Est-ethics of Counter-Documentary

The following text was commissioned for the 46th Oberhausen Kurzfilmtage Festival, as part of a special retrospective program curated by Slovenian video artist and media theorist Marina Grzinic. “Sex, Rock-n-Roll, and History: Video & Films from Eastern Europe 1950-2000” will be the most comprehensive retrospective devoted to Eastern Europe to date, consisting of 10 video programs (over 100 works), and numerous guest presenters, including Slavoj Žižek, Stephen Kovacs, organizer of the Ostranenie video festivals at Bauhaus Dessau since 1993, Gleb Aleinikov, co-founder of the Russian experimental film collective CineFantom, and Olia Lialina, Moscow net artist. (An interview with Lialina is forthcoming in ARTMargins.)

DOCUMENTARY. DOCUMENT. EVIDENCE, EXAMPLE, PROOF, LESSON, FROM DOCERE, TO TEACH. Documentary film production has wavered between the contradictory illuminations of its etymological shadow. As an extension of photography, documentary is, if we can believe Roland Barthes, “indifferent to all intermediaries”–mimesis accomplished. Documentary codes have been developed to create an irresistible sense of immediacy, objectivity, and authenticity: synchronized sound, long takes with hand held cameras, wide angles, unobtrusive editing, standardized 24-frame speed, use of newsreel footage, oral witness testimonials, the disembodied talking heads of those in a position to know, the centralization of perspective. Such technologies of truth, once invented, become naturalized. In the documentary’s attempt to capture the movement of the real, the mediating activity of the documentary apparatus is effaced. The reality effect of the documentary-form depends on the invisibility of its own construction.

“Direct cinema” and cinema verité have historically constituted battlegrounds for the construction of documentary cinema. American direct cinema sought to abolish mediation as far as possible, aspiring to pure transparency. French cinema verité inserted the camera and the filmmaker directly into the profilmic space, and acknowledged the constructed nature of documentary production. In this case, as in others, the French proved to be more Hegelian, more reflexive. Jean-Luc Godard, not himself a champion of cinema verité, even though he sometimes employs its strategies, once remarked–with that special air of French superiority–that cinéma verité “lacked consciousness” and, consequently, intelligence. Yet, despite the national, ideological, and conceptual differences, both schools operated under the guidance of a mimetic imperative to better capture the real. Richard Leacock, insisting on direct cinema’s fidelity to the real, once said that “we don’t cheat”; Jean Rouch, chief spokesman of cinema verité , protested, “I didn’t fake it.” Significantly, both statements take the form of a double negation. They don’t affirm telling the truth; they deny lying. Such desperate denials can be read as symptoms of a general disbelief in the documentary medium.

If we peer behind these debates of the 1960s, we can see that documentary has denied itself as a mirror of the real almost from the very beginning. John Grierson, who first used the word “documentary,” distinguished the documentary proper from films made from “natural materials” such as travelogues and newsreels, and was deeply critical of any “servile accumulation of fact.” The documentary film is no meredocument. It has a more important function than the presentation of facts; it is an instrument of instruction and persuasion. In Grierson’s liberalist rhetoric, it bespeaks the duty of intellectuals to enlighten the social body. The documentary negates the raw document, sublating it into an organized, unified perspective capable of imparting a clear and unambiguous meaning for the audience. Grierson’s characterization acknowledges mediation; documentary is not the presentation of the real, but the construction of the real with an aim toward a propagandistic effect. It is not just the “natural materials” that are shaped and manipulated by the creative hand of the documentarist; the audience itself is constructed as a political field, a mobile body. From its etymological roots to its historical instantiations, documentary has been a tool of indoctrination.

The logic of the documentary-form has been partly obscured in the American landscape, where the pretext to truth and immediacy has been foregrounded, and where the reality effects have been more tenaciously defended. The propagandistic effects of the documentary form have been more evident in Eastern European productions, from Soviet agit-prop of the 1930s to the recent pre-89 past. In Eastern Europe, documentary productions ranged from newsreels typically shown in cinemas, as warm-ups to feature films, filled with farm reports, sublime images of tractors, kisses exchanged by leaders during state visits, to television news reportage devoted to domestic issues and to charting the progress of socialism. Romania during the 1980s is a particularly promising example: of only two hours of television per day, from 8 to 10 in the evening, the news program of the first hour extolled the achievements, virtues, and remarkable intelligence of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu (commonly referred to by Romanians simply as “Him and Her”), or praised the newest power-plant on the Danube. No one believed in the “reality effects” of these documentaries, but everyone was expected to act as if they did, so that language, vision, and consciousness itself were always doubled. In the East, the documentary was more distorted, and precisely in this sense all the more “real,” for it exposed the latent mechanisms of the documentary-form, and its complicity with the discourse of ideology … and the ideology of discourse.

