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  • Audibilities: Voice and Listening in the Penumbra of Documentary:An Introduction
  • Pooja Rangan (bio)

Making a film on/about the "others" consists of allowing them paternalistically "to speak for themselves" and, since this proves insufficient in most cases, of completing their speech with the insertion of a commentary that will objectively describe/interpret the images according to a scientific-humanistic rationale. Language as voice and music—grain, tone, inflections, pauses, silences, repetitions—goes underground. Instead, people from remote parts of the world are made accessible through dubbing/subtitling, transformed into English-speaking elements and brought into conformity with a definite mentality. This is astutely called "giving voice"—literally meaning that those who are/need to be given an opportunity to speak up never had a voice before.

—Trinh T. Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red [End Page 279]

Visibilities are not forms of objects, nor even forms that would show up under light, but rather forms of luminosity which are created by the light itself and allow a thing or object to exist only as a flash, sparkle or shimmer.

—Gilles Deleuze, Foucault

The category of voice has become so central to documentary studies that it is easy to forget that it was once a point of controversy. In the early 1990s, Trinh T. Minh-ha boldly rejected the project of "giving voice" as the basis of documentary's reality principle as well as its difference from fiction film. For Trinh, the voices we hear in documentary are the ultimate illusion—their immediacy a product of subtle but profound forms of mediation. If documentary's claim to reality rests on its representation of the voices of social actors, she argued, then "there is no such thing as documentary."1 Trinh's polemic against voice as the basis of a documentary film tradition was published in the same year as Bill Nichols's classic book Representing Reality, in which Nichols defends documentary's verbal and rhetorical rather than imagistic orientation as the genre's ethical and aesthetic raison d'être. In an earlier much-cited essay, Nichols defines the "voice of documentary" as "that which conveys to us a sense of a text's social point of view, of how it is speaking to us and how it is organizing the materials it is presenting to us."2 While voice functions as a metaphor in this definition, it has a more literal meaning in Nichols's influential breakdown of the different "modes" of documentary (expository, observational, interactive, reflexive), which are differentiated based on the number (single or multiple), mode (direct or indirect), manner (didactic or self-questioning), and social position (director, expert, or social subjects) of actual speaking voices. Nichols has recently revisited the metaphor of the voice of documentary, now over thirty years old, reiterating that documentary's imperative address—an interpellative "Hey, you!" that seeks to "engage and speak to us about the world we share"—distinguishes documentary from the overseen and overheard world of fiction.3

This special issue emerged from our dissatisfaction with the widespread but underinterrogated embrace of voice as a metaphor for a documentary film's textual means of signification—as well as our desire to take up Trinh's more literal emphasis on what happens to speaking voices in documentary—while acknowledging that neither avenue can adequately address the enigmatic place of voice in documentary. Over the last three decades, scholars writing about documentary conventions and approaches as wide ranging [End Page 280] as classical vocal narration to interviews and wordless essay films to soundtrack design in nature documentaries have adopted Nichols's metaphor, while practitioners have engaged it to theorize their own authorial address. Many of them hasten to add, invoking Nichols, that "'voice' is not restricted to any one code or feature such as dialogue or spoken commentary. Voice is perhaps akin to that intangible, moiré-like pattern formed by the unique interaction of all a film's codes, and it applies to all modes of documentary."4 In comparison, few have acknowledged the complexity of voice in this metaphor, which stands simultaneously for a documentary film's perspective, mode of address, and textual organization, even as it invokes the varied...


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