Reviewer biography

Documentary Time: Film and Phenomenology

by Malin Wahlberg
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2008
192 pp., illus. 20 b/w. Trade, $67.50; paper, $22.50
ISBN: 978-0-8166-4968-6; ISBN: 978-0-8166-4969-3.

Reviewed by Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth


Documentary Time Film and Phenomenology by Malin Wahlberg is introduced by the author as a semiotic phenomenology to documentary film practice. Wahlberg offers an extensive literature review on existentialist phenomenology in France and discusses the works of Ricoeur, Merleau-Ponty, Mitry and Bazin in relation to the phenomenology of the image and the cinematic experience. Specialists in the field might have an issue with its partiality and sketchiness, while the less experienced may find it at times difficult to grasp how the accumulation of phenomenological approaches interrelate in the, at times, disparate applications to documentary film and the issue of subjectivity. Given the complexity of the subject area, the literature review is necessarily limited, and consequently does not allow for a profound treatment of the various strands of phenomenological discourses, and, consistent with a long tradition of theories since the 1960s, ultimately subordinates a sophisticated experiential treatment of subjectivity in favour of a bias toward indexical readings in the formal characteristics of the image. While the introduction reads as ambitious, in that Wahlberg addresses the missing link between classical film theory and phenomenological approaches especially through the issue of time, the conclusion is more modest in suggesting the acknowledgement of “the persistence of certain phenomenological themes in film theory”. In these themes Wahlberg focuses on the affect, the image as trace of memory and the trace as a sign of loss, which reveal the engagement of the viewer in the aesthetic experience (exemplified in experimental film). However, the core of the discussion centres on a phenomenology of the image in the notion of the trace as archival (historic) and mnemonic conception, and in this way the main intervention in the book remains locked in a foregrounding of textual analysis. It is not clear why some of these choices have been made except that they are frequently encountered in some of the dominant discourses on the inscription, recording and legibility of time in audio-visual media (with references especially to the works by Doane, Sobchack, Deleuze, etc. and their legacy).

Given the extent of the literature review in the first chapters, Wahlberg’s laudable intention is to extend the discourse of time from a focus on experimental avant-garde film to the documentary film genre. This is exemplified in the second half of the book through a textual analysis of some well-known films, mainly drawn from the genre of experimental documentary film. There are also a few unfamiliar examples from the film archive, in particular Mol’s work, which are accredited to the holdings of the Netherlands Filmmuseum. The chapter on “The Interval and Pulse Beat of Rhythm” with a discussion on scientific film in particular addresses the issues of time-based media and aesthetics in experimental and scientific film, possibly the most revealing section in the textual treatment in the book in which Wahlberg shifts the discussion from the image as mimetic trace to an understanding of the cinema perception as screen event with reference to the issue of time in the beholder’s mental engagement. The main focus, however, lies on Forgács’ and Furocki’s work that is given preference above all else in the context of experimental documentary. This approach may provoke some critical discussion, particularly in respect of Wahlberg’s notion of ‘history’ as a singularity in a treatment of the predominant indexical relationship of the image with a ‘unified’ reality of the past. This limitation seems to be a logical consequence of the restriction of subjectivity in relation to the cinema experience in a semiotic phenomenological approach and a ‘secure’ transference of the discourse of phenomenology into a materiality of the image through a focus on the trace and the issue of death as absence or loss — persistent themes in existential film phenomenology.

While there are alternative approaches in this regard from a more constructivist perspective, Wahlberg has nevertheless taken on a difficult task in her attempt to join up a wide range of very diverse film theoretical approaches to some of the subjects they share: affect, memory, perception, etc. By taking Stiegler’s notion of a “technology of memory” as Leitmotif for her book, Wahlberg certainly succeeds in marking out some of the key questions in the context of a specialist area of experimental documentary filmmaking. The great value of this intervention is her vision of mapping out the shared goal in the diverse discourses to inquire into the aesthetic, creative and experiential matters of film as screen event. This is very timely in relation to an increasing treatment of the issues of the mind regarding processes of time as experience, memory, consciousness, etc., especially in respect to developing new epistemologies and methodologies to deal with archival footage and particularly the spectators’ interaction with social memory and historical reconfigurations in the moving image from the vantage of the present. Although sometimes problematic from a specialist perspective, the book provides a wealth of materials to be reflected upon and indicates a lacunae that one hopes to see explored more substantially and widely in the canon of film and cinema studies.