Saturday, October 22, 2016

Conferences Fall-Winter 2016/7 edition

Here is my current list of English-language conferences of interest to those in film studies (and some for TV and media studies). Upcoming conferences are listed in order by date or, for open calls, by abstract due date. Please let me know if I should add anything.  I will update this post when the NECS call for papers is posted.

Closed calls:
MLA - Philadelphia, January 5-8, 2017  [website]
SCMS - Chicago, Mar 22-26, 2017 [website]
ICA 2017 - San Diego, California, 25-29 May 2017 [call]

Current calls:
due date: November 1, 2016 Women and the Silent Screen - Shanghai, June 16-18, 2017 [website | call]
due date: November 4, 2016 Visible Evidence XXIV - Buenos Aires, August 2-5, 2017 [website | call]
due date: November 30, 2016 Circuits of Cinema (Histories of Movie/Media Distribution) - Ryerson Univ., June 22-24, 2017 [website | call]
due date: January 15, 2017 Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 23-25, 2017 [website]
due date: January 16, 2017 Console-ing Passions - East Carolina Univ., July 27-29, 2017 [call]

Upcoming calls:
Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image (SCSMI) - Helsinki, June 11-14, 2017 [website]
NECS - Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and Université Paris Diderot, Paris, 29 June - July 1, 2017 [website | call]
MLA - New York, January, 2018 [website]

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Machine Gun or Typewriter?

Machine Gun or Typewriter
Dir. Travis Wilkerson, US, 2016
Genre: doc-fiction hybrid

I’ve been overdue reporting on my time at FIDMarseille this year, taking in a festival that has a dual distinct niche on the European documentary film festival circuit. First, its programming has a pan-Mediterranean orientation, including a good number of works from the Maghreb and from the Levant. Second, it gravitates toward “difficult” works, particularly slow-paced contemplative docs or rule-breaking essay film style works. However, my biggest surprise in encountering the FIDMarseille program was seeing the inclusion of fiction films amid a program of documentaries, essay films, and hybrid works, and absolutely no marking of films according to genre.

There are some disadvantages of this approach (which I’ll get to in another post), but it had the advantage of making me encounter each film on its own terms, to gauge not only its facticity but also its narrational system in the process of watching. I think this paid off for Machine Gun or Typewriter, a film which like many at the festival only really gripped me in the second half, as I got a feel for its narrative rhythms and tone.

And at heart, the film is a narrative, based on a fictional script and with the feel of a short story or novella. The narrator in this instance is a literal storyteller, a pirate radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles (real? fictional?) recounting his story of political and romantic involvement with a committed and radicalized leftist.

However the story lacks the enactment of the script, relying instead on the relation of voiceover to nonfiction image common to essay films. Moreover, the narrator ventures into nonfiction asides, in the manner of Thomas Pynchon or from the other angle, Mike Davis, whose City of Quartz seems a touchstone here. So much of Davis’s vision of Los Angeles is here: the references to the Black Dahlia, the iconography of Bunker Hill, or the half-forgotten genealogy of the Los Angelino Left.

It is on these grounds that inclusion in my doc blogging seems fitting. The part of the film devoted to an East Los Angeles cemetery is one of the most effective and affecting doc sequences I’ve seen this year.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

CFP: Visible Evidence XXIV Buenos Aires


Visible Evidence XXIV
Buenos Aires
2-5 August, 2017

Visible Evidence, the international conference on documentary film and media, will convene for its 24th year in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 2-5, 2017. VE2017 is hosted in collaboration with the National University of Tres de Febrero (UNTREF), Revista Cine Documental and the Argentine Association of Cinema and Audiovisual Studies (AsAECA). The conference will take place at the Centro Cultural Borges (Borges Cultural Center) above the traditional Galerías Pacífico and at the Margarita Xirgu theater in the historical neighborhood of San Telmo.

