2016-2017 Sawyer Seminar: “Documentary Media and Historical Transformations”

During moments of major historical transformation, filmmakers, audiences, governments, and media institutions have consistently heightened their attention on documentary media. From World War II through the Civil Rights Movement to the Arab Spring, documentary’s capacity to indexically capture events and citizens’ responses to those events marks it as a historically valuable and emotionally affective form through which change can be communicated and publics fashioned. Documentary in this way registers the immediate past not just for contemporary audiences but also in recognition that it is doing historical work. It becomes material that can be mined to reveal major historical changes neither evident at first glance nor potentially knowable at that moment in time.

Documentary film and videomakers have consistently seized the opportunity afforded by major historical change to project, model, and instill new models of thought and alternative ways of being in the world. They not only capture new subjectivities in process, they aim to shape and interpret subjectivities and the social imaginaries in which they are embedded. They do so through their form and style, their overall treatment of the material (fictionalizing strategies, for example), their method (how they work with their subjects), their circulation, and, of course, through the voices, gestures, and words of the people they decide to include in their films and videos.

This Sawyer Seminar will explore in depth these under-attended issues involving the relationship between documentary and historical transformation. It will open to analysis subtle reworkings of colonial film models as well as their drastic reformulations in docu-fiction hybrids. It will examine the complex philosophical, political, and ethical questions involved in capturing images and making narrative films during, for example, the Civil Rights Movement and the Arab Spring. And it will think through the resonances and enforced silences that accompany the circulation and exhibition of films at later historical moments. It will highlight the public function of the documentary idea, asking the central question, “how do documentaries communicate developments in subjectivity during moments of major historical transformation?” Highlighting this function will help us to situate documentary’s historical role in shaping imaginaries related to: colonialism, human rights struggles, neoliberalism, and contemporary alternatives to the dominant neoliberal model.

Seminar Structure
The seminar is interdisciplinary in nature, bringing together filmmakers, historians, legal scholars, film and media scholars, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and journalists. It will consist of five 2-day conferences, hosted by Indiana University Cinema, and encompass film screenings, lectures, panels, and roundtables. Each conference will address the relationship between documentary and major historical transformations, examining how documentaries both reveal and shape sociopolitical change. One special conference will focus entirely on the work of the Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, whose brilliant and powerful work opens to analysis many of the core ideas under consideration in this seminar. The conferences will be organized thematically but also shaped by a flexible chronology. They will be focused on major transformations in social and economic thought and each will be led by two faculty members from IU. Each will screen films that address significant historical transformations—films capturing momentous events and changes in daily life as well as historical films that reassess such moments. But it will also account for a range of documentary media, from still photography to new digital forms.

The seminar will include international experts on the historical events and the social subjectivities under consideration as well as world-renowned filmmakers who address those topics. We will maintain a certain focus on Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa (West and Southern), and Asia (most prominently on India)—regions on which IU faculty has noted expertise. To give a few examples, scholars such as Lee Grieveson will lay a foundation for thinking about how the imperial governments and the institutions that support them used documentary film as a way of creating the conditions for a liberal economy. Ray Arsenault will screen Freedom Riders and situate the film in relation to both regional (Southern U.S.) and global rights claims. MacArthur Award-winning author and documentary photographer Susan Meiseles will present her film Pictures of a Revolution, in which she returns to Nicaragua searching for people who appeared in photographs she took of the revolution ten years prior. And film scholar/activist/artist Alisa Lebow will present her new multimedia project about Egyptian filmmakers’ efforts to film the Arab Spring and her thoughts on what “documenting” the uprising means and entails.

Creating a space of dialogue for (and between) these distinguished scholars and artists and our Indiana University colleagues, we aim to create a seminar capable of producing highly contextualized historical knowledge about documentary and social change as well as exploring more critical and theoretical issues related to the broader topic of documentary and historical transformation.

Comparing Historical Transformations
“Documentary Media and Historical Transformations” will pursue the comparative analysis of four transitional historical moments, beginning with the 1930s and ending with the contemporary moment. These chronological overlaps will facilitate a running comparative dimension to the seminar’s five conferences, all of which overlap with the documentary-specific themes listed below.

