Visual Anthropology 3, no. 1 (1990), 103-107.

Book Review
The Old and the New:

New Challenges for Documentary. Alan Rosenthal, editor.
1988, Berkeley: University of California Press. 615 pages, illustrated.

Writings 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 [1971] and The Documentary Conscience [1980]. 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


104

Public Audiences [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.

The articles 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.

Rosenthal embraces 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 1930s.

In his 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.


105

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 [1981], 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 [1985], 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.

The articles 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 journalism.

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


106

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.

Familiarity with 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.

Surprisingly, no references are made to Claude Lanzmann's exemplary consultation with historian Raul Hilberg, author of The Destruction of the European Jews [1985], 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.


References

Anderson, Carolyn, and Thomas Benson

1989 Documentary Dilemmas: Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies. Carbondale, IL:Southern Illinois University Press.

1989 Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, forthcoming.

Gross, Larry, John Stuart Katz, and Jay Ruby, eds.

1988 Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film, and Television. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hilberg, Raul

1985 The Destruction of the European Jews, Volumes 1-3, New York: Holmes and Meiers Publishers, Inc.

Nichols, Bill

1981 Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other Media. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Rollwagen, Jack R., ed.

1988 Anthropological Filmmaking: Anthropological Perspectives on the Production of Film and Video for General Public Audiences. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Rosenthal, Alan, ed.

1971 The New Documentary in Action. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

1980 The Documentary Conscience. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Winston, Brian

1985 Misunderstanding Media. New York:Oxford University Press.

Wolfe, Tom, and E.W. Johnson, eds.

1973 The New Journalism. New York: Harper and Row.

 

 

 


Home | Biography | Publications | Videos | Links