Peter Handke once wrote that the most distinct quality of cinema was the astonishment experienced in the walk back home from the theatre. Martin Scorcese bemoaned the replacement of brick-and-mortar cinemas for algorithmic architecture that present “a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial” and a superhero sequel on a level playing field. Marcos Uzal recently declared in Cahiers du Cinéma that “there is no such thing as home theatre.” For Pierre Eugène and Marie Anne Guerin, we can be astonished by cinema at home, “but the proximity and the duration are not those of the movie, but ours.”
It is a common diagnosis that generation Z film students, the so-called “zoomers,” lack an ability to differentiate cinema from content, that homogenising umbrella term aimed at neutering all moving images into one equivalent flow. But what if instead of mourning film students’ estrangement from cinema’s specificity, temporality and materiality, we could imagine a pedagogical project that tapped into that which undoubtedly survives the various technological shifts and political crises that afflict cinematic production, consumption, and teaching?
Drawing directly from classroom experiences in Brazilian, British, and American universities, film scholar-practitioners Renata Barreto, Veronica Paredes and Diego Semerene discuss the role of documentary practices that aim inward (essay films, diary films, desktop films) in rendering filmmaking pedagogy possible in times of crisis. How might non-fiction film forms centered around the resignification of already existent images, independent from a world that slips increasingly away from us, help us respond – in the classroom – to the current states of emergency?
The emergence of the discussion of documentary film pedagogy through a vernacular prism accompanies the not-so-recent call to disarticulate the dominant universalist paradigms that permeate our understanding of the world. Making and reading archives are two fundamental aspects of being in the world today, and yet, our current pedagogical paradigms are deficient in dealing with the scope of the discipline and fail to form critical media practitioners. Fine Arts and Film departments’ students making documentary films are working with archives of all sorts, physical and virtual, and yet their classroom engagement and flm craft reflect a lack of interpretive capacity and a detachment from scholarly research, still privileging filmic technique over critical thinking.
This research investigates the pedagogical potential uses of archives in documentary film critical production. Drawing from my own experience as both student and teacher in experimental film production, in Brazil as well as in the US, I will bring into the conversation the potential of precarious technologies, alternative licensing, and online interaction as pedagogic tools, privileging the low-tech perspectives of fragile communities existing in spaces devastated by imperialism in contrast to hegemonic high-tech educational institutions.
Renata Carvalho Barreto is an artist and historian preoccupied with the archive and the violence it contains. Her work as a documentary filmmaker concerns the reading and rewriting of the audiovisual archive, pondering over its hermeneutical content. As a historian, she reflects upon the fabrications of power that permit the existence of a hegemonic historiography. Framed by postcolonial theory, critical race theory, philosophical hermeneutics, and theory of history, her film practice is poetic and experimental, although critical and engaged. She holds a BA in History (University of Brasília) and a MFA in Film, Video, Animation and New Genres (University of Wisconsin Milwaukee). She is a second year PhD student in the Department of Critical Media Practices at the University of Colorado.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United Kingdom in March 2020, and higher education had to quickly move online, it was striking how the pedagogical approach I had been conducting at the time seemed to withstand the abrupt shift with little to no adjustment. I would describe that approach as essayistic. That is, even before the limitations imposed externally by the pandemic, my film teaching in the Digital Media Production program at Oxford Brookes University (UK) was consciously structured around makeshift aesthetics that embraced subjectivity, doubt and the archival. This was also a philosophy of teaching decidedly against the fetishization of slick images, high-end film equipment and modes of production based around large crews. Essayistic practices, undergirded by theoretical conversations – via Hito Steyerl (poor images), Patricia R. Zimmermann (home videos), Susana de Sousa Dias (vertical dimension), Timothy Corrigan (diaries), Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (third cinema) – close the gap between students’ unrealistic expectations of production and their material means. This node of the conversation aims to question what exactly makes the essayistic, in its porosity and elusiveness, such a resilient paradigm for filmmaking pedagogies in times of crises, as well as to flesh out what a teaching philosophy built around the essay film might miss, or lose.
Diego Semerene is Assistant Professor of Queer and Transgender Media and Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands). Semerene is a member of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis. She holds an M.A. in Cinema Studies from New York University and a Ph.D. in Media Arts and Practice from the University of Southern California. Her research is located at the intersection of queer theory, trans studies and psychoanalysis. Most recent publications include Tailoring the Impenetrable Body All Over Again: Digitality, Muscle, and the Men’s Suit for The Routledge Companion to Fashion Studies (2021) and Creampied to Death: Ejaculative Kinship in the Age of Normative Data Flows for the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society (2021).
In 2014, Kevin B. Lee asserted a place for the genre of “desktop documentary” in the cinephilic video essay community with his short documentary Transformers: The Premake. Following a form common to contemporary desktop films, Lee’s short features impressive feats of multitasking, culminating with crescendos of rapidly opening windows overwhelming the screen. In teaching a graduate seminar on digital culture, I present the genre to students as a means “to capture life’s reality… acknowledg[ing] that computer screens are now a primary mode of daily experience,” as Lee describes. Students are prompted to explore the screen as a space and re-imagine the visual practices they engage in on a daily basis, with particular attention to how that might differ from even their very recent screen interactions. In this paper I will describe the different themes students commonly explore in their own screen recording, documentary responses. I will also describe how I frame the assignment with an emphasis on the historical reality and oblique political contexts shaping screen aesthetics, norms, and vernaculars. As media educators, how can we highlight lessons learned from nonfiction/ documentary studies in our collectively shared and compulsory need to record our screens during the pandemic?
Veronica Paredes is an assistant professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests include reconfigured urban media spaces, feminist digital practices in pedagogy, and collective organizing. She is an active member of the networked feminist collective Situated Critical Race and Media (SCRAM) and FemTechNet. Her work has been published in Amodern and Feminist Media Histories, and work she has collaboratively written has been published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies.