November 1, 1998

Visible Evidence VI Conference San Francisco State University August 13-16, 1998

At an event such as Visible Evidence VI, what's immediately clear is just how hopelessly inadequate the term "documentary " has become.

This predominantly academic confer­ence is held annually, this year at San Francisco State University (August 13- 16). The announced aim of the event was to "encompass issues of ethnography, journal ism, medical imaging, visible evidence and the law, advocacy, biogra­phy/autobiography, and the art of social representation, " inviting research and presentations from "fields such as anthro­pology, architecture, art history, ethnic studies, gay and lesbian studies, history, journalism , law, medicine, political science, sociology, urban studies and women's studies."

A broad canvas, to be sure. The call for papers yielded responses which were then organized into 12 panels and 5 work­ shop sessions. The event attracted perhaps 100 participants, most of whom appeared on the program, and almost all of whom attended full-time for the packed three-day schedule.

Organization and logistics for the conference were chaired by Professor Bill Nichols, of San Francisco State, author of a number of significant treatises on the documentary. He was assisted by a coterie of SFSU graduate students who handled the myriad of requisite details so smoothly that they resembled the bass drummers of marching bands, the pulse of their efforts controlling the group's movement without necessarily being heard. Evident in the hosting of such a demanding event was the generous support offered by College of Creative Arts Dean Keith Morrison, a distinguished painter.

Given the breadth of the call for papers, it's difficult in a couple of succinct paragraphs to sum up the concerns of this conference. A university degree in literary theory might have been a worthwhile requirement to attend, but that observation is too simple: these academicians are actually interested in the same sorts of issues that concern documentary makers—but the language and often the points of view differ enormously. Obviously difficult is the precious lingo of post-modernist "discourse" with its "strategy" of continual "negotiation" so as to "privilege" rather than "problematize" any commentary on the "text." There too is the problem of mis-judging the forest, given the fixations with just a couple of the trees. And finally, there is academic speak itself, bursting at its "seems" and filled with its "I would like to suggest..." and "My argument would be..." and the seeming inability of faculty members (and graduate students) to stay within the imposed 15 minute time limit for presentations.

And yet, within this somewhat rari­fied environment were exhibited some thoughtful and quite helpful analyses of the documentarian's impact on society, the construction of values and ideology, on the ways we formulate beliefs and modes of behavior. A few notable examples: Steve Lipkin, of Western Michigan University, detailed the ways in which movies-of-the­ week docudramas become "rootable, pro­motable and relatable," actually trying out his postulates on producers, writers and executives, and applying it to the teleplay Sharon Moore: A Victim of Love. Jane Roscoe of New Zealand's University of Waikato probed the "mockumentary" form, using the French Man Bites Dogs to show how the form critiques not only contemporary society but the conventions of documentary itself. Jane Gaines, from Duke University, organized a panel on the "salacious fascination" of the docu­mentary's claim of oddities and the bizarre, "making the strange familiar and the ordinary weird." Ilan Avisar, of Tel Aviv University, in the middle of com­menting upon historical representation and the Holocaust, offered a succinct assess­ment of literary and critical theory over the past century: from realism and its faith in the possibility of truth, to modernism and its recognition of the complexity in truth, to post-modernism and its revisionism of the facts.

A particularly relevant session was the "special event" of the first day, which brought together makers of historical documentaries: Jon Else (Cadillac Desert, The Day after Trinity), Connie Field (The Life of Rosie the Rivitter, Freedom on My Mind), Emiko Omari (Tattoo: A Question of Loyalty) and Pat Ferrero (Hearts and Hands: A Social History of the Fourth World). Using examples from their works, these four addressed some of the issues being bantered about in other sessions but in specific and concrete terms. (Jon Else sat in on a session prior to his presentation, and listened to theorists talk about what filmmakers do. His comment: "We really ought to get together more often.") Connie Field shared an observation particularly relevant to the studies by participants, noting that "at some point, the film starts dictating its own structure."

While there was great care not to segregate graduate students onto panels separate from their professors, workshop sessions seemed all too often an exclusive haven for Ph.D candidates. Perhaps this impression came from the organizing principle that whereas panels would offer 15 minutes for each presenter, workshops would restrict each speaker to just five minutes, thereby leaving maximum time for discussion. The rationale here was that topics presented in workshop session were in progress rather than at the results stage. Films and videos were not only screened in special sessions, there were a number of these available in an all-day videotheque, titles that were addressed in individual papers from the panels. When film clips were used in presentations, though, there was a wallpaper effect: a couple of panelists ran film clips on the screen behind them, the sound muted so we could hear the presenters read their papers. Two films receiving numerous mentions were Maximillian Schell's Marlene and Alan Berliner's Nobody's Business. With a number of panels devoted to "performativity" in documentary, the way subjects within a film can "act" to reveal themselves, both films seemed good choices for commentaIy. The screening of Jay Rosenblatt's Human Remains too seemed to merge many of the conference's topics into broad relief.

 

TIMOTHY J. LYONS is editor of International Documentary magazine.

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