Visible Evidence Buenos Aires (2017) coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and marks fifty years since Che Guevara’s assassination in Bolivia. These two transcendental events compel us to contemplate anew the relationship between documentary film and revolutionary movements. In the 1960s, Argentina and other Latin American nations were at the center of a transnational debate about the role of film as a tool for social change in a regional movement called “New Latin American Cinema.” In the next decade, many filmmakers were disappeared or killed and many others were forced into exile. From abroad, or clandestinely in their own countries, filmmakers thought deeply about the ethical, moral, aesthetic, and political dimensions of their practices, in particular about how to represent individuals as political agents. An important aspect of their work was to foster political alliances with their colleagues, producers and film distributors in other developing countries. In spite of the brutal political persecution, their activist approach to filmmaking had an enormous influence on younger generations, particularly after the economic crisis at the turn of the twenty first century and the popular insurrections that disrupted the neoliberal takeover of the economy, society, and culture in many Latin American countries. The Latin American documentary film tradition followed these popular revolts closely, gradually incorporating many of the organizing structures of progressive social movements. Thus, while notions of Third Cinema or Political Cinema may seem less prominent in recent years, it is productive to think about the elements of the traditions that live on in contemporary Latin American film and beyond in the ‘Global South.’

At the beginning of the new millennium, one sees a fruitful and combative debate about the efficacy of documentation, understood within the historiography of human rights abuses, indigenous rights, marginalized communitiesand genocide. There has also been an increase in interest in documentary film in the last two decades in Argentina and other countries in Latin America. Progressive governments throughout the continent have increased funding for non-fiction films, strengthening ongoing discussions in academic circles about the role of the state as a patron of the arts. We believe that the time is ripe to rethink the relations between documentary film and national cinemas, as currently, state-funded progressive films are not always in agreement with transnational trends in contemporary cinema.

In line with previous conferences, Visible Evidence XXIV will address the history, theory, and practice of documentary cinema, television, video, digital media, photography, and performance. Proposals for panels and workshops may address, but are not limited to, the following themes:

  • Documenting social movements
  • Revolutionary filmographies
  • Documenting Latin America, documenting “the South”
  • Experimental and non-conventional non-fiction cinema
  • Documenting the “global North” and/or “the global South”
  • Hypertextuality practices in documentary cinema
  • First person documentary film
  • Frictions between performativity, fiction and documentary
  • New technology issues: dispositives, interfaces, internet, television and other media experiences
  • Documentary between national/regional tradition and transnational trends
  • Scopes and limits of contemporary documentary theory
  • Transmedia and Interactive Documentary. New Problems
  • Documenting human rights abuses
  • Discourses of neo-colonialism in the 21st century

Submission deadline: November 4, 2016 (by 5:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time) For the full call, including Spanish-language call, see the conference website.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

CFP: Symposium on Structural Documentary

I am pleased to announced that our department is hosting this event in October.


Temple University’s Film and Media Arts department invites proposals for its
2nd Documentary Theory-Practice Symposium 

on the topic of Structural Documentary

One-day symposium, Friday, October 14, 2016
Temple Performing Arts Center
Temple University, Philadelphia

Keynote speakers:
Pacho Velez, co-director of Manakamana
Catherine Russell (Concordia University), author of Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video 

One of the most striking trends in nonfiction film over the last decade has been the intersection between documentary and what has been called “structural filmmaking,” an approach to experimental cinema with a lineage back to the 1960s. Whether in the art gallery context or in feature documentaries geared toward theatrical or film festival release, documentarians have experimented with appropriating elements of structural film: repeated structures, arbitrary conceits, and an overall play with the elements of time and framing. 

Recent retrospectives of pioneering 1970s and 80s filmmakers Chantal Akerman and James Benning have highlighted the long-standing affinity of nonfiction subject matter for this detached, intellectualized approach to filming. While these earlier makers have always been influential, in a sense their time has caught up with them, as once marginal practices have increasingly influenced more aesthetically oriented documentary. Structural-inspired work today is wide ranging, from auteur-identified “creative documentaries” to experimental work shown in galleries. Contemporary makers may or may not take up the mantle of “structural filmmaking,” but increasingly in creative and experimental documentary, predetermined structures and formal devices shape the raw material of reality into conceptual puzzles for the viewer.

