Review of Cognitive Theory and Documentary Film

Cognitive Theory and Documentary Film
Catalin Brylla and Mette Kramer, Editors

Palgrave Macmillan, London, England, 2018
343 pp. Trade, 103,99 €
ISBN: 978-3-319-90331-6.

Reviewed by
Charles Forceville
August 2019

This volume, Brylla and Kramer claim, constitutes the first sustained study of documentary film from a cognitive perspective. Cognitive film studies developed since the 1980s as an alternative to strongly philosophical, ideology-oriented, and psychoanalytic approaches, and mainly focused on fiction film. Cognitivists presuppose that viewers largely make sense of film by drawing on the knowledge and action-strategies they use in real-life, complemented by an understanding of the medium’s specific affordances and constraints. Rather than taking pride in writing dazzling essays on individual films, they aim to uncover meaning-making patterns within or across films, governed by transparent methods of analysis. In this respect, film cognitivists try to be optimally “scientific.”

The book contains 17 chapters, divided over four sections: “the mediation of realities”; “character engagement”; “emotions and embodied experience”; and “documentary practice.” But several themes straddle these sections. Arguably the most important theme is the relation between fiction film and documentary. On the one hand, it is vital to stress similarities: Watching and interpreting both types of films engages viewers’ emotions and evokes bodily responses (Antunes, Kramer) no less than their ability to reason and to infer information. As Nichols states, qualifying his own famous description of documentary as a “discourse of sobriety,” “it is not sobriety we seek so much as engagement, conviction, and belief” (p. ix). Persuasion often draws on narration and on imagination (Bondebjerg), and documentaries can be as challenging in style and structure as fiction films (Corner). Since the strong “indexical” relation between filmic representation and reality, essential for documentary, does not necessarily run via the image track, there is no reason why documentary cannot be (partly) animated (Conde Aldana). No less than their fictional counterparts documentary protagonists need to invoke empathy in viewers: Nål discusses how failing to do so affects documentaries’ possible impact. Our Darwinian urge to survive and reproduce explains how a focus on protagonists’ need for “attachment” appeals to viewers (Kramer), but also enables us to empathize with animals in wildlife documentaries – although we do animals an injustice if we excessively anthropomorphize them (Weik von Mossner). Empathy makes us more tolerant: empathizing with a morally ambiguous protagonist invites viewers to reconsider their convictions (Tang).

On the other hand, nonfiction and fiction are also crucially different, and the fading of the border between them, especially in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” is downright dangerous. The hybrid form of the docudrama (“based on a true story”), for instance, can be deceptively persuasive but factually incorrect (Grodal). Accepting that story-telling is a staple technique in contemporary documentaries, Eitzen maintains that documentary has a different brief than news programs. He argues that whereas news needs to present facts, documentaries should encourage people to care about factuality, so that they remain committed to socio-political issues. Plantinga reflects on the (un)desirability and ethical implications of turning documentary’s “social actors” into characters. Ros et al. show that the popularity of first-person documentaries, with their emphasis on re-enactment and performativity, has contributed to eroding the distinction between fiction and documentary. Ultimately, they claim, it is the audience’s stance rather than text-internal characteristics that typify documentary.

Cognitive theory’s rootedness in everyday meaning making sits well with makers’ perspectives. Brylla discusses how awareness of social-cognitive schema theory has helped him avoid stereotyping “the Other” in his documentaries. Grabowski usefully explains how three types of interview setups (in the studio, on location, talking directly into the camera) influence viewers’ responses. He also sketches how changing viewing conditions (on a tablet, a mobile phone) affect such responses. Pearlman, finally, lessons the reader on principles of good film-editing, emphasizing the need to make optimal use of what viewers already know. These principles are: watching, sorting, remembering, selecting, and composing.

Most chapters discuss one or two case studies in considerable detail, demonstrating the applicability and usefulness of the theoretical concepts introduced. Interestingly, several chapters adopt cognitive linguistic models (conceptual metaphor theory, blending theory, image schema theory), while the insistence that meaning-making may differ between (groups of) viewers (Eder) suggests cross-fertilization with Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory. Thereby Cognitive Theory and Documentary Film is a fine step towards the realization of a humanities-straddling cognitive paradigm of making meaning.