Twenty-first century documentarians’ digital tools for accessing, appropriating, and circulating archival images might be considered a promising advancement in the pursuit of democracy and truth. However, digital tools have simultaneously produced a perceived threat to indexicality, contributed to the dissemination of disinformation, and fueled rising skepticism toward visual evidence in the so-called “post-truth” era. Scholars like Catherine Russell and Jeffrey Skoller suggest that the historiographic methods of many archival – or “found footage” – films reflexively address this tension between archival images, historical evidence, and truth. Building on this scholarship, I argue that recent reflexive archival filmmaking practices offer productive models for re-evaluating archival images’ historically-specific evidentiary role in the digital era.
To explore the ways documentarians are confronting digital-era tensions between expanding archival access and post-truth politics, I analyze Radu Jude’s The Dead Nation (2017). Leaning on Jaimie Baron’s claim that all archival appropriations constitute a “misuse,” which differs from the images’ original contexts and/or intentions, I analyze the ways Jude misuses 1930s-40s digitized glass-plate photographs to re-evaluate their role as historical evidence about World War II. I suggest that Jude’s reflexive methods dig beneath these archival images’ surface-level content to refute what Michael Shafir calls “selective negationism,” which refers to the denial of a nation’s own complicity in the Holocaust.
As Jude’s film demonstrates, responding to post-truth politics, a denial of the past, and today’s rising tides of fascism demands alternative documentary methods for appropriating, (re)contextualizing, and circulating archival images. Closely assessing the historiographic methods of recent archival films like The Dead Nation will begin to outline models for the ways filmmakers, historians, and citizens alike might practice responsible, critical modes of “looking” at archival images as evidence.
Zachariah Anderson is a PhD candidate in the Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His primary research interests include media historiography, the role of image-based media as historical evidence, and the relationship between archival filmmaking practices and written historiography.
The growing attention to new developments in technology, platforms, production, and textual form has led to a corresponding interest in historicizing new media documentary. In the quest to identify relevant precedent for emerging forms, scholars have employed a range of approaches. Some have sought to understand documentary in terms of its longue durée—as a continuously evolving tradition extending from public lectures to illustrated lectures to documentary film and beyond. Others have positioned new technologies such as VR in relation to older forms of stereoscopic display. Still others have looked back at antecedents in order to look forward to new directions. In the main, media historians have shown how older media forms can deepen understandings of the contemporary documentary mediascape. But can new media documentary shed light on earlier media practices, and if so, why? And why now?
This proposed paper will pursue the question of old-new documentary media relations, an issue that has been broached occasionally but that has not received much sustained commentary. Drawing on a selection of little known social magic lantern practices, or what we might call social lantern documentaries, my paper will begin by tracing the relationship between the lantern and photography during especially fruitful moments of interaction. It will then attend to the various ways the social lantern presentation departs from, as well as accords with, the traditional, authored, linear documentary film. Turning to current discussions of interactive documentary’s capacity to foster participation through selection, reordering, and collaboration, I will make a convincing case for the lantern’s potential to facilitate community-based content that can lead to increased civic engagement. This cross-medial examination, in turn, opens up new questions about old media’s participation in the documentary project, the lantern’s place within the broader system of media and communications, and documentary as a cross-platform phenomenon.
Artemis Willis is a media historian, media arts curator, and a Fellow at the Open Documentary Lab at MIT, where she is working on her first book, Lanternology: the Possibilities of the Projected Image. Her research and teaching explore old and emerging documentary forms, early cinema and media archaeology, and the international history, theory, and practice of the magic lantern. Her guest-curated film programs and magic lantern shows have been presented at the National Gallery of Art, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Smithsonian Institution, Anthology Film Archives, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She received her PhD in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago.
The long-term research project History of Non-Fiction Film in Germany 1945-2005 was funded by the German Research Fund (DFG) and ran over six years. The aim of the project was the systematic research and first historiographical overall presentation of documentary filmmaking in Germany. Following the approach of the ‚New Film History‘ the project members and associated authors researched documents, films, magazines and festivals catalogues and comprehensively examined technological, ideological and social conditions of documentary filmmaking in East- and West-Germany as well as its formal and aesthetic manifestations. The broad range of films examined spans from health education films to industrial films or from long-term documentaries to experimental essay films. The project was led by Prof. Dr. Ursula von Keitz (Film University Babelsberg), Prof. Dr. Thomas Weber (University of Hamburg) and Dr. Kay Hoffmann (Documentary Film Center Stuttgart) who also will present it. It is a follow-up project to German documentary film history before 1945, which was published in 2005 as a three-volume book and is meanwhile online.