This one-day symposium will bring together filmmakers, critics, and scholars to examine the aesthetics of structural documentary, past and present, and related expanded nonfiction forms. The event will interrogate the label of “structural documentary” itself, posing a debate between broadly (inclusive) and narrow (exclusive) definitions, and assessing the relationship between between structural documentary and other experimental documentary approaches. 

On the one hand, structural filmmaking can seem a nostalgic style, a harkening back to an earlier movement. On the other hand, digital video, newer sound and editing capabilities, and expanded installation contexts have breathed new life into the expressive possibilities of structural devices.  

Proposals are invited on any of the above questions or on topics related to any theoretical or historical dimension of structural documentary as well as current practice in structural documentary. Possible areas include:

The relationship between contemporary structural documentary and earlier schools or movements of experimental documentary 
Analyses of individual works or filmmakers 
The impact of the digital age on structural cinema’s material (media-reflexive) orientation
Expanded documentary forms in the Global South or in minor cinemas.
The mainstreaming of structural technique
Structuralism in the art world: video art, the gallery film, and installation
Structural documentary and the historiography of experimental cinema
Structural film and the documentary canon

We encourage scholarly papers as well as talks by critics, filmmakers, and media artists. The morning session will be devoted to scholarly talks and an afternoon session to presentations by filmmakers and practitioners. 

Please send a précis or abstract (300 words max.) and a brief bio to Chris Cagle ( by Tuesday, Sept. 6. Notification of accepted proposals will go out by the following week. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

CFP: Documenting the Visual Arts


Documenting the Visual Arts 
(edited collection)
deadline: Nov 1, 2016

The proliferation and popularity of visual arts documentaries are a major component of the recent international documentary boom, but they tend to be overlooked in film criticism and scholarship in favor of documentaries framed more explicitly in social and political terms. Yet visual arts documentaries remain on the cutting edge of documentary innovation, from 3D cinema (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) to questioning documentary truths (Exit Through the Gift Shop). Moreover, visual arts documentaries have long played significant roles in various historical formations around documentary politics (e.g. USIA films in the Cold War, the Left Bank essay films of 1950s and Channel Four programming in the 1980s).

This edited collection will examine the significance of visual arts documentaries from a range of critical perspectives and methodologies. The book will explore not only how documentaries from around the globe exploit the formal properties of film and video to illuminate the aesthetic specificities and intersections of other visual arts, but also how they elucidate the material and cultural conditions in which visual arts are produced and experienced (e.g. the discourse of the artist, museums and galleries, activist art, religious practice, commercial design etc.). To complement these interpretative contributions, the book will also include critical analyses of the political economy of visual arts documentaries, especially the geopolitics of the genre. As an interdisciplinary and intermedial project, I am particularly interested in contributions that connect film studies to other disciplines and fields, including anthropology, art history, architecture, communication, rhetoric, performance studies and visual studies, among others. Consideration will be given to submissions about any historical period or cultural/national/regional context (the book aims for genuinely global scope). Contributions may focus on a single film, a body of work (organized around filmmaker, artist or subject) or a particular institutional context. I am defining visual arts broadly to include applied arts, such as fashion, architecture and design, as well as film, video, photography, painting, sculpture, illustration and performance art etc.

Possible topics include (but are not limited to):

  • Medium specificity and the visual arts documentary
  • Cultural politics of visual arts television programming
  • Documentary film and arts education
  • Visual arts documentary as cultural diplomacy
  • Post/colonial appropriation and resistance in visual arts documentaries
  • Representing visual aesthetic practices in ethnographic film
  • Documenting performance and collaboration in the visual arts
  • Documenting activist art practices
  • Discourses of the visual artist in documentary film
  • Documentaries about art institutions and markets
  • Visual arts documentary as paratext (making of documentaries, exhibition documentaries)
  • Relationship between documentary filmmaking and archival documentation of visual arts
  • Histories of arts television networks and series
  • Film technologies and the visual arts documentary
  • Fakery, forgery and mockumentary 

Deadline for electronic submission of 350-400 word abstract (plus brief biographical statement and sample 5-item bibliography): November 1, 2016.  Notification by December 1, 2016.

Commissioned chapters should not exceed 5,000 words and must be completed by October 1, 2017.

