Anthropology 3, no. 1 (1990), 103-107.
The Old and the New:
Challenges for Documentary. Alan Rosenthal, editor.
1988, Berkeley: University of California Press. 615 pages, illustrated.
on documentary have largely been limited to interviews with
filmmakers and cursory discussions of individual films. Alan
Rosenthal, professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and
accomplished documentary filmmaker, has edited two important
books of interviews with filmmakers, The New Documentary
in Action  and The Documentary Conscience .
The publication of Rosenthal'snew anthology, New Challenges
for Documentary, coincides with that of other important
books on documentary film: Reality Fictions: The Films of
Frederick Wiseman [Anderson and Benson 1989], Documentary
Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies [Anderson
and Benson 1989], Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects
in Photographs, Film, and Television [Gross, Katz and Ruby
1988], and Anthropological Filmmaking: Anthropological Perspectives
on the Production of Film and Video for General
[Rollwagen 1988]. These writings promise to reinvigorate debate
about documentary theory and practice, media ethics, and audience.
In New Challenges
for Documentary Rosenthal divides the essays, culled from
more than thirty-five scholars, magazine critics, television
producers, and independent filmmakers into six different groups:
"Documentary Structures: Theory, Shape and Form"; "Enter
the Filmmaker"; "Documentary Ethics"; "Television";
"Documentary and History"; and "Images of Society."
For the most part, the essays eschew the obfuscation of
much of contemporary film theory in favor of a usable production
theory; Rosenthal has explicitly chosen articles of practical
significance for filmmakers. The anthology calls for a reading
public as diverse as its contributing writers. Particularly
insightful contributions come from Brian Winston on the Griersonian
tradition, Craig Gilbert on An American Family, Vivian
Sobchack on No Lies, Calvin Pryluck on ethics, Bill Nichols
on documentary style, Jay Ruby on reflexivity, and Patricia
Erens on women's filmmaking.
in this anthology address issues from many different points
of view. However, Rosenthal provides a brief overview of the
issues engaged in each section. Taken together, these introductions
represent the point of view of the book. At the outset, Rosenthal
states that the "key function of documentary is to set
the agenda and define the most important issues for public debate"
[page 7]. Documentary films rarely serve this agenda-setting
function. Films almost always require tremendous resources for
production and distribution. Production costs introduce a certain
lag between social issues and social issue films, a gap which
is frequently never filled. Moreover, the agenda for documentary
film production is set by network executives and the officers
of the philanthropic foundations and national endowments who
fund independent productions.
a romantic view of the role of documentary in society: "The
last challenge, then, may be the challenge of function -- to
determine what documentary should be doing and how it can best
be used to ameliorate society and bring about positive social
change" [page 6]. As Brian Winston and others in this volume
note, if demonstrable effects on social problems are to be the
measure of documentary's significance, then we can halt production
now. Furthermore, no consensus exists among communication scholars
concerning the effects of documentary media on viewers. In restricting
documentary to this social issue model, Rosenthal effectively
closes off its potential for social description and analysis,
not to mention humor and aesthetic pleasure. This pedantic tradition
of social amelioration, though not limited to non-fiction film,
descends from the Griersonian social issue documentary of the
introduction to The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe discusses
reactions to the development of the realist novel, and their
similarity to criticisms of recent non-fiction writing. "Underlying
such an attitude is the assumption that it is the duty of serious
literature to give moral instruction. The notion had flowered
in the seventeenth century, when literature was regarded not
merely as an art form, but as a branch of religion or ethical
philosophy, the branch that taught by examples instead of precepts"
[Wolfe and Johnson 1973:38]. It is not that the cover of art
should provide a haven from ethical considerations, rather,
documentary films could look to non-fiction writing for a more
complex range of responses to social phenomena. There is no
reason why documentary film alone, and not the short story or
the written ethnography, should bear the special mission of
bringing about positive social change.
Bill Nichols' "The
Voice of Documentary," reprinted in the section on documentary
structure, remains a pivotal example of documentary criticism,
despite some oversights. His book, Ideology and the Image
, contains the best close readings of ethnographic
and documentary films ever published. Paying close attention
to the shape and form of films, Nichols writes, "It is
worth insisting that the strategies and styles deployed in documentary,
like those of narrative film, change; they have a history"
[page 48]. His historical outline of documentary style encompasses
a wide variety of direct address, cinéma vérité,
interview, and self-reflexive films. However, Nichols fails
to make distinctions between French, Canadian, and American
responses to the new technology of synchronous sound filmmaking.
While Drew Associates moved in the direction of a strictly observational
storytelling mode in America, anthropologist Jean Rouch and
sociologist Edgar Morin moved towards a reflexive participatory
cinema in France. In addition, Nichols glosses over the growth
of the personal autobiographical cinema in the 1970s, in which
filmmakers combined participatory and observational modes in
the filming of their own lives. Rosenthal also slights these
autobiographical works because their form and subject matter
do not conform to the traditional social issue documentary film.
