Contested Forms. A Workshop on Documentary, Trust and Conflict

13. Juni 2022 - 14. Juni 2022


Organized by Laliv Melamed and Vinzenz Hediger (Working Group 5: Media)

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Gebäude „Normative Ordnungen“, Raum 5.01
Max Horkheimer Str. 2
60323 Frankfurt am Main

Program (PDF): Click here…

How does documentary relate to trust and conflict? This workshop explores documentary as a tool of democratic deliberation. It starts from the assumption that we are approaching, or have already reached, a tipping point at which documentary is no longer just a means for articulating social conflict but has itself become a contested form. This has serious implications for trust in the veracity of documentary and trust in documentary as a means of political agency.
Documentary has always been more than the “creative treatment of actuality”. Documentary as a form of (audio)visual representation with privileged truth claims emerged in the 1920s in response to a perceived crisis of democracy and the seeming demise of the “omni-competent citizen” (Walter Lippman). As such, documentary has always been not just about representing reality, but about democratic deliberation and eliciting and enforcing certain norms of citizenship.  Social documentary is a particular case in point. Social documentary makes injustice visible. It puts the spectator in a position which political theorist Judith Skhlar has described as “passive injustice”, i.e. a position in which be become witness to injustice without assuming responsibility and doing something about it. Social documentary thus addresses – or interpellates, to use Althusser’s term – the spectator as a citizen with agency who can and should do something to correct the injustice to which she has become a witness.
Documentary in that sense is an integral part of what Pierre Rosanvallon proposes to call “counter-democracy”, i.e. that aspect of democratic governance which takes place outside of the electoral cycle and parliamentary representation and which takes shape in vigilance, the public denunciation of dysfunction and various forms of judgment to correct dysfunction. If counter-democracy is an “invisible institution” in the sense of Kenneth Arrow, then documentary can be understood as a highly visible part of that invisible institution – a form of practical resistance through organized distrust which, somewhat paradoxically, hinges on the trust invested in the documentary form by the citizen-subject.

The assumption of privileged agency of the presumed citizen-subject of (Western) liberal democracy connected to the truth-claims of documentary has been criticized by scholars such as Pooja Rangan in her work on the humanitarian impulse in documentary. But the assumption that the documentary representation of social and political injustice will create a consensus for action has run up against obstacles in documentary filmmaking practice as well. The emergence of digital portable camera devices, in particular smart phones, seem to quickly change the field of social and political action. Instant documentary footage uploaded to the internet triggered and sustained protest movements across the Middle East and North Africa in the early 2010s. The availability of digital cameras also seemed to create an opening for a documentary critique of the Israeli governance regime in the occupied territories. But it soon turned out that what we might call the accountability feedback look which promises to make the documentary visualization of injustice effective in democracies does not compensate for the absence of resilient democratic institutions in a country like Egypt, while in the occupied territories settler activists quickly tried to turn the privileged truth claims of the documentary form to their advantage and started making their own activist videos countering those of anti-settler activists, a dynamic closely observed an analyzed by Israeli documentary (or rather, meta-documentary) “The Viewing Booth” (2021). In a similar fashion we can observe that climate change sceptics and right-wing activists in Europe and the US ranging from the extreme right-wing German AfD party to Steve Bannon and Dinesh D’Souza produce documentaries to get their message across to their constituencies and rely on the inherent truth claims of the form in the hope of broadening their audience.

The documentary form, in other words, is no longer just a means for articulating social conflict. It has itself become a site of social and political conflict, a conflict which could also be described as a contest for the trust reflexively afforded the documentary form by audiences. In the ideal type of documentary, which addresses a citizen-subject in a liberal democracy, documentary will demand, but also foster what Mark Warren proposes to call “generalized trust”, i.e. trust in the ability of existing institutional arrangements to address social injustice, and trust in the willingness of other citizen-subjects to have the best interest of those suffering from social injustice at heart. Once documentary form itself becomes contested, it can become a source of particularized trust, the kind which binds together in-groups against out-groups (climate change deniers vs. climate activists, etc.). Through this transformation, however, the documentary form thus broadly understood shows resilience in conflict, so to speak, a continued ability to marshal the kind of trust in veracity which makes it an effective device for argument and deliberation regardless of context and content.

Taking Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’ “The Viewing Booth” as its point of departure, this workshop will explore documentary as a means for articulating conflict and as site of conflict and contest.

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