Please send submissions and inquiries via email to Roger Hallas, Associate Professor of English (Film & Screen Studies), Syracuse University, USA: rhallas -AT- syr -DOT- edu

Resources for Documentary Releases

I have occasionally been asked how I hear about recent documentaries. I try to be open to a number of sources, but it's worth highlighting a couple of news sources and a few streaming sources:

What Not to Doc. Basil Tsiokos maintains an incomparably complete and amazingly useful blog with documentary release news and festival roundups. This should be a regular read for anyone with a strong interest in documentary. His Twitter feed mirrors the site for those who prefer to access it that way.

POV. The Public Broadcasting System's documentary showcase has a good blog with weekly updates, including links to doc-oriented magazine features and festival news. The site also has regular streaming of documentaries that have broadcast. [Twitter]

Netflix. This is obvious, but I'm surprised how many documentary gems I stumble across on Netflix, both mainstream doc releases and more obscure fare. While the streaming site has given up on its former cinephile offerings in favor of television, its documentary holdings are still strong.

DocAlliance. I've mentioned them often, but this compendium of various doc festivals deserve a plug for providing an excellent streaming service of (mostly European) festival documentaries that otherwise do not see video distribution. Charges are minimal, and each week there are free streams as part of a featured event. [Twitter]

Short of the Week. Shorts are another overlooked niche in the documentary distribution market, and it can be hard to hear of new shorts. As with other film shorts, Short of the Week has a channel dedicated to documentary.

These are not exhaustive, and I've put the emphasis on resources for documentaries accessible to a wide audience rather than ones viewable only at festivals or in major cities. I welcome other tips.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Character-Driven Variations

The Successor (Il successore)
dir. Mattia Epifani, Bosnia-Herzegovina/Italy, 2015
Genre: Character-driven
Not currently in wide distribution

I mentioned in a recent post that there are important variations on the character-driven format. This is especially true in European documentaries and those oriented toward the festival circuit. There’s a wide range of experiments with the character-driven template, and the creativity with the form interests me in some ways more than the form itself. That said, it’s worth pointing to a common variation in the European/festival context.

The Successor is a documentary about the aftermath of land mines from the Bosnian war of the 1990s. It follows Vita Alfieri Fontana, a former owner of Tecnovar, the Italian company that produced the mines used in Bosnia and elsewhere. Eventually, Fontana had a sense of guilt about the use of his company’s products, shut down the company, and spent the following decade helping the mine removal process.

The documentary is not longitudinal but rather uses the pretext of Fontana’s journey to Bosnia to meet up with Nijaz Nemez, a Bosnian mine removal expert dealing with an explosion injury to his leg. The two were coworkers and are now friends.

The film has a few important characteristics of the character-driven documentary. It explores a broader historical and sociopolitical issue through the personal experience of those who face it directly rather than through abstract, expository means. It combines observational footage with a significant amount of testimonial interview to anchor the interiority of the “characters.” (See left.) And it is structured around the emotional journeys of Fontana and Nemez.

However, in look and experience, The Successor does not feel like an American-style character-driven doc. There are some stylistic reasons for this, including the poetic-doc style framing and composition…

But mostly, the difference boils down to some important distinctions in structure from the typical character-driven documentary:

  • There are two characters rather than one. The alternation in structure sets up a dialectical relation between the two men and what they represent.
  • The structure is closer to the epiphany structure of the art film or narrative short than the three-act structure of the postclassical film.
  • Accordingly, the film has a significant amount of “dead time,” especially for a mid-length documentary. This dead time allows the film to suggest an anomie of the characters standing in for a broader abstract but ineffable moral problem. (as in B-roll shot of Fontana, below)
  • The Successor relies far more on testimony than others, lending a sense of pastness rather than presentness which is the hallmark of the character-driven doc.

I do think these differences are attuned to a specific historicity of integrating Europe. It foregrounds the moral reckoning between Western and (South)Eastern Europe, depicting the civil war’s trauma as past but also a public sphere challenge for the present.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Aesthetics of the Festival Documentary

Roundabout in My Head (Fi rassi rond-point)
dir. Hassen Ferhani, 2015, Algeria/France/Qatar/Lebanon/Netherlands
Genre: Poetic-Observational

There is one shot in Roundabout in My Head that encapsulates for me so much of what makes watching contemporary festival documentary exciting. The film is a composite portrait of workers at a slaughterhouse in Algiers. Unlike other famous documentaries of slaughterhouses, Ferhani shows very little of the carnage; rather the film focuses on the worker’s interactions and unguarded moments. 

