Presented and peer-reviewed at the 74th University Film and Video Association Conference
“The machine makes us ashamed of man's inability to control himself, but what are we to do if electricity's unerring ways are more exciting to us than the disorderly haste of active men and the corrupting inertia of passive ones?
Saws dancing at a sawmill convey to us a joy more intimate and intelligible than that on human dance floors. For his inability to control his movements, WE temporarily exclude man as a subject for film. Our path leads through the poetry of machines, from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric man. In revealing the machine's soul, in causing the worker to love his workbench, the peasant his tractor, the engineer his engine we introduce creative joy into all mechanical labor, we bring people into closer kinship with machines, we foster new people.
The new man, free of unwieldiness and clumsiness, will have the light, precise movements of machines, and he will be the gratifying subject of our films.”
~ Dziga Vertov, WE: Variant of a Manifesto, 1922.
Documentary and Post-Cinema:
Potentials and Uncertainties of Documentary Production in the Post-Cinematic Age.
by Nich L. Perez
Dziga Vertov’s notion of the “new man” in his Manifesto resounds to the beat of the post-cinematic. Known as one of the pioneer documentary filmmakers who used the earliest movie cameras to capture actualities, Vertov had foreseen the evolving subjectivity and processes in the realm of the realist tradition of filmmaking. In today’s ground-breaking non-fiction virtual reality and other new platforms of documentary storytelling, we can witness the emergence of this “new man” in the “poetry of machines.” The democratization of cinema has changed the terrain of storytelling, and the craft of investigating the truth or shared truths continues to evolve. In this evolution, the documentary genre also has become more fluid, bringing uncertainty to its essence and processes as a result of the various shifts in technology and culture. Digital reigns in these times as new platforms and multi-layered storytelling thrive. On the other hand, the anticipation of its potentials is rooted in the advancements that are quite fecund to new possibilities. Without the digital format, many filmmakers would not have had the opportunity to make media projects in the past couple of decades. And more Hollywood filmmakers have shifted from film to digital, including the legendary Roger Deakins who has converted to digital after years of shooting on film. Documentarians, in particular, have reaped the value of the post-cinematic or post-media, allowing them to shoot, curate, edit, and project digitally, liberated from the shackles of the reel and the photochemical process. And the availability of affordable equipment and the ravening use of the Internet bolster the capacity of filmmakers and media makers to achieve shots that have never been done before and to distribute their work on a massive scale.
National Geographic photographer and conservationist, Paul Nicklen, in collaboration with research biologists, attached GoPro cameras to polar bears in the Arctic sea ice in the northern part of Alaska to study the impact of Global Warming. In their hours of footage, they were able to capture on video the suffering and starvation of a dying bear in its last few moments, which has gone viral online. The documentary possibilities of this specific example are exponential from a storytelling perspective, bringing to light the looming reality of climate change. The customized “bear-cam” gave these researchers a myriad of new data of not only the bear population but also the evidence for the need to reduce the greenhouse effect gas emissions. Despite the harrowing nature of this situation, these are exciting times for documentary filmmakers. The question for documentarians, however, in line with the surge of the redefinition of the cinematic apparatus and the evolution of the digital culture, lies in the rapidly evolving subjectivity in the form and content. In theory and practice, this surge may impact the production process. To put it plainly, what happens when we do not need the camera anymore to make documentaries? The emergence of new documentary forms presents abundant new possibilities in this genre, specifically on how the narrative is captured, generated, enhanced, and presented; but also, it is leaving behind some core values and fundamental documentary attributes that only the traditional non-fiction narrative allows audiences and filmmakers to experience.
Essentially, documentary relies on the validity of arguments as expressed in the authority of exposition and the quality of evidentiary media, which can be in question with the dissolution of the apparatus. How will this narrative and production process be affected in this post-cinematic evolution? Will the scope of documentary filmmaking change as the apparatuses advance in more convenient and voracious ways: highly portable and digitally enhanced? And as we veer towards the post-human, how will the documentary subjectivity change? And what might be the possible ethical implications in the art of crafting the truth in the age of Post-Media? These questions are quite expansive for a short essay such as this. However, it will hopefully highlight a few integral points to address the potentials and uncertainties that will affect documentary filmmakers in the future of cinema. The point here is not to prognosticate, but hoping to offer a few insights by examining early and recent works in the non-fiction post-media realm, and to discuss the implications in the future of documentary filmmakers as the trend continues to evolve.