The documentary-form has also spawned a tradition of “counter-documentary” films that employ the conventions of documentary but simultaneously negate their fulfillment. Sound-image discontinuity, image distortion, interruption of natural time sequences, use of alternative speeds, faked oral-testimony by actors, and the misappropriation of newsreel footage in incongruous contexts have all been used to create counter-documentary effects. Such experiments proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s, not from inside the documentary tradition, but on the periphery, among “avant-garde” filmmakers such as Bruce Conner, Chick Strand, and Ken Jacobs in America, and the Situationists, Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville in France. The counter-documentary misappropriation of the language of politics cannot be understood apart from the general climate of political delegitimation that crystallized in the US around opposition to the Vietnam War, and in France around the simultaneous crisis of the De Gaulle regime. In the former Eastern Bloc where an attack against the conventions of documentary was the symbolic equivalent of a declaration against the state, counter-documentary experimentation of a directly political bent was extremely rare at this time. The legitimation crisis after Tito’s death in Yugoslavia in the early 1980s, and of glasnost in the Soviet Union in the mid 1980s gave rise to some notable experiments, such as the video productions of the Slovenian group Borghesia, or the found footage films of the Aleinikov brothers in Russia, but the real explosion ofcounter-documentary production in the East began after 1989.

Peter Forgacs, 'Dusi and Jeno', 1989, Hungary.In Hungary, Gabor Body’s Private History (1973) was a pioneering work using private archival material–8 mm home films–to create an alternative history. Private History emphasized the collision of contradictory private histories: celebrations of Christmas, alongside the exodus to Nazi camps. Peter Forgacs has given the private archive project an ontological dimension, turning it into a reflection on the nature of memory, the construction of history, and the phenomenology of film-making itself. Forgacs, in video-works of the 1990s such as Wittgenstein: Tractatus and the Private Hungary series, seeks to “collect the vanishing fragments of the Hungarian past … I try to see the unseen, to de- and reconstruct the human past through ephemeral private movies.” In a culture of negated memory, the private archive reappropriates a past outside officially constructed history. The private archive questions what counts as “document” and what is chronicled as history. Forgacs’ videos are beautifully constructed, poetically evocative artworks. While presenting the private movie as an alternative document of history, Forgacs recontextualizes it in a three-part composition including textual fragments and music composed by Tibor Szemzo. These recontextualizations range from Dusi and Jeno (1989), in which the editing is less obtrusive, following the logical sequences of a couple’s life from the interwar period, through the bombing of Budapest in WWII and the subsequent Sovietization, to Wittgenstein: Tractatus (1992), which uses home movies from disparate sources, reorganizing them thematically through the prism of excerpts from the Tractatus.

Laszlo Hudak & Imre Lenart, 'Tequila Gang', 1999, Hungary.In contrast to the constructed quality of Forgacs’ private histories, Tequila Gang (1999) attempts to achieve the quality of an unmediated document. The work is a direct record of the lives of a Budapest homeless gang, who were given a video camera to produce their own history. It was filmed by Laszlo Hudak, the leader of the gang, and Imre Lenart, a social worker who documented some of the groups’ theatrical performances, and produced by the Bela Balazs Studio with minimal intervention. The editing by a BBS member, who does not count himself as one of the authors, is unobtrusive, following a simple arrangement of the discrete sequences according to the groups’own specifications. Tequila Gang is a continuation of the private archive project, but with some significant differences. Unlike the films used by Forgacs, shot by the middle class who had the luxury of 8 mm cameras, the subjects recording their lives in Tequila Gang are marginal. If the homeless have often entered documentary space before, it is not as the producers of their own work. And, unlike the private archive material, these documents are not reassembled by the editor/filmmaker into a new composition. Despite the differences between the constructed quality of Forgacs’ videos and the immediacy of Tequila Gang, both enact a mimetic desire and evoke an aura of authenticity proper to the document. They are dialectical negations arising from within the province of the documentary-form, accepting its central presuppositions, yet displacing its context. They bring the private and the marginal into the field of documentary, discarding the centralized perspective of the narrator in favor of multi-layered fragments, and rely on affective expression rather than analytical interpretation. As immanent negations, they enlarge the framework and scope of the documentary–in this sense, they are not quite counter-documentaries, but documentaries of a counter-history.

