Can Documentary Make Space?

Jason Fox

For Jonathan Kahana.

The New York poet Eileen Myles talks about poems as if they were parties. As a party host, they ask, to whom am I extending an invitation? When I write, what kind of space do I want to create and who am I making room for? Who will be excluded and who will feel welcomed? Will space be given or does it have to be claimed? To write a poem, they suggest, is to set parameters and then deliver a stack of invitations. To read a poem is to accept an invitation to navigate and expand those parameters, to participate in the life of the party, to help create, or demand, or sustain, or even shut down if necessary the possibilities that the poem proposes.

For Myles, writing a poem is neither necessarily political nor intrinsically ethical, but it can be both when it makes a new space for people who didn’t have space before to gather, or when it shifts someone’s imagination about what is socially possible, or even when it means that someone who doesn’t get paid to create usually does get paid and can afford to create again. A poem can be political if it allows someone a sense of freedom that they didn’t previously know how to demand or claim. Whatever else a poem may be for Myles, it is fundamentally the effort to invent a place to gather where there wasn’t one before.

Can documentary be discussed in the same way? I think that it should. Many people hear the term documentary and think of a mode of communication associated with sobriety, with didactic modes of speech, telling truths, and righting wrongs. Indeed, this isn’t a wholly inaccurate idea of what documentary is all about, even if it only speaks to a narrow band of contemporary documentary practice. John Grierson believed that documentary could cut through the noise in an “age of mass distraction” (as many called the onset of popular mass media culture in the 1920-30s), alerting viewers to serious social issues like homelessness and hunger. He convinced the British government to heavily invest in documentary as a primary vehicle for the state to communicate with its far-flung populace, and filmed with the lowest social classes in particular who often felt the most distant from the government’s priorities and attention. In this approach, documentary’s power comes through its direct address, its urgency and immediacy. He then brought his approach and conviction to Canada.

Hopinka Dislocation BlsuesDislocation Blues (Sky Hopinka, 2017)

Though Grierson’s vision of documentary was committed to bringing working people onto the big screen with agency and dignity for the first time, his approach has since been critiqued for doing so from above. A lot of the films he produced looked at cultures as fixed, as if they were part of a map. As useful as maps can be, they can only provide very rough guides to what constitutes a particular space. They often suggest that the world is out there to be understood rather than to be made. Further, they suggest that whoever is using one is not from around here.

Since the 1930’s, documentary has evolved considerably multiple times, spurred on in no small part by ever evolving technologies that have made affordable recording equipment into powerful tools in the hands of makers of multiple identity positions who are committed to social justice. But while documentary styles and approaches have grown and transformed considerably, the discourse that surrounds documentary has tended to remain grounded in conversations about the relationships between truth and authenticity, between social issue information and impact.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with such a focus. It’s useful to be able to determine the cultural position from which people speak and make work, what motivates them to do so, and the spirit in which they do it. But as long-standing critiques addressing documentary’s fraught relationship to truth make clear, it’s not the strongest position from which filmmakers, funders, or audiences working towards social justice from below can challenge those above. If truth is the stabilization of facts by power, then those desiring to challenge power with truth alone are going to find themselves on unsteady ground. Like maps, discourses of truth have a way of making invisible the people who comprise the spaces they claim to represent.

Why not think instead about the work that documentary can do in more sustaining terms? Where a discourse of sobriety is concerned with claims to explain things as they really are, good parties (or any number of other forms of gathering, such as a wake, a wedding, a communal meal, and so many other kinds of ceremonies) are concerned with creating hospitable spaces, with allowing enough trust to see where an invitation leads (trust as opposed to truth), and with providing a starting point for shared ground. They can momentarily build, acknowledge, or mark the passing of a world held in common.