In autumn 2018, the project’s database with around 15,000 data records and 11,000 recorded titles was published on the specially developed platform www.dokumentarfilmgeschichte.de. The core of the systematic data acquisition are films that were shown in German cinemas between 1945 and 2005, shown at festivals or broadcast on prominent program positions on German television. It is an important research tool and a unique platform, which did not exist before. The database is very popular with meanwhile 1,2 million detailed searches. Therefor also all results of the research project will be published on this platform. We hope that this will enable us to reach our potential target groups and young academics much better than a classic book publication.
Prof. Dr. phil. Ursula von Keitz
Chair of Film Research and Education at the Film University Babelsberg, Potsdam, 2014-2020 also Director of the Filmmuseum Potsdam. 2012-2019 Co-Leader of the long-term DFG-Research Project „History of Documentary Film in Germany 1945-2005“. Research topics: Film history and aesthetics, audio-visual heritage, curational practices, documentary theory, and methods of scholarly film editing. She has published widely on silent cinema, film and hygienics, and Holocaust in film, and has curated a series of film exhibitions.
Dr. Kay Hoffmann is a film journalist and historian. Since 2007 head of research at the Documentary Film Center (Haus des Dokumentarfilms) in Stuttgart. 2018-2021 Offenburg University: Franco-German RhInedits project (Cinematheque Upper Rhine Valley). 1989 PhD degree in cultural studies University Marburg. Since 1995, numerous projects for the Documentary Film Center. Part of the research project on the history of nonfiction film in Germany before 1945, supported by the German Research Fund (DFG). Overall coordinator of the DFG-project on German nonfiction film 1945-2005, which will be online 2021. Organization of conferences and festivals (Berlinale, Input, NaturVision). Numerous publications.
With the Corona pandemic forcing even more social interaction on screen, it is not surprising that a growing number of media turn toward the screen as a canvas for new media production. In criticism, desktop documentaries have experienced a recent surge in videographic scholarship, with the desktop becoming both the object as well as the medium itself. The Sight & Sound magazine curates a list of best video essays every year, and for 2019 and 2020, desktop documentaries have been among the most nominated. Many of these works by creator-scholars such as Chloé Galibert-Laîné, Charlie Lyne, Kevin B. Lee, and Jessica McGoff investigate media phenomena from a specifically personal perspective.
Charlie Lyne’s Criticism in the Age of TikTok, for instance, exclusively uses desktop footage (in this case, from his smartphone) and employs a personalizing voiceover that takes the viewer into an investigation of the media phenomenon TikTok, a social media app where predominantly teenage-aged users produce short Vine-like videos. As a not teenage-aged critic, he tries to understand the allure of the app while also examining the question of where this new media practice leaves criticism. I argue that videos such as Lyne’s address not only the questions they pursue but also their audiences within the same medium which leads to a new critical engagement that goes beyond passive consumption.
While desktop documentaries employ techniques and effects that align closely with documentary practice, scholarship on documentary media has paid only little attention to the phenomenon so far. My presentation identifies common themes as well as aesthetic and structural strategies of exemplary works in order to locate this new form within documentary media. I further argue that these new works achieve a level of continuous immediacy and media-critical reflection while transcending the spheres of art, theory, cultural critique, and public scholarship.
Maria Hofmann is an Independent Scholar. Her research focuses on contemporary documentary film, theories of spectatorship, and videographic criticism. She participated in an NEH-sponsored summer workshop on Videographic Criticism in 2018, and is currently working on a multimodal monograph on documentary film in the post-truth era in which traditional written chapters are paired with videographic essays. Her research has been published in [in]transition, Studies in Documentary Film, and others.
Malte Hagener is Professor in Media and Film Studies at Philipps-Universität Marburg. Publications include Moving Forward, Looking Back. The European Avant-garde and the Invention of Film Culture, 1919-1939 (Amsterdam University Press 2007). The Emergence of Film Culture. Knowledge Production, Institution Building and the Fate of the Avant-garde in Europe, 1919-1945 (London: Berghahn 2014), for which he won the Limina prize for best international film book. He is also the director of the DFG-funded project media/rep/ – Institution of an Open Access-repository for media studies (https://mediarep.org/) and principal investigator of the DFG-funded graduate research group „Configurations of film“ (https://konfigurationen-des-films.de/en/).