New Challenges for Documentary

Alan Rosenthal and John Corner (eds.),
New Challenges for Documentary (2nd edition)
Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 2005
ISBN 0 7190 6899 1
Au$58.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Manchester University Press)

The original version of New Challenges was edited by Alan Rosenthal and published in 1988, and in this latest version he shares editing duties with John Corner. The introduction reminds us that in 1988, “the first edition of this book set out to raise some questions about the ‘health’ of documentary, the directions and tendencies that were then current or immanent” before adding that these broad aims also guide the selection of articles for the new edition (1).

It seeems hard to justify this claim though, when almost half the 35 articles in the new book appeared in the 1988 version. How can each edition claim to provide a snapshot of “current” issues when they are published 17 years apart and share so much content? In fact, of the fresh articles, the most original are almost invariably small excerpts from significant texts which will be very familiar to anyone working in the documentary field since the mid-1990s (written by admittedly eminent theorists such as Brian Winston, Stella Bruzzi, Derek Paget, Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight, and Rosenthal himself).

One consequence of the inclusion of so many pre-1988 articles is that the topics canvassed often have a distinctly mature feel about them. In an age where pure cinéma vérité is considered passé, when Bill Nichols’ taxonomy has long been extended to include the category of “performative” documentaries, articles dealing with reflexivity as a new phenomenon in documentary, such as Jay Ruby’s “The image mirrored: reflexivity and the documentary film”, have a rather quaint feel. This is not to say there is anything wrong with Ruby’s piece: it marked a watershed at the time of its original publication, is well-written and is clearly worth reading for students attempting to come to terms with the history of documentary theory and practice. It’s just that that time was 1977, and reflexivity is hardly a “new challenge” in the domain of documentary.

Accordingly, when Ruby ventures “Documentary parody is so rare … that when a parody may exist it is regarded as confusing” (38), it is not surprising that the first part of this statement is comprehensively contradicted by developments over the past two decades. Indeed, this is implicitly acknowledged a few chapters later when New Challenges excerpts an introductory section from Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight’s survey of mock documentaries, Faking It (Manchester University Press, 2001).

I could make similar points in relation to the inclusion of most of the pre-1988 articles, including Bill Nichols’ “The voice of documentary”, which sketches the taxonomy to be elaborated upon in his later books, and Donald Watt’s “History on the public screen I” and Jerry Kuehl’s “History on the public screen II”, dealing with the often strained, occasionally outright antagonistic relations between academic historians and television documentary producers. There’s nothing wrong with any of these pieces, but all were written over 20 years ago in a field which, as the editors acknowledge, is constantly evolving.

Apart from the “history” and “genre” sections from which these articles are taken, this anthology is organised around themes such as ethics, television and docudrama, and a section largely devoted to interviews with filmmakers. The ethics component is at its best when it places the issue of consent into perspective. It leads off with a chapter entitled “Ethics”, taken from Brian Winston’s book Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries (BFI: London, 2000), which includes a characteristically incisive account of the tricky issue of consent in documentary. Two articles originally published in the 1970s, Calvin Pryluck’s “Ultimately we are all outsiders” and Jay Ruby’s “The ethics of image making”, also stand the test of time in probing the motives and practices of directors and the awareness and expectations of their subjects and audiences. Otherwise, the concept of ethics is very broadly drawn in this section to include Lee Atwell’s “Word is out and Gay U.S.A.”, written in the 1970s about two pioneering Gay Liberation films, and Roscoe and Hight’s “Building a mock-documentary schema”.

Examining television, New Challenges includes producer Fred Friendly on a 1954 edition of the CBS current affairs See It Now programme profiling Senator Joseph McCarthy, direct cinema pioneer Robert Drew on his experience operating as an independent in the 1960s, Alan Rosenthal on working as an independent in Israeli TV, and filmmaker Craig Gilbert discussing his cinéma vérité series An American Family. Again, such pieces (all included in the 1988 edition) are largely of historical interest. Elsewhere in this part, Ben Levin’s article on the reality TV series American High reads like a puff piece, and is most likely to be of interest to an American readership. By contrast, John Ellis’s article “Documentary and truth on television: the crisis of 1999” insightfully deals with the “crisis” identified by the British media in television documentary practice after a series of exposes of “fakery” in reality TV programmes, dovetailing neatly with the analysis contained in Brian Winston’s Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries.

The section devoted to documentary practitioners reproduces a number of articles from the earlier edition. As well as an item on a unit of the Canadian Film Board, it includes interviews with Emile de Antonio, Peter Watkins and a series of filmmakers from a 1981 symposium. In fact, apart from an illuminating interview with Dennis O’Rourke, the only “new” article here is a 1992 interview with Marlon Riggs. The earlier interviews are mostly focused on contemporary debates about the then vexed issues of narration, interviewing and editing.

New Challenges does not cover the much vaunted recent revival in theatrical prospects for documentaries. There is no mention of popular American documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Supersize Me (2004), Spellbound (2003), Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Outfoxed (2004) or The Corporation (2003). This is obviously not due to problems with the printing presses, as the interview with O’Rourke includes reference to his latest film Landmines: A Love Story (2005). Similarly, there is a dearth of references to recent docudramas. While a number of articles in this section refer to Anthony Thomas’s Death of a Princess (UK, 1980), there is no mention of recent films which have received international release such as Bloody Sunday (UK, 2002) or In this World (UK, 2002), or even limit cases such as Close Up (Iran, 1990) or American Splendour (USA, 2003).

Perhaps Rosenthal and Corner’s caveat that “comprehensiveness is impossible to obtain, and, as always, space requires exclusions that are only made regretfully” (8) covers the lack of discussion of recent films, but this still seems at odds with the express aim of examining “current or immanent” tendencies. Also, many issues are flagged in the introduction, only to be given relatively short shrift or be completely overlooked within the text itself. These include reception, the advent and effect of the internet (both to exhibit and promote material such as documentary, that might otherwise be marginalised) and the changes in production brought on by the digital age, resulting in commercially successful ‘home movie’ films such as Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (USA 2004).

John Ellis begins his article on “the crisis of 1999” with an apposite quote: “Documentary is a slippery genre to define; classifications can be out of date before the printer’s ink has dried” (342). This seems to sum up the dilemma facing the editors of New Challenges. It’s a dilemma which is never quite resolved, with the anthology much more a useful hits and memories sampler of historically important articles or excerpts from key texts, than a true survey of the key contemporary challenges for documentary.

Ultimately, the title New Challenges for Documentary is a misnomer. Whatever its claims on our attention (for example, as a primer, or in consolidating some seminal articles about documentary), New Challenges is not predominantly forward looking. Recent publications such as the Ivone Margulies edited Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema, or much of the Visible Evidence series emanating from the University of Minnesota Press, stake a greater claim to addressing the most pressing contemporary challenges on the documentary horizon.

Tim O’ Farrell
La Trobe University, Australia.

Created on: Wednesday, 20 July 2005 | Last Updated: 20-Jul-05