Speculative Documentary

How to describe the contemporary state of documentary? Is the term “documentary” itself any longer adequate to describe the complex set of ways in which dimensions of non-fiction (itself a problematic concept) are explored and elaborated? Perhaps in employing it, in imagining that documentary can become ‘expanded’, we are just demonstrating a residual and nostalgic affection for a field that no longer has the power to encompass what John Grierson defined in the early 1930s as “the creative treatment of actuality”.[1]

The problem, curiously enough, is less that that documentary has lost relevance altogether than it seems to have pursued multiple, incompatible fates. It is at once everywhere – in reality television, advertising, fiction film, pornography, surveillance and web-cam footage – and nowhere; the critical auteurist tradition of documentary has largely disappeared. In disappearing, however, the latter tradition has also endlessly proliferated in all manner of well-observed and disarmingly particular blogs [2], as well as small on-line videos that, while never attracting a wide audience, nonetheless seem, however unsatisfactorily, to realize the democratic aims of the older tradition. Yet it is not just a matter of at once appearing and disappearing. Documentary has also been transformed. This has involved not just being realized in other terms, via new forms of media, new modes of networked distribution, and so on, but also, more precisely, by taking shape as what is not documentary, what does not think of itself in terms of the language and traditions of documentary – that may even ostensibly oppose itself to the latter’s apparently predictable space.

I am currently teaching a ‘new’ subject entitled, “New Documentary”. I taught similarly titled subjects in the 1980s or early 1990s. Back then everything was very focused on the independent film tradition. The term ‘new’ tended to signal a shift away from the apparent complacency of early documentary traditions, with their fond faith in notions of documentary truth and the like, towards forms that were explicitly self-reflexive, essayistic, and possibly included fiction or performance elements. Aligned with post-structural and post-modern critical theory, new documentary involved a focus on the politics of representation and a questioning of notions of documentary authenticity. Bill Nichols’ well-known catalogue of the various documentary modes – poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive and performative [3] – positioned contemporary documentary practice as a logical limit point (a terminal state of suspicion and self-awareness; like Hegel’s owl of Minerva – only taking flight at dusk [4]). But now none of this seems so certain – not the creative potential of this space, not its public, intellectual standing, not even its confident bracketing of the real.

Just last week I showed my class one of the classic films of that era, Chris Marker’s Sunless (1983). They were profoundly unimpressed, finding it boring, disjointed and self-absorbed. I did my best to defend it, to explain how, for instance, its excessive narration works to undermine the tradition of expository narration, and also to clarify the various explicit and subterranean conceptual threads that tie the various sequences together, but it was to no avail. Appallingly, even for me, the film felt dated. While it remains historically and conceptually significant, I sensed that it no longer quite functions; all its insights concerning time, memory, representation, absence and the ephemeral no longer have the capacity to “quicken the heart”.[5] Is this because these themes are unpopular and have become less popular – or is it because our relation to the world has somehow changed?

In contrast, the students all loved Dennis O’Rourke’s Cunnamulla (1999). The film is just as thoughtful as Sunless, but avoids the latter’s forbidding (and playful) intellectualism, focusing on a subtle and more traditional ethnography of observation and story-telling. In its nodal structure – tying together a portrait of a small town through a mosaic of characters, distinct spaces and crossed paths – Cunnamulla seems now, in hindsight, to anticipate the possibility of forms of interactive, spatial-exploratory documentary (evident, for instance, in contemporary works such as SBS’s The Block (2012) and the Canadian, Katerina Cizek’s, Out My Window (2010) and One Millionth Tower (2011)). Yet at the same time, the artfulness of its interaction with the townspeople and the quality of the film’s observational strategies and editing suggest the dilemmas entailed in structuring modes of interaction that have any of the focus and deftly crafted critical edge of the best linear-sequential work. In this manner, while ostensibly ignoring the future, while appearing as one of the last exemplars of an apparently outmoded documentary tradition, Cunnamulla somehow discovers the capacity to provide a critique of contemporary work and to suggest alternative futures.

The Maysles brother’s Salesman (1967) provides a similar form of inspiration. Whereas in the past discussion may have centred around the limitations and naivete of its fly-on-the-wall observational approach, the film now appears as a intimate, wry and very smart examination of lower-class life in the United States during the mid 1960s. The constructed character of this portrait is plain, but this scarcely emerges as a key issue. It is not even quite, as Roland Barthes, argues in Camera Lucida, that the indexical truth of the depiction becomes paramount.[6] It is rather that the possibility of a relation to the real world no longer takes shape as a radical, irruptive possibility. Nor does a concern with the real appear entirely antithetical to a commitment to mediation and representation. Instead reality and representation seem to have evolved a new more complex and nuanced relationship.

