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A reflection on History, Storytelling and Film
“In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act. There’s too much everything, more things and messages and meanings than we can use in ten thousand lifetimes. Inertia-hysteria. Is history possible? Is anyone serious? Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith. Everyone else is absorbed. The artist is absorbed, the madman in the street is absorbed and processed and incorperated. Give him a dollar, put him in a TV commercial. Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn’t figured out how to assimilate him. It’s confusing when they kill the innocent. But this is precisely the language of being noticed, the only language the West understands. […]You are non-persons for the moment, victims without an audience. Get killed and maybe they will notice you.” – Don de Lillo 1991
In my talk for Transformata 2006 I will present one chapter from a book I’m writing on “The Arts and the Mass Media as Social Systems and Discourses of Perception”. This chapter is about a new kind of documentary film that I call “Globalization documentaries”. I will discuss art films as well as more conventional documentaries.
It is a characteristic of modernity that people name their own times. Identity is as much a question of time as of place. One is the child not only of a village, city or nation, but also of an epoch and a generation. It is in the instinct of modern man to name his times in order to master it, even revolutionize it. Early historical epochs were named post factum. Renaissance scholars called that long, amorphous space of time which separated them from antiquity “the medieval ages”. The Renaissance itself had no name until the 19th century, when Jacob Burchhardt wrote Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien. “Baroque” came into circulation as a derogatory term used by the clear, bright and harmonious art and thought of 18th century Enlightenment to mock the culture of its immediate predecessors. Only since Immanuel Kant in 1784 pronounced his age to be that of The Enlightenment (“Wir sind die Aufklärung” ) has man has taken upon himself to give name to the times in which he live and to conceptualize these as a new form of experience. The Romantics was the name of a small hyperintellectual and hyperironic literary circle in Jena, Germany, most unrepresentative of its times. What better proof of the prestige of literature in 19th century than the fact that the name that Novalis and the Schlegel brothers chose for their aesthetic project has come to denote an entire epoch in European cultural and political life, from the late 18th to the middle of the 19th century! In 19th century Paris Baudelaire and Rimbaud proclaimed “modernity” and set out to create an artistic language that was peculiarly “modern”. This was also a time when the novel took upon itself to document and narrate the contemporary. “The 19th century, as we know it is largely a creation of Balzac”, observed Oscar Wilde, and it is true that the 19th century has come down to us as seen through the realist and naturalist literature of Balzac, Dickens, Zola, Dostoyevsky and Ibsen.
Attempts to portray the globalized world of the present in the form of novels seem less effective, whether done in a realist style (Michel Houellebecq), a postcolonial style (Salman Rushdie) or in the form of system novels (Don de Lillo). The novel is of necessity limited in its linguistic scope, it does not travel language barriers as effortlessly as does the camera. Also the printed word is no longer the hegemonic media. Thus the self-descriptions of society no longer stem from literature but from the visual arts or the social sciences. The architectural term “Post-modernism” attracted a lot attention in the 1980’s. “The information age” and the “post-industrial society” have also been strong contenders in the struggle to give name to the present. Since the early nineties there seems, however, to be some sort of consent that we are living in the “age of globalization”. There is of course no consensus as to the meaning of or theoretical implications of the word, but it does seem to organize some key discourses within economy, politics, law and culture.
It has always been the ambition of documentary film to document its times. The ethical imperatives of documenting globalization are overwhelming, considering the human suffering involved in these processes. Yet documenting globalization is a different issue from that of documenting, say the Great Depression or the Cold War. Firstly the problem of abstraction is pushed to extremes. How does one visualize such huge socio-structural transformations? Of course, aspects of globalization like mass tourism, illegal immigration, the blurring of cultural borders, the politics of global terrorism, and the exploitiveness of unfettered capitalism offer themselves to the documentary eye. But assuming that these things are interlinked, how does one synthesize “the age of globalization”?