The Characteristics of the Post-Cinematic
In contemporary cinema, the evolution of theories and practices has steadily been moving from the two-dimensional screen to the world around us. Its ubiquity has been pushed from the theater to museums and gallery settings. New media formats have been methodically crafted and projected into architecture and the built environment. And they are handily available on mobile devices, websites, and gaming consoles. And with this comes a redefinition of the 20th century’s primary vehicle for storytelling as new expressions arise that dismantle the spatial and temporal codes of classical filmmaking. Editors of the book “Post Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film,” Shane Denson and Julia Leyda emphasize the defining characteristics of these newer media as “essentially digital, interactive, networked, ludic, miniaturized, mobile, social, processual, algorithmic, aggregative, environmental or convergent, among other things.” So the notion of Post-Cinema, as expressed by these researchers, is the cumulative impact of these newer media and its “broad historical transformation - emblematized by the shift from cinema to post-cinema.” From the production perspective, these changes brought in an array of new processes accompanied by these new media technologies. For instance, the Digital Image Technician (DIT), Joshua Gollish, has worked on several films like the 2019 Academy-Award winning film, 1917, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and Skyfall (2012). Jobs like the DIT are a relatively new position that came up as digital cameras are more frequently used in high-end productions. And in its development, comes a higher quality of moving images that is at par or even debatably better than film. In this regard, the characteristics, the pixel quality, and the flexibility in this post-cinematic environment have allowed media makers and artists to branch out. Post-media researcher, Ágnes Pethő, posits that “By the turn of the millennium, the whole “ecosystem” of media has been radically altered through the processes of hybridization and media convergence.” She points out that the convergence in this cinematic medium as a unifying effect of digitization poses new challenges to the consumer, the producer, and the theorist. And documentary filmmakers are no strangers to these challenges.
The Evolution of Documentary in Content and Execution.
Documentary is historically a propaganda tool and “a form of cinematic pedagogy” as expressed by John Grierson. It has paradigmatically become a threshold for non-fiction cinema. The goal of Grierson, as quoted by cultural theorist, Pooja Rangan, is “social first, not aesthetic,” which means that documentary films for Grierson are meant to address the social problems to educate the public, considering that this was during the Second World War. Throughout the decades, however, documentary has transcended into various multimedia platforms, from reality television, web docs to non-fiction virtual reality; the narrative has jumped a long way from its genesis. Almost eighty years after Grierson, documentary has ontologically transformed to something much more different than the Man with a Movie Camera, where form and content have evolved into a more complex documentary experience other than its social or aesthetic beginnings. Its latter forms have become a staple for many, with its accessibility through streaming and handheld devices. And on the eve of Virtual Reality (VR), Extended Reality (XR), Mixed Reality (MR), and Augmented Reality (AR), their ubiquity is unquestionable. This has allowed more media makers to be challenged by the post-cinematic culture and technology. Emerging media have weaved new and unique ways of presenting stories and ideas that differ from the traditional filmmaking process and the classical cinematic experience.
