Videos from the Documentary Real Symposium

I came across these videos via WMMNA. These talks were taped during the symposium The Documentary Real which occurred on October 21, 2010 at Domzaal, Art Centre Vooruit. The event invited artists and theorists to "interrogate the ambiguous relation between documentary film and reality." I've only had a chance to review the two Gregos and Bruzzi clips posted below, which both emphasize the changing notion of the "real" within a heterogeneous media landscape, especially with the advent of the internet. All the talks are available on the site, here.

Katerina Gregos "The Elastic Documentary"

It has been a number of years that the so-called ‘documentary turn’ has become a frequent phenomenon in many artists’ films. The talk will be a comparative look into recent documentary practices that diverge from the orthodoxy of documentary as ‘factual’ film’, a notion which contemporary artists have repeatedly challenged of late. These artists working from a documentary point of departure use multiple strategies to reveal known or hidden ‘truths’, sometimes weaving fictional elements into their stories. Many of them demonstrate that ‘truth value’ does not lie in mere representation but may emerge even more forceful through artistic abstraction, translation, filtering and interpretation and that nowadays the borderline between documentary and fiction, or reality and fantasy is often becoming hard to distinguish. The talk aims to illustrate that the notion of the ‘documentary real’ is continuously evolving and cannot now be pinned down to a single definition or delineated through specific boundaries. Indeed it aims to show that some of the most interesting documentary practices are those which I call documentary ‘with a twist’, i.e. films that interweave the political with the poetic, and navigate between different filmic categories to arrive at highly individualistic hybrid documentary forms where the notion of realism is in constant renewal and the idea of ‘fact’ or ‘truth’ may be encoded into ambiguous but no less potent forms.

Stella Bruzzi "Approximation: Mad Men, the death of JFK and nearly history"

This paper will offer a response to our current preoccupation with diversifying the ways in which the media and related cultural forms represent, use and manipulate real events, to be investigated here against the backdrop of recent important technological advances. In this, the second decade of the 21st century, we are witnessing a particularly significant convergence of momentous historical events and huge changes to our audiovisual media, an inevitable and welcome consequence of which is a global reassessment of how images are compiled, constructed, valued and received. Within this overarching framework, my attention will remain on factual and historical representation and, more specifically, what happens to the integrity of the original facts, documents and documentary at a time when the use of these fact related forms by other media is altering our understanding of them completely. With the proliferation of DVD and the arrival of new, primarily internet-based viewing and distributing platforms, recognised, discrete categories such as ‘documentary’, ‘dramatisation’ and ‘fiction’ are undergoing radical reassessment. In 1999, James M. Moran pondered the problem documentary theory faced from ‘the digital code’s circumvention of analogue recording’ (Collecting Visible Evidence, eds. Gaines and Renov: 267). Belief in the indexical properties of the factual analogue image has since been questioned (cf. my New Documentary), but the impact of the digital on how we interpret the authenticity of the factual image is only now being fully realised. In the digital age documents are available to be reworked, not just by filmmakers but also by viewers.

What is occurring is an excitable flirtation with how to show and perform facts and evidence, with mixing genres and switching cultural arenas, the collective effect of which I want to explore through the concept of ‘approximation’, a term used in this context to signal works whose aim is to approximate reality rather than more straightforwardly represent it. Although the documents and facts on which ‘approximate’ texts are based remain pre-eminent, it is the detachment between the two that remains the focus of my research as the films I want to examine largely occupy that area of representation that both transcribes information and factual events and transgresses the sometimes crudely delineated boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. This project is driven by the resulting dynamic relationship between raw documentary data (documents, archive, news etc) and their re-use and repackaging in films. What ‘approximation’ offers is the mise-en-scene or staging of fact and history: a place where what is known about a historical event, a factual occurrence, a real person is inserted into a narrative, not in order to be collapsed into fiction, but to co-exist in collision with it. ‘Approximations’ are propelled by the frisson of recognition: of knowing a film or drama’s point of reference, but also being able to recognise that the reconstruction and the point of reference are not equivalents. It is into this gap that we insert our desires, convictions and opinions.

My paper will focus on historical moments as incidental events, focusing on the use of history in the American television series Mad Men (Matthew Weiner, 2007.) I would analyse as approximations the casual interjections of historical events into narratives that are otherwise entirely fictitious. Mad Men spans the late 1950s to the early 1960s; momentous contemporary events (the 1960 presidential election, the Cuban missile crisis, Medger Evers’ murder, JFK’s assassination) are inserted almost incidentally. The JFK episode from Series 3 raises key issues of approximation and shared consciousness by drawing on not only the familiar news footage from November 1963 but also our shared consciousness of what was not instantly available, notably the Zapruder film. Mad Men inhabits a design-oriented space that lovingly recreates via décor and costume an ‘authentic’ early ‘60s milieu; the insertion of real events into this pristine pastiche leads to a re-evaluation of different levels of authenticity and exemplifies the manner in which approximation works by inter-layering and cross-referring between texts that share a common point of reference and, through being viewed collectively, lead to an imaginative reconfiguration of it.