Review of Vocal Projections: Voices in Documentary

Vocal Projections: Voices in Documentary
by Annabelle Honess Roe and Maria Pramaggiore, Editors

Bloomsbury Academic Press, London, 2019
320 pp., illus. 20 b/w. Trade, £96.00; eBook, £103.68
ISBN: 9781501331251.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
May 2019

This edited volume definitely fills in an important gap in film theory and criticism. Although the study of sound has been pivotal in the permanent renewal of film studies since three decades (a leading author such as Thomas Elsaesser has frequently emphasized its strategic position in the critical rethinking of film as cultural form), there still remain a certain number of essential blank spots. The study of sound has been relatively overlooked in the field of documentary, for instance, whereas the typical approach of sound focuses less on sound itself than on the relationships between sound and image (which inevitably deafens the ear to certain nuances). The seminal work of Bill Nichols, whose work is the starting point of most of the 16 essays gathered in this well-thought and well-edited volume, is still the best example of this double restraint. In spite of the dramatic impact of Nichols’s work on documentary, his take on the notion of voice tends to give a rather metaphorical definition of the notion of “voice” (which he sees as a synonym for the point of view constructed by the filmmaker) and the specific analyses devoted to the very materiality of voices suffer from the same restrictions. Yet Nichols is of course not the only one who frames the study of voices in terms of the film’s global meaning and the general perspective it offers on the chosen topic. In this regard, modern scholars generally follow the ideas of documentary pioneer John Grierson, who also considered voices as part of the filmic material the director had to reshape so that her or his “creative treatment of actualities” as he called it, could achieve and maintain the social and political function of the “real” documentary.

Vocal Projections is a book that performs a double and much needed breakthrough. It manages to transfer much of the cutting research in fiction cinema to the field of documentary film. But it also succeeds in making room for a type of reading that gives priority to the materiality of the voice – that is, the voice as part of the soundtrack of the film. The sharp focus on the apparently narrow aspect of the voice’s materiality, with special attention for the voice’s accent, is not a tactic to turn away from the complexity of the movie’s form and content, but a way to explore new questions and hypotheses that a more encompassing approach of documentary inevitably tends to overlook. In this regard, Vocal Projections is as innovative as the collection edited by Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour, Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film (MIT Press, 2004), which was one of the very first to address language issues in cinema in the larger context of so-called hyphenated languages, that is non-standard variations on hegemonic forms of language, and, more generally, the context of the tension between minor and major languages as well as the clash between major and minor uses of languages (the theoretical and critical horizon of this kind of linguistic reflection is the book by Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka. Toward a Minor Literature, Minnesota UP, 1986).

The ambition of the book is however not limited to the mere foregrounding of vocal elements and features such as accents that have been overlooked until now – with the many social, regional, gender and other aspects that come to the fore once one start closely listening to voices (not regardless of the rest of the film, obviously, but before taking into account the links between sound and vision – a methodologically very sound principle). Instead the collection tries to take this analysis as a springboard to a new reading of the documentary, more specifically the documentary as carrier of a monolithic message as expressed by either the voice of God (the voice-over commenting the visual record) or the ventriloquizing characters (who then become the puppets manipulated by the invisible director). Logically, various essays pay great attention to problems of hierarchy of voices and more precisely to the necessity of overthrowing the traditional techniques of establishing transparency and order and thus exploring the possibility of non-hegemonic voice compositions to challenge the idea of voice as the film’s point of view (the very notion of point of view, which involves ideas of centrality and location is incompatible with the openness and decentering of the vocal, at least when one takes sound really seriously)––hence also the preference given in more than one contemporary documentary to present voices that are non-audible, non-understandable, that are not dubbed or translated, and that break the boundaries between, for instance, male and female voices (and the key term is here that of decentering. Vocal Projections does not fall prey to new essentialisms such as the acoustic version of écriture feminine or the sound complement of the subaltern voice).

Vocal Projections succeeds in realizing this ambitious program through three main stances. First, the great diversity of the topics under scrutiny (the selection ranges from lip synch and dubbing to voice neutralization in call centers over voices in mockumentaries and music documentaries) as well as the wide range of documentary genres and traditions to exemplify the chosen perspective. Second, the systematic articulation of specific analyses and broader theoretical schemes and patterns that helps reread most of the generally used taxonomies to label sound and voice in cinema (in most cases, it is the work by Michel Chion that proves to be the most useful echo chamber of those who try to analyze voice in documentary with the same subtlety as Chion reads sound and image interaction in fiction film). Third, the careful close-reading of the chosen movies, which are not only judiciously described (quite an achievement in the case of a work in print that is not accompanied by oral documents) but also patiently examined so that the limits of traditional ways of analyzing voice and sound become clear.