For Myles, the party serves as a metaphor for a poem’s capacity, through subtle interactions of language, to nurture an empowering feeling of inclusion in an imagined community. But it’s not only a metaphor. Making space is also about attention to the social and material conditions that shape and are shaped by the production of a cultural object, as well as to the ways that works circulate, organizing people through intellectual, affective, and economic infrastructures as they go. Playing the host, then, means paying equal attention to social energies and the formal arrangements that gather them. In fact, some socially committed filmmakers already are.

For example, Dislocation Blues (2017), Sky Hopinka’s reflection upon his participation in the Standing Rock protests, is intimately concerned with the filmmaker’s struggle to locate himself within the felt sense of collective power amongst many of the indigenous occupants of the camp. With his friend Cleo Keahna, who appears in Dislocation Blues by way of a Skype conversation recorded months after the camp disbanded, Hopinka searches for a language to speak about their shared experience. As they do, Keahna speculates whether their recollection of their powerful shared experience at Standing Rock is accurate, or if they are just making it all up. The two provisionally conclude that it was in fact both. It was real in the sense that it happened, and it was invented in the sense that the physical infrastructure of the camp was transformed from day to day by the people who occupied it to accommodate fluctuations in its size and needs. Keahna recalls that fluidity extending beyond physical infrastructures to social forms such as gender identities as well.

Hopinka says that finding the formal logic of Dislocation Blues in the editing process was an attempt to locate and reproduce the internal energy that was particular to the Native peoples at the camp’s political and physical center, and to give it a second life through its circulation as a work of video. He does so by way of the fragment, gathering and juxtaposing bits of audio interviews and handheld video images; brief encounters that only take shape as they accumulate, much like the camp’s infrastructure. It’s a formal strategy arrived at in part to subvert the long history of appropriation of indigenous representations by colonizers. For Hopinka, the fragments are more difficult to appropriate because they eschew communicating information about what happened at Standing Rock, as if it were a homogenous event, in favor of small interactions and conversations that are not immediately legible to those lacking context. The provisional alliance between Native and non-native peoples at Standing Rock is thus echoed in the imagined audience of the video’s circulation.

Dislocation Blues, Hopinka says, is for anyone who wants to engage with it, but its shape is directly informed by his own caution against the predatory desires of a historically Western consumption of indigenous representations. In this way, Hopinka’s approach to form is always plural, connecting on-screen aesthetic concerns to off-screen social arrangements of people such that calling the work formalist would have to refer foremost to its interest in what complex pattern of coalitions indigenous-led political solidarity might take.

Participating in a social gathering requires displacement, a giving over of some sense of the space. I have to divest something particular of myself in order to participate in a relational social experience with others. Before attending such a gathering, I might want assurance that while my sense of self might be challenged, I will not be harmed in the act of that divestment. As a maker, I would do well to ask myself if I am giving warning signs that this party is exclusive, if it is closed to certain types of people, and what the terms of access are. In contrast, thinking about accessibility invites audience members, funders, and programmers to consider how often the tendency to describe a demanding film as inaccessible says more about a homogenizing set of assumptions about audiences’ unwillingness to be challenged than it does about the actual film in question. For Hopinka, whose work often appears within prestigious art institutions and film festivals, his frequently being asked in post-screening Q&A’s if indigenous people also get to view his videos produces the very exclusions the question wants to correct. “They are here too,” he will respond.[1] It is precisely because institutions would do well to acknowledge and then expand the heterogeneity of its audiences, and because people’s relationships to image cultures are so seldom simple, that the question of accessibility is better directed towards inviting diverse audiences in to challenging films than it is towards efforts to homogenize documentary forms.

