Transformative political action requires constant grasping and deliberation of changing political configurations, social contradictions, and diverging personal and communal experiences and interests in movement. What constitutes “knowledge” – analytical, critical, tacit, cross-sectional – in social movements and activism? How does documentary contribute to the construction of knowledge, and allow “teaching” and “learning” between communities and sites of struggle?
While political documentary filmmakers have often set their sights not merely on representing the world but on changing it through their practice, scholars have rarely used the language of “pedagogy” to describe these efforts at political efficacy. Taking inspiration from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, our workshop takes up the question of knowledge and pedagogy in/of documentary to test whether an explicit focus on didacticism and teaching can bring more precision to the conversation on “usefulness” in documentary film practices. We adopt a capacious conception of what pedagogy means in the context of political documentary, ranging from representations of revolutionary discipline and organizing, to the work of analysis and training done by the films themselves, from the way documentaries are used by teachers like us in the classroom, to claims of efficacy of advocacy documentaries.
Drawing from their respective research covering a variety of historical and geopolitical contexts, workshop participants approach political documentary as aesthetic form and methods of inquiry, and investigate its embedment in struggle. Together, we reflect on the status of documentary pedagogy and knowledge at the present moment of heightened awareness of the manipulability of the digital image, and growing concerns over right-wing radicalization through corporate media platforms. We ask what function critical pedagogy can assume, when education is increasingly defunded, privatized, and reduced to a consumer good, symptomatic of broader neoliberal logics that are posing a threat to democracies across the globe.
Ying Qian is Assistant Professor of Chinese cinema and media at Columbia University. She’s interested in understanding the role of media and mediation in shaping politics, forming knowledge, and connecting realms of experience. Her forthcoming book, Becoming Reality: Documentary Cinema in Chinese Revolutions studies uses documentary as a prism to examine the role of media in producing and regulating the epistemological and emotional upheavals inherent to radical re-orderings of the society. Her articles have appeared in Critical Inquiry, New Left Review, China Perspectives, Oxford Handbook of Chinese Cinemas, New Literary History of Modern China, and other journals and volumes.
Takuya Tsunoda is Assistant Professor of Japanese cinema and media in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. His primary research centers on the interplay between institutions and media, technologies and socio-cultural practices, various modes of reflexivity, science and material culture, and representation and knowledge formations. He is currently working on a book that examines the history of audio-visual education and its relation to the new cinemas of the 1960s in Japan.
Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky is Associate Professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. She works on transnational political cinema, with a special focus on Latin America. Her first book, The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor, was published by Duke University Press (2020). Her essays have appeared in Cinema Journal, the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, Social Identities, Hispanófila, and in The Routledge Companion to Latin American Cinema. She is currently working on two projects: one titled Filming the Police; and a second one about the talking head in nonfiction filmmaking.
Nicholas Baer is Assistant Professor of Film at the University of Groningen and Research Fellow at the Alfried Krupp Institute for Advanced Study in Greifswald. He co-edited the award-winning The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907–1933 (University of California Press, 2016) and Unwatchable (Rutgers University Press, 2019). Baer has published on film and media, critical theory, and intellectual history in journals such as Film Quarterly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Seminar, and October, and his writings have been translated into six languages. At present, he is completing a monograph, Historical Turns: Weimar Cinema and the Crisis of Historicism.
Raisa Sidenova is a Lecturer in Film Theory at Newcastle University. Her research focuses on history and theory of non-fiction film, film history and historiography, cinemas of the Soviet republics, Russian and Soviet cinema. She’s currently working on a monograph, Pravda to Vérité: Soviet Documentary between Stalinism and Perestroika, which explores how Soviet documentary practice transformed with the changes in the mediascape, Soviet film industry and the public sphere from the end of World War II to the Gorbachev reforms of the late 1980s.