A View of Visual Media in Late-Spectacular Society
And an Outline for an Antidote
This essay is an attempt to draw the outlines of a view of media that drives at the roots of all-consuming spectacle. The spectacle, defined by Guy Debord, is “not a collection of images, but the relationship between people as mediated by images.” Spectacle, by this definition, has entirely taken over our politics, our communities, our economy, and of course our culture. If we take the view that our politics, our communities, our economy, and our culture are at a severe low point, then shouldn’t we explore a new outlook on the spectacle itself?
The vast majority of knowledge and information is now shared through visual means — empowering the spectacle all the more to mediate all human relationships. When Debord was writing (1967), at least there were alternative means of relating to one another. That’s no longer the case, with our books on screens, our conversations facilitated by technology, and our ‘news’ tightly entwined with commerce and entertainment.
As a result we must alter our conception of ‘literacy’ to include the ability to read and write in the language of visual media, as Stephen Apkon, suggests in The Age of the Image. Humans simply don’t have unmediated relationships anymore, and if a person is not fully, bidirectionally literate in the language of images and media, then they are fundamentally illiterate in the full sweep of human exchange. The environment in which the mediation of our relationships to one another takes place — the spectacle — is therefore all powerful. It is our only knowledge of the world, it is our total understanding of our environment, it is our very air. And most of us are illiterate — unaware how even to breathe.
Anyone who relates to the people around them through the use of visual communication is a participant in the spectacle, and the view each one of us has about these relationships is essential to defining the direction of our society as a whole. Our very humanity is mediated, and mediated largely through the image, of one kind or another.
“Radical documentary” isn’t necessarily about documentary films as we currently know them, and it isn’t necessarily a politically ‘radical’ stance. Radical documentary is simply a framework through which we might be able to approach the crisis of our involvement in spectacle in a new, critical way. It involves a different way of both making and experiencing media — consistent with Debord’s observation that the viability of the spectacle is dependent on ‘contemporary modes of production.’
In constructing the term ‘radical documentary,’ I’m interested in the primary meaning of the word, radical — of the root. It’s insufficient today to go about on the surface of our society and try and ‘solve’ every emergent problem as it arises. (This is treating appearances, not building or refining structures.). So, it’s not political radicalism I’m talking about — although that may be a consequence of the approach — but a deep, structural approach to the conditions that have allowed us to be entirely consumed by the spectacle.
The issues we face and define as such (and who doesn’t have issues?) are only the outward blooms on a growth that runs deep, and which is imbued with patterns and tendencies imprinted from its very germination. Issues themselves are becoming drivers of whole sectors of the economy and cultural production.
The very framework of this issue-oriented ‘solutionism’ is a denial of the complexity and interconnectedness of existence — the idea that we have the capacity to end or solve anything at all without setting in motion a thousand new currents, is reflective of a worldview that indeed seems to be broken down into hourlong, half-hour long, or now three-minute long ‘episodes.’ We must dig at the root. In the search for roots, my must traverse histories, swim estuaries, and cut across the easy borders of politics. Left, right, or center — we must all be radical.
And in using the term documentary, I’m hoping to expand on the needlessly narrow marketing category ‘documentary’ has become, and restore a sense of its function: media that is treated as a document of its context, proof of its own process, a form of archiving a long moment.
If we are to re-consider the documentary film form as something other than ‘nonfiction movies,’ we might perceive it like a series of nesting concepts: media; media made about the world around us; media that speaks to us about our own or others’ experience; media that grows knowledge and expands perspectives. You could say that this includes not just ‘documentaries’ as we know them from PBS or Netflix, but in some way all film, all time-based media, all of visual culture. And if you thought this, then we’d agree.
So I’m seeking to begin from our familiar conception of documentary film and expand on it, to accomplish certain theoretical and then applicable goals, to include any form of aesthetic expression that derives from, describes, or is made from the raw materials of our social and physical environments. Yes, it’s true — that’ll end up including most art and culture that we can conceive of. And that’s no accident. Everything we make, as artists, filmmakers, writers, photographers, performers, and musicians, is a documentary of some kind. The wider we expand the definition, the more radical our opportunities become.
Because a part of the effect of prefixing documentary with the term radical is meant to point to the problem of dividing fiction from non-fiction in the first place. Breaking down that barrier between fiction and nonfiction is something I’ll come back to later, but it’s a necessary reformulation, because discourse about what’s ‘real’ in media is frankly a trap the spectacle lures us into to prevent us from discussing anything of real substance…
SPECTACLE’S INOCULATION AGAINST CRITICAL THINKING
Why I’m No Fun at the Movies
“The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable, and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, and that which is good appears.’ The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance, which in fact is already obtained by its manner of appearance without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.” (Guy Debord 1967)
The total, ecological aspect of spectacle has a self-fulfilling, immunizing effect against any other social or cultural mode. As has been noted elsewhere, when you are within the paradigm, you cannot see the paradigm.
However, more than simply being all-consuming, and therefore invisible to all who exist within it, spectacle culture also has remarkable mechanisms for protecting itself from the slings and arrows of anyone who would try and flank it with critique. In one such immune response, spectacle invents false dualities like highbrow and lowbrow, and then unifies sentiments of cultural populism to create social factions around these realms. One is embraced by the populist, and the populist then sorts the other into a category of ‘elitist.’ We can see the spectacle at work here in the inverted use of a positive term (‘elite’) to delineate a negative, ‘out of touch,’ faction. This is vaccination — taking the concept of elite people and deploying it in a context where it can have no effect other than to make the ‘elite’ aspects of humanity into something to be ashamed of. The very concept of human excellence, when injected into a social body breathing the air of spectacle, becomes a thing to be looked down upon.
