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Reviewed by:
  • Documentary Across Disciplines eds. by Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg
  • S. Topiary Landberg (bio)
Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg, editors. Documentary Across Disciplines. Haus Der Kulturen der Welt and MIT Press, 2016, 328 pp. ISBN 978-0262529068, $24.95.

In Documentary Across Disciplines, editors Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg have curated a provocative cross-disciplinary collection of writings that redefine the idea of the documentary. This is a book that expands the idea of non-fiction media beyond designations usually found in film studies. It explores topics relevant to contemporary issues, such as the representation of truth and reality, the changing forms of legal evidence and indexicality, and ideas about subjectivity and agency informed by postcolonial theory: topics relevant to contemporary visual art, new media studies, literature, and ethnographic practices in the social sciences. In their introduction, the editors explain that Documentary Across Disciplines emerged out of a desire to reframe or redefine documentary practice in the context of what is often referred to as "the documentary turn" in contemporary visual art. Referencing the proliferation of documentary media projects within the international art exhibition context, the book grapples with the project of expanding the conception of documentary practices beyond film studies for the benefit of a wide range of documentary practitioners. Offering "a corrective to historical myopia" and challenging "the claims of novelty that sometimes accompany documentary in an art context" (18), many of the chapters provide reconsiderations of historical works from experimental film, ethnography, literature, and the visual art world in order to offer new ways of thinking about the definition of documentary.

Artfully edited by Balsom and Peleg, the entries in this book not only stand alone as individual pieces but reflect upon each other, sometimes referring to or even reframing works mentioned in a previous chapter, revealing ways in which the entries are literally or figuratively in conversation. This intertextuality makes sense, as this book project emerged out of the biannual Berlin Documentary Forum sponsored by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt under the artistic direction of Hila Peleg. But rather than being a compilation of forum proceedings, Documentary Across Disciplines is a creative and thoughtful reflection upon the theoretical and aesthetic concerns emerging at the conferences in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Many of the chapters offer case [End Page 389] studies for interdisciplinary and noncanonical understandings of the documentary form from across and beyond film, to include new media and practices beyond the moving image. Innovative essays discuss the use of photography as an ethnographic tool for anthropological research, archived audio interviews divorced from their original historical context, nonvisual types of media such as biometric and atmospheric weather data, new camera technologies that capture nonhuman and environmental subjects, and police surveillance footage used as evidence in criminal courts. The book also provides a diverse range of stylistic approaches to writing, from critical essays to transcribed conversations, memoir, and even poetry. In this way, this collection considers nonfiction across disciplines in both form and content, presenting a view of documentary not as a category or genre, but as a critical method, an attitude, a way of engaging and creating that attests to multiple and mutable actualities.

Of particular interest is the way the book activates the concept of montage. In one way, the montage of different writing styles and modes of reflection throughout the book creates a sense of multiplicity, formal entanglement, and interdisciplinary methodology. The concept of montage is also directly addressed in the chapter "Montage Against All Odds," a provocative conversation between the Berlin/Graz-based art historian and curator Antonia Majaca and the Israeli filmmaker and curator Eyal Sivan. The two discuss Sivan's 2010 four-part program of screenings and encounters called Documentary Moments and his 2012 follow-up program entitled Montage Interdit, which took place at the Berlin Documentary Forums. These programs used fragments from a variety of canonical documentary films to explore the "lurking visual narrative of the continuity of extreme historical violence" (193). Majaca and Sivan propose that the act of montage can be viewed not simply as an aspect of cinematic technique but as an approach to intertextual analysis, comparing works across both time and geography. This...


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pp. 389-392
Launched on MUSE
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