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'Documentary Across Platforms' Considers the Places Nonfiction Can Go

By Richard Shpuntoff

From 'Fair Hill: To Badlands and Back Again,' produced by Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia, and cited in Patricia Zimmermann's book 'Documentary Across Platforms.'

Through a collection of 20 essays written over two decades, Patricia Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies at Ithaca College and co-director of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, expands, questions and reflects upon our notion of documentary.

In Documentary Across Platforms, she considers and analyzes the myriad approaches to documentary work that go far beyond the limited models of feature-length and television projects. To be clear, Zimmermann’s mission is not to present some alternative ways to make a documentary so that it is cutting-edge, or a how-to book for people who could not get full funding for their next feature. This book is first and foremost about politics, and the ways in which reality is and can be represented through documentary work as an expression, conscious or not, of politics. Exploring a wonderfully diverse range of documentary projects that includes installation pieces, archives, still photography, community-based collaborative media, experimental shorts and video art, the essays analyze how work is done, by whom, for whom, to what end, and why these questions matter.

The essays come from a range of sources such as journal articles for Afterimage and Framework, keynote addresses from academic conferences, museum catalogues, etc. and are divided into four sections—"Platforms," "Reversals," "Histories" and "Speculative Engineering"—that together offer a portrait of a more expansive idea of documentary.

"Platforms," the first section, focuses on documentary across different interfaces and technologies, and looks at cases in which documentary moves away from the (usually very commercial) idea of the “universal” and toward projects that are decentralized and focus on microecologies. The opening essay, entitled "Reverse Engineering," which is also the subtitle of the book, sets the tone and is key to understanding Zimmermann’s approach to the field. Taking the idea from the field of engineering, "reverse engineering" is posed as the process of dismantling, understanding and then rebuilding in new ways. It serves as both metaphor and as a practical approach with new technologies, and is a powerful tool for dealing with issues of race, class, gender and sexualities: "We must reverse-engineer the amnesia and anesthesia that transnational capital and authoritarianism produces, replacing it with plural geographies, temporalities and an incessant, insistent sense of community across difference."

The approach is put in direct opposition to forces like nationalism, globalism, militarism and control over intellectual property. Zimmermann discusses the concept both as a lens through which we can understand media and as an approach for documentary work. Documentary here "is not simply a genre," but rather it is a conceptual practice, or more accurately, “practices,” and as she explains in the introduction, “Documentary practices are multiple, diverse and urgent.”

The second collection, "Reversals," is a series of essays about documentary projects that deal with questions of war and political trauma. Zimmermann does not preach or produce easy answers as to how documentary practices should be employed. The focus is on questions, how we navigate and process cultural complexities, and what are the implications of this process. For example, the essay entitled "Cambodian Digital Imaginary Archive: Genocide, Lara Croft, and Crafts" brings us in search of "the perfect Cambodian Buddha"—a gift that was requested by a friend in the US with an adopted Cambodian daughter—and in doing so, portrays the complex interplay between Hollywood CGI movies, crafts, sweatshops, pirating of DVDs, haggling, the Khmer Rouge and US refugee policy. In an essay that beautifully shows how the personal is the political, Zimmermann manages to expand the nature of documentary as process, and how documentary and all film become part of memory, into areas that go beyond and have powerful implications for documentary filmmaking.

"Platforms" is also, of course, about the platforms used to create and present work. The essays cover work related to conflict zones in El Salvador, India, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Ukraine and the United States. The work discussed include more traditionally conceived documentary photography (Small Arms – Children of Conflict, the work of photojournalist Michael Kienitz); a community video produced by an activist group working with the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia (Badland and Back Again by the Fair Hill Cemetery); and Canadian experimental feminist film and video from an exhibition entitled Fierce: Women's Hot-Blooded Film/Video.

The third section of the book, "Histories," investigates radical possibilities for documentary to work as a dynamic, living archive. The essays in this section are focused on a fascinating collection of documentary projects that taken together allow us to reconsider history as a series of moments and events, as it is seen in an archive that can be woven together in many ways. Zimmermann rethinks history as a spatialized concept, rather than a simple linear one.

Documentary Across Platforms: Reverse Engineering Media, Place and Politics, By Patricia R. Zimmermann, Indiana University Press, 2019.

The projects discussed in the essays in this section cover a lot of territory: ambient media, audio projects, collage, live performance, locative media, new media art, remixes and short film. Again, we are looking at documentary as an expanded field of process and creation. Works analyzed include Memescapes, a live performance produced by Ann Michel and Phil Wilde that uses amateur films from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America; and similarly, Art Jones and Simon Tarr's Dismantling War; video artist Les LeVeque's reworkings of classic Hollywood cinema; No Business, a multimedia project as anti-copyright strategies by the audio collage art collective Negativeland; Within Our Gates: Revisited and Remixed, a live project around Oscar Micheaux's landmark film Within Our Gates (1920), the oldest surviving film by an African-American director; as well as a broader discussion of live media events. The section ends with a short essay entitled "Toward a Theory of Participatory New Media Documentary," in which Zimmermann, rather than trying to neatly tie things together opens them up further, a nod to the idea that this is new territory that continues to expand and evolve.

The final section of the book, "Speculative Engineering," leaves the reader with much to reflect upon. Three short essays are comprised of lists of speculation: "Home Movie Axioms," "Speculations on Environmental Sensualities and Eco-Documentaries" and "Speculations on Reverse Engineering." The lists are meant for serious discussion and reflection, and are far from the kind of calculated ploy of Dogme 95's "Dogme 95 Manifiesto" or the individualistic aggrandizing of Werner Herzog's 24 pieces of advice for filmmakers from the book Werner Herzog—A Guide for the Perplexed.

Zimmermann's work is focused on community, resistance and collaborative work, using technology to connect, rather than subject, people. The idea is clear in her speculations on reverse engineering when she states, "The digital archive and the reverse engineering of documentary refuses the nineteenth-century romanticism of the individual, the precious artifact, the subjective form, the linear narrative."

The work is undeniably heady stuff. At times, her forays into analysis that requires academic language can be challenging reading for those whose work has focused almost exclusively on "producing" and "creating," but for those who want to consider and reflect upon where we are going with documentary in a world in which technologies are in constant flux, to stay open to the great possibilities and trials of change, Zimmerman’s work is essential reading. Her idealism and optimism are a tonic: "The archive and documentary function as a process and not a product. They are never finished and always revised…"


Richard Shpuntoff is a filmmaker and translator, living in Buenos Aires since 2002. He is currently finishing an experimental essay documentary entitled Todo lo que se olvida en un instante (Everything that is forgotten in an instant), funded by the Argentine National Film Institute.