Emerging Documentary Forms and Post Human Subjectivity
The post-cinematic structure of documentary films has become much more diversified with the emergence of virtual subjectivity that Alisa Lebow unravels. She posits that “the disembodiment of traditional cinema and video is further enacted, making questions of ‘autobiography’ and first-person all the more abstract and unfamiliarised.” This is of course in the context of first-person documentaries that has been exacerbated with selfies, video blogs, and live streaming that somewhat fall within the realm of the documentary experience. However, the question is: will this process be enough to investigate the ‘truth,’ which documentary filmmakers are fueled by? In a culture dominated by selfies, social media influencers, and an immoderate Epicurean drive for pixels and likes, there seems to be a lacking of emphasis on the importance of in-depth exploration, observation, and dissection of issues, which are necessary to gather the evidentiary media required in a solid documentary film. Natalie Bookchin’s 2009 video installation, Mass Ornament, documented this drive for pixels when she curated and edited together hundreds of dance videos from Youtube. A prime example of new media, this single-channel video art has split screens of people dancing in the privacy of their homes that brilliantly explores the relationship we have with our cameras and screens. The abstraction and unfamiliarity of the subject may come from the fragmented self that is represented in the snippets of personalized data and exposition in these emerging forms. In traditional documentary films, the filmmaker puts the subject through a more critical lens. Subjectivity in this form can be more profound in the investigation of arguments, not just pieces. Documentaries break down the facts with temporality and a solid in-depth narrative structure as allies. Such profundity and criticality are often present in the experience when watching the works of Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Joshua Oppenheimer, Werner Herzog, and other traditional documentary filmmakers who took their time and creativity in their investigation and dissection of truths. And their work is not just a presentation of facts, but the truthful essences of issues and the deeper truth that the character is sharing, which in my opinion can never be fully replicated by these new forms. Some new media only offer glimpses and a different level of immersion to issues, if one compares the experience in a museum versus watching a feature-length documentary. The virtual identities and self-representations in this post-media environment are entertaining, temporary, and deletable, especially in the documentary experience on video-sharing applications, like Youtube, Instagram, or the fastest-growing TikTok that has been downloaded 1.5 billion times in a span of a year and a half. The impermanence of these moving images can make one question the strength of their veracity due to their greater solipsistic tendencies.
On the other hand, the potentials of emerging media are also promising. Using the post-human concepts advocated by the contemporary philosopher and feminist theoretician, Rosi Braidotti, the post-cinematic subject of the documentary can be analyzed. She offers the documentary filmmaker a unique perspective in addressing actualities through the lens. If applied, the documentarian can dig deeper without the blemishes on the lens of humanism, with a materialist and vitalist post-human subjectivity that stresses the need for “a vision of the subject that is ‘worthy of the present’.” Braidotti underlines the post-human attributes that may allow more emphasis on the subject, and challenges creators to “leap forward into the complexities and paradoxes of our times,” all of which requires to have “new conceptual creativity.” From a theoretical level, these post-human concepts may be able to suppress the abstraction and unfamiliarity, allowing a different level of intention in the process of storytelling. With this, the documentarians’ lenses may focus on actualities that undermine the boundaries between the human, the animal, and the technological.
I believe this new conceptual creativity as applied to the documentary narrative can be an essential impetus to challenge its current structure. The post-cinematic offers an array of possibilities for the filmmaker in the format of its “creative expression of actuality,” as Grierson defined it. Fifty-three years later, Dirk Eitzen, a documentary filmmaker, writes about the infinity of “actuality,” which he affirms, can never be wholly represented. He continues,
“Any representation is a selective view of the world. All representations of actuality must choose which aspects to include and which to leave out. Decisions are made to emphasize one element and to downplay others, to assert some truths, and to ignore others. First, the documentary maker has to determine what actuality is worth
This method of selection synergizes with what Braidotti describes as “vitalist materialism” which emphasizes the self-organizing vitality of all living systems that take the focus off the Anthropos. Nowadays, documentary series and non-fiction media have devoted their focus to nature, the cosmos, and other nonhuman related topics that are available anytime and anywhere through a variety of platforms from Netflix to BBC Earth. Newer platforms online like the interactive documentary, Bear 71, was rereleased in 2017 as a virtual reality experience, following the life of a grizzly bear in the Banff National Park. The 20-minute WebVR documentary hovers over an interactive map highlighting also other animals with trail camera footage and stats on their lives. While it offers a unique perspective of the grizzlies that were killed in train collisions, including Bear 71, its focus emphasizes our relationship with nature and technology. This post-anthropocentric focus and style, I suggest, can be a unique way to process the subject, form, and narrative of documentaries, adding another layer to how the documentary filmmaker crafts actuality. The documentary lens is recalibrated from its default settings of hierarchy in a more advanced and inclusive view of the world.