The documentary genre is frequently delineated as “nonfiction” to mark its difference from narrative cinema; the category presupposes a separation of fact from fiction. Several Slovenian works on the borderline between documentary and fiction pose a challenge to this demarcation, and, implicitly, to the reality effect of the documentary-form. Zemira Alajbegovic’s and Neven Korda’s Autobus (1993) is a reflection on the atrocities of the Bosnian war and the persecution of women throughout history, mediated through a fictional narrative about Leila. Leila first appears during the middle-ages to be condemned as a witch, reemerges as a reporter covering the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and reappears again in a surreal earthscape after a nuclear war. Documents such as newsreel footage from the war and statistical information about witch trials are recontextualized through a fictional prism that distances the images as representations of the real. This docu-fiction transforms the quality of the images as “news” by personalizing them through an act of identification with the fictional character.

Marina Grzinic’s and Aina Smid’s video-works also operate on the borderline between document and fiction, but by an absolute negation of the process of identification through various Brechtian devices of distancing. Drawing upon Slovenian experimental theater and dance, their works present social commentaries through a frame of theatricality. Luna 10 (1994) reflects on the role of media and new technologies in the Bosnian war through a juxtaposition of disparate materials: clips from previously suppressed black wave films of the 1970s and 1980s, newsreel footage from the war, reports and commentaries in different media from the radio to the internet. Theoretical commentary is presented by two narrators, both in their underwear, one spinning on a chair. The use of actors as narrators, the deliberately stilted acting style, and the actors’ demeanor prevents the audience from identifying with the authority of the narrators. Failed identification transforms the act of spectatorship: it opens the possibility for the audience’s active intervention in the construction of the work’s meaning. Common to both fiction and documentary genres is the creation of a homogenous diegetic world–a space-time continuum that allows the spectator to enter the imaginary world. Grizinic’s and Smid’s video-works, even Transcentrala (which is perhaps closest to documentary) do not allow the spectator to enter into the diegetic world. They create a systematic distancing that negates the possibility, and the cinematic pleasure, of identification.

Radu Igazsag, 'Ciacona', Romania.A common device for questioning the invisibility of the documentary medium is the intrusion of the filmmaker, apparatus, and equipment into the frame. More radical attempts have sought to question the very process of framing. Homogenous diegetic space depends on the image completely filling the television or cinema screen; the absorption into the filmic world presupposes a sense of totality. To emphasize the boundary of the frame is to disrupt the framing effect. Grzinic’s and Smid’s Luna 10 splits the single frame into several prisms, black wave films, newsreel footage, reportage and interviews. The divided screen makes evident the incommensurability of the multiple documents. The black spaces in the frame are significant–the borders around the different images call attention to themselves as borders, and to the constructed nature of the images. Such gaps disrupt the effect of totality and make it difficult for the audience to enter the diegetic space. Radu Igaszag’s and Alexandru Solomon’s Ciacona (Romania, 1994), set to music by J.S. Bach, assembles fragments from Matthias Gruenewald’s Crucifiction, while images of caged animals in zoos and political demonstrations emerge in the black background and through the gaps in the painting. The act of framing is emphasized not just through the presence of black borders, holes, and gaps in the image, but is actually performed on screen through the repeated construction and de-construction of the image from Grunewald’s painting.

Antal Lux, 'Fallgeschichte', 1992, Germany/Hungary.Antal Lux’s Fallgeschichte (Germany/Hungary, 1992) employs similar techniques of superimposition and collage indebted to older practices of photomontage. In this video about the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution, newspaper clippings, newsreel images, and a floating, disembodied head are collaged in the single frame. Newsreel images of the insurrection used in Soviet propaganda are projected onto a moving image of film celluloid. The status of these documents as constructed images is emphasized by the reminder of their material form–as celluloid–which suspends their status as mirrors of the real.

Group + O, 'Accident', 1992, Estonia.In the 1960s the Situationists labeled their misappropriation of images from the mass media “détournement”, which can be understood as “making them pass by a detour”, and, more colloquially, as “hijacking”. Accident (1992) by the Estonian collective Group + O (Meelis Salujarv, Mart Sildvee, Erik Norkroos) is composed entirely of images from newsreels used as warm-up propaganda to feature films. This double staging of the images steals their authority by displaying their construction as image the second time. The disembodied head of Lenin is juxtaposed with images of workers whose only memorable quality is the quick, repetitive movement of their hands and bodies. The collision of these images questions the opposition between mental and manual labor, between the sublime stasis of power and the automatic gestures and hurried movements of subservience. The dislocation of the newsreel images in contradictory configurations, coupled with the evocative, stylistically dissonant soundtrack, creates a visual allegory. Clocks tick, measuring the movement of time; glass breaks, marking the finality of history.

