The Poetics and Politics of Documentary symposium will be held at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, University of Sussex, between 2nd and 4th June, 2017.
Redemptory spectacle or emancipatory experience: The politics behind the character and story driven documentary
Documentary practice, its funding and distribution streams, are in permanent development and expansion. Never before was documentary so visible, accessible, diverse, popular and profitable as it is now. This apparent “success” is being analysed and justified by the growing emphasis on character and story driven documentary projects.
But also as signifying the emerging understanding of the possibilities offered to documentary practice by the emotional and sensorial engagement of the spectator. Consider the current focus on ‘good characters’ and ‘dramatic narratives’ or on ‘emotional’ and ‘sensorial experience’ as symptoms of documentary’s transformation into popular entertainment or at least a mass-form. Rather than being a sign of de-politicisation of the documentary practice, I suggest that we are witnessing a redefinition of the political role of the documentary.
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This redefinition of the political in/of documentary considers the representation of reality as a redemptory spectacle, marginalising the documentary as an emancipatory experience. In fact, documentary becomes a tool for the construction of binary oppositions: pleasure vs. thought; empathy vs. analysis. Documentary practice serves then only to mirror and amplify current political discourse.
This ‘entertainment trend’ supported by the dominant actors, gatekeepers and financiers, represents a challenge to documentary practice as a social-political tool. It marginalises its function as a platform of research, of subjective expression, and a framework of criticality. But rather than considering this the end of an era, a shift, a transformation, or the advent of the dark days of the documentary practice, I would like to propose, using my on-going research “framing perpetrators” concerning the documentary representation of political evil, that the tension between empathy and politics and the question of the politics of empathy are at the heart of the documentary from its very inception.
The current hegemonic political trend expressed through mainstream documentary practice obliges us practitioners (and represents an opportunity) to redefine the critical role of a radical documentary practice.
John Greyson | Keynote Speaker | Abstract
Stereoscopy’s Unknown and Karaoke’s Uncanny: A Documentary Dialogue about Activism and Poetics (Using Chat Roulette)
When Melania was busted for stealing Michelle’s words during her disastrous speech at the Republican Convention, vloggers leapt into action, and within hours, side-by-side sterescopic duets of the two speeches were trending on youtube. It’s a new and now ubiquitous form of split-screen schadenfreude, when anyone ventures to claim someone else’s song as their own. Melania and Michelle, taking the ‘ok’ out of karaoke. M ‘n M, putting the ‘copy’ back in stereoscopy.
The eerie fascinations of cinematic mimicry — from Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho and Joynt/Arsenault’s redo of Campbell’s True/False, to the crowd-sourced shot-for-shot remake of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, currently in progress — exploit and explore the same-yet-different vibrations of side-by-side stereoscopy frames. These hybrid doppelgangers (with or without permission, in or out of sympathy, as sincere tribute or ironic treachery) proliferate exponentially in our digital moment, and with them, their poetic and political contradictions and implications expand and demand accordingly. What does it mean to perform a cover version of someone else’s film? How does the new version stereoscopically agitate in relation to the original? How do traditions of satire and agit-prop navigate the uncanniness of split-screen? What does side-by-side remake culture do to the verités of doc practice?
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This talk will critically examine a spectrum of such recent visual karaoke duets, from shot-for-shot radical documentaries such as Subrin’s Shulie and Godmillow’s What Farocki Taught, to the activist pop-culture parodies of Dam doing ScarJo, Bernie meming Hotline Bling, Bibi doing Downfall, or Householder/Yael riffing ‘approximations’ of Kubrick and Gibson. A detailled case study will then be presented of Captifs D’Amour, my shot-for-shot remake of Jean Genet’s 1950 Chant D’Amour, his black-and-white queer activist love story of two prisoners separated by a wall. In my retelling, the urgent French/Algerian context of 1950 is remapped onto the Israel/Palestine conflict of today, this time with an Apartheid Wall separating the two lovers (who are now naked gay penguins). Genet’s most famous scene, the blowing of cigarette smoke between the cell walls using a straw from the mattress, will become an eerie evocation of the tear-gas that so often clouds and kills at military checkpoints.
The efficacies (and ethicacies) of split-screen mimicry will be further complicated by the gambit of delivering this talk as a live Chat Roulette performance, seeking to engage with viewers one-on-one through the interactivity of this now vaguely old-fashioned platform. Can such side-by-side conversations about split-screen contribute something beyond the eerie and the uncanny? Can such online stereoscopy become a karaoke duet?