Visible Evidence 2021

Voices and Visions against Silence. Participatory Documentary, Empathetic Response and Civic Engagement

Thomas Weber
Jasmin Kermanchi
Anna Wiehl
Respondent: Daniel Fetzner
Fri, Dec 17
90 Min
Mousonturm (Rehearsal 1), Online
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Postmigrant Narratives in Participatory Web-Documentaries

Do participatory documentary film projects on the topic of migration contribute to giving migrants a voice and if so, in what way? What is the character and potential for (self-) empowerment of the actors in the different participatory structures? To what extent can prevailing narratives on migration be broken down through a ‘Doing History’ using new documentary formats and new postmigrant narratives constructed and negotiated?

This contribution deals with a theoretical deconstruction of different notions of participation and their application in web-documentaries. The constructed frames of reference and narratives, the functioning of the developed self-designs as well as the identitary negotiation processes will be analysed. In particular, the handling of well-known narratives will be questioned and the potential offered by participatory documentary film projects of various media will be observed. In this process, it is necessary to clarify what participation can mean in each case. Perhaps, the often all too vaguely used notion of ‘participation’ has become all too quickly an umbrella term in which media interactivity and contribution, social and political participation and cultural perception and recognition have got mixed up. Not at least due to all this, it is also a question of how the various notions of participation – and the strategies of voice-giving realized in web-documentaries – can each contribute to the development of a postmigrant perspective. This, then, brings us to the vital issue to what extent participatory documentary film projects can themselves become a medium for negotiating postmigrant identity, and what scope of thought and action they open up with regard to the self-empowerment of the actors.

Thomas Weber

Thomas Weber is Professor for media studies at the University of Hamburg. He was one of the leaders of the DFG-project “History of the german documentary film after 1945” and leads several other projects in the field of documentary film (see His books include: Medienkulturen des Dokumentarischen, 2017 (ed. with Carsten Heinze); Mediale Transformationen des Holocausts, 2013 (ed. with Ursula von Keitz); Documentary Film in Media Transformation, InterDisciplines – Journal of History and Sociology. Vol 4, No 1 (2013).

Participatory Web-Documentaries for Social Change – an Old Approach in a New Guise?

In the age of the Internet, participatory web-documentaries seem to offer many new potentials for participation in social-issue documentary projects. But it is not only the technologies and platforms through which a new participatory culture seems to emerge, but also rather the practices behind them.

Dadaab Stories (US 2013), for example, is a collaborative community project by the humanitarian organization FilmAid about life in a refugee camp in Kenya. Instead of making a documentary film about the camp residents, FilmAid collaborates with the people around Dadaab through filming, teaching and screening. The nonlinear multimedia documentary Dadaab Stories serves as a platform for the stories the residents tell themselves, often with donated smartphones.

What sounds like an innovative approach, however, goes back to a long tradition of socially engaged documentaries. For example, the participatory projects of the Challenge for Change series by the National Film Board of Canada (1967-1980) aimed to give the protagonists a voice and therefore provided cameras for them.

This contribution seeks to examine to what extent participatory web-documentaries on social issues follow this tradition, but also focuses on the potentials of the new documentary form and practices drawing on the concept of open space documentary (Zimmermann/De Michiel 2018), among others.

Following Gaudenzi (2014), it is assumed that one must distinguish between different forms of participation in web-documentaries in order to answer the question of what new opportunities documentary web projects provide in terms of participation and the promotion of social change.

Jasmin Kermanchi

Jasmin Kermanchi is a research assistant and doctoral student at the Institute of Media and Communication at the University of Hamburg, where she is working on a dissertation in the area of interactive documentaries. From April to September 2020 she also worked as a research assistant in the teaching lab project “Onlinekurs dokumentarischer Film im digitalen Transfer” (“Online Course Documentary Film in Digital Transfer”) funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Her main research interests include new documentary forms, especially in the digital age, theory of documentary film and realism in film. Jasmin Kermanchi is the author of Interaktiv investigativ. Zum Funktionswandel des investigativen Journalismus in interaktiven Webprojekten (2019) about investigative journalism in interactive web projects.

Between Human Rights Spectacle and Response-able Listening

This contribution focuses on social issue documentary, especially VR non-fiction dealing with the global issue of migration which however stands only as a paradigm of other forms of systemic injustice. Taking two paradigmatic projects – Clouds over Sidra (2015) and This Room (2017) –the presentation explores in how far the specific affordances of VR affect the engagement with content and the potential transformative impact the producers are aiming at. Are we dealing with an exploitive gaze, are we drawn into a “human rights spectacle” (Hesford 2011), or do new forms of narrative enable “response-able witnessing” (Tait 2011) – of voice-giving and attentive listening?

The theoretical framework brings together recent discourses of VR non-fiction and the tradition of ‘ethically charged’ documentary; it revisits conceptualizations of participation and engagement and findings in social psychology, especially as to concepts of immersion, empathy and presence in VR environments; and it correlates regimes of gaze and concepts of voice-giving.

Addressing problematic socio-cultural, socio-political as well as media-ethical constellations (the risk of “improper distance” (Nash 2018), of dehistoricizing and depoliticizing complex issues, of reinscribing hegemonic points-of-view and of imposing one’s own truth over the actual experiences of ‘others’) I suggest a form of critical dis-immersion. Thereby, I argue that the potential of new narratives does not consist in its amplification of visual illusion and immediate affective response but rather in its ability to model a different concept of subjectivity, questioning established regimes of gaze and opening spaces for polyphony and multilayered plurivocality.

Anna Wiehl

Anna Wiehl has been a research assistant at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, and has been a research fellow with i-docs at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, University of the West of England, Bristol. Her research focuses on digital media cultures and emerging documentary practices.
In 2010, she received her PhD in the international program Cultural Encounters. Apart from academia, she has been working for Arte. From 2017 to 2019, she directed a research project on interactive documentary and finished her habilitation on The ‘New’ Documentary Nexus. Currently, she is leading the research network The Documentary and the Digital.

Respondent: Daniel Fetzner

Daniel Fetzner (*1966), Media Artist and Media Scientist. Professor for Design and Artistic Research at Hochschule Offenburg and head of the Media Ecology Lab.

2002-2014 Professor for Media Design at Furtwangen University. 2007 Visiting Professor at San Francisco State University and Guest Artist at ZKM Karlsruhe. 2009-2011 Professor at German University Cairo as Head of the Media Design Department. 2012 Visiting Professor at Srishti School, Bangalore.