The shot in question is an interior long take of a television screen visible at the threshold of a doorway. Close to the camera, and partially captured at the frame’s edge are an older adult and a younger worker, watching what turns out to be a soccer match on the TV. Other workers walk between us/spectators and the television and more and more activity develops in this hallway until a group of workers is holding a rope, pulling on something heavy and urging other to help. 

The spectator can likely infer what is off screen: a cow being led to slaughter. But the shot takes some time to reveal this, instead presenting a balletic interplay between the action shown and the action concealed, including the soccer match. Eventually, the rope goes slack and the workers rush back, frame left, while the steer enters the frame and looks at the camera. 
As a man stands in front of the camera, his white clothing blocking the view, the shot either elides time or the action of moving the bull along quickly transpires. As the view of the room reappears, the favored team in the soccer match score, leading the workers to rush in and cheer. 
I signal out this shot because on one hand it’s resolutely observational and documentary in ethos (though Ferhani may be fudging with the time ellipsis), yet it also presents the spectator with a play in narration that like much art cinema or structural film works because the static frame contrasts with a staging of action that is anything but static. Only the action is not staged (mostly). It feels serendipitous precisely because it doesn’t look serendipitous.  
Which raises the question of how typical this shot is. At a most basic level it’s distinctive, a happy accident. But it’s also an accident of the sort that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in the festival-oriented or “creative” documentary lately - not shots exactly like this but ones with a similar aesthetic. Ferhani has a particularly good idea for shooting moments like this and keeping them in the edited film, but it’s also the matter of a collective “eye” (and “ear”).

I have been formulating various blurbs about what my next book will be about, but this is as good a summary as any: it will analyze what comprises this collective eye in documenting the historical world.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Character-Driven Documentary

A Young Patriot
dir. Du Haibin, 2015, China
genre: character-driven documentary
not currently in video distribution (though may have upcoming ITVS screening on some PBS channels in the US)

By now I have seen a few character-driven documentaries coming from China, and of those, A Young Patriot is one of the more gripping. The documentary follows Xiao Zhao, a patriotic and ambitious teen from Pingyao, Shanxi as he goes to university and comes of age. I know a lot of filmmaker and documentary students bristle at the formula-oriented nature and funding strictures of the character-driven doc (and maybe many more embrace it, I don't know). But to me, A Young Patriot shows how at its best the formula can be a template for strong works. One thing I found so powerful about the film is that it works on levels beyond the central conceit (in which Zhao's conflicts speak to broader issues of Chinese politics). Like other longitudinal docs, this one captures the coming of age process with observational detail and poignancy. And in simple contrast, it captures the disparity between city and country in modern China.

It's worth noting what I mean by character-driven documentary. I've written about the form before (in a Cinema Journal essay on postclassical doc) but there's still not a lot of scholarship on the form, to my knowledge, nor systematic criticism on the form. Yet it's arguably the most influential form for the feature documentary today. And while practitioners use the term regularly, there's not exactly a consensus on what character-driven means. As with many definitions, one might start with a number of qualities, while acknowledging that not all films will have all of these. I would see these as essential traits:

  1. Is focused on a social actor subject whose portraiture forms the "character" of the film
  2. Is filmed with a variant on observational style, sometimes but not always in what I describe as postclassical doc style (the use of social actor testimony in place of voiceover narration)
  3. Contains a fiction-style narrative structure, with the cinematic construction of internal conflict, plot points, and narrative acts (often but not necessarily three-act)
  4. Uses the individual's story as a means to explore broader abstract/social stakes similar to those of issue documentaries (but in a different way)

I've noticed that the last part is often missing from many working definitions, but I do think that's one thing that distinguishes a character-driven from a portrait doc. In any case, I would expect most of the above to be a part of a character-driven doc, though there might be exceptions and variations. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few important caveats:

