Docusophia Conference Review: Guest Contributor Johannes Bennke

Review of Docusophia: Documentary Film and Philosophy, International Conference held at the Steve Tisch School for Film and Television, Tel Aviv University, May 22-24 2018.

A little more than a month ago, together with my colleagues Shai Biderman and Shmulik Duvdevani, I organized an international conference on documentary film and philosophy at Tel Aviv University. Johannes Bennke (Bauhaus-University Weimar) not only made a sharp and insightful presentation in the conference on El Mar La Mar (2017), but also miraculously took notes throughout the event. He was too kind to craft for us a detailed review of most of what’s been happening in the conference, including his own original angle on its meaning. I am very happy to post it here, hoping it would be of interest not only to all of us who have been there, but also the ones who could not attend.

(a detailed program of the conference can be found here).

At first glance, it might seem somewhat surprising to listen to presentations that deal with phantasmagoric moments, utopian visions, speculative testimonies, probable false or implanted memories and dreams at a conference that is dedicated to documentary film and philosophy. In general, documentary film is still regarded as a filmic mode that provides a privileged access to ‘real’ events. However, now it seems that even ephemeral entities and phenomena that were formerly conceived of as fictional or imaginary are considered to be part of the documentary’s domain. What has happened? What is then specific to documentary film? And what does philosophy want from documentary film, or vice versa?

When film philosophy took the academic stage in the beginning of the 1990s it opened up a research field with its own set of problems (film as a medium of thought, methodology, disciplinary affiliation) and questions (How to think film?), looking for theses and concepts in the history of philosophy, while questioning these very concepts in film analysis. Film philosophy as a research field was from the very beginning interdisciplinary and international, and was primarily based in three basic research areas: film history, film analysis and film theory. While classical film theory was concerned more with the ontological status of film and its relation to the division in art (Lukacs, Benjamin), modern film theory shifted the focus towards the materiality of its meaning production (Cavell, Kittler) and took the medium film as a serious philosophical device (Deleuze). In these discussions, the fictional film was its primordial object of study.

The conference Docusophia: Documentary Film and Philosophy now shifts the focus to another body of film: the documentary. The conference took place at the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University from May 22 to 24 in 2018. Participants from nine different countries (mostly from Israel, Europe and the US) attended the conference, coming from different fields of expertise (film- and media studies, philosophy, arts and comparative literature). The organizers — Ohad Landesman, Shai Biderman, and Shmulik Duvdevani — introduced the event as being the first of its kind, dedicated specifically to the interrelationship of documentary film and philosophy. In his welcoming notes, Landesman introduced the term “Docusophia” as a coupling of “documentary and the Greek word “philosophia”, creating a mutual exchange in the knowledge production: how to think the documentary film in philosophical terms? How does the documentary film inform philosophy? Therefore, the term “Docusophia” functions as a heuristic collective term that allows for flagging the relation between documentary film and philosophy as a productive epistemic intersection in its own right.

Welcoming Notes at Docusophia: full house at room 206a, Mexico building, Tel Aviv University

In this respect, the Docusophia conference both relied on and profited from debates in film philosophy. For instance, some contributions followed phenomenological film theory in the vein of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Vivian Sobchack, claiming that the film generally affects us on a pre-cognitive level of perception, including documentary film. At this point, the body becomes key to think documentary film philosophy: The relationships of the body of the filmmaker to the body of the subject, as well as to the body of the spectator, play a crucial role in thinking the documentary film. In some cases, the film is seen as a body, when Nadica Denic, for instance, combined this phenomenological approach with the concept of affordance (as James Gibson uses it) to describe the relationships between film and audience, and to classify documentary films in groups that mediate spatiality, temporality or intersubjectivity.

What became apparent during the conference was the ethical and epistemic weight that comes with documentary films. The ethical discussion took place on two levels: firstly, the relation of named bodies; and secondly, the cinematographic image. Adva Balsam, for instance, discussed the Lithuanian documentary "The Documentarian" (2012) by Inese Klava and Ivars Zviedris, which shows how the fact that the director leaves his subject at the end of the project is problematic; Sasha Dilan Krugman discussed the appropriation of reality in visual anthropology; and Jospeh G. Kickasola addressed the moral implications of the viewer in the film “The Act of Killing" (2014) by Joshua Oppenheimer by showing the pitfalls of having empathy with perpetrators of mass killings. Keren Yehezkel addressed the ethical implications of disappearing images in Agnès Varda´s "Faces Places" (2018) by using the concept of the trace as an analytical instrument. In my contribution I introduced the epistemic concept of "obliteration" to think operations of overwriting as key to understand ethics in documentary film, focusing on "El Mar La Mar" (2017) by Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki. Such filmmaking and their concepts could be called forensic. Several contributions showed that these ethical issues are crucial in documentary film.

Adva Balsam discusses "The Documentarian"

But the most complex aspect of documentary film philosophy seems to be how to do it. This was already seen as problematic within film philosophy and Stanley Cavell discussed this as a problem of style already in "The World Viewed".[1] But the discourse in documentary film is becoming rather specific. Recent documentary film theory produced its own discourse addressing several fields of problems that were the topic of contributions during the conference: fact and fiction, indexicality, semio-pragmatic reading, body of the filmmaker, reenactment and filmic argumentation.