But spectacle-inoculation doesn’t stop with this fairly simple mechanism — which so resembles populist rhetorical devices used in other contexts by aspiring demagogues. In spectacle society, the elite will engage in their own attempt at inoculation and do something like, say, set up a Department of Pop Culture/ Media Studies in their academic institution, where populist media and culture can be given critical dressing. They embrace the spectacle’s factionalizing, and participate in it — are subsumed into the ecosystem while adopting a not-quite-ironic stance. Faced with exile from the society of the spectacle, we are all drawn back into it by the presence of its inoculative powers in our cultural bloodstream. Failure to do so would signal, after all, the ultimate terminal sickness — misanthropy and a disinterest in fun. For the spectacle presents itself as positive, no matter that it envelopes our reality without consent.
This isn’t to say there isn’t genuine intellectual labor in modern cultural studies. But look at the social perception of these studies, how they are portrayed from outside themselves (and oftentimes the narratives these disciplines then adopt in self-description). The pop culture of the 20th century provided the penicillin of all spectacle-inoculations: Irony. By the end of the century, and into the first decade and a half of the 21st, spectacle’s nurturing of irony at the heart of its survival meant that the divisions between factions could be impossible to map, even as they were very real. (This accounts for the confusion over how ironic, left-wing ‘hipsterism’ morphed directly into the ‘alt-right’ and a youthful generation of patriarchal white supremacy).
Describing your doctoral thesis about The Apprentice was at one and the same time participation in the ‘elitism’ of the critical class while also being pretty cool and funny, an arch participation it the spectacle of which The Apprentice was also, supposedly, a part. The spectacle, through irony, was able to divide and conquer, and keep everyone participating; and irony became a foundational aspect of our culture such that we were all protected from accusations of heresy: non-participation. The whole thing, though, is premised on the false duality of high and low culture.
This gets to why I’m a bummer at movies, and it’s not just me, but others you may know too — or you yourself. Because there is spectacle fatigue — and once you’re experiencing this fatigue, you can’t just sit through these efforts at social mediation and indulge in either ironic enjoyment or serious critical engagement. I’m not only talking about superhero movies or other undisguised confections of spectacle culture; this applies equally to the most ‘serious,’ ‘highbrow’ ‘award-winning’ films ‘tackling the toughest issues of our time.’ Because it’s impossible for the spectacle-fatigued to sit in the context of any industrially-made film and not feel the forces of the market, the hypnotic pas-de-deux of capitalism and spectacle, luring us into participation.
This is as true of Captain America and Star Wars (films that are arguably really about normalizing suppressed homoeroticism, the benevolence of empire, and overwhelming corporate technological superiority) as it is of something like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, or The Favourite (films, at their root, as much about the commodification of cultural change, capitalism’s scrambling territorialization of human equality, as about any kind of genuine paradigm shifting). This is also as true of all of our art forms infected by capital — ‘contemporary’ or ‘fine’ art, music, literature. Each of them has become so leveraged by the primary mission of spectacle (endless saleability and the stoking of yet still more consumer desire) that for the spectacle-fatigued, all of these crucial realms of human connection have become infected and ruined.
I don’t have a lot of patience for my moviegoing companions fawning over how this-or-that film (highbrow or not) is a sign of the world changing or ‘revolutionary’ in any way. I see their very excitement over tiny concessions like identity representation or the mainstreaming of historically marginalized stories to be symptoms of spectacle-inoculation, not radical reimaginings of society.
The nature of the immune response is to be surrounded by intolerance of this fatigue. That is, my moviegoing companions don’t really want to hear it. Why, though? Have you ever taken something seriously and then been charged with stick-in-the-mudism, overseriousness, even social exclusion?
The spectacle has consumed us all, and so there are always plenty of people happy to wallow in it, and participate in it from attitudes both ‘high’ and ‘low’. Non-participation, however, is looked upon as pure misanthropy, a true disease, and those who would stand outside of the spectacle and even call for critical consciousness are given no patience. So how can we express spectacle fatigue, and call for equally critical perspectives of ‘issue’ films and award-bait, along with big budget purpose-made trash?
The very presence of spectacle fatigue only means the spectacle will be mutating new inoculations. Irony, indeed, is going out of style. Earnestness is in, fighting for causes is cool. Of course that earnestness is delivered now through forms of mediation that not only inform us, but also relentlessly surveil us and feed us each our own custom-fit version of the spectacle, choking out all other ways of knowing with a deluge of overt advertising and implicit manufacturing of consumer desire.
Way back in the 1990s, Thomas Frank named capitalism’s method of inoculating itself against a truer humanism the ‘commodification of dissent.’ That commodification was so successful that we now live in a society entirely without counterculture (see, Rushkoff), without pockets of resistance, without places to hide and nurture alternatives, within a total tyranny of participation. Because we use the medium of spectacle to register our dissent, the instant we do so it is absorbed, adopted, and transformed into new opportunities for profit and surveillance. The maintenance of this perfect ecosystem is dependent on spectacle’s continuing mutation of inoculation against real, radical critique — utter non-participation. Spectacle will find a way.