In the section
on ethics, Brian Winston provides a comprehensive overview of
the history of documentary, interpreting films in light of earlier
practices. He sees patterns and trends where others see only
individual films. As in his history of the information revolution,
Misunderstanding Media , Wilson challenges the
status quo of documentary film history. In "The Tradition
of the Victim in Griersonian Documentary," he argues persuasively
that the social issue documentary exploits its human subjects,
parading them as helpless victims. For Winston, these films
provide cheap emotional payoffs for secure middle class audiences,
while enhancing the reputations and careers of their middle
and upper class makers. Invariably from disadvantaged backgrounds,
the subjects become the means to an end they do not control.
Winston's iconoclastic views provide a fresh revisionist perspective
which will make his forthcoming study of the documentary exciting
and controversial reading. It is one of the strengths of this
anthology that Rosenthal includes articles whose perspective
contradicts his own point of view.
in the section on ethics deal primarily with independent documentary
films, a small but vital part of American media. While these
films clearly represent the vanguard of documentary practice,
little attention has been paid to the ethics of mainstream television
news broadcasts, which go well beyond the simple manipulation
denounced in the film Broadcast News. In his article
"Reflections on An American Family, II," Craig
Gilbert considers the ethical issues raised by critics of that
series. "When every night on every local news show in the
country a reporter shoves a microphone in the face of a grieving
mother and asks how she feels about her recently killed child,
I suggest it is about time to redefine "invasion of privacy"
[page 299]. As independent producers begin to face the ethical
implications of their work, critics need to broaden the debate
on image ethics to include network producers. Michael J. Arlen's
article on two episodes of CBS' 60 Minutes provides an
interesting exception. Arlen offers a revealing case study of
the ethical breaches that typically form the basis of television
None of the articles
in New Challenges for Documentary clearly addresses the
role of the audience in documentary film, including the sticky
question of whether social issue films ever reach beyond the
already converted, making them, in Robert
Aibel's words, "films
of communion" [Gross, Katz, and Ruby 1988]. Underlying
the arguments of many of the writers is a certain malaise about
the social issue documentary film, a feeling that the form has
outlived its usefulness, that documentary should embrace a wider
range of subject matter and styles, and that filmmakers should
no longer find social amelioration sufficient excuse for exploiting
the already disenfranchised. While the Griersonian tradition
still dominates documentary, other tendencies have emerged over
the past twenty years.
In New Challenges
for Documentary, social scientists will recognize debates
on ethics and the popularization of scholarly knowledge. Articles
by British scholars Jerry Kuehl and Donald Watt confront the
apprehensions that scholars have about the depth, intelligence,
and accuracy of television programs designed to disseminate
knowledge of history to a mass audience. These articles outline
typical problems and misconceptions that plague interactions
between scholars and filmmakers. As collaboration and consultation
between filmmakers and scholars becomes more common, anthropologists
should be aware of the working methods and assumptions of professional
documentary filmmakers. A greater understanding of the production,
distribution, and exhibition of documentary media will give
scholars more leverage in their dealings with filmmakers. Filmmakers,
too, stand to benefit from a fuller grasp of the concerns of
their academic consultants.
documentary practice and scholarly research will help both groups
in the future to avoid the pitfalls of the 1982 PBS Middletown
series, discussed here by both Winston and Rosenthal.
references are made to Claude Lanzmann's exemplary consultation
with historian Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of
the European Jews , for his oral history of
the holocaust, Shoah. Eleven years in the making, Shoah
documents in minute detail the apparatus of the Nazis' final
solution in Poland, relying on eye-witness testimonies, Hilberg's
massive historiography, and contemporary footage of the concentration
camps. Shoah's greatness lies in its stylistic and thematic
consistency, a tribute to Lanzmann's vision and tenacity. As
a documentary film, it combines the freedom of independent production,
personal vision, and serious research with the financial backing
and wide audience afforded by television. By comparison, Louis
Malle's six-month stint in India produced the trivial and uninformed
Phantom India, reviewed here by sociologist Todd Gitlin.
While I have
criticized some of the assumptions of New Challenges For
Documentary, I believe that this anthology brings together
many of the most interesting recent articles on documentary.
It takes into consideration not only the style, form, and production
practices of documentary, but also the ethics, economics, and
purpose of filmmaking. This comprehensive approach will make
Rosenthal's anthology a standard text for filmmakers, critics,
students, and scholars of the human sciences. Reaching across
these various communities, New Challenges For Documentary
expands an ongoing debate on documentary film.
and Thomas Benson
Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies. Carbondale,
IL:Southern Illinois University Press.
Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman. Carbondale, IL:
Southern Illinois University Press, forthcoming.
Gross, Larry, John
Stuart Katz, and Jay Ruby, eds.
Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film, and
Television. New York: Oxford University Press.
Destruction of the European Jews, Volumes 1-3,
New York: Holmes and Meiers Publishers, Inc.
and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other
Media. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Rollwagen, Jack R.,
Filmmaking: Anthropological Perspectives on the Production of
Film and Video for General Public Audiences. New York: Harwood
New Documentary in Action. Berkeley, CA: University
of California Press.
Documentary Conscience. Berkeley, CA: University
of California Press.
Media. New York:Oxford University Press.
Wolfe, Tom, and E.W.
New Journalism. New York: Harper and Row.