  • While I think the purest form of character-driven doc follows one "character" to develop a clear line for the internal conflict, there are documentaries that follow multiple characters. I do think more needs to be done to theorize these multi-focal docs. 
  • As I suggest above, not all structure is three-act. But more importantly, the acts don't develop with the linearity of fictional structure. Rather, they are defined by ruptures in the status quo which serve as plot points. 
  • Parts of the definition, therefore, rely on analogy. Structure in a doc is never exactly like a fiction film, not is character exactly like a fictional character. That said, it cannot be too analogous. Not every documentary subject or social actor is a "character" if we want that word to maintain any critical value. 
  • Although the character-driven form is usually a hegemonic one for funding and broadcast, it is possible to experiment with it. I personally am researching and writing on some of these experiments.
  • It might be possible to find a "character" in one sense and build a documetnary around her  without committing fully to the character driven form.

Why do I emphasize a definition heavy on the prescriptive dimension? A couple of reasons. First, this is a narrational form that filmmakers and other practitioners themselves often approach in highly prescriptive ways, including workshops on how to find a character and structure a character-driven doc. Second, it is a little frustrating that a form so widely used has had little critical explanation. Rule-breaking documentaries may be sexier in doc-studies circles, but I do think it's worth identifying dominant narrational patterns in documentary. And once you start looking, the character-driven form is everywhere.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Stylistic Bricolage

Trading Germans (Pașaport de Germania)
dir. Răzvan Georgescu, 2014, Romania/Germany
available as Romanian imprint DVD (w/ Eng. subtitles) here

I had mentioned in my post on Tea Time, the unusual status of the enactment footage rather than the reenactment. But watching Trading Germans, I noticed a different variation of enactment/reenactment. Trading Germans is a documentary about the emigration of ethnic Germans (Saxons and Swabians) from Romania as well as the diplomatic negotiations between West Germany and Romanian government to achieve the permission to emigrate. At times the latter takes precedence, and like many other theatrical documentaries, Trading Germans borrows from fiction and lends a suspense quality to the international intrigue segment. We see German negotiator Heinz-Günther Hüsch pack money in a suitcase, get on a plane and stay in a brutalist Bucharest hotel. Clearly, the actions mirror the events described in the voiceover narration and in many respects substitute for them; the cinematography and scoring lend an aura of reenactment, of fictiveness. (The cinematographer, Alexandru Solomon, is known for similar fiction-doc hybrid work in his documentaries.) However, at no point is the footage exactly reenactment. The documentary never shifts register from actuality to reenactment, and we perceive the footage as a present-day re-performance of the events. The difference is subtle but significant.

Perhaps just as importantly, Trading Germans, is only partly in this fiction-inspired register. Compared to a film like Man on Wire, which tries its best to be “not a typical documentary” and to adopt the crossover aesthetics of the fiction film, Trading Germans quite happily switches back to a postclassical talking-head issue film much like many other issue films geared toward European television. I happen to think it’s a well-done and dialectical exploration of its issue, but the documentary probably will not circulate broadly on its aesthetic merits alone. But one lesson I’ve learned from the film is how mainstream documentary can be free to shift tonal registers, to adopt a posture of stylistic bricolage, in distinction to the often tonally rigorous approaches of festival-oriented doc.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The Documentary Pretext

Tea Time
dir. Maite Alberdi, 2014, Chile
genre: longitudinal/observational-portrait documentary
screening free on PBS website through June 21

This is a type of documentary with an understandable hook - the juxtaposition of a documentary about Chilean culture and politics with an avowedly feminine and middle-class space of a domestic tea. And it combines a somewhat unusual observational style (heavy on tight framings) with a portraiture of engaging "characters," the women who are friends and keep in touch despite the changes that aging brings into their lives.

But one thing the film underscored for me is how one production convention of the doc is to create a situation to film. Nothing happens in Tea Time other than gatherings filmed by the filmmakers and possibly convened by the filmmakers. In other words, a documentary pretext organizes the filming and the profilmic. This is common to other films, as well, but Tea Time at times foregrounds this, using transition shots of the host posing in her living space and stylized shots which suggest an artificiality to the proceedings.

