The Documentary imagination: an investigation into the performative application of documentary film in scholarship.
Authors: Hearing, T.
Editors: Jones, K. and White, N.
The aim of the research has been to discover new ways in which documentary film might be developed as a performative academic research tool. In reviewing the literature I have acknowledged the well-established use of observational documentary film making in ethnography and visual anthropology underpinned by a positivist epistemology, but I suggest there are forms of reportage in literary and dramatic traditions as well as film that are more relevant to the possibility of an auto-ethnographic approach which applies documentary film in an evocative context. I have examined the newly emerging field of Performative Social Science and the "new subjectivity" evident in documentary film to investigate emerging opportunities to research and disseminate scholarly knowledge employing reflective documentary film methods in place of, or alongside, text. This inquiry has prompted me to consider the history of the creation and transmission of scholarship. The research methodology I have employed has been auto-ethnographic reflective film practice.
Specifically, I have drawn on images from my previous documentary films and woven them together into a research film to explore the possibility of provocative, evocative filmmaking as a “creative academic research tool”, whilst noting the value of a relevant skill-set to deliver a quality threshold in applying such a method. In this particular instance of filmic scholarship, I have questioned the notion of the ‘B’ roll to illustrate and interrogate the performative application of auto-ethnographic film production. I became interested in the idea of the performative artefact as an expression of investigation when I spent a year documenting the construction of Sir Antony Gormley’s landmark sculptures Another Place and The Angel of the North. Gormley’s statement in the film that sculpture might be thought of as “a witness to life”, has informed my own practice as a filmmaker and informs the film that has become the data for this thesis. The following year when I made a film about a fishing community, Village By The Sea, I began to develop the idea that film or video artefacts might also be viewed like sculpture, as “an inert, benign object that stands somewhat outside time, somewhat outside the span of human life, but that acts as a witness to it” (Gormley, 1998). I have incorporated what Gormley terms this “impulse” into my research by creating a hybrid ‘para-documentary’ using ‘B’ roll footage: an experiment in a performative method that I am reporting on here, and an experiment which obliges the filmmaker to engage with the ethical questions which arise when grappling with the imaginative and the documented. The outcome of the research is described as the discovery of the research experience that while I have been walking around in the world, that world has been walking about in me. Three implications are identified from this outcome. Firstly, that the concept of the Creative Academic Research Tool might be a useful systematic matrix with which to frame the specific traces of a practice-based research and from which to draw more generic outcomes. Secondly, counter-intuitively to the conventions of other media documentary forms that prioritize character and dialogue, the application of the wider angle of the ‘B’ roll filmic technique might offer a particularly powerful evocative tool in Performative Social Science.
Thirdly, the documentary sensibility identified in this research, when placed performatively in the hands of the audience, might place the imagination at the heart of the scholarly documentary project.