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Knowing, Not Known: A Weekend of Poetics, Politics and Recognition

Inside the Poetics and Politics Documentary Research Symposium. (Photo: Jonathan Clugston).

Originally produced for the Poetics and Politics Documentary Research Symposium

Dim lights shine yellow against the black walls and floor, chairs sparse yet full of bodies and two screens -- one large projection directing our attention, the other a plasma TV at eye level -- stood in front of several dozen documentary enthusiasts, scholars and skeptics of the filmmaking practice. Three panelists, Sharon Daniel, Pratap Rughani and Hope Tucker, sat somewhere between the screen and audience ready to question and be questioned on the dynamics of documentary filmmaking.

The first question -- and arguably the most important -- to open up the Poetics and Politics Documentary Research Symposium at the University of California Santa Cruz would actually be the second, and would not come from an audience member seeking a complete answer. Tucker, who was asked to speak on her hybrid documentary in progress titled The Obituary Project, retorted back to the audience with speculation, intrigue and meditation: “What do you mean by documentary filmmaking?”

The question did as intended and set the tone for the long, three-day conference between May 15-17, 2015, where filmmakers, anthropologists, artists, archivists, professors and students all gathered from around the world to rigorously explore the aesthetics, ethics and critical engagement of documentary as a mode of understanding people and the world that surrounds us. Organized by Irene Gustafson, an Associate Professor of Film and Digital Media at UCSC, and Aparna Sharma, a documentary filmmaker and theorist of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, the Poetics and Politics Symposium was held as a space for individuals to express their interest and concern with documentary practice and as a hub for sociability and critical community building.

By merging critical and social engagement with the medium, both Gustafson and Sharma seeked to open up a dialogue almost verbatim to Tucker’s quip. As noted by Gustafson and Sharma in an abstract for the Poetics and Politics Symposium: “We are voluntary and involuntary audiences to (and often producers of) the constant streaming documentary ether of our everyday. As documentary practices, materials and cultures continue to expand, they become, arguably, more conventionalized and de-territorialized.

“Perhaps, more than ever, we need to think about documentary. … our purpose here is to think about how we think with documentary,” (Gustafson, Irene and Sharma, Aparna. 2014. Poetics and Politics Documentary Research Symposium, Program Booklet).

The 12 panels held singularly in DARC Room 108 over the weekend expanded across a wide array of subjects and ideologies within documentary practice, exploring everything from the collective shared experience and ethical liability filmmakers have to their subjects to the constant disruption of authenticity within aesthetic and political modes of documenting. Each of the panelists surrounded their presentation with the idea of incomplete and complete works of progress, collaboration and community. Yet, as highlighted in nearly all of the panels, the rejection of hierarchies by the presenters, organizers and participants was apparent and at the forefront of the symposium’s lax, but laborious structure.

One of the most notable moments of malleability at Poetics and Politics came from Alex Johnston and Travis Wilkerson’s presentation on their in-progress documentary site Now! A Journal of Urgent Praxis ( and the urgency to express our modern day civil rights movement. Among Johnston’s opening dialogue, which highlighted a “call to expand and redefine the idea of nonfiction” and emphasis an on “the here and now of political and cultural life” stood the here and now of a malfunctioning PowerPoint presentation. With texts such as “political urgency and formal explanation” and “urgent works vs. new works” overlapping each other on screen in a default font, Johnston sighed at the mistake but moved on with his own urgency, while the audience chuckled and resumed to focus all critical senses to the presentation at hand. The moment of comedic relief amidst stringent abstractions of documentary would be one of many that pushed participants through the marathon, keeping everyone on edge and eager for what was next, as Johnston noted: “The thoughtful pause can gather force.”

Following with Johnston’s ideology, Wilkerson would go on to emphasize an even more urgent approach to documentary form as a tool of socio-political change in contemporary society through various modes of documentation. He noted that within our ever-present social world, highlighted by the advent and constant domination of mass media, a revolution is consistently on the verge of an up rise and by altering the modes of production, specifically for documenting such critical events, we will be unable to stifle the profound and urgent from happening. Wilkerson’s approach to the radical social function of film was by and large the most direct and persistent, and mirrored many other presentation throughout Poetics and Politics, but came in high contrast to some of the more conventional approaches to documentary presented over the weekend.

One panel in particular, a presentation titled the “Aesthetics of the Ethnographic”, stuck to more traditional modes of structuralism within visual anthropology and observational documentary where the cinematic subject and filmmaker clearly rest on opposite ends of a social hierarchy. Much of the work presented revolved around representing types and outsider cultures through deconstruction and participation, most directly from the filmmaker’s point of view and contextualization.

Yet Sarah Franzen, one of the panelists, viewed her style of filmmaking as a practice of aesthetic engagement with the senses and as a “mode of being present and aware” with the creation of a documentary. But, as with the other presentations on the panel, much of the creation would come from merely witnessing from a distance instead of living in conjunction and collaboration with their subjects. In Cathy Greenhalgh’s presentation of Cottonopolis, a reflexive documentary on former cotton textile cities, the aesthetics of labor and work would be put on center stage with little labor required from anyone, including from us as audience members, other than a man from Ahmedabad, India manually operating a cotton loom on screen. The image remained subjective and unimportant with only aesthetics breaking through the frame, having little impact on challenging the ideologies of documentary and deconstructing notions set forth for the conference.

In contrast, B. Ruby Rich, editor of Film Quarterly and professor at UCSC, described earlier in the day following Johnston and Wilkerson’s presentation that the context and collaboration of the filmmaker makes all the difference within a documentary, rather than subjecting individuals to the gaze of a camera as in Cottonopolis. She noted that by not knowing what the target is, rather than going in to a project with preconceived notions of style, form and content, makes a film and its subject matter both critically and aesthetically engaging for the viewer, participants and documentarian. This deterritorialization of the documentary, as noted by Gustafson and Sharma and highlighted throughout Poetics and Politics, may put us into unfamiliar situations as cultural critics and artists, but makes all the difference in presenting a work with ethics, aesthetics and politics at hand.

As the culmination of critical analysis and theorization of documentary began to consume all sense of livelihood and alertness, a breath of fresh air came through the films and insight of keynote speaker Kevin Jerome Everson, whose personal critique of his own expansive body of work was reduced to “I don’t know, I just like it.”

But through his simple and seemingly disinterested personal view, Everson revealed something more profound and complex within the authenticity and narrative fragmentation of the everyday that most of his work revolves around. His images of family, neighbors and “actors” – meaning former thieves playing the role of metal slingers – presented the artistry of labor that provided a certain conceptual disruption to let the viewer sit with the image and its beauty. Yet, this abstraction from the “Truth” of the image in itself came to reveal an intricate disruption of political modes that stripped the audience away from formal languages of documentary, making both form and content intrinsically appealing. Everson’s presentation used this abstraction to stress the question of taste and sensibility over the political, ethical and aesthetic ideologies that much of the symposium explored, which reminded most of us why we were participating in the Poetics and Politics – because I don’t know, I just like documentary.

The weekend was a reminder that documentaries aren’t solely made to change the world but to instead explore the world in depth and interest. They bridge the gaps between ethics and beauty, politics and passion, theorization and appreciation that many of us forget are important within the ever-changing, ever-present existence. For me, the Poetics and Politics symposium was a personal gesture that not only brought me back to why I became interested in documentary, but to why I am interested in exploring the world and its inhabitants through film.

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