Linda Williams, in her keynote address, opened up some of these fields of discussion: the truth claim that comes with documentary film; the body of the filmmaker; and the sensual involvement that comes with it through the image. She introduced the concept of "orbiting" to analyze the film "The Shape of the Moon" (2008) by Leonard Hetel Helmrich. The aesthetic practice of the always shifting and adjusting camera around its subjects allow for different perspectives and questions the anthropocentric point of view of the camera. In this sense, her analysis also offered insights into the methodological problems of capturing or appropriating reality as an ethnographic present. This was also discussed by Sasha Dilan Krugman, who problematized not only the presence of the filmmaker during the filmmaking process, but also the technological devices that play a crucial part in the production of the ethnographic other. The relation of anthropology and cinema is marked by the devices that inscribe themselves in the recording process: camera, microphone and the bodies of the film makers.

from the left: Linda Williams, Thomas Wartenberg and Joe Kickasola

Yotam Shibolet discussed the problem of indexicality in the film "Waltz with Bashir" (2008) by Ari Folman, offering a different reading of the famous end sequence of the film in which footage of documentary film is introduced in the animated film for the first time. Normally discussed as an index to traumatizing real events, Shibolet, changing John Grierson’s famous definition of documentary film to "creative treatment of memory", proposes the possibility of a "self-implanted memory". Likewise, it might be a counter-image to representations of the events. Despite the hermeneutical reading of this canonic sequence, what becomes apparently visible is the problematic – because arbitrary – relationship between signified and signifier. No signifier can guarantee the meaning of an event – under certain circumstances it can signify that something has happened (this disappointment of indexicality opens doors for postmodern arbitrariness, whose fundamental misunderstanding we experience in the current fake news debate, which was unfortunately not addressed at the conference.)

To overcome this skepticism, Stanley Cavell once argued for an aesthetic writing on film already in "The World Viewed". This includes filmic argumentation as well. In a panel discussion (the Q&A happened at the end of each panel) there was a debate on the filmic argument. What is a filmic argument and is documentary film the privileged domain to express it? Mâdâlina-Stefana Scîrlat offered a rhetorical model following Bill Nichols’s[2] typology of rhetorical modes while Orna Raviv made a phenomenological argument for the viewer’s experience following Jean-Pierre Meunier. Again, it became a question of style: how to write on (documentary) film when the relation of the film´s sujet to the used concept inform each other. Here, it might be helpful to read what Robert Sinnerbrink mentions on Cavell’s style in writing: "[…] the question of style, finding words adequate to our aesthetic experience, is central to comprehending what films mean: what they express, prompt us to experience, or invite us to think."[3] Style is not a question of aesthetic taste; it´s rather a question of thinking differently and singularly or specifically to the task at hand. This is why filmic argumentation operates differently: in the realm of the senses. Filmic argumentation therefore is an emotional form, an argument through the moving image, an aesthetic argument that needs the film critic to become film-philosopher in order to mediate between film and meaning production using (media) philosophical tools. The crucial aspect here is that the tools are not just operating devices: they have a transforming effect on the object under study. When David LaRocca introduced his concept of gramophonology to think the inherently connection of image and sound in documentary film, he rather performed his contribution than just reading it, in addressing performatively the sonic dimension of his talk. His concern was precisely this mediating process of "how to write what we hear", and finding an appropriate concept to think it and express it on stage.

David LaRocca introduces the concept of "gramophonology"

This experimental performative aspect, that still needs further development, challenges documentary theory in some key aspects. For instance, when Bill Nichols writes about ethics in documentary film he uses rhetorical and grammatical figures to classify different modes of documentary filmmaking.[4] Language theory becomes the key theoretical reference to think film. But is language as a model appropriate to categorize films when film has its own iconic logic? And how should we think epistemology differently from scientific inscription[5] when we deal with aesthetic argumentation? Grierson highlighted the aesthetic dimension of documentary film in the 1930s with his famous definition of the "creative treatment of actuality", but it is too general to be useful for a philosophical reading.

The Docusophia conference made a first and important step in highlighting a research field that still needs to be elaborated. The conference showed the need for more radical approaches to think the historiography of the documentary film outside of the boundaries of the logic of language using a unique iconic or filmic logic. Documentary film, with its long tradition, still carries the aesthetic and discursive burden of the scientific inscription which considered it as an objective truth. Now that previously neglected phenomena are being considered as part of the documentary field (such as the ephemeral phenomena mentioned earlier), they challenge the current discourse on documentary film while acknowledging the ethical and epistemic implications of their documentary mode of existence. It would be worthwhile to further elaborate these aspects and to include recent technological developments such as virtual reality and the aesthetic possibilities and understanding of operative images in network-based mass surveillance apparatuses.

Book Launch Event for Dan Geva's "Toward a Philosophy of the Documentarian": highlighting a research field that still needs to be elaborated

Documentary film philosophy is in a good position to be able to relate to a huge and diverse body of film. It can build on the insights of film and media philosophy and can experiment with its own set of problems. Documentary film philosophy can be seen as speculative thinking that shifts the focus to a rather underrated body of films, asking for a specific style of thinking that comes with documentary films, and seeing the truth claim as a provocation to think epistemology differently: through the senses.

[1] Cavell, Stanley: The World Viewed. Reflections on the ontology of film. Enlarged Edition, Cambridge (MA), London: Harvard University Press 1979. See also: Sinnerbrink, Robert: "Cavellian Mediations: How to Do Things with Film and Philosophy", in: Film-Philosophy 18 (2014), p. 50-69.

[2] Nichols, Bill: "What Gives Documentary Films a Voice of Their Own?", in: himself, Introduction to Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2017, p. 42-60.

[3] Sinnerbrink, Robert: "Cavellian Meditations: How to Do Things with Film and Philosophy", in: Film-Philosophy 18 (2014), p. 51.

[4] Nichols, Bill: "Why Are Ethical Issues Central to Documentary Filmmaking? ", in: himself, Introduction to Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2017, p. 42-66.

[5] Winston, Brian: "The Documentary Film as Scientific Inscription", in: Renov, Michael: Theorizing Documentary, New York: Routledge 1993, p. 37-57.

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