New life: the hybridised documentary

Erik Roberts

Last December, Brisbane’s South Bank and the Queensland Conservatorium provided a relaxed, hospitable ambience for the 2001 Visible Evidence Conference, a 4-day event that brought together 60 documentary theorists from North and South America, the UK and Europe, New Zealand and Australia. Organised by Griffith University, convened by Dr Jane Roscoe from Griffith’s School of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, and sponsored by the Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy (CMP), Visible Evidence IX was a rare opportunity to participate in a challenging multi-disciplinary discussion about an international screen genre as old as the cinema itself, one that continues to excite passionate minds.
Leading the charge, Michael Renov, Jean-Luc Lioult, Malin Wahlberg and Gillian Leahy traced the discursive boundaries of the documentary avant-garde. The challenge of combining creative experimentation with documentary authenticity (Lioult), the “expressive and phenomenological impact of temporalisation in non-fictitious films” (Wahlberg) and the legacy of pioneer avant-garde filmmakers in Australia (Leahy) served to contextualise Renov’s assertion that through an act of critical reclamation, “the documentary field can be enlarged and re-energised.”

A way of transcending the old dichotomy between lyrical and didactic documentary schools was outlined in John Hookham and Gary MacLennan’s paper, “Magical Transformations: Aesthetic Challenges for the New Documentary”. It proposed a renaissance of magic realism and the poetic documentary tradition’s attempts to “discover” the genuine complexity of life-as-it-is, and to express it with “exuberance and sincerity.” Novelist Beth Spencer advocated the cross fertilisation of fictive and factual in the research and writing phase of her work as a highly experimental stratagem which aims “to explore the place where emotion and intellect are inseparable.” In an historical paper, “Captain Bligh’s Chronometer”, Daryl Dellora (The Edge of the Possible, A Mirror to the People) revealed his current research findings for a fascinating historical documentary work in progress.

Evening screen seminars included Norwegian scholar Gunnar Strom, and artist-filmmakers Lee Whitmore and Dennis Tupicoff’s presentations on the irrepressible capacity of animation to distil the essence of the actual. A conversation with documentary filmmaker John Hughes and US documentary theoretician and author Michael Renov at the Tivoli Theatre was another highlight.

Finally, one evident sign of a real paradigmatic shift in documentary form emerged—the work of the Labyrinth Project at USC’s Annenberg Centre for Communication. The research initiative, directed by Marsha Kinder since 1997, is pushing the creative and conceptual boundaries of interactive (non-linear) narrativity in new, evocative directions. Mysteries and Desires: Searching the Worlds of John Rechy and Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O’Neill both demonstrated the existence of largely uncharted psychological and cinematic potentials of interactive interface design to inform as well as ‘touch’ the seeker.

By integrating the visual principles and narrative experiments of early film avant-garde (Vertov, Ruttmann, Lye, etc) and the temporal distortions of French new wave auteurs (Resnais, Rivette, Marker, etc) with unpredictable, sensual forms of interactivity, the Labyrinth Project is consciously reclaiming the dream state as a primary model and mode of multi-dimensional, reality-based, cinematic communication.

Despite the cultural and commercial implications of Big Brother and its ilk, anyone who attended Visible Evidence IX would be hard to convince that we are entering a ‘post-documentary’ era. The weight of submitted evidence suggests that, more probably, the ongoing hybridisation of the documentary medium is a response by filmmakers not only to new technology but to more inclusive, emergent, definitions of ‘truth’ as the living synthesis of intimately related environmental and human events.

The more we see the screen as a mirror
rather than an escape hatch, the more
we will be prepared for what is to come.
Hugh Gray, What is Cinema? Selected essays by André Bazin (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967)

Visible Evidence IX Conference, Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, Dec 17-20, 2001

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 18

© Erik Roberts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002