Nicu Ilfoveanu, Bucharest, 'November', Romania.“Detoured” newsreels not only rob the image of its authority, they rob the authority of the political figures represented in them. Nicu Ilfoveanu’s video Bucharest, November (Romania, 1996) restages the 1996 election campaign won by Emil Constantinescu, Romania’s current president. Emphasizing the black borders around the televised images, Ilfoveanu visibly distorts the images of Constantinescu and of various political commentators who appeared on national television by presenting them sideways, askew, as negative reversals, grainy, indistinguishable blurs. The politicians speak, but their words remain inaudible; the emphasis is entirely on their isolated gestures. Political discourse is thus reified; emptied of all content, the structure itself is doubled and becomes content. Andrej Velikanov’s God is with us (Russia, 1994) juxtaposesimages from cartoons, porn films, horror films, and news reports of political figures–Bush, Gorbachev, Yeltsin–organized in a rhythmic montage. Robbing the political leaders of their voice, Velikanov’s emphasis is also on the reified gesture, made more evident through a compulsive repetition of gestural details, fragmented and isolated from their context.

Elena Patoprsta, 'Zapping', 1999, Slovakia.This repetition compulsion is also employed by Elena Patoprsta in Zapping (Slovakia, 1999). Using images of women from advertising and classical film, Patoprsta interrupts their movements and speech by artificially repeating the same fragment, in full voice, until the repetition reaches an excruciating, jarring rhythm. Velikanov reveals the tedious, repetitive codes of political discourse; Patoprsta, the artificial movements and voices of women interpellated by mass media. The logic of repetition operative in these works makes manifest the structure of the slogan (in politics, in advertising), which also operates by repetition and isolation from context. Through an excessive supplement, this repetition overidentifies with the logic of ideological discourse and makes manifest what the latter needs to suppress in order to function unquestioned.

Common to the works by Grzinic and Smid, Lux, Igaszag and Solomon, Ilfoveanu, Group + O, Velikanov, and Patoprsta is a distrust of the documents’ purported access to the real, and an emphasis on the mediation of the filmic apparatus. The “found footage” works that recontextualize archival and newsreel materials embody the rejection of centralized perspective that subsumes all particulars under an umbrella concept. Rather than a single, unified diegetic universe, multiple worlds emerge through colliding, contradictory elements. When such counter-documentary features are discussed in an American context, they are frequently taken as manifestations of the ineluctable march of postmodern culture. Michael Renov affirms that critiques of the reality effect of documentary stem from a more generalized recognition of the fictive nature of all discursive forms due to their inevitable recourse to tropes or rhetorical figures. Susan Scheibler traces critiques of the documentary-form to the impossible desire “to anchor the signifier on a transcendental signified.” Yet it is important to distinguish the Eastern European counter-documentaries discussed above from “postmodern” cultural productions in the West. The former are not motivated by a metaphysical crisis of language that always runs up against its own limits and is perpetually barred from reaching its referent. The “crisis of language” that took place in Eastern Europe during the early 1990s was a crisis of specific words that could no longer be used because of their inextricable associations with a tainted past; it was a crisis of the historically contingent circumstances of specific languages rather than of a structural necessity of language as such. And if we can speak of a crisis of representation, it seems to have less to do with the conditions of impossibility of representation, than with the withering of propaganda effects. The explosion of counter-documentaries in the period immediately after 1989 might best be understood in the context of a generalized suspicion of the function of politics, and of the nature of ideological discourse. The rejection of the centralized perspective of documentary in favor of heterogeneous, often contradictory voices stems from a distrust of the will to centralization. Counter-documentaries from the East are characterized by a perpetual negative movement, without any subsequent transformation into a concrete position. Negating one position only to substitute another positive program that is convinced of its own indefatigable truth risks hardening into dogma, into another ideology. Perhaps the subject vanishes in this stalled dialectic, but elsewhere.

Joanne Richardson was born in Bucharest, Romania. She works as a freelance art critic, film historian, and media theorist, and has curated experimental film and video programs in the US, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovenia, Russia, and Germany.