New Platforms, New Potentials, and the Ethics in Capturing and Presenting Reality
Animated works, interactive documentary games, and web documentaries are also innovations with this new conceptual creativity on recording media to reality. The performative cartography, mobility, and the interactive elements of these new forms have been groundbreaking, creating a non-linear documentary form realized through crowd-sourced imagery, availability of sophisticated pocket cameras, and Fifth Generation (5G) networked connectivity. However, compared to the popularity of traditional documentary films, some of these newer media have a limited audience reach due to the nature of their presentation and are still in their infancy. Many of these projects are only available in museums and galleries, and VR equipment is still quite expensive. Despite this, one may argue that such forms expand the capacity for collaboration for this new generation of moving images. The Open Documentary Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology creates and curates many of these research projects and documentary media that go beyond the traditional documentary film format. On their rationale, they ask pertinent questions on the potentials and uncertainties of documentary as part of this post-cinematic phenomenon:
“If we are indeed witnessing the emergence of a new form of representation, what can we broker from past moments of change to facilitate our move into the future? How can we evaluate this new work –
what descriptive terminology and frameworks for assessment are most useful? What trends can we discern? What are the implications for the style, authorship, and craft of filmmaking of these collaboratively sourced and edited moving images? And how can we work with our funding agencies,
exhibition venues, and archival systems to give these new and often challenging practices a place in our
A number of these projects available through MIT’s Docubase and other emerging media programs like the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Program navigate through these questions, many of which discover untapped potentials for creativity. However, in its hopeful search for answers, especially in these winds of change, we also probably should ask, ‘will these new forms replace the old?’ And if it does, what will we lose regardless of what we will gain? As promising and dynamic as these new forms are, we should address as filmmakers and scholars the ethical and fundamental values in non-fiction storytelling as we discern the new and the old, recalling the dissolution of film and the photochemical process as a historical event. Not just from a theoretical perspective in nostalgia, but also from the way the craft is practiced.
Documentary filmmaker and emerging media consultant, Sue Ding, explores the potentials and future of Augmented Reality (AR) on a piece she wrote for the International Documentary Association. Augmented Reality is defined as the “digital content overlaid on the physical world,” which is an interactive experience enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information with the use of a mobile device. Along with documentary AR, she examines Extended Reality, Mixed Reality, and Virtual Reality that are in flux in their terminology and definition due to hybridization and convergence in praxis. Through these years, the genre has helped pioneer the developments of these emerging media, and has empowered media creators to develop new strategies to specific documentary goals; goals that are not just merely for dilettante purposes but are communal and edifying. Considering that these technologies are in their early stages, the possibilities are endless despite the difficulties they face in the pitfalls of its tools and processes. Also, she adds, “AR and related technologies present serious ethical concerns, including biometric surveillance, exclusionary algorithms, and a lack of diversity in terms of who can experience and create these new media.” This is another level of challenge that filmmakers and media makers will face in the post-cinematic.
Multimedia elements in transmedia documentaries are also apparent. Utilized by journalists and media makers to report painstaking analyses of different issues and actualities, they set a bar to a visual culture that is not primarily film-based. Flora Lichtman and Sharon Shattuck made, ‘Animated Life: Seeing the Invisible,’ an animated documentary for the New York Times Op-Docs in 2014. The animated piece explores the discovery of microbes through the story of the scientist, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and digitally captured. The narrative, however, is represented with papier-mâché on strings supported with the voices of different experts as they discuss the pivotal moments of Leeuwenhoek’s discovery and inventions. The documentary evidence here is persuasive despite its animated nature. It also dispels the preconception of the fictional structure of cartoons, as the storytellers align the insights with scientific facts and history. Despite the alien nature of the texture of this piece, there is order and purpose in its investigation, and it is entertaining and informative. Since the early 2000s, animated documentaries like Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir,’ have left deep impressions with ink and paper, changing the terrain of non-fiction storytelling on a different level.
Web documentaries, Cross-platform and locative documentaries share similar characteristics and technologies in the recording and presentation of the real. In 2013, one of the earlier examples of web documentaries is from Miquel Dewever-Plana and Isabelle Fougère. ‘Alma: A Tale of Violence,’ uniquely presents the story of a young Guatemalan woman who was a member of the Maras, a violent gang that plunged her into the Guatemalan underworld. The merging of filmed interviews and interactive web modules creates a riveting pedagogical background to her story and the hardships of her community. With Flash Player and the computer’s mouse, the user can explore the violent subculture that Alma has experienced for five years, highlighting visually striking documentary media. Since this project, many web documentaries and Cross-platform projects have become slicker and more advanced in their methods, covering a multitude of stories globally.