This is where documentary films are of interest.
The ‘golden age’ of this form is reportedly upon us. At the very least, there are vastly more documentaries produced now than at any time in the short history of the form. Of course the reasons for this are well theorized — the ‘democratization’ of portable filmmaking technologies, the proliferation of platforms for their dissemination, and a moral evolution that has risen in the past three decades that emphasizes interest in one another (humanitarianism, see Fassin) and the cultivation of ‘empathy’ as a social responsibility. Watching, and by extension making, documentaries is a means of enacting social responsibility.
Documentaries have found a fertile ground in the post-ironic spectacle environment (‘mockumentaries’ certainly had their turn¹) — so we might consider the documentary field as a petri dish to see how, if, and by what means spectacle might be growing new vaccines with which to protect itself from collective non-participation.
While they may be post-ironic, documentaries are certainly not post-capitalist. There is a thriving market, and in fact the landscape is extraordinarily favorable to the upward rise of capital. Our growing sense of social responsibility compels people to make and watch documentaries, and so we make them cheaply, even for free, and leap at the chance to share them, publish them, have them distributed. But the proliferation of platforms for this sharing conceals a stunning monopoly of ownership of the channels of distribution. While the production of documentaries may have been democratized, the conduits through which they may pass to audiences has remained narrowly controlled by a few market-dominating entities.
Documentaries are, of course, a participation in spectacle — in that they are visual or audio-visual means of mediating our relationships to one another. But they are unique in that they prompt a collective outward-lookingness, a renewed interest in the world around us. The danger of their capitalization, of course, is that the capital mindset infects the prospective documentary filmmaker to the extent that we’re looking at those around us and not taking a human interest so much as thinking, ‘well this would make a great documentary.’ This is a purely commodified, spectacle-serving frame of thought. Reality television is the ad-absurdum model for the extreme capital commodification of those around us.
It may well be that this is how the spectacle subsumes us, by erasing our ability to even empathize without looking through the lens of a documentary camera. It’s true today that much documentary production is done entirely in service to the market, and promotes the continued upward flow of wealth through the relatively cheap production of ‘content’ by a large, undercompensated labor pool, that can be monetized in volume by a small contingent of platform owners.
As filmmakers, artists, and audiences, we must seize an awareness of that tendency to think of the world around us as fodder for prospective (saleable) stories, and stop thinking in terms of the products we make and consume. Only by so interrupting this deeply-seated pattern of thought might there be another way out of all-consuming capitalist spectacle. Because of the newness of their prevalance, their relationship to social consciousness, and their post-ironic position in the history of spectacle culture, a critical view of documentaries (and what that term must even mean) is a worthy starting point.
FICTION, NONFICTION, REALNESS, TRUTH, OBJECTIVITY, SUBJECTIVITY
And Other Distracting, Unhelpful Concepts
OK, for now we’re still talking about documentary films, but we’re going to get past that shortly. For when we think of documentary film, of course there is a common, laymen’s conception of what that means — it may have something to do with lacking a script, or being about something ‘real’, or being ‘educational’ or informative.
In fact, and especially within the documentary filmmaking world, what we’re describing when we use the term documentary is adherence to a set of conventions. I couldn’t tell you exactly what those rules are are, because every year there are a half dozen conferences, a hundred academic journal papers, and a thousand classroom lectures defining and debating those rules. The ethics, rules, and outlines of what makes a documentary are an obsession of the documentary community. What is real? What is staged? How did you capture this scene (implicit in this question is the subtext: without breaking the rules of the form)?
This debate spills out of the documentary realm through the PR offices of distributors, which leverage these rules — they sell the exclusive access, the ‘behind the scenes reality’, the realness of documentaries to the general public, and a feedback loop is made. If a documentary film is discovered to have breached these rules of realness, it’s a scandal. And some filmmakers simply circumvent this dynamic by not calling their film a documentary. Simple as that — it was an ‘essay film.’
If we pull back and look at any film or media work, however, we could say the same about it. Scripted, Hollywood films from superhero, sci-fi, action, fantasy, drama, and everything else, also operate very clearly within the bounds of a set of rules. There’s a script at the beginning of the process; there are actors pretending to be someone they’re not (importantly, subsuming their fame and wealth momentarily to embody a character — and in so doing knowingly enhancing said fame and wealth); the footage is edited to most efficiently tell the story. But all of these things are woven into the fabric of the work and not discussed — the whole thing is decidedly, publicly, overtly make-believe. All of this takes place within a kind of unspoken social contract with the audience, who knows the rules and chooses not to think about them. Even within film school, there are deep theoretical discussions about the ‘suspension of disbelief,’ a seemingly magical phenomenon that is credited as an artifact of the technology, or a cognitive phenomenon. (It’s not.) The fiction-film industry isn’t in a constant state of debate about these rules, and they don’t market their products based on them. And yet these are rules as malleable and arbitrary as a documentary’s.
Fluxus artist Yoko Ono wrote a series of ‘film scripts’ in the 1960s to explore this idea of the script as a generative rulebook for films. Distilling the typical 90 pages of a screenplay down to typically a single line or two of instruction, these scripts demonstrated how the longer and more detailed a screenplay is, the more control is being asserted over its realization.
