Documentary in the Post-Grand Narrative Era
Film is a language. An artist can express his thoughts, however abstract, or translate obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel…in this kind of film-making the distinction between author and director loses all meaning.” -Alexandre Astruc 1948, (The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Camera- Stylo)
Essayist cinema is the cinematic version of a literary essay, which hybridizes established genres of film. Distinguishing features of the cinematic essay:
Autobiographical; authorial figure is a well defined point of origin and reference
Subjective, Personal point of view
Reflective; communicative structure addressing spectator or interpellation
Although a hybridization of fiction, nonfiction, experimental and mainstream practices- Essayist cinema is a form of documentary. However, the accepted understanding of the documentary as the field of total objectivity must be challenged; the process of postmodernism has shifted areas of the genre from objectivity with facts towards subjectivity and uncertainty.
“Traditionally the word documentary has suggested fullness, and completion, knowledge and fact, explanations of the social world and it’s motivating mechanisms. More recently, though, documentary has come to suggest incompleteness and uncertainty, recollection and impression, images of personal worlds and their subjective construction.” -Bill Nichols 1994, (Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture)
This movement towards personalisation can be analysed as a sociohistorical and technological result of the development of online media through the confessional video of YouTube.com and the personal webpages of Twitter.com or Facebook.com. But also through the increasing personalisation of televison with reality television; categorised not as entertainment but ‘factual’. Reality television is the bastardized documentary in contemporary media; ‘The emergence of these strands signals the growing unhappiness with classical observational transparency and passivity, the absenting of an authorial voice and the abstention from any overt means of demonstrating the filmmaker’s presence’- Stella Bruzzi 2006, (New Documentary: A Critical Introduction). This increased availability of digital video and the internet at the end of the twentieth century began to globalise and fragment our human experiences; autobiographical accounts feed the hope of finding or creating unity in lives that are increasingly disjointed and dispersed.
The emergence of subjective nonfictional cinematic forms may be identified with the end of metanarratives heralded by Jean-Francois Lyotard in 1979; a narrative about narratives of historical meaning, experience or knowledge, which offers a society legitimation through the anticipated completion of a (as yet unrealised) master idea. Attempts to construct grand theories tend to dismiss the power of the individual event, as well as ignoring the heterogeneity or variety of human existence, metanarratives are created and reinforced by power structures and are therefore untrustworthy.
“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives[. ..] The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language[…] Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?”- Jean-Francois Lyotard
The decline of this social persuasiveness of objectivity through authority has had consequences to the documentary genre. Grand narratives cannot be trusted, documentaries have lost authority and the attempt of an external viewpoint from which to construct an objective vision of the world is impossible. The margins of the genre are more attractive; possibility has replaced the unchangeable truth. Essayist film continues documentary in the post-grand narratives era, to gain access to the ‘real’ whilst being overtly personal- Essay Filmmaking purposefully weakens authority by embracing a personal viewpoint.