Complicating matters further, a key aspect of present day globalization is precisely that discourses of power are ever further removed from the world of human face to face interaction and from the modes of representation that stem therefrom. The functioning of say the world financial markets is beyond the scope of human perception. The same may be true even of the global media (The obsession with dinosaurs in synthetic computer imaginary seems a way of hinting uncannily that we are the dinosaurs, that is that ordinary non-digitalized human experience is heading for extinction and subsequent synthetic recreation!) In the globalized world, even modernity’s conventional system for covering up – and bridging - the gap between power structures and everyday reality, that of introducing “representational democracy” is lacking. There is no such representation on a world level. How does one present the very “unrealness” of the present, in a realistic manner? Part of the answer must, I believe, lie in an attentiveness to the “subjective”, that is to the new modes of perception involved in globalization. Imagery contrasting the abstract or virtual with real, human experience easily leads to luddism. There is a self-reflective point here. The documentary itself contributes to a virtual space of global civil society, a space of re-mediation.
I will discuss not only “conventional” documentaries like Hubert Sauper’s Darwin’s nightmare but also mockumentaries, docudramas and art movies that explore the borders between documentary and fiction while reflecting on globalization: Johan Grimonprez dial H-I-S-T-0-R-Y , Chantal Ackermans From the other side, Amar Kanwars A Season outside, Michael Winterbottoms In this world, among others. From the point of view of the historian of ideas it is obvious that the borderline between “fictional” and factual discourse can never be stable, neither in the short, nor the long run. In order to main its effet du réel, art is obliged always to cannibalize its environment, pushing its borders ever further into the discourses of the real.
Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is a collage of media footage from 30 years of hijaking, edited to portray a discourse of terrorism in the West. Terrorism is in itself a theme proper to a 2006 conference on revolution. Terrorism is after all a hegemonic form of action in radical politics today, the spectre of terrorism having replaced the spectre of the revolution in public consciousness since the failure of May 68.
The “key visuals” in this discourse of terrorism, as edited by Grimonperez, is the tumbling skyskraper and the crashing airplane (noone had as of 1997 had the genius to combine the two in one evil gesture). In this discourse the skyskraper and the airplane seem to condense the deterritorialized sensual experience of the globalized world. Terror reterritorializes in an illicit way. It brings the deterritorialized experience of globalization “back to the ground”. It crashes the airplane, tumbles the skyskraper. In his famous essay “The year 2000 will not happen” Jean Baudrillard noted that terrorism is “instant history”. Terror may fruitfully be described as an act of violence which has the effect, given present day media scripts, of rendering that which can only be adequately described in systemic terms into narrative. An act of terror is no narrative, but the terrorist can trust the media to write the narrative. It’s very important to understand the nature of the speech acts involved in terrorism, how unlike isn’t “9/11” from the innocent examples of performatives discussed by J.L.Austin. It is also instructive to compare terrorist act to other types of political performatives, including revolutions and constitutionary assemblies.
The metaphor of the airplane and the crashed airplane plays an important part also in Darwin’s nightmare. Dial history examines terrorism as an aesthetico-political strategy for striking at ”the heart” of the world system. Darwin’s nightmare sees the world system from its fringes, from the perspective of the poor in central Africa and those semi legal intermediaries that makes the world trade system flow, but of whom one never hears anything. It is a far more conventional documentary film than Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y but still has no narrator and no clear narrative. Yet it seems to present an extraordinarily clear image of the workings of the present day global economy. This calls for some theoretical reflection which I will pursue further in my paper. Reflection on the relation of documentary film to the real has concentrated on the role of narrative. Narrative is of course a key element in mainstream fiction film. It is also an important form of discourse in the social and cultural sciences, where causal relations are most commonly rendered in the form of narrative.
The relation of documentary film to non-narrative forms of social scientific discourse, like system’s theory, is however severely undertheorized. Contrary to received opinion a film does not need to rely on narrative in order to have structure and suspense . A film does not have to tell a story, it can show us the workings of the system. There is a problem of abstraction, of course, but there may be aesthetic solutions to it.
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