In some of these new forms, however, the documentarian, in many ways, disappears. It is as if the machine takes over, how data is captured and presented. With the personalized and individualistic capture in some post-cinematic projects, audiences become the participants. They become the center of the work. Blast Theory, a group of interactive artists based in the United Kingdom pioneered a variety of projects that pushed the envelope with a locative documentary narrative. One of their primordial projects that started in 2007 is called Rider Spoke. It is an interactive bike ride equipped with a smartphone, earphones, and a microphone, allowing the cyclist to uniquely document their relationship with their city. As they bike around in certain areas, participants answer questions and record them through their devices. With this recording of reality, “the whole city becomes a documentary space. This version of domestic ethnography or epistolary has transformed the narrative process to a more personal and locative-based media creation, as it explores “the documentary space as a lived experience.” Documentary film scholar, Michael Renov, points out that documentary is an “impure art form”, and the impurity or the diversity of the “creative expression of actuality” from the Griersonian frame of thought, resides on what is real for the filmmaker and in the crafting of these actualities. This form of non-fiction storytelling that new media projects have used, similar to Rider Spoke, is phenomenologically a creative expression, for the process of recording and retelling creates an organic narrative in response to the apparatus and the environment that becomes a documentary space. In a review of post-cinematic projects, the same concepts have been used for these most recent media technologies. Traditional documentary makers might disagree with these processes, depending on the context of the narrative they are exploring. A different level of collaboration takes place in the capture of evidentiary media between the participant and the filmmaker in a traditional documentary setting. It takes skills and experience to extract the truth of a situation without violating its mysteries, as Jane Chapman puts it when describing the process of the films of Errol Morris. And such processes can be lost, also especially in the individualistic process of documentary capture during live-streaming, or in the ‘broadcast-yourself’ attitude that is quite prevalent in today’s media culture. Media academic, John Ellis, argues that digital technologies have transformed documentary for both filmmakers and audiences, and the audience specifically has developed a new sophistication and skepticism towards the genre. And these new methods are changing the ways we acquire media assets that set up a new approach to archival materials, which eventually might affect this genre’s central motivation: the truth.
New Approaches to Archival and the Database Narrative
In the past years, marketing and technology companies estimate a gargantuan amount of data created every day. It is estimated that in every minute, four hundred hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube around the world, and in a day, people watch a billion hours of these videos. This excludes the video uploads from other applications, and they claim that “90 percent of the data in the world was generated over the last two years alone”. Notwithstanding the accuracy of these numbers, it still gives an overview of how much a documentary media maker can achieve with this overabundance of archival media assets. The hard-line in this, however, outside of the theoretical framework, is that eventually, the documentary genre might become just merely data in a collection of data; codes, and algorithms taking form in the narrative. Among the assertions on new media is that they lack strong narrative components, picked from a “structured collection of data”. Digital theorist, Lev Manovich explains the complexities of database narrative in his book, ‘The Language of New Media. Manovich, who considers Dziga Vertov as a major “database filmmaker of the twentieth century,” and the Man with a Movie Camera as “the most important example of database imagination in modern media art,” also claims that “database becomes the center of the creative process in the computer age.” The core of a documentary production usually consists of a database of interviews, supplementary footage, and archival media assets, pieced together to form a cohesive narrative and investigation to extract the essence of truth in the characters and situations. But narrative, according to Manovich, is the natural enemy with the database because in the cultural form “the narrative creates a cause-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items,” unlike the database, it puts the representation of the world as an ordered list. In a digital environment full of available data, and a database composed of surveillance, sousveillance, and drone cameras added to the collection of personalized data, this takes us one step further into this evolving idea of the documentary narrative. For a non-fiction filmmaker, depending again on the context, this is a pot of gold, piecing together documentary jewels in the digital archives of film grains and pixels. This can ultimately become a new level of realism, a synthetic realism, which for sure has dire ethical implications that dispel the primordial responsibilities that the documentarian possesses. And once we have delved further into this, authenticity will be questioned. As documentary makers adapt to these new areas of narrativity, in the end, what always sets them apart in this post-cinematic adventure is their quest for the truth. But will these new ways of capturing and presenting truth become impediments? Or will they empower them in this quest? For now, in this stage of infancy for many of these new forms, we must ask: how can we maintain the depth and authenticity of our stories as we adapt to these changes?
