Social Imaginaries and the Poetic Reflexive: The Role of Documentary in Global Societies
Engaging with Reality: Documentary and Globalization
By Ib Bondebjerg
Intellect/Chicago University Press
$28.50, 288 pps.
In his book Engaging with Reality: Documentary and Globalization, Ib Bondebjerg, professor of film and media studies at University of Copenhagen, offers us a fresh perspective on the role of documentary in society, the broader issues of globalization, and how these documentaries engage in global challenges. Bondebjerg’s inspiration for the book came from Christoffer Guldbrandsen’s 2006 documentary The Secret War, a critical investigation into the Danish participation in the American-led war on terror, and from the spirited debate that the film spurred. Focusing his research on films addressing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, Bondebjerg narrowed the regional sources of these documentaries to the UK, the US and Scandinavia.
Bondebjerg offers inspiration with his call for “global social imaginaries”—a set of values, laws, cultures and symbols that fosters a sense of cohesion—in the chapter “Globalization in a Mediated World”: “Just as the basic human rights of freedom of expression and access to information and communication have been central to the development of national democracies and national media cultures, they have also been a central dimension of the debate on global democracy and global governance.”
Citing sociocultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, Bondebjerg points to global diasporic public spheres. This is understood as a function within globalization, and social imaginaries are not easily bound within local, national or regional spheres. According to Appadurai, “People are creating images of possible future lives in other parts of the world, partly inspired by global images and stories, while those already migrated look back on their homeland with narratives combining their old and new homelands.”
The social and cognitive roots and development of documentaries unfold in the chapter “Sociology and Aesthetics of Documentary Genres.” Some considerations include concepts of “the storytelling mind” and cognitive theories on narration that point to narrative structures as a very basic form for human understanding, along with cognitive schemata. Citing communication arts and sciences professor Carl Plantinga and his book Moving Viewers, Bondebjerg emphasizes the viewer experience, and the intimate ties of our emotions to our cognition, inferences, evaluations and mental activities. Bondebjerg reminds us that, as humans, we are genetically, biologically and socially created as storytelling animals: “Stories come to us with an invitation to both cognitive and emotional responses and those two dimensions are linked intimately to each other, in both real life, fiction and documentary forms.” Bondebjerg succeeds with his reconceptualization of modes, reminding us that documentaries can use and combine multiple voices, narrative structures and stylistic features, without compromising their claim on reality. Bondebjerg’s efforts seek to drive forward these forms of reference to reality, suggesting four basic prototypes: authoritative, observational, dramatized and poetic reflexive. These genres have different ways of claiming and representing reality. He offers detailed and helpful charts, delineating these modes with a sharp clarity—from the linearity, causality and rhetorical structure in the authoritative mode to the symbolic montage, meta-levels and expressive subjective form found in the poetic reflexive.
Bondebjerg also shares with us both the contrasting media responses from the UK and the US regarding the political issues on the War on Terror and instances of global multicultural debates demonstrated, for example, in the program Panorama by David Dimbleby for BBC Radio 5. In the section “Into the Dark Side, The Politics of War,” the critical tone and analysis and a more global, multicultural perspective are just two factors that tip the scale in favor of the UK as representing a more adequate response. Where considerations of democracy, human rights and international laws and conventions are concerned, the British media are shown to have directly engaged this, as opposed to the patriotic unity reflected in the US media at the time.
Bondebjerg delivers an insightful description of the Panorama program, a debate that takes place as a result of the cooperation between the BBC and Al Jazeera. The debate included live audiences in New York and Islamabad. Among the participants in this debate: Robin Cook, former foreign secretary of the British Cabinet; Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon Advisory Board; and Abida Hussain, former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States. Moderator David Dimbleby inquired, “After two weeks of military action in Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban and find bin Laden, the dilemma for the West is whether its actions are winning acceptance in the Muslim world, or are increasingly seen as an attack on Islam.” Bondebjerg is clearly moved by the global debate: “It is quite amazing to listen to the debate in this program—an actual dialogue between Americans, British representatives and Muslims, so shortly after 9/11. The debate clearly demonstrates stereotypes on both sides, but also manages to steer free of the divide so often present in the post-9/11 discourse.” Documentaries dealing with the everyday life—a concept often used within sociology and anthropology and now more often in documentary film—are given special consideration in Chapter 6, as the documentary films produced in and for those countries impacted by the war on terror are seen as a valuable contributions to the global and intercultural dialogue. “They operate in the dialectic zone of social cognition, between individuality, group cultures and universal culture,” explains Bondebjerg. A key discussion follows, contrasting the important role of documentaries that enable a reflexive contribution to a deeper understanding, or a “glocalization” to that of standard war reporting, whose frame of context is characteristically a generalized observation of battles between nations.
In the section “Losing the War for Democracy, Narratives of Daily Life under Strain,” the author offers perhaps his best example in a description of the 2008 film Iraq: The Lost Generation (Dir.: Ed Robbins; Prod./Wtr.: Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy) for the Channel 4 series Dispatches. This is everyday life as civil war: Education is lost, lives are lost, futures are lost. The film follows a young doctor, Mohammed, as he navigates through the complete breakdown of the hospital sector, leading to his eventual departure, along with 1.6 million other intellectual, creative and business elite. Referencing the repercussions of the Western occupation of Iraq, Bondebjerg points to the film’s conclusion: “Anarchy, religious division and ethnic cleansing have become the legacy of occupation; anti-Western feeling even in the next generation is the inevitable result.” Seven years after this film was released, the legacy is more insidious and complicated than ever.
Mary Moylan is a Santa Barbara-based writer. She has a professional background in documentary research and production and has worked with the George Lucas Educational Foundation on web documentaries about public education. Follow Mary on her blog Docuthinker.