At other times, the film effaces the sense of staging. 

Documentary studies (Nichols, Gaines, Kahana) has been drawn to reenactment as a recurring theoretical issue in documentary. What interests me is that documentary pretext is a subcategory or reenactment, but at a different level. Unlike reenactment per se, pretext is generally recognized only by other documentary makers or those familiar with the production process. And it speaks to the spectator with a different reality effect. Perhaps more properly it is not reenactment but enactment. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Conferences Summer 2016 edition

Here is my current list of English-language conferences of interest to those in film studies (and some for TV and media studies). Upcoming conferences are listed in order by date or, for open calls, by abstract due date. Please let me know if I should add anything.  I will update this post throughout the summer and early fall.

This is the slow season - lots of conferences being held, but few calls. The big exception of course is SCMS

Closed calls:
The Annual Conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada May 31 -June 2, 2016 the University of Calgary, Theme: “Energizing Communities” [website]
Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Images (SCSMI) Cornell Univ, Ithica, NY, June 1st – 4th, 2016 [website]
ICA - Fukuoka, Japan June 9-13, 2016 [website]
Console-ing Passions, Notre Dame University, Indiana, June 16-18, 2016 [website]
Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 24-26, 2016 [website]
NECS - Potsdam, July 26-30, 2016 [website]
UFVA - Las Vegas, August 1-4, 2016 [website]
Visible Evidence XXIII - Bozeman, Montana, Aug 11-14, 2016 Theme: "New Frontiers in Documentary" [website | call]
Flow Conference, Austin, Texas, September 15-17, 2016 [website]
Literature/Film Association Annual Conference, Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ, October 13-16, 2016 [website]
MLA - Philadelphia, January 5-8, 2017  [website]

Current calls:
due date: Sept 1, 2016  SCMS - Chicago, Mar 22-26, 2017 [website]

Upcoming calls:
MLA - New York, January , 2018
Console-ing Passions, East Carolina Univ., July 27-29, 2017
ICA 2017 - San Diego, California, 25-29 May 2017

Monday, May 23, 2016

CFP: Production Cultures


The Velvet Light Trap
Issue #80 - "Production Cultures"
Submission deadline: August 15, 2016
Submit to:

In the introduction to their edited book on production studies, Vicki Mayer, Miranda Banks, and John T. Caldwell argue that “the off-screen production of media is itself a cultural production, mythologized and branded much like the onscreen textual culture that media industries produce.” This has never been more true than in the current moment.

The production process – aided by the proliferation of social media – has become increasingly visible. Long before movies, games, comic book issues, or television series are released, audiences have already been exposed to, and have opined over, casting choices, false starts, locations, script drafts, and various other aspects of the production process. Additionally, the development of cinematic universes has caused the cultures of production to become increasingly complex, resulting in productions that are both more global and transmedia-minded. This raises new questions about power and labor as new relationships are forged between production capitals, and workers who have traditionally functioned independently of each other must come together to create transmedia stories. In addition, the newly-heightened visibility of the production process, and the consolidation of the production studies field, emphasizes the need to reexamine and evaluate production cultures of the past.

This issue of The Velvet Light Trap seeks historical and contemporary studies of media production. Submissions should engage with the above issues of increased complexity, visibility, and ubiquity, in addition to new questions. We invite scholars to submit work that not only deepens our current understanding of production studies, but also challenges our assumptions about what production cultures are, and the types of questions that should be asked about them. We would also ask scholars to consider how issues of gender, race, and sexuality function beyond the screen and contextualize these issues within the production process.

Topics may include but are not limited to:

  • Relationships between producers and consumers
  • Negotiating professional identity
  • Evolution of production
  • Production communities
  • Creative hierarchies within cinematic universes
  • Industry lore related to specific productions
  • Issues of gender, race, sexuality, and/or disability
  • Labor relations, unions, and guilds
  • Below-the-line labor
  • Failed productions/Fired producers
  • Disputes between producers and creators
  • Unpaid labor and intern culture
  • Contracts and other legal issues
  • Labor of practical effects
  • Genre-specific work identities
  • Video game production cultures
  • Stunt work
  • Production and publicity of star texts
  • Gender and exploitation in music cultures
  • Production of user-generated media
  • Cultures of documentary film production
  • Cultures of live production (sports, news, live musicals)

 More submission guidelines available at the journal website.