Film Script №13
Let a fly walk on a woman’s body from toe to head and fly out of the window.
Yoko Ono, 1968
And yet it’s possible to make a film from this script just as surely as from 120 pages of, say, Preston Sturges’ detailed, dialogue-specific screenwriting.
The idea of control within the rules of a film and the imposition of the script appears in another of Ono’s scripts, which operates less like a recipe for making a film, and focuses on the way the film is watched.
Film Script № 5
Ask audience the following:
1.) not to look at Rock Hudson, but only Doris Day
2.) not to look at any round objects but only square and angled objects — if you look at a round object watch it until it becomes square and angled.
3.) not to look at blue but only red — if blue comes out close eyes or do something so you do not see, if you saw it, then make believe that you have not seen it, or punish yourself.
If we were to make a film from Script №13, would it be a documentary or not? Would it be ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction?’ (What is Ono’s own 1970 version?) If we were to watch “Pillow Talk” according to the rules of Film Script №5, is our experience one of reality or artifice? The point really isn’t to land on an answer to these questions, as much as to acknowledge that the distinctions, when we’re looking at a series of assembled moving images on a screen, are meaningless. These rules are just the descriptive dressing with which media is sold to consumers.
As a thought experiment, inverting Ono’s project, we might consider a superhero movie in ‘nonfiction’ terms:
Hire Robert Downey, Jr. or someone who resembles him, to read the following 90 pages of dialogue, and enact the associated physical activities. Use computer graphics to make the pictures of him pretending to be a superhero as realistic and exciting as possible. Never let the audience see him not pretending to be a superhero, and never let the audience see anything that looks computer-generated.
Spectacle-conditioned audiences revolt when films are perceived to have broken the rules of their construction. When documentaries seem to have been ‘staged’ or when fiction films lose their veneer of make-believe either through poor acting, poor digital special effects, or through some extramural aspect of its production process (“No animals have been harmed in the making of this film”), audiences complain, give bad reviews, or even protest the people who sold them the product. It’s not because these audiences are aesthetically offended, however — they still got their dose of social responsibility from the documentary watching experience, or the fantasy fulfillment of watching a sci-fi flick. The audiences are upset only in terms of the rules by which they were promised their consumer experience.
These distinctions of genre, of real/not-real, subjectivity/objectivity, fiction/non-fiction are rooted not in art but in commerce. These are the categories by which we buy things and are compelled to buy still more things. They are not categories of thought for artists or filmmakers — but they become categories of thought for artists or filmmakers whose very survival depends on serving the market.
Throw out those rules, then, and we get a glimpse at what Radical Documentary might be. Iron Man where Robert Downey Jr. is himself, pretending to be Tony Stark, and we watch the film as such. We are allowed to see the apparatus of the make-believe, and even to take part in it. Or Ono’s Film Script #13 made and re-made (as Ono herself intended) by hundreds of filmmakers in hundreds of different ways, so that the ‘film’ was eventually an archive of multiple subjectivities, countless possibilities, variations on a theme. Or Nanook of the North with ‘Nanook’ as the world’s first Inuit movie star, and credits to the art department and set designer.
Fundamentally, it’s a change in critical perspective. The audience ceases to care about looking for the ‘real’, because everything is real. Everything is true. Truth stops being a criteria that is constantly questioned. The make-believe of a story film is as real as the make-believe of child’s play; and the artifice and construct of the documentary are also equally evident, to the extent they’re irrelevant. Scenes from Nanook of the North are staged with every bit of ethical ambivalence as scenes from Star Wars, because both are films, and film require the selective re-production of a tiny fragment of the trillions of concurrent realities. The difference has been in our expectations, and the stoking of those expectations by commerce.
This view begs the audience’s critical interest in the processes of creation, and offers them a choice of viewpoints. We can watch the superhero story with the theatergoers’ suspension of disbelief, or with the critical interest in the processes of performance and construction. And we can watch the documentary with an embracing awareness of the singularity of its perspective and the necessary constructions that brought it to us.
This proposes a fundamental change in the relationship of the audience to the industries of filmmaking and storytelling. And it proposes the need for something even more radical — changing education itself. For it’s within education — particularly our conceptions of literacy and our capacity for critical viewing of images, media, and information — that our expectations are forged. As historian Daniel Boorstin framed it in the 1960s, it is our extravagant expectations as a society that drives the accelerating construction of pseudo-realities that are increasingly distant from our direct experience. And these exponentially accumulating expectations are constantly disappointed, and then provoked to grow still more. As documentaries have become more popular, it has often been marketed as an antidote to the accumulating fictions around us; and so when the artifice of a documentary is ‘exposed’ in the public, there is an uproar. But that’s been a false expectation from the outset.
This proposed change in relationship between audiences and industrial communicators (filmmakers, producers, journalists, artists, etc) is radical because it is a change in an ancient and inequitable power dynamic. Where once people may have sat in amphitheaters carved from the hillsides or in circles around a clearing, and watched theater from a position above or level with the performers, the projected cinematic image has been situated in modern society as something of enormous scale which looms above us in the movie theater. Even as the medium and its technologies have changed, the inchoate magic of the moving image has implied something supernatural to the viewer. Getting on TV even today possesses enough incantatory power that reasonable people become mindless devotees squeezing into the frame behind a newscast, or appearing momentarily on the scoreboard at a sporting event and losing their self in that instant. Where screens may now come in all shapes and sizes, the scope of broad-cast that the moving image offers confers a momentary deistic power over those captured in those images.