The Documentarian’s Uncertainties in the Post-Cinematic
In retrospect, there is much to hope for in these evolving technologies and processes that may revolutionize the realist tradition of cinema, but we should never dismiss the lingering uncertainties in the future of this genre in the post-cinematic. Even though many of these emerging media technologies offer panoptic perspectives, eliminating the frame for an immersive experience, some level of loss may occur towards the spectator’s cinematic experience, and in its medium specificity. This is not just a matter of psychoanalytic theories of spectatorship that Richard Allen dissects, because, with documentaries, we are never depicting an illusion; documentaries offer context to a complex situation that spectators can analyze. But will these methods be enough to give justice to the stories that need telling? With the traditional cinematic experience, there is a certain depth and temporality that serves an effective pedagogical and expositional operation. For instance, the Kuleshov Effect may not be as effective when used in a VR documentary, and so as a thought-provoking montage that a filmmaker like Jonas Mekas might create in his films. In the VR documentary of Gabo Arora and Barry Pousman, the story of a 12-year-old Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Za’atari, Jordan is told. Clouds Over Sidra is quite a unique experience compared to other documentary forms for it shows the viewers the realities of the Syrian Refugee Crisis in an 8-minute virtual experience. Despite its success, it still does not give a deeper understanding of who Sidra is and the quagmire of war as presented in her struggles together with her family. Debatably, if crafted through a feature-length documentary structure, the process can wield a much stronger impact on telling her story.
This is not to put down the potentials of VR and other non-fiction emerging media, but in this way of just capturing moments and presenting a vague sense of reality, “documentary skills” might be lost in the process. Documentarians create a certain depth in their narratives as they weave the strands of moments of the participant and the situation. The film grains, pixels, and sounds captured in their apparatus create the meaning in the ordering of their sequences, in the nature of their soundtrack. And the context through the ordering of the shots and various production devices makes it clear, to give us an understanding of the function and beauty of what they create. And such is made possible by the skills of filmmakers, wisdom, and competence harnessed through time and hard work, which may wane if we rely too much on databases and algorithms. The auteur documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, eloquently exclaims that “facts do not constitute the truth.” Using the phonebook as an analogy, he compares the process of documentary storytelling as not just the reporting of facts, for the contact information in phonebooks do not “inspire and illuminate.” “The filmmaker,” he adds, “is always in a voyage of discovery,” seeking that deeper truth, which in the production of these newer media may take for granted in the post-cinematic.
Creative authorship might also be in peril as the voice of the documentarian continues to fade in some of these new processes. The documentary experience in locative and augmented documentaries are innovative ways to address and capture reality; its participatory nature brings in a collaborative way to phenomenologically record and encapsulate an idea or experience. But to be able to capture such ideas and experiences through a filmmaker’s lens creates a distance between the participant and the filmmaker, the screen and the spectator, which again, debatably is far more effective. Film professor and writer, Tom Gunning, points out an interesting argument with raw materials like this, that they are “too raw, too close to reality and bereft of artistic or conceptual shaping (compared to a more “cooked” documentary), (that) doesn’t take us very far.” I agree with Gunning’s insights, and with post-cinema’s way of presenting such materials we might lose the dialogical relations and the drama in the nonfiction narrative, and such requires the voice of the documentary maker to set up that space and interaction.
Vertov’s new man might lose the frame in the post-cinematic and the new apparatus somewhat becomes the new man. Perhaps this is the new “electric man” that the Man with the Movie Camera reveals. And perhaps with this new conceptual creativity, we may achieve a new creative joy. Questions will always come with these uncertainties, and a sense of awe will arrive in the wake of its potentials, but all of these come as an adventure. For the documentarian, the hope is that they will never lose that voice and the truth that is the central motivation of their form, in the narrative of the future.
This essay benefitted from discussions with Holly Willis, Michael Renov, and their students at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.
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(c) 2021 Nich L Perez