  1. Documentary and the Legacies of Colonialism: Images, Institutions, and Economies—The opening conference of the seminar emphasizes colonial films and those of anticolonization movements, stretching from the 1930s into the 1990s. The discussions and events will frame the seminar series and work through a set of questions centered on the colonial/anticolonial nexus, paying particular attention to the role imperial institutions played in nonfiction film history.
  2. Capturing the Imagination: Independence and the Claim to Rights—The lectures and panels that make up this conference explore the potentials for nonfiction film to both “capture the moment” and to serve a role in advocacy and activism. By the time of the Civil Rights movement, these potentials had captured the imagination of nonfiction filmmakers, historians and activists in every region of the world. The simultaneous capacities of documentary have deep resonance with the strategies of the human rights and civil rights projects. This conference explores how and whether these possibilities have been realized, and their lasting significance and legacy for both rights claims as well as for the nonfiction form.
  3. Patricio Guzmán: Documents, Memories, Poetics—The seminar focuses on the work of Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán. Guzmán’s internationally-known and critically-celebrated films touch on a number of the issues at the heart of the seminar. This conference will screen three films and locate these quite distinct works in relation to developments in radical documentary during the 1960s and 1970s, the growth of neoliberalism in Latin America, and the effort to think through the legacy of trauma through nonfiction cinema.
  4. Minor Utopias? Documentary and Alternatives to Neoliberalism—Throughout Latin America, the authoritarian counterrevolutionary violence of the 1980s tore asunder the link between self and community, and between individual dignity and social solidarity, creating the conditions for the triumph of neoliberalism. This seminar will grapple with the multiple ways in which documentary film has captured, resisted, and engaged with the break-up of communal solidarities and the creation of the ideal of an autonomous, entrepreneurial individual in neoliberal dominated societies across the globe.
  5. New Approaches to Documentary History: Database Logics and Performativity in Contemporary Documentary—The final conference of the Sawyer Seminar will address the contemporary moment, examining how documentaries register and shape visions of history. It will follow the approach taken by the previous sessions by focusing both on films (and material within films) that capture contemporary events recognizable as historically significant and on films that explore the impact of historical events, often traumatic ones, on the contemporary citizens whose lives are radically affected by them. 
Seminar Themes
Any project that aims to theorize the relationship between documentary and historical transformation requires recognition of the specific ways that documentaries are made and speak. In addition to focusing on the historical and cultural developments described above, the five conferences will be united by their concerns with five overriding themes. These themes link the core historical questions raised above with issues specific to the documentary form of discourse.

  1. The Status of the Documentary Image: How do films made during historical transformations reveal a new understanding of the status of the nonfiction image? New models of thought are often accompanied by a new articulation of documentary ontology. This theme urges participants to consider how new socio-political developments encouraged a rethinking of the relationship between the image and reality. Such concerns consider not only contemporary images but the critical role of archival images in documentaries, addressing their meanings as well as their copyright status.
  2. Documentaries and Communities: How do documentary filmmakers work with and for communities and do so not only during the initial release of the film but over the extended ‘life” of a film? Documentary filmmakers often work closely and for a considerable period of time with communities who are the topics of films. At times, the filmmakers are part of these communities. Other times, they are outsiders in their subjects’ lives. Most often, they function in an in-between space, close to the community, accepted by the community, knowledgeable of the community, but not part of the community. Answers to these vital questions address not only the form and content of the film but the method of working with communities (how collaborative, for example) and the exhibition of the film.
  3. Circulation: How does accounting for the circulation of documentary films reveal the historical networks that shaped the reception of the films and the key players’ (individual, institutional, governmental) interests in the films? One of the primary aspects that distinguishes documentaries from feature fiction films is the extraordinarily varied processes by which documentaries circulate. Moreover, paying close attention to issues of circulation during moments of transformation has the potential to reveal how new circumstances prompted new models of documentary distribution and exhibition.
  4. Political-Ethics: How are the dynamics between political urgency and ethical treatment often revealingly reconfigured in moments of historical transition? Documentary filmmakers work with real people and their films produce unanticipated effects on their subjects’ lives. Such a concern is only heightened during moments of historical transformation, when the political urgency of the moment has the potential to take precedence over ethical treatment.
  5. Technology: How have changes in media technologies related to documentary informed its role in shaping social imaginaries? Without question, transformations in technology are prompted by the desires of individuals and groups to achieve particular aims and thus imagine the technological developments. But it is also true that, as Friedrich Kittler argues, we respond and adapt to technological changes in foundational ways. Therefore, we need to continually ask how the specific media technologies in question determine or strongly influence the discourse networks within which messages are produced and received.