Visible Evidence 2021

Revisiting the Documentary Canon

Dimitrios Latsis
David Resha
Jelena Ćulibrk
Theodor Frisorger
Chair: Genevieve Yue
Wed, Dec 15
90 Min
Mousonturm (Rehearsal 1), Online
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Toward Narrative: The elaboration and reception of the "creative treatment" in the early non-fiction of Robert Flaherty, E.S. Curtis and Varick Frissell

The importance of narrative formulas for what John Grierson called films of “documentary value” in 1926 and “the creative treatment of actuality” in 1932, is well accounted for in historical scholarship of silent non-fiction. What is nevertheless lacking is a contextual understanding of how that narrative function was gradually and not always in a straightforward manner elaborated in the cycle of “expedition films” that proliferated in the late 1910s and 20s.

In this presentation I will trace that development through a comparative assessment of the films of Edward S. Curtis, Robert Flaherty and Varick Frissell, the discourse of their reception and archival fate. What intervened between Curtis’ In the Land of the Head Hunters and In the Land of the War Canoes; between Flaherty’s early Baffin Island film and Nanook of the North; and between Frissell’s The Great Arctic Seal Hunt and The Viking? Examining relevant negotiations with sponsors and distributors, the press’ response to early screenings, the changing public perceptions of indigenous populations and the filmmakers’ own backgrounds and ambitions, a picture of narrative as a site of contestation between cinema’s scientific, commercial and artistic vocations emerges that would shape the way documentary was understood by early film historians, and its role in theatrical and non-theatrical film programming in the years to come. With the use of archival documentation and historiographic analysis, I aim to demonstrate that narrative was not so much a matter of formal and technical refinement for early documentarians but rather influenced by a variety of factors, from the institutionalization of ethnography and the waning fortunes of “amateur explorers”, to Paramount’s strategic if short-lived attempt to accommodate and profit from “real stories” of exotic places. This account will hopefully provide some points of continuity between the often radically segregated modes of early non-fiction and documentary “proper”.

Dimitrios Latsis

Dimitrios Latsis is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the School of Image Arts, Ryerson University in Toronto where he teaches in the Film Studies and Film and Photography Preservation and Collection Management programs. He received his PhD in Film Studies from the University of Iowa and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Visual Data Curation at the Internet Archive where he served as film archivist. His work on American visual culture, early cinema and the Digital Humanities has been supported by the Smithsonian Institution, Domitor and the Mellon and Knight Foundations, among others.

Robert Drew’s Direct Cinema and the Art Film Documentary

There is an uncomfortable tension in the early 1960s direct cinema documentaries of the Drew Associates. Robert Drew’s rhetoric about his approach to television journalism has always stressed its unobtrusiveness, shedding the dependence on devices like voice-over narration and staged sequences in order to better report the world. The films themselves, however, infrequently align with what one would expect from this rhetoric. At different times, the films incorporate conventional elements like voice-over narration and even interviews while also veering into stylistic and narrative experimentation. How can we make sense of this disconnect?

I argue that we should not assume that the aesthetics and structure of the Drew Associates’ films naturally flow from Robert Drew’s rhetoric. In fact, the Drew Associates was a collection of filmmakers, including Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers, who had at times significantly different ideas about the how to shoot and edit their films. One substantial difference was that, while Drew understood these films as a new form of television journalism that provided a viable alternative to Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now, Leacock, Pennebaker, and the Maysles had aspirations for these films to be viewed and understood in an international, art cinema context. This understanding of the Drew Associates as a collaborative, at times contentious, filmmaking effort allows us a more nuanced understanding of these films beyond being slavishly tied to inflexible filmmaking rules. It also offers insight into some of the emerging conceptions of television journalism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. To help support my argument, I will draw upon Robert Drew’s personal archives, generously provided by Robert Drew’s family.

David Resha

David Resha is associate professor of Film and Media at Oxford College of Emory University. He is the author of The Cinema of Errol Morris (2015).