Alternately, for makers who have historically been excluded from cultural spaces – both physical and ideological – of all kinds, are there new guidelines that need to be created, or old ones demolished? Take Loubia Hamra (Bloody Beans) (2013), Narimane Mari’s surrealist restaging of the Algerian war for independence as acted out over the course of one night by an unruly band of pre-teen Algerian youth. The film premiered at the renowned Copenhagen documentary film festival CPH:DOX, where it garnered the top prize. That honor led to handwringing, though, by concerned commentators for whom Bloody Beans’ celebration as a documentary became clear evidence of the worst kind of post-truth cultural relativism. For the film’s celebrants, on the other hand, Bloody Beans signaled a high-water mark for the docu-fiction hybrid turn, and Mari’s film was heralded as a leading exemplar of a growing body of contemporary films that marry documentary and narrative modes of production.  Though different in the terms of their assessment, both favorable and dismissive approaches to Mari’s film are marked by the same concern. Each aims to protect a way of knowing by marking the film’s distance from the domain of documentary proper, thus preserving the integrity of documentary’s sobriety for what is perceived to be a more significant, if indefinite, later moment when audiences will truly need documentary’s clarity of address.

In celebration or condemnation, these approaches to Bloody Beans tend to overlook the plurality of documentary forms over the past century. And in particular, they overlook how the form and content of Bloody Beans emerges from the very real historical conditions that shape Algerian historical memory and cultural relations. A short list of such conditions includes a vexed relationship to French colonial archives, an overwhelmingly young Algerian population with little direct memory of the fight for independence, and a generalized condition of youth unemployment and economic anxiety. These deep structures set some of the parameters within and against which Mari restages the Algerian revolutionary moment. Yet, Algerian memory here is not a coherent system that can be traced back to singular, if abstract, causes to which the form of Bloody Beans must express fidelity.  It is perhaps because the structural causes of those historical conditions feel so entrenched and overwhelming as to discourage radical intervention that Mari’s cinematic strategy aims to dislodge sober representations of the real just enough that people can actually see their own place within it.  In Bloody Beans, national memory is a contingent system, sustained and continually made anew by the polyvocal production of those who can recognize each other in the new space it makes possible.

After all, parties are not generally judged by how natural or authentic they are, but rather by how they elevate a sense of possibility, even revelry. Hosts are rarely judged by how truthful they may be, but whether one can trust the terms of a relationship with them, and whether judgement or anxiety can be suspended long enough to see where an invitation leads. The knowledge of who is hosting a gathering, where it is being hosted, or who is funding it, hardly determines all of the possibilities of that gathering, but it does set out the fundamental conditions about what might happen once one gets there.

What does it mean, then, to throw a party—to make or show a documentary—according to the Myles ethos? It means to be committed to social and economic justice and to racial equity, for to commit to insisting that the world can be arranged differently requires an investment in staging, creating, and sustaining collective imagination and institution building. It means that makers, audiences, and critics are co-collaborators in the act of producing a shared space of documentary. Approaching documentary in this way pushes beyond the theory of cultural production that says cultural expressions and their engagement are ends in and of themselves. Moreover, it offers a stronger position from which to tell someone who has historically dominated a space that they are not the guests of honor this time, maybe they aren’t even invited. And it means to be able to do so without being accused of censorship, as was the case when a number of Toronto movie theaters recently refused to exhibit a new documentary on local avowed misogynist, Jordan Peterson. For thinking in these terms offers a useful materialism to counter an idealist discourse that champions the free circulation of all ideas, and in championing that ideal, tends to ignore both the ways that people stand in historically unequal relations to speech and the proximity of speech to real violence.

Documentary is a means of cultural expression whose ends have often been located elsewhere. Myles, then, offers a compelling corrective by thinking the social, the aesthetic, and the economic as a part of the production of right here. Such a party, such a way of approaching the space of documentary, should create experiences that are spacious and full of possibility, where those who have historically been excluded can legitimately claim ownership and agency. Whether in celebration or in sorrow, parties are, at their best, about remaking worlds on new terms. They don’t just reflect the world as it is. They explore how open, just, and capacious shared worlds could be.

[1] “Can Documentary Make Space?,” Panel Discussion, Camden International Film Festival, Camden, ME, September 13th, 2019.

Header Image: Bloody Beans (Narimane Mari, 2013)

This entry was posted in: Quorum