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The 5th Annual Visible Evidence Conference

By Bill Stamets

If you go to only one assembly of academics yakking about documentaries, make it "Visible Evidence." This challenging itinerant conference—previously held at Duke University, the University of Southern California, Harvard University and the University of Wales, Cardiff—promises seminars and screenings designed to spark "interdisciplinary cross-talk" and "exchanges among scholars, teachers and producers." The conference's next site is San Francisco State University, tentatively scheduled for August 1998. (Contact host/organizer Bill Nichols in the Cinema Department there for further details).

Visible Evidence 5 was coordinated by Chuck Kleinhans from Northwestern University's Department of Radio/Television/Film, who also serves as co-editor of the lefty journal Jump Cut; assisting him was grad student Ron Gregg, who moderated a panel titled "Pushing the Boundaries of Queer Documentary."

Although non-academics were a minority at Visible Evidence 5—which took place September 4-7, 1997, at Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois—this intimate gathering is accessible to intellectually curious doc types. A caveat: keep an open mind, and put aside your gag reflex to jargon. Thankfully, most Visible Evidence participants are not opaque peacocks of theory-speak. 'I'm here, somewhat awkwardly, because I made a documentary, not because I think about them professionally," is how Robert Davis from Cal State-Fullerton began his delightfully disingenuous talk about directing Little Saigon, a Godardian doc on a Vietnamese community located four miles southeast of Disneyland.

While the Society for Cinema Studies and the University Film and Video Association hold annual meetings for a wide spectrum of film profs to talk shop and job hunt, Visible Evidence offers an informal rendezvous devoted exclusively to the documentary. This year's well-run, well-fed event had less than 100 registrants. In contrast to the trade show atmosphere found at national conventions of college teachers, only two tables hawked publications at Visible Evidence 5. Acquisitions editor Micah Kleit represented the University of Minnesota Press, which publishes a leading series on documentary theory and history under the rubric "Visible Evidence." Sharing a brand identity, the conference and the press seem to enjoy a symbiotic rapport. There's a lot of overlap between themes and speakers scheduled at Visible Evidence gatherings, and specialties and authors published by the press. A recent Minnesota title is Between the Sheets, In the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary; and forthcoming books include Endangered Species: Documentaries and Democracies by Patricia Zimmerman, and Wiping the Warpaint Off the Lens: Native American Documentary by Beverly Singer.

The other publisher represented at the conference was the John Hopkins University Press, distributor of Wide Angle, a quarterly journal of film history, theory, criticism and practice, edited by Ruth Bradley at Ohio University-Athens . Historians of documentary should applaud Wide Angle's series of special publications preserving memoirs and original documents from America's documentary film scene. Besides these priceless primary sources, the book-sized volumes contain new writing by participants and observers.

The first installment in this series of institutional histories was The Flaherty: Four Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema, by guest editors Erik Barnouw and Patricia R. Zimmerman. This volume contains a list of works screened at this annual documentary seminar, 1955-1994, along with historical essays, personal recollections by participants, and materials culled from the office files of International Film Seminars, Inc., manager of the event.

The best part is Scott MacDonald 's verbatim transcription of tape recordings of some of the Flaherty's most infamous discus­sions. After Trinh T. Minh-ha had screened her Resassemblage on August 16, 1983, someone in the audience commented: "I think the soundtrack was a disaster!" Later in the colloquy, Trinh explained: "I wanted to alleviate the tyranny of the camera" and "I don't want to control how you understand the film." And after Peter Watkins screened his 14 1/2 hour film The Journey on August 12, 1987, John Columbus asked: "Do you think it's appro­priate to confine people to chairs? I was trying different ways of staying with the film. One way was to lie on the floor and not look at the image."

Scott MacDonald edited two Wide Angle volumes on Cinema 16, the venerable film distributor, entitled Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society. This pivotal film group promoted avant-garde and documentary work in New York City from 1947 to 1963. Its eclectic programming brought together such titles as An Experimentally Produced Social Problem in Rats, made at Yale University, and Pare Lorentz's The River. Future issues of Wide Angle's series will treat distributors Women Make Movies and Third World Newsreel. Visible Evidence conferences may merit this archival attention in a future volume.

Imagine a future historian coming across a transcript from Visible Evidence 5, when Jane Gaines from Duke University "deconstructed" Lonely Boy, the 1962 Canadian doc on rock idol Paul Anka: "Sex, like cinéma vérité, must be unrehearsed," noted Gaines. The ensuing discussion prompted inquiries such as "Do lesbians fake orgasms?" and the follow-up quip: "Men don't?"

Chon Noriega from UCLA traced the origin and legacy of Requiem 29, a 1971 protest doc that Noriega cites as the beginning of Chicano cinema. Jeffrey Chown from Northem Illinois University used two Irish directors and their documentaries on Americana—John T. Davis (Route 66) and Alan Gilsenan (On the Road to God Knows Where)—to look at "national identity building" from afar.

Jacqueline Stuart, a University of Chicago grad student, shared her research on a fascinating genre of black niche films that may be lost. She's seeking prints of obscure works such as Negro Soldiers Fighting for Uncle Sam, made by Peter J. Jones in Chicago in 1916; Doing Their Bit, produced by the Toussant Film Company of New York in 1918; and Heroic Negro Soldiers of the World War, released by the Frederick Douglass Film Company in 1919.

Louis Schwartz delivered an amazing paper on director Claude Lanzmann's insistence that Shoah is not a documentary. Schwartz interprets Lanzmann's veto of helicopter shots as the director's literal grounding of the film's perspective in his own body. Another rewarding session featured Doug Kellner and Tom Waugh recounting Emile de Antonio's personal, tactical and aesthetic impact on two generations of documentary makers and scholars in attendance.

Most speakers at Visible Evidence brought excerpts of films and videos. Apart from all the analysis going on, these mini-screenings—along with works-in-progress shown—turned Visible Evidence into a nicely specialized doc film fest. One highlight was Georges Franju's 1949 Blood of the Beasts , a transgressively wry and wrenching surreal cityscape graced with slaughterhouses. On the agricultural front, Jorge Furtado's Story of a Tomato (1992) was an audacious 5-min. encyclopedic essay on imperialist history and hunger.

Vanalyne Greene, who teaches video art at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago, explored other appetites in her work­ in-progress Saddle Sores: A Blue Western. This 20-min. diary details an erotic Wyoming encounter with "Cowboy Bob" during her artist-in-residency at the Ucross Foundation. Green muses on the viral aftermath of her wild west fling: "Herpes was like the illegitimate baby I never had, the fetus I could never abort."

Jill Godmilow, from the Department of Communication and Theatre, University of Notre Dame, screened her unusual project of copying Harun Farockj's Nicht loschbares Feuer ("Inextinguish­ able Fire"), a 22-min. black & white film that Farockj made in 1969. Godmilow stated that her What Farocki Taught "is literally and stubbornly a remake... a perfect replica in color and English, of Farocki's [some would add "crudely made"] film which tried to make 'visible ' and thus comprehensible the physical properties of Napalm B, and to demonstrate the impossibility of resistance to its production by the employees of the Dow Chemical Corporation..." Godmilow hails Farocki for "eschewing the pornography of documentary 'evidence' [and his] refusal to produce the 'compassionate voyeurism' of the cinéma vérité documentary. " She plans to submit her 16mm film to the Berlin, Rotterdam and Sundance film festi­vals. Her provocative take on documentary formula, her revisiting an overlooked work and her premiere of a new film sums up the mix of Visible Evidence's strengths.


BILL STAMETS is a Chicago freelance writer.