Poetics & Politics: A Documentary Research Symposium
by Aparna Sharma and Irene Gustafson, Organizers
May 15-17th, 2015
University of California, Santa Cruz
Digital Arts Research Center (DARC) 106 and 317
Event website: http://poeticsandpolitics.ucsc.edu.
Reviewed by Arushi Singh and Samuel Mark Anderson
The Poetics & Politics Documentary Research Symposium effectively generated a space for a critical community of documentary researchers to reflect upon the aesthetic strategies and challenges of their practice. The meeting's title attests to its challenge to widely perceived divisions between film's aesthetic form and its potential for social intervention. As organizers Irene Gustafson and Aparna Sharma noted, "Documentary is an inherently unstable process," owing not least to its engagement with a continuously changing world. Documentary perpetually resists conventions, in spite of the limitations of mainstream producers and distributors. For this reason, the symposium was invested in sharing works-in-progress and emphasizing the novel and shifting forms of knowledge produced in the course of each new project, whether film or interactive multimedia platform. Participants examined the aesthetic regimes constructed by their works-in-progress with the intention of addressing the politics that their films imply, promote, or contest. The stated aim of the meetings was to assert the mutual construction of, on the one hand, documentary's poetics and politics, and on the other, its theory and practice, two sets of relations that are always fundamental, but never duplicable.
Underlying many of the presentations and much of the discussion was a shared concern about responsibility--to the film's subjects, its audiences, and its producers. Responsibility is paradigmatic of the continuously shifting social relations that constitute any documentary enterprise, and thus must be constantly renegotiated. Sharon Daniel described her approach to documenting marginalized indigenous communities in Alaska, whose precarious politics required a degree of explicit indexicality that she had purposefully eschewed in her earlier, more experimental work. Pratap Rughani's engagement with a young woman with autism lead him to question how the ethical parameters of documentary-making shaped his film's aesthetic form. He argued persuasively against aspirations to "informed consent" and "collaboration"--both deceptive, especially in the context of unequal power relations--and instead suggested embracing "the art of not knowing," a philosophy of shared epistemological humility that forces the filmmaker to give up some of her or his putative omniscience. Jenny Chio productively turned the question of filmmakers' responsibility on its head; rather than stressing the responsibility to protect one's subject from overexposure, she argued that filmmakers also have a responsibility to complete and distribute films about individuals who have already contributed the time and effort to share their lives.
Filmmakers inevitably risk failing their responsibilities. The discussion following Hope Tucker's hypnotizingly beautiful excavation of the legacies of nuclear fallout momentarily interrogated filmmakers' responsibility to inform their subjects of, for example, the dangers of frolicking in radioactive environments. Travis Wilkerson and Alex Johnston presented a web-based update to the up-to-the-minute political interventions of Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. As the discussion afterward suggested, their sense of a responsibility to immediate intervention in political dialogue risked hasty conclusions and the expropriation of dialogue from their subjects. In contrast, Tamara Vukov stressed the importance of resisting the impulse to urgency by embracing long-term engagement with a single site, which allowed her film on Serbian labour protests to serve as community support network.
Other presenters discussed the documentation of political protest and the risks and responsibilities of making such resistance visible. A number of artists and scholars shared innovatively curated interactive multimedia projects on oral histories and political action, including Alisa Lebow on the Egyptian revolution, Katja Lautamatti and Fabiola Hanna on postwar Lebanon, and Omotayo Jolaosho on South Africa. Jolaosho's focus on the choreography of protests emphasized the important role of physicality in constructing agency and sociality in liberation struggles. Filmmakers can assume considerable risks for themselves. Jeffrey Skoller's presentation surveyed a number of social media artists who place themselves in the target of state violence, often mobilizing the simple presence of the camera itself to influence the outcomes of their resistance.
In his keynote address, video artist Kevin Jerome Everson subverted the entire discussion of responsibility by embracing unreal aesthetics such as lying and illusions, challenging the knee-jerk assumption that African American and other marginalized cultures are somehow more "real." Everson dismissed any self-aggrandizing responsibility to his subjects, for whom his art projects were minor interventions, not life-changing events. "People think that if you're watching, you're helping." Instead, Everson focused on his own "likes," emphasizing, as Gustafson noted in discussion, the responsibility of an artist to his or her own taste and interests.
As the symposium progressed, the subject matter moved from the specific immediacy of particular filmmaking moments to wider discussions about the nature of documentary and film itself. Erika Mijlin interrogated the history and essence of captions and frames. Elias Grootaers spoke eloquently on the humility required by documentary practice, necessarily an "organized perception of a disorganized world" that both forms and fragments that which it is meant to depict. Steven Anderson presented new digital techniques used by the Critical Commons Archive that allow for the archiving, organizing, and presentation of enormous databases of film material, suggesting the future frameworks for access to almost all of recorded cinema. Matt Soar brought such meta-discourses on film to a material plane with an examination of film leader as medium, metaphor, and metadata of physical film itself, increasingly archaic and romantic in the digital era. The ever-widening scope of subject matter--geographically, aesthetically, and intellectually--proved to be an inspiring statement on the inexhaustible possibilities for innovation in documentary arts.
The conference presented a unique opportunity for documentary makers and theorists to reflect upon the aesthetic choices of their works-in-progress, rather than showcase their complete films. Sharing work in an early stage of development can make any artist feel vulnerable, but Aparna Sharma and Irene Gustafson managed to create a safe space for participants to receive critical feedback from their peers. Although the exchanges between creators and audience could have been more proactively structured, the Poetics & Politics Documentary Research Symposium clarified the vitality of documentary as a community-based practice that depends on the physical, affective, intellectual, and relational labour of filmmakers and their interlocutors, within and beyond their fieldwork sites and editing rooms.