Film and television stars enter this pantheon, and specialness is conferred upon them by virtue of merely appearing on the screen. They become the worshipped, whether it’s because they loom hugely and beautifully over us in a movie theater with our heads craned upward, or because they appear magically on screens in our living rooms, offices, and hands. This supernatural power, this dynamic of worship, is inescapable, and deeply ingrained. To borrow a comparison from comedian Neal Brennan, no matter how nonplussed we attempt to be, an encounter with a celebrity is like an encounter with a cop; the embedded social construct of their power over us is made manifest. Those who appear on these screens become a pseudo-magical being, and the nature of the media promotes a subservience from even the most critical audience.
Spectacle, as such, is an oppressive force. It is everywhere and all consuming. It has the capacity to strip us of our agency, our solidarity with one another, and our balance in viewing the world. Spectacle dominates us, and makes objects of us, by transforming us into targets for advertising, reminding us of our powerlessness and then selling us false hopes of real agency in the world.
Paolo Friere describes oppressive systems, such as contemporary cultural spectacle, as antidialogical, in that they “involve a Subject who conquers another person and transforms him or her into a thing.” This could be said for our common experience of watching films and consuming media — for as long as we are a consumer, that is the thing the spectacle addresses. Antidialogical systems only transmit knowledge in one direction, from positions of power down to the positions of oppression.
In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Friere describes the counter to this antidialogical dynamic — the one rooted in dialogue, a true dialectic, where “Subjects meet in cooperation in order to transform the world.”
It’s through such a dialogical mode that Radical Documentary seeks to defuse the asymmetry between the film and the audience, to obliterate the consumer/seller relationship. It would replace awe with empathy, and cults of celebrity with collectives of equality. It might redesign our theaters and reconfigure our technologies. It will introduce a new kind of dignity to the act of being in an audience, draining it of its subservient nature. And it might be a step toward the inoculation of ourselves against the lure of the spectacle.
And Radical Documentary doesn’t need to be a ‘documentary’ as we understand the term at all. If we can dispose of the marketeers’ constructs of fiction vs nonfiction, then a documentary is any piece of media that reprints a fragment of experience — from the actor’s make-believe adherence to the rules of the screenplay, to the journalistic filmmakers’ adherence to the ‘ethic’ of transmitting their personal circumstances. Just as we adopt the core meaning behind the term radical, we do so with the idea of any film, potentially, as a document.
REALITY OUGHT TO BE MORE DULL
How Radical Documentary Uses the Ordinary to Allow us to Reconnect to Our Own Humanity
Even in our present media landscape, where films are still divided between fiction and non-fiction, and audiences are in general non-critical of this distinction, there are plenty of examples of radical documentary modeling an alternate way of watching and making films. The marketplace often has a hard time figuring out where to put them; one of the innovations of the new distribution platforms has been an explosion in the number of subcategories within fiction and non-fiction.
We might think of Netflix’s custom-curating algorithm as a deferment of the eventual disappearance of a division between fiction/nonfiction. There, films are sorted into a thousand subcategories that mirror the demographic data collated by that company’s preference-surveillance tools. (And for filmmakers, this might be an effective clue toward making one’s own work radical — like working a maze in reverse: ensuring that our filmmaking process cannot result in something that Netflix can make algorithmic sense of. By lunging past the market curator and reaching out directly to the humans on the other side of that barrier, our work will inevitably invite dignified, critical viewing, and further fragmentation of the constructs of ‘fiction’ and ‘non fiction’.)
Conventional media, driven by commerce above all, is designed to lure us anew into participation in the spectacle every day. It tilts the dynamics of social power away from the audience (the spectator), it moves capital upward, and it participates in the perpetuation of an oversimplified thought framework of real/not-real, true/false, objective/subjective.
Radical media may work in subversion of any one of, or all of, these attributes. To explore the nature of these subversions, I’ve got two examples, both of which are outwardly — to the market — documentary films, but both of which are scrutinized by various kinds of gatekeepers to the sanctity of that label. One of the films is a project that I had no involvement in, Jean Rouch’s 1958 Moi, Un Noir. The other example I’m using here — Denali Tiller’s 2018 Tre Maison Dasan — is a film that I am closely involved in — first as an Executive Producer and advisor, and subsequently as producer of its ‘impact and engagement’ campaign (a newly necessary stage of filmmaking, to ensure the project’s effective contextualization and integration into a wildly agenda-driven social milieu).²
That said, it is the very fact that films of this nature can be scrutinized by market and cultural gatekeepers, but still ‘pass,’ that makes documentary film such a likely breeding ground for a radical rethinking of film types and film’s social function. Because to a certain extent, ‘documentary film’ is also a catch-all of anything that doesn’t fit the market’s need for categorization. This is a legacy from the American publishing marketplace, which has long been divided between made-up stories (fiction) and everything else (non-fiction). While there are controls in place (funding gatekeepers, distribution gatekeepers, story consultants and project advisors and accelerator labs) to make sure that documentary films follow the rules of the market and thus thrive there, at the same time there’s also an understanding that as long is it isn’t fiction it will eventually be allowed in as a documentary. If it gets made, after clearing all those hurdles, of course.
