Issues in Contemporary Documentary

January 14, 2010

As Jane Chapman notes in her introduction to this broad-ranging book, "documentary is now so popular and diverse that it needs to be understood as complex, multifaceted and influenced by a range of different contexts". It is this complexity that Chapman seeks to represent through a series of themed chapters, grouped into familiar issues and concerns that have informed debates in documentary - its "discursive tensions", as she calls them - more or less since its emergence. Thus areas such as representation, objectivity/subjectivity, censorship, reflexivity and ethics are all explored historically and contextually using contemporary examples.

The fact that Chapman is able to draw on so many recent documentary films would appear to suggest buoyancy in terms of the form, reflected too in the number of recent academic texts that have sought to address and explore the shifting nature of contemporary documentary, such as Rethinking Documentary: New Perspectives and Practices (2008) by Thomas Austin and Wilma de Jong and The Politics of Documentary (2008) by Michael Chanan. However, Chapman appears to lament the passing of certain kinds of public sphere or public broadcast documentary and is critical of the rise of forms that have "no regard for the discourse of sobriety, preferring titillation and fascination". Examples of these include the "docu-soap" and "docu-glitz", a "format dominated by a constant soundtrack and snappy sound-bites". Despite the fact that it turns its audiences into "crude witnesses", the ubiquitous reality-TV programming that now fills schedules in the UK and the US is also considered, although it is distinguished from documentary by its lack of any kind of explanatory imperative.

Chapman's study identifies a number of important areas of change in relation to contemporary documentary, the most significant of which is the increasing prevalence of the personal documentary, which, she argues, has created greater "definitional fluidity" for the documentary form. Films such as Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation (2003) and Michael Moore's Sicko (2007) are analysed not only for their inherent subjectivity but also for the ways in which they have blurred the boundaries of the subjectivity/objectivity equation.

The internet and digital technology have also impacted on documentary in a number of crucial ways, either as an effect of what the technology now enables in production terms (cameras, sound equipment, editing) or in relation to distribution and dissemination, where the internet has allowed the amateur film-maker to reach an audience that previously would have been more or less impossible without access to some aspect of the industrial process, whether artisanal or commercial in scale. For Chapman, shifts in technology also mean that the "balance of power between film-maker and viewer is constantly changing" as documentary becomes ever more mutable; this, she argues, requires analysis that is similarly fluid and inventive.

Despite the increasing proliferation of the documentary and its greater reach as a result of the internet, which signals both its renewed power and its potential for dissipation, Chapman concludes that it can still "act as a powerful medium for effecting change". This book is undoubtedly intended as an undergraduate textbook, evidenced by its lucid exposition and easily accessible and clearly presented case studies; however, it nonetheless offers a useful account and summary of the key debates that surround and inform the terrain of the contemporary documentary.

Issues in Contemporary Documentary

By Jane Chapman. Polity, 244pp, £55.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780745640099 and 40105. Published 17 July 2009

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