Overall, the experience of revisiting the history of documentary film, watching again, for instance, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Walter Ruttmans’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), Pare Lorentz’s The River (1938), as well as the films already discussed, suggests other ways of making sense of the tradition, not simply in terms of some narrative of gradual critical self-consciousness, but also as a richly diverse field of experimental enquiry into, for instance, aspects of the exotic and the everyday. For example, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, is interesting not only for its symphonic architecture – its powerful choreographing of music, camera movement, editing and modern machinery – but also for its poetic concern for the everyday. I think of blurred views from a train of impoverished living conditions on the outskirts of Berlin and a memorable shot of a piece of paper blowing along an empty street. These moments chart legible associations to the artistic tradition of studies of everyday life, from the Surrealists through to George Perec and ethnographie proche (ethnography of the near)[7]. So, in reviewing the history of documentary film, other histories and other concerns appear. The tradition takes shape less as a progressive critique of the conditions of documentary representation, than as a field of illuminating, half-forgotten creative possibility.[8]

It would be impossible to point to a precise moment when documentary drifted away from the radical artistic tradition, when it became responsible, dull and thoroughly proscribed. The moment never happened and yet has constantly been elaborated. But a single moment will do. In the early days of Situationist critique, Guy Debord produced two documentaries, The Passage of a Few Persons through a Rather Brief Period of Time (1959) and Critique of Separation (1961). These films work precisely at the limit point that I described earlier. They employ representation in order to proclaim its absolute inadequacy, in order to insist that representation must be superseded by direct social action. The long sections of blank white and black footage, which Sunless references later, attest to the concrete materiality of film – the material lie of its shadow world, its empty, socially paralysing truths. And so, with this sense of having reached an end, Debord abandons film, shifting instead towards the realm – the utopia – of the literal situation, however susceptible the latter is to spectacular recuperation.

But, of course, the situation, reconceived as post-object art, as ephemeral event, as performance, etc. must still find a means of becoming publicly manifest. So, with little thought of the documentary tradition – regarded, when it is considered at all, as mainstream, irrelevant and utterly compromised – there is still the recognition of a need for documentation, for a record of that which determinately no longer exists. Yet it quickly becomes evident that while documentation certainly demonstrates an allegiance to the absent event, it also shapes another space – of display, installation and performance. Apart from just recording what happens, it plainly manifests things in other terms, reflecting upon them, assembling and disassembling them and reconstructing them in the interests of another, equally real, equally distinct event space. In this manner, while clearly not speaking the language of conventional documentary film, traditions of visual art documentation discover a correspondence with the fundamental aesthetic conditions of the documentary genre.

This may perhaps account for strands of contemporary art that explicitly aims to rethink the poetic possibilities of documentary. I am thinking, for instance, of the multi-screen installation work of artists such as Kutlug Ataman, Isaac Julien and Yang Fudong. The interesting thing about their work is the way in which it plainly foregrounds documentary as a play of choreographed light and sound – as a distinct space of embodied real and virtual interaction – while also projecting a new sense of spectacular visceral immediacy. It is as though these tendencies are no longer so clearly opposed. In this manner, a new dialogue between documentation and documentary, between the simplicity of recording and the necessity of aesthetic engagement and intervention, becomes evident.

In summary, our interest in the notion of documentary seems no longer governed by an overwhelming concern with representation as a space of loss. Both the real event and the field of mediation itself have taken shape as concrete, virtual and material fields. A concern with reality – not as a curiosity, not as an ineffable terrain of otherness, but instead as something pressing and intimately configured seems to be characteristic of contemporary practice; evident, for instance, most clearly in strands of socially-geared art. Also evident, of course, in the contemporary philosophical movement of “speculative realism”, which delights in reversing the Cartesian equation, insisting upon the priority of the real over any necessity for human subjects, codes of perception, etc.[9]

So we discover in contemporary expanded practice both an increased awareness of the aesthetic character of the document and a sense that reality has shifted from a distant, ultimately absent referent towards something demanding recognition, engagement and intervention. Within this shift, reality is no longer cast as some determined realm of fact, but as field of opening and manifestation. Resistance is now less about debunking the real and critically elaborating the various machinations of ideological illusion, than about inhabiting the real and enacting its practical reinvention. Within this context, documentary – an unpredictable, multiply configured space – takes shape as a means of conjoining action to speculation. It comes to represent not only a form of reflection, but also a mode of being in the world.

Brogan Bunt


  1. Grierson, J. (1933). “The Documentary Producer”. Cinema Quarterly, 2(1), 7-9.
  2. See, for instance, Lesley Buxton’s blog, Fall on me, Dear – Motherhood, writing and the girl who falls down: http://onmefall.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/putting-out-the-fire-with-gasoline/, accessed 20/8/2012
  3. Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
  4. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Preface (1820): http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/pr/preface.htm, accessed 20/8/2012
  5. A phrase employed in Sunless drawn from 11th century Japanese writings of Sei Shōnagon; Sei Shōnagon (1971). The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. trans. Ivan Morris, London: Penguin Books.
  6. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
  7. See Sherringham, M. 2006 Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present, Oxford University Press, Oxford
    here I am indebted to Sigfried Zielinski’s heterological conception of media art history in his 2006 Deep Time of the Media, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England; MIT Press
  8. See, for instance, Harman, Graham. 2010. Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.