Jean Rouch’s Moi Un Noir started as an ethnographic study of African dockworkers in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. And so like countless filmmakers before and since, he descended into an otherly context and stood prepared to ‘document’ the otherness of those around him. Because he was a white, affluent Frenchman with a movie camera, to the workers of Abidjan themselves he was considered just a film director; they made no distinction between his ‘documentary’ or ‘ethnographic’ intentions, but they did have their expectations of what a movie was, and these came from the popular cinematic forms of the time and place: American gangster movies and scripted melodrama. As Rouch attached himself to the lives of Omarou Ganda, Petit Touré, Alassane Maiga, Amadou Demba, and their circle of Nigerian immigrant-worker friends and filmed, they all changed their names, whenever on camera, to ‘Edward G. Robinson’ and ‘Eddie Constantine’ and ‘Tarzan’ and ‘Elite.’ Rather than passively allow Rouch to film their daily labor and everyday experience, as the unwritten rules of ethnography and documentary might dictate, they took over the filming process and enacted fictional dramas about FBI agents, love affairs, and being a champion boxer, among others. Rouch spent 9 months with them, and while they worked, and socialized, and fought, and fell in and out of love, spent nights in jail, and went about their routines, they also never dropped the pretense of being in a movie and inventing stories to feed to the camera and to the unseen audience beyond.
Even after the filming and the editing was under way, Rouch and the ‘subject-actors’ persisted in the construct, and flew together to Paris to record the dialogue that would complete the ‘scenes’ as improvised and scripted by Ganda, Touré, et al.
Ganda and his fellow Nigerian immigrant ‘subjects’ saw no distinction between the scientific/informational film that Rouch arrives to make and the Hollywood stories that they were familiar with. The agency of their perception altered the ability of the filmmaker to record the ‘objective truth.’ Importantly, Rouch chose not to force reinstatement of that distinction. A movie was a movie.
In 1958, at nearly every level, the dynamic between this white European anthropologist and these black, working class Africans was one of overwhelming asymmetry of power, and this asymmetry continues to be the basis upon which the film is still scrutinized. However the collaborative decision to discard all convention and blur any boundaries between imagination and reality is a radical subversion of that asymmetry. It is not infused with the patronizing compassion of more contemporary ‘humanitarian’ media. The film is at once about and by Ganda, Touré, Maiga, Demba, and Rouch, which means that it is simultaneously objective and subjective. Another false duality imposed by spectacle conditioning is subverted.
Something else happens in the course of experiencing the movie as a viewer. Our consciousness balances on a fine line between what our eyes show us — this group of working-class Africans in cafes, on streets, in their rented rooms surrounded by the ordinary — and what our ears and understanding receive. Within this we get caught up in the imagination games of Ganda et al, and attempt through the veil of reality to follow the drama of the FBI agent and the womanizing gangster. The conscious experience of the film is one in which we have the same experience watching it as the protagonists had in making it — their efforts to invent a Hollywood drama in the midst of their ordinary surroundings are more successful at times than at others, and the strength of their collective imagination’s will carries us with it at times, while at others it releases us to notice the banal context, and heat and dust and sweat and food and drink and easy expressions upon faces. Almost through a tensile dynamic, the string of our awareness is drawn into the realm of ‘fiction,’ only to be released and allow us to become aware all the more sharply of the reality. Rather than viewing with the skeptical eye of a fiction-filmgoer, seduced by the craft of the sets, the costumes, and the performance, we are trusted to experience the film through its split view of the truth. Truth doesn’t even really become a criteria through which we measure the film, we know it’s real even while we watch make-believe stories enacted. Rouch trusts Ganda et al to just be as they are, and they all trust us to care should we choose to watch their invention.
To trust people, as opposed to exploiting, patronizing, or dominating them, is truly radical.
The outcomes of radical documentary, as manifest by Moi, Un Noir, are also worth noting. In France it became adopted by Godard and credited with kicking off the New Wave; while in Africa Omarou Ganda continued to work in film and became one of Africa’s most celebrated directors. And again, not by virtue of any patronage by Rouch or special connections established by Moi, Un Noir — Ganda pried himself away from the subsistence life of a migrant dockworker, joined some cultural societies based on his interest in filmmaking, and took all that experience to educate himself over 10 years with every production and cultural event he could make himself a part of until he was directing his own first feature, Cabascabo.
I’ve shown the film to 21st Century film students, and always remarked how their reluctance and scrutiny of it hinders their understanding of quite how radical it is. An epoch of oppression and generations of suspicion about truth, reality, power, and justice ingrained into us by the conventions of film and media make the subversion of “Moi, Un Noir” hard to believe. Surely, students say, somewhere in here Rouch is exploiting them, patronizing the Nigerians, colonizing them. Conversations turn to the editing, questioning whether within that alchemical process — typically done in a locked room well out of the reach of the film’s other participants — Rouch has taken liberties and leveraged his obvious power. But these critiques represent a fear of the radical more than fodder with which to critique the work. The film as made by Ganda, Rouch, et al asks us to question the frame through which we watch every other film. In this it stands alone, and asks us to stand with it. A lonely life, that of the radical that lives in critical consciousness.
