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The Politics of Documentary

The Politics of Documentary by Michael Chanan (British Film Institute, 2008), 240 pages, ISBN: 978-1-84457-226-7, £16.99 (paperback); ISBN: 978-1-84457-227-4, £50.00 (hardback)

Sandon-image_previewAbout the reviewer: Dr. Emma Sandon is a lecturer in film and television at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published on British colonial film in Africa and South African film in the Union of South Africa.. She was a project management team member of the Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire,, and is an Honorary Research Fellow of the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town, and Senior Research Associate for the Chair of Social Change, Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg.

Anyone teaching documentary will welcome this most recent addition to the growing body of literature on the subject. The Politics of Documentary is very comprehensive and ambitious in its sweep, covering a wide range of documentary practice both historically and internationally. It is an informed, complex and thoughtful discussion about our current understanding of documentary from the perspective of film and media studies. It is packed with references to both films and film-makers, not only those well established in the histories of documentary, but also many unknown and forgotten names from different parts of the world. It rightly shifts our attention away from the dominance of the Anglo American practitioners in the field, whilst keeping the overall general focus of the book on the problems of defining documentary. It is written by someone who has a deep and long engagement with film, and who has grappled with notions of documentary both as a viewer and practitioner, and as a political activist and an academic.

chanan-politicsIt is aimed at students and researchers who have some academic interest in existing debates about documentary and therefore is not recommended as a popular introductory reader. It could even be seen as written for and marketed to the converted, by its cover and its focus. Chanan frames his understanding of documentary as a political intervention, an essentially democratic impulse and as such he applauds the partisan nature of much radical documentary practice. He approaches the question of documentary’s aspiration to reveal the truth as contingent on what spaces of public deliberation and democracy exist in societies. He thus takes into account not just as the multifarious aesthetics of documentary, its point of view and forms of public address, but also the editorial control and exhibition of film and video, the social and institutional context of production and state censorship and propaganda.

The book is divided into three parts which cohere within this overall frame of the political. Part one maps the question of what documentary is and how we might understand its power. For those interested in some of the debates around documentary, realism and notions of representation and truth, these three chapters usefully acknowledge and clearly evaluate the most important contributions to the field made by film theorists such as Nichols and Renov, as well as more recent writers such as Stella Bruzzi, Dovey and Ward.

… Chanan frames his understanding of documentary as a political intervention, an essentially democratic impulse

Part two looks at the history of documentary. Here Chanan’s wide ranging knowledge of film history centralises the importance of documentary. Seven chapters, which include the emergence of documentary and the development of the use of sound, historicize and expand our considerations of the visual dimensions of documentary, of space, mode of address, narrative and the language of documentary. The third part deals with contemporary concerns in documentary and here he turns to examples from Japan, Iran and Latin America giving a much-needed international perspective on new developments in documentary. He then addresses the way in which the subject of documentary has shifted to questions of identity, performance, the film maker as subject and actor, and autobiographical and self reflexive modes of practice. He rounds up his discussion with a reflection on documentary film in the context of the archive and its interplay with our sense of history and memory.

The book has some great images of filmmakers in action, visualising documentary practice as a political act within society. It could do with a filmography and a bibliography. The former would really be useful for teachers and students alike as documentary becomes increasing available on DVD and the internet, as well being screened in independent cinema spaces.

Dr. Emma Sandon

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