- Documentary across Disciplines ed. by Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg
edited by Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg. Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) and MIT Press. 2016. $24.95 paperback. 328 pages.
Documentary across Disciplines offers a provocative, well-curated cross-disciplinary collection of writings that redefine the idea of the documentary beyond its usual confines in film studies. This inspiring work—edited by the London-based film scholar Erika Balsom and the Berlin-based Hila Peleg, a curator, filmmaker, and artistic director of the Berlin Documentary Forum—provides a reading experience that fulfills its promise to expand the concept of documentary beyond filmmaking. It includes topics related to the representation of actuality, evidence, and indexicality for a twenty-firstcentury context. Works explore how postcolonial subjectivity and new understandings of agency relate to a wide range of forms of documentary art, moving image, and new media. This broad frame makes the collection relevant for students and scholars of contemporary visual studies, new media studies, and social science audiovisual ethnography, as well as scholars and practitioners within film studies.
In their introduction, the editors explain that Documentary across Disciplines emerged out of a desire to redefine documentary practice in the context of what is often referred to as "the documentary turn" in the realm of contemporary visual art.1 Referencing the proliferation of documentary media projects in the international art world, the book does not so much grapple with examples from contemporary visual art as concern itself with expanding the concept of documentary practices in general. The wide variety of objects of study in the anthology does not directly reflect the implied context of the contemporary visual art world. Rather, as the editors note, the collected essays offer "a corrective to historical myopia and diffuse[d] the claims of novelty that sometimes accompany documentary in an art context, while also illuminating the [End Page 198] specificity of the present."2 Yet despite this implied context for visual art practitioners, the book offers illuminating and field-expanding approaches for documentary film studies and beyond. Novel documentary practices considered include photography as an ethnographic tool for anthropological research, archived audio interviews divorced from their original historical context, nonvisual media such as biometric and atmospheric data from surveillance technologies, new types of recording technologies that represent nonhuman and environmental subjects, and police videos used as evidence in criminal court cases.
The form the book takes is also notable. The chapters in Documentary across Disciplines both stand alone as individual pieces and interrelate, sometimes referring to or even reframing works mentioned in a previous chapter, revealing ways that the authors are literally or figuratively in conversation with each other. This dialogic quality makes sense because this book project emerged out of the biannual Berlin Documentary Forum sponsored by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. But rather than being a compilation of forum proceedings, Documentary across Disciplines is a creative and thought-provoking reflection on—or even, a kind of—creative treatment of the actualities of the three forums from 2010, 2012, and 2014. The book also provides a range of stylistic approaches to critical analysis, from more traditional essays to transcribed conversations, memoir, and even poetry. In this way, the collection presents itself as a consideration of 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 technique of montage. This is most literally addressed in the chapter "Montage against All Odds," in which Berlin- and Graz-based art historian and curator Antonia Majaca and Israeli filmmaker and curator Eyal Sivan discuss the practice of constructing meaning from the juxtaposition of disparate and seemingly disconnected elements in both filmmaking and curating. In this provocative conversation, the two contextualize Sivan's four-part program of screenings and encounters called Documentary Moments from the 2010 Berlin Documentary Forum in relation to his follow-up 2012 program titled Montage Interdit. They explain that the programs used fragments from a variety...