In Tre Maison Dasan, Denali Tiller follows the lives of three boys in and around Providence, Rhode Island. Tre, Maison, and Dasan are not related, they don’t know each other, but their lives come together each Saturday when they all converge on the visiting rooms at the state prison, where each of them has a parent. On the surface, this setup looks like a countless number of social-issue documentaries, and atop that, one that ventures into the challenging territory of subjectifying children. Conventional audiences love movies about kids, often in the same way they love movies about animals — our social perspective on children is one where a paternalistic attitude can be wielded right out in the open. It also gives audiences enormous ammunition for skepticism, because we love to explain to others how they’re mistreating children in some way. This is symptomatic of internalized oppressive structures, of an antidialogic approach to being in society.
In this case, however, Tiller — like Rouch — dares to exercise radical trust with the children at the center of the film. She ceases to direct, and instead engages in a fully participatory, collaborative process with the kids. They invent scenes, shoot music videos, They develop their own media-centered interventions in their lives, notably Maison, who assumes the demeanor of a talk-show host to interview his incarcerated father, and forge a new closeness and understanding between father and son that could be a model for child-parent communications everywhere.
The film is essentially a dialogue between the filmmaking team and the boys around whom they orbit; and this dialogue is contagious in how it provokes dialogue from boys to parents, parents back to children, and on and on. The dialogic dynamic of the film then extends beyond the plane of film-reality, to provoke truly evocative and transformative dialogue among audiences, between audiences and filmmakers (Tre, Maison, and Dasan included, who have continued to live the ‘reality’ of the film and experience the transformative effects of participation in the project, by traveling to film festivals and community screenings, and engaging in direct dialogue with the spectators of their filmed stories).
Paolo Friere writes “there is no dichotomy between dialogue and revolutionary action. There is not one stage for dialogue and another for revolution. On the contrary, dialogue is the essence of revolutionary action. In the theory of this action, the actors intersubjectively direct their action upon an object (reality, which mediates them) with the humanization of men (to be achieved by transforming that reality) as their objective.”
It is indeed radical (‘revolutionary’) to erase the power dynamics of making a film “about” someone or something (if you’re making a film ‘about’ someone, they are some-thing, to you). This leveling of power isn’t only done through a participatory process with your ‘subject,’ though — although this is an important aspect of it. It also must take place between the project and the audience, by leveling the implied power of the filmmakers with that of the audience.
Films constructed of the most dramatic moments curated out of a body of otherwise ordinary footage; films that heighten the drama of a life by picking out the outlying events and emotions; films that ply the audience’s understanding of reality by presenting a distorted view of it, or pretending the film’s point of view is the only, objective one — these all imply that the filmmaker holds a power over the truth and a power over our perception that is extraordinary. In conventional filmmaking, these are the tactics that ensure market sustainability. The market rewards filmmakers for the craft of their distortions, and for their exercise of subtle power over their audience.
Radical documentary works against that by presenting in equal amounts the ordinary, the pedestrian, the dull. By bringing the audience into the everyday moments of another life, those pedestrian common experiences — washing, sleeping, sitting and thinking, driving around doing errands — are elevated (often literally enlarged, when seen theatrically) to importance. And seeing these moments — that each of us shares as humans — elevated in importance, builds relatability, empathy, understanding, and a sense of equality between the figures on screen and those in the seats beyond. In a media landscape that is constructed of the most heightened, rarified material of spectacle, to join one’s audience together to watch the clothes spin around in the laundromat is subversive, even revolutionary.
But this gesture cannot be aesthetic, either — it cannot be a directorial affectation. Rather it must be a consequence of a filmmaking process that doesn’t differentiate the relative ‘importance’ of moments. Just as the process mustn’t differentiate between the importance of people. At the heart of radical documentary is a ferocious adherence to the principle of equality.
Sitting in the audience of a film like this, made equals with the filmmakers and the figures on screen, our spectacle-conditioned mind at first revolts, and looks for the aesthetic (“oh, what lovely framing”) or the pedantic (“Ah, I see the director’s agenda”). This is fine, at first, because it is the wakening of critical consciousness. It is the full potential of a critical mind stretching its muscles out from the atrophy of experiencing any other kind of media, of being oppressed by the spectacle.
This is why it is important to bore that mind with equality; for, once bored and thus prompted to criticality, it will seek out any inkling of the spectacular, the aesthetic, the agendaed. And failing to find those elements, it will settle on this idea of equality — the critical mind will meditate on its resemblance to the mind that constructed the film, and the minds that are pictured. Out of this equation of triangulated equality, a radical documentary will leave us with nothing to consider but the dignity of humanity. We’re exactly alike, these children and I.
And nothing is more counter to the purpose of our society of spectacle than human dignity; this is the element most in need of rescue from the world we inhabit, and the world we have allowed to inhabit us.
RADICAL or NIHILISTIC DOCUMENTARY
So I’ve described these forms of filmmaking and storytelling that run against the grain of the spectacle; that disregard the marketplace that has commodified our attention, our desires, and our ambitions; and that redefine the role of filmmakers and audiences in a way that is transformative to our human relationships.
It is probably evident already, then, that if a film is not in these ways ‘radical,’ then it belongs to the dominant convention of the 21st Century spectacle. This kind of film feeds us to capitalism, this film commodifies our very humanity, this film often paints our reality as something from which we need ‘escape,’ (or to solve). And like all effective modes of oppression, it inflicts these experiences on us and then insists we thank it for doing so. The conventions of film and the posture of its industry are all built around a self-celebratory importance, an insistence on the ‘art’ of it, over the commerce that we know is its true condition.