Monday, May 02, 2016

The Auteur Bias of History Textbooks

I will need to update my reviews of film history textbooks, but now that I'm wrapping up a semester of teaching a film history survey, I would like to circle back to two general complaints I've had about film history textbooks. First, they are often too completist and not well suited for many undergraduate pedagogical contexts. Second, they are often too auteur-oriented, listing major director after major director.

The good news is that I've been fairly happy with the book I've been using this semester, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and Wheeler Winston Dixon's A Short History of Film, which seems to have the right balance of coverage and concision. But even here, I can point to an example of the limitations of the auteur bias in textbooks.

I'm setting aside the bigger debates about auteurism here. What I mean is that the granularity of film lists and auteur profiles gets in the way of the bigger picture that a good film history survey can provide. In their discussion of New German Cinema, Foster and Dixon profile major auteurs (Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog, and Straub/Huillet) and mention a few others (Schlöndorff, von Trotta, Syberberg, Kluge). However, missing is any generalization about what New German Cinema meant as a movement. Yes, it's a heterogeneous movement, but there are important aspects: the critical self-examination of German history and contemporary West German politics, the synthesis of Brecht and Hollywood-style narrative, and the importance of television and government subsidy.

I understand that one function of a film history textbook is introduce students to the canon, by listing films and directors they should consider watching. But ultimately, the bigger picture is more useful to students than a list of auteurs and, I would argue, is central to the tough work of asking students to think about film historically.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Other Archive Effect

dir. Jonathan Perel, 2015, Argentina
Genre: Poetic; experimental documentary

In her book, The Archive Effect, Jaimie Baron argues that appropriated nonfiction footage, i.e. archival footage, relies on and invokes an archive effect, a spectatorial experience of presentness in relation to the cinematic past.

Here, as in the general use of the term “archive footage,” the archive is in fact any collection of older moving-image or audio-visual footage accessible. But watching Jonathan Perel’s Toponomy, I wondered about the other kind of archive, namely an official repository of documents in which a knowledge system provides an archival context for the documents’ meaning.  It’s not a hard and fast distinction, but in comparsion to the more official kinds of archiving, the loose invocation of the "archive" to refer to a totality of older moving-image material is different than localized archiving of such material.

Toponomy is structured in four segments, each corresponding to a quarter of a planned town in Argentina, designed during the dictatorship to replace the existing indigenous community after a political uprising. The film's structure presents four with a shows the sameness of modernist urban design's symmetry and by implication the rigidity of the forced urban planning.

The places are either evacuated of people or play off a dynamic of populated/evacuated, as in two shots (seen right) - the first an emtpy basketball court layered with walla sounds of children playing and talking, the second a shot that starts off depopulated until a human figure enters the frame.

The segments of poetic-observational footage of the town are bracketed each by a prologue of documents from the government - aerial photographs, city plans, and executive orders creating the new cities. 

I would divide the common practices of archival footage in documentary into three broad approaches. The most traditional is the use of a range of moving-image footage from multiple sources, both as an index of the topic and to give a fictive life to the nonfiction argument. Eyes on the Prize, for instance, has an amazing amount of televisual recording of Civil Rights events. Combined with the editing, structure, and voiceover narration, these provide a composite historical account of the movement.  

The second approach, that spans from experimental doc to newer more mainstream features, would be a single-source archival film, such as Our Nixon or Black Power Mixtape or the work of Peter Forgacs. The raison d'etre of these films is the unearthing of a single collection of audiovisual material and compilation into a new cinematic experience. 

Toponymy, in my eye, uses a third approach, which understands the archival document for its role in a non-cinematic archive. The segment prologues have such an impact because they are not merely older footage or historical in nature or part of a collection of cinematic/televisual footage. They shift the register of referent, to the governmental or juridicial. Mainstream docs can do this, too (see the legal procedural documentary's fetish of court documents) but the editing of Toponymy makes legible and interrogates the document-ness of the document.