Out of Chaos: Documentary media, (neo)liberalism, and the riddle of politics, 1939-1954

This paper re-examines the history of British documentary media by arguing that its origins were simultaneous to the rise of neoliberal economic theory. I argue that both neoliberalism and documentary media emerged from similar impulses to, on the one hand, protect liberalism in an era of mass democratic politics while, on the other, guide public opinion to accept the primacy of the liberal world-system. While media scholars have noted the political agenda of British documentary media in both taming the form from its radical political promise and providing help to the ailing British empire in sustaining its global dominance, this paper argues that these goals were shared with public intellectuals such as Walter Lippmann and Friedrich Hayek that sought to reform classical liberalism. By following similar intellectual origins and trajectories of John Grierson, ‘the father’ of documentary media, and Friedrich Hayek, the leading neoliberal thinker, this paper shows that if we want to understand the fall of mass political movements we need to pay close attention to the simultaneous rise of the documentary form and (neo)liberal ideas. Indeed, both Grierson and Hayek traveled to the U.S. in the 1920s where they were influenced by the expanding social sciences that sought to position subjects as self-interested individuals whose relationship to society was inherently based on their individual needs. Neoliberalism and documentary media grew out of these theories that described the change in society as emanating from human behavior and ideas they hold rather than collective political action. This paper urges media scholars to divert their attention to the history of economics and the history of ideas in order to understand the mass appeal of documentary filmmaking and its implementation by liberal states in hopes of providing much-needed stability to the fraught liberal world-system.

Jelena Ćulibrk

Jelena Ćulibrk is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, USC School of Cinematic Arts. Previously, she received an MA in Film Studies (University College London, 2014) and an MA in Comparative History (Central European University, 2015). Her scholarly interests include the relationship between visual knowledge production, neoliberalism, and post-World War II reconstruction in Britain, the U.S., and Yugoslavia. Her dissertation project Televising The Invisible Hand: The BBC and postwar (neo)liberalism, 1968-1980 is supported by the Annenberg Fellowship (USC), and the Silas Palmer Fellowship (Stanford University).

"Life" Documents 'The Movies'

This paper analyses the visual and textual representations of postwar film production in the weekly picture magazine Life (1936–1972). In particular, I discuss Life’s usage of behind-the-scenes photography – itself a genre operating at the nexus of fiction and documentation, authenticity and advertisement – as a documentary practice, structuring the readability and expressive value of the often amorphous process of film-making. In this regard I consider these photographs and their circulation in picture magazines to be a formative element of mid-century film culture, which through intermediality produces popular knowledge about film and its production.

In general, Life is widely known for its highly ideologically-charged portrayal of the world, the American nation, and its democratic values addressing a middle class audience. This portrayal rests primarily upon modern documentary photography, which emphasizes the visual coherence of the depicted subject and the transparency of the depicting medium itself. In this respect Life is emblematic of a specific entanglement of documentary and American democracy – an entanglement that also affects Life’s coverage of film culture.
In this paper I focus on one exemplary issue of Life, namely a special issue on “The Movies” published on the 20th December 1963. Here, the American film industry is perceived as being ‘in crisis’, confronted with the consequences of the Paramount Case of 1948, as well as being challenged by global film cultures, the rivalry of television, and new audiences. However, all hope is not yet lost. And so this issue’s editorial characterises the movies as an “universal language” and a “global educator” – both of which are common terms used to describe photojournalism and documentary photography itself. My paper asks how theses premises are established, realized and challenged within Life’s photographic exposure of film-making, while attending to its changing industrial infrastructures and geographies.

Theodor Frisorger

Theodor Frisorger received his B.A. and M.A. in Media Studies from the Braunschweig University of Art. Since October 2019 he is a PhD candidate and research fellow at the “Documentary Practices. Excess and Privation” research training program at the Ruhr-University Bochum. His PhD project investigates the use of production stills and behind-the-scenes photography in film magazines and postwar photojournalism.

Chair: Genevieve Yue

Genevieve Yue is Assistant Professor of Culture and Media and director of the Screen Studies program at Eugene Lang College, the New School. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Flaherty, and has written criticism for Film Comment, Film Quarterly, art-agenda, and Reverse Shot. author of Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality (Fordham University Press, 2020).