This active stance against our collective dignity and purpose, combined with the fabricated rationale, result in an overt kind of nihilism. The steep, unequal social hierarchy that is the core structure of conventional filmmaking is outwardly represented by a rhetorical campaign of ‘relatability’ and the ‘collective good’. While the overt commerce of this trillion-dollar industry is whitewashed by the rhetoric of ‘art.’ Thus film obliterates the very things it represents; it stands for nothing.
And as established earlier, there is a frame within which we can name all these modes of time-based media storytelling ‘documentaries.’ Within that frame, we can thus name the conventional spectacular to be nihilistic documentaries. For an (moving) image either mediates our relationships as humans to be one of dignity and equality, or it stands for nothingness.
Even in the socially conscious circles of ‘nonfiction’ documentary film, this dynamic is all too true. Platform hegemony and the ‘democratized’ proliferation of nonfiction filmmaking force this work into this same trap of adherence to market demands, cultivation of power dynamics (celebrity/subject, filmmaker-pedant/audience), and rhetorical obfuscation that scripted studio blockbusters thrive on. And yet so much of this work is as nihilistic as any within the spectacle.³
Radical Documentary is a means of mediating our relationships to one another which is genuinely dialogical; where balanced exchange exists between practitioner, participants, and audience; which awakens critical consciousness; and which disassembles the oppressive structures of the spectacle. It is a frame of thought that changes how we might make films, and how we might watch films, and how we might ‘be in’ films, and use of this frame of thought constitutes what Friere would call revolutionary action — because dialogue is action when it deobjectifies those engaged in it. In this elevation of all parties to an equal plane, Radical Documentary offers an alternative to the nihilism of a media landscape insistent on dividing its practices into market categories like fiction/non-fiction, and dividing its audiences from its practitioners through cultivation of asymmetrical power dynamics.
And Radical Documentary isn’t aesthetically prescriptive: it can look like anything, from a superhero movie to a historical drama to a film about current events. What distinguishes it is the process through which it is made, and the context and process through which it is experienced.
SO HOW DO WE MAKE IT?
Root our media practices in dialogue (not lines of dialogue, but genuine, equitable engagement between all involved parties — producers, audiences, participants, etc). Discard concepts of subjectivity and objectivity, and work with freedom and humility. Be equal to those you make images of, and those you show images to. Be critically conscious of the conventions of spectacle, for they will invade and affect your work. Disregard thoughts of the product that may be an outcome of your work, and focus on the process of engaging with your interests. Treat making media as a means of learning about the world, not a means of telling others about anything. Treat the equitable mediation of human relationships as the most important thing in the world. Involve the intellect and critical faculties of those who will watch. Respect the intelligence of your interlocutors (audiences, participants, collaborators) as you’d respect your own. Remember what the market wants from you, and be aware of its overwhelming influence. What you make is a documentary, no matter what it looks like, of the people, circumstances, situations, and systems within which you make it.
Watch everything as if you made it yourself — be that critical, all the time. Do not allow the pressure of the spectacle to prevent you from critique. Discard concepts of ‘high’ or ‘low,’ ‘serious’ or ‘light,’ and consider everything with your most critical faculties (your most human trait) intact. Understand the processes of production — be literate. Be always skeptical in the knowledge of the incredible potential for manipulation and exploitation when your relationships with the world are mediated. Be wary of ways you are being objectified — turned into a consumer, a fan, a spectator — which prevents you from being an equal partner in the dialogue. Inquire into the things that awe you — how is that power over you achieved?
As creator or citizen, Radical Documentary is a stance, a framework for experiencing the mediated world. Ideally, it’s one which lets us out when we want to get out, because it reminds us all the time of the mediation taking place. It lets us take a walk in the open air when we want to, to experience feelings and sensations without reference to images and sounds. It doesn’t rely on calculated techniques to release dopamine and leverage that for market capitalization. Participating in a media landscape rooted in Radical Documentary lets us see the spectacle from without, and appreciate its enormous, overwhelming power and control. And hopefully, it lets us choose when we want to be within, and when we want to be without.
1- And, bizarrely, ended up redefining the form of the sit-com to be compatible with a culture that demands more apparent empathy and a veneer of authenticity than ever before — see the mockumentary/verité affectations of “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Modern Family,” and dozens more.
2- Writing critically of a film I materially participated in creating is done with full awareness. Maybe it’s a premeditated transgression against the ‘rules’ of criticism itself? It’s true, I’m not objective about either of these films (I’ve been pointing my students to “Moi un Noir” for years ), nor do I think such a position is possible or necessary. Rather, my involvement offers a perspective on the process and the outcome that is crucial to identifying the project as possessing aspects of radical documentary.
3- This becomes even more resonant when we consider the ‘impact’ industry that has grown up around social-issue documentary filmmaking. As documentary has become the film world’s moral rudder, the competition among them for most moral has shaped a subcategory of importance based on which films make the biggest change in society. What, then, does social impact look like when speaking about nihilistic documentary? Indeed, this is a whole subject for another essay altogether — but the short answer is that it tends not to look like true dialogical cultural development.