes out of a specific historical period and political climate. It began in a place just as unnatural, and yet vibrant, as the aforementioned park: New York City. Filmmaker Lynne Sachs and I began discussing a publication on the seemingly under-explored intersections of documentary, experimental media, and progressive politics during the summer of 2004—a time of activism, art, and optimism. These talks were stimulated by both an excitement for recent films and videos that were not being written about and a sense of new forms of activist engagement. The scale and creativity of the mobilization against the then-local Republican National Convention, re-building and re-energizing from prior protests against the once-nascent war in Afghanistan and Iraq, were nothing short of extraordinary; it seemed unthinkable, for a moment, that John Kerry wouldn’t defeat George W. Bush. However, Bush and the war carried on, and my collaboration with Lynne continued in ebbs and flows—though mostly ebbs (since, among other reasons, our collaboration became bicoastal). Disenchantment set in, and then renewal. In the interim, the question of art and artists’ responses and responsibilities in the war on/of terror has become a recurring site of discussion.13 I have written these introductory comments in the midst of another election cycle, one where slogans of “change” and “hope” became prominent rhetoric.

Experimental documentary is structured by possibility, marked by ambiguity. In preparing this introduction, I’ve thought of various ways to encapsulate the essence of these works without reducing them to a taxonomy. Among the phrases that seem suggestive are “the aesthetics of ambiguity” or “the aesthetics of ambivalence.” Both seem to suggest the work’s non-fixity and the fact that, after presenting the viewer with some evidence and a personal perspective, the work ultimately allows the audience to think and draw its own conclusions, rather than explicitly suggesting the “right” answer. If this introduction seems to propose varying definitions of experimental documentary, that both reflects my own shifting thoughts on the topic and perhaps appropriately reflects the work itself. There is a certain openness to this work, a resolute interpretability, despite the fact that the makers come from specific political positions. I can’t decide which phrasing is more appropriate, ambiguity or ambivalence. And neither suggests what I really mean: that in searching, the artists often encounter the fundamental contradiction that the more one learns, the less one knows for sure. Perhaps this is why this work remains open-ended and insists that the viewer brings to the work his or her own process of interpreting. Some of the work that I find most exciting within this field is not only potentially mobilizing in a political sense but is also moving in an emotional way. Rather than cathartic, though, the work stirs up irresolvable feelings that I cannot articulate in words or explain away. In response to the exploratory quality and political questioning in so many recent documentaries, we have come to observe a pervasive aesthetic of uncertainty. This is not the defeatist description it might at first seem. Uncertainty is a precondition for change.

This special issue has been funded in part with a grant from the Humanities Center at the University of California, Irvine. Prior support for this project was provided by the International Film Seminars/The Flaherty and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and Center for Media, Culture, and History.

1 John Grierson, “Flaherty’s Poetic Moana,” reprinted in The Documentary Tradition, ed. Lewis Jacobs (New York: Norton, 1979), 25-26. Grierson subsequently insisted that documentary filmmaking is “creative work” with “different aesthetic issues.” See Grierson, “First Principles of Documentary” (1932-34), reprinted in Nonfiction Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Richard Meran Barsam (New York: Dutton, 1976), 21.

2 Jonathan Kahana, Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 7.

3 The boundaries between media and fine arts have largely broken down, with the increasing presence of video in galleries. Simultaneously, there has been a turn toward the document in installations. See, for instance, the exhibition and catalog Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, curated and edited by Okwui Enwezor (2007).

4 Scholars such as Catherine Russell, Laura Marks, Michael Renov, and Jeffrey Skoller have written at length about some of these and other works that easily fit within the realm of experimental documentary, though none of their books are explicitly framed within this rubric. See Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999); Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000) and Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Renov, The Subject of Documentary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), and Skoller, Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

5 Nora M. Alter, “Translating the Essay into Film and Installation,” Journal of Visual Culture 6, no. 1 (2007), 47.

6 Jörg Huber, “Video-Essayism: On the Theory-Practice of the Transitional,” in Stuff It: The Video Essay in the Digital Age, ed. Ursula Bieman (Zurich: Springer, 2003), 93-94.

7 Laura Rascaroli, “The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments,” Framework 49, no. 2 (Fall 2008), 36-37. On the “essay film” see also Timothy Corrigan, “‘The Forgotten Image Between Two Shots’: Photos, Photograms, and the Essayistic” in Still/Moving: Between Cinema and Photography, eds. Karen Beckman and Jean Ma (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 41-61; Paul Arthur, “Essay Questions,” Film Comment (January/February 2003), 58-63; and Phillip Lopate, “The Search of the Centaur: The Essay Film,” in Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film, ed. Charles Warren (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 243-70. Using Bill Nichol’s influential taxonomy, such work might also fit into the categories of “poetic” or “performative” documentary. See Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 138.

8 Chan uses the phrase “radical empathy” in George Baker, “An Interview with Paul Chan,” October 123 (Winter 2008): 210.

9 Caroline A. Jones, “The Mediated Sensorium,” in Sensorium, ed. Jones (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 42.

10 Although the works described in this issue suggest alternatives to mainstream documentary practices and circuits of exhibition, I do not reject the importance of a more didactic leftist documentary tradition. To name a few recent examples, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Why We Fight (2005), and No End in Sight (2007) are instructive in the best possible sense. Sometimes it’s incredibly useful for filmmakers to make sense of history or examine a recent political quagmire that otherwise would seem irrational. (I even embrace Michael Moore.) But exploring and questioning is also important, which is the work I see so many of the artists in this issue doing.

11 Skoller, Shadows, Specters, Shards, xv.

12 Perhaps it would be closety not to acknowledge that I and many of the contributors to this issue are queer. I like to think that this issue’s disproportionate response from queer artists and writers (most of whom do not write explicitly here about their sexualities or identities) reflects a position in the world of non-normativity and questioning the dominant frameworks.

13 A number of valuable publications have put artists in dialogue to discuss and strategize responses to the war, including Creative Time’s Who Cares (2006) and A.R.T. Press’s “Between Artists” series, including dialogues between Paul Chan and Martha Rosler, Silvia Kolbowski and Walid Raad, and Amy Sillman and Gregg Bordowitz. The issue of October 123 (Winter 2008) also features an artist questionnaire and interviews.