BILL NICHOL’S BOOK REPRESENTING REALITY: ISSUES AND CONCEPTS IN DOCUMENTARY.
Prof Dr Fatmir Terziu
Three important books on issues and concepts of documentary have been published in recent years, all of them by pioneer in the field, Bill Nichols. Two of these books were written in a short period time; Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema (1981) and The Voice of Documentary(1983), while Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary was published in 1991, a decade after the first of Nichol’s books on the issue. Bill Nichol’s, whose groundbreaking Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentaryfirst appeared in small parts as “The Voice of Documentary”, which was published in Films Quarterly 36, no.3 (Spring 1983), has pulled together all of his writings, from Questions of Magnitude, and The Documentary and Mass Mediato Pornography, Ethnography, and the Discourses of Power, “originated as a term paper by Catherine Needham and Christian Hansen in [Nichols] Fall 1986 seminar on ethnographic film at Queen’s University (Nichols, 1991:Xvii). This triple publication, then, provides an occasion for looking back as well as forward. Concepts from academic documentary theory have been productively introduced into other fields of film, notably film history, drama and reality TV theory, where new work on concepts of representing reality is derived from the ideas of Nichols. And yet a number of questions concerning the cultural implications of early theorists work on the representing of reality in documentary remain unsolved. As Nichols sees it, “the invocation of, and promise to gratify, a desire to know”, is of that contemporary condition which scholars lead by Bruzzi, Carroll, Platinga, Izod, Kilburn and others see as an acceptance of “that a documentary can never be the real world” (Bruzzi, 2000:7). So, ‘representing reality’, the title and focus of Nichols work is an implicated term. In one sense it refers to ‘the images of things’, which invoke different conceptions of filming events: the image as the ‘real’ twist of the visual representation made meaningful through ‘our hunger for Truth’; reality as an ordered story of the event, authorised by domestic documentary-making procedures. For Nichols, representing reality is a boundary that depends on ideology of images and the imaginary:
“Documentary realism also presents a pointedly historical dimension. It is a form of visual historiography. Its combination of representations of the world and representations about the world, of evidence and argument, give it the ambivalent status that the word “history” also enjoys: history is at once the living trajectory of social events as they occur and the written discourse that speaks about these events” (Nichols, 1991:177).
More particularly, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentaryis a wide-ranging history in the field of documentary as a concept or practice. It covers various periods and discusses documentary from various Modes of Representation. Much of the book is devoted to the detailed domain of documentary, where a number of precise distinctions between types of documentaries are made and where the diverse ways images and narratives have functioned is elaborated. Nichols is concerned to go beyond the parameters of an aesthetic history, analyzing the representing of the reality in documentary as a multidimensional phenomenon involving documentary form, documentary history, defining documentary, the image and ideology, a community of practitioners, an institutional practice, a corpus of texts, and constituency of viewers.
READING CULTURE: DOCUMENTARY AS A TEST
One of the most interesting and productive moves Nichols makes is to extend a discussion of a formal device to include historical and cultural accounts of the relationship between documentary not in institutional (discursive) nor textual terms but in relation to its viewers. In this regard representing of the reality can be seen as a kind of documentary test case for debates in contemporary cultural studies and critical theory. Nichols, however, specifically interrogates the