Visible Evidence 2021

Voices and Talking Heads

Cristina Formenti
Amy Skjerseth
Sonia Campanini
Chair: Patrik Sjöberg
Fri, Dec 17
90 Min
Mousonturm (Studio 2), Online
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The Film Star as Attraction in Contemporary Italian Documentaries: "Diva!" (2018), "Nilde Iotti, il tempo delle donne" (2020) and the emergence of a new typology of fact-fiction hybrids

Bringing a step further the trend started in 2000 of using well-known film actors as voice-over narrators in commercial nonfiction productions (Honess Roe 2018), in the last five years in Italian documentaries, and especially in art-related ones, national film stars have increasingly been employed as voices-of-authorities. Attention is paid to choosing for the role performers whose star personas well fit the subject matter addressed. Yet, while the selected stars are called to exhibit their acting qualities through reciting, in voice-off, documents or excerpts of literature concerning the aspect of the real tackled by the film, their bodies are usually treated as mere “attractions”, restricting their appearance to shots that have a purely “exhibitionist quality” (Buckland 2006).

After introducing this phenomenon, the paper focuses on two biographical titles that are an expression of it: Diva! (2018) by Francesco Patierno, wherein eight contemporary Italian stars illustrate each a portion of actress Valentina Cortese’s existence through reciting also excerpts of her autobiography, and Nilde Iotti, il tempo delle donne (2020) by Peter Marcias, wherein popular actress Paola Cortellesi similarly leads the viewer at the discovery of the life of female politician Nilde Iotti spouting also declarations from this pioneering woman. Through a close analysis of these two films, the paper demonstrates how, if showcasing the star’s body is a-problematic when done in art-related documentaries, the same is not true when it comes to biographical titles. Indeed, the paper shows how, in works as Diva! and Nilde Iotti, il tempo delle donne, the incorporation itself of the body of a star with the intertextual references to previous roles and public identity that it brings with itself determines for these biographical films to lose the status of documentaries proper and become fact-fiction hybrids close (but not superimposable) to docudramas.

Cristina Formenti

Dr. Cristina Formenti is Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Udine, Italy, where she works on the project of national interest “F-ACTOR: Forms of Contemporary Media Professional Acting. Training, Recruitment and Management, Social Discourse in Italy (2000–2020)”. She is author of the monographs Il mockumentary: la fiction si maschera da documentario (Mimesis 2013) and The Classical Animated Documentary and Its Contemporary Evolution (forthcoming from Bloomsbury), as well as editor of Mariangela Melato tra cinema, teatro e televisione (Mimesis 2016) and Valentina Cortese: una diva intermediale (Mimesis 2018).

Obama’s Talking Heads: Deepfakes as Lip-Sync Technology

What social and ethical consequences arise when talking head interviews are repurposed for alternate narratives? This question has long been asked of documentaries, but it is also vital in our current age of fake news, when deepfakes can make anyone appear to say or do something they never did. In this presentation, I discuss a 2018 deepfake video where Jordan Peele impersonates Obama to warn viewers about lip-syncing AI. I show how the technological and aesthetic manipulations that hack Obama’s speech reflect social and political concerns that have also permeated scholarship on found footage and documentary voice, music sampling, and audio-visual manipulation technology. Building on these studies, I situate deepfakes in a long history of lip-syncing technologies, where technicians and industries have often employed racial and gendered stereotypes to make audio-visual synchronization more believable to spectators. As deepfakes attempt to replicate Obama’s presidential character, they reveal the audio-visual efforts of embodied performance that construct Obama’s public persona.

To specify how deepfakes construct Obama’s persona according to audio-visual stereotypes, I compare deepfakes to the talking head device in documentary—inspired by the technicians who call their deepfakes talking heads. As scholars like Bill Nichols, Pooja Rangan, and Salomé Skvirsky have shown, talking heads can be empowering for documentary subjects, but directors also can manipulate talking head footage to create their desired interpretation of events. Talking head deepfakes similarly distill the multiple significations of one’s voice and body to create a believable persona. Thus, the deepfake talking head carries lip sync’s technological and aesthetic baggage of synchronizing a subject to a stereotypical image for the purpose of quick signification to audiences. Much as lip sync creates a type of homogenous embodiment that unites a subject’s voice and body with a film’s truth claims, talking head deepfakes attempt to pass as embodied speech.

Amy Skjerseth

Amy Skjerseth is a PhD Candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. She co-organizes the Great Lakes Association for Sound Studies and co-produces the sound studies podcast Phantom Power. As a Franke Institute for the Humanities Residential Fellow, she is completing her dissertation on music recording and broadcast technologies that inspired postwar media-makers to politicize popular music. From the transistor radio and multitracking to deepfakes, she examines how found sounds materialize historical moments by appealing to personal and collective memory. More broadly, she explores how devices from automata to deepfakes shape audio-visual ideologies and cultures.

Acoustic (Un)Evidences: On The Documentality of Colonial Sound Recordings

The aim of this paper is to reflect on the documental and evidential value of sound recordings in the frame of documentary forms that reflects on colonial pasts and post-colonial relations, focusing on the case study of the 2007 documentary The Halfmoon Files – A Ghost Story by Philipp Scheffner. The film is constructed around the ethnographic vocal recordings hold at the Lautarchiv in Berlin, a collection comprising around 1,650 shellac discs recorded in German prisoner-of-war camps during WWI in the frame of a project initiated in 1915 by ethno-linguist Wilhelm Doegen. Doegen’s intent was, in his words, to build “the first global sound library” collecting languages and music of ethnographic groups coming from all over the world. Prisoners involved in the project came mainly from the colonial territories of France, Russia and the United Kingdom, with a large presence of Muslims form India and North Africa. In his search for finding an image, a ghostly body for the voice recording number PK619, Scheffner questions the value of sonic documents in creating a particular narrative of European democracies’ colonial past.

In the first part of the paper I interpret the film in the light of the “evidential paradigm” elaborated by Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg and focus on the relation between acoustic and visual documentality. In the second part I reflect on the different values of the sound recordings – the epistemic and scientific value on one hand and the archival and memorial value on the other – problematizing European regimes of knowledge production and the issue of restitution in the frame of post- and neo-colonialist archival relations.

Sonia Campanini

Sonia Campanini is Assistant Professor of Film Culture at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, where she is responsible for the master program “Film Culture: Archiving, Programming, Presentation”. Her research interests encompass film history and theory as well as film archiving and film curatorship, with a special focus on the material, technological, aesthetic and memorial dimensions of audio-visual heritage. She co-edited L’archivio/ The Archive (2012), her book Film Sound in Preservation and Presentation is upcoming.

Chair: Patrik Sjöberg

Patrik Sjöberg is Assistant Professor and teaches at Stockholm University of the Arts. He is the author of essays on documentary film, experimental film and sound in Swedish and English, including the book, The World in Pieces – A Study on Compilation Film (2001); and contributions to anthologies, most recently (English): “Face Blind: Documentary Media and Subversion of Surveillance”, A Companion to Contemporary Documentary Film, Ed. Alexandra Juhasz, Alisa Lebow (2015); “The Fundamental Lie: Lip Sync, Dubbing, Ventriloquism, and the Othering of Voice in Documentary Media”, Vocal Projections: Voices in Documentary (2018). He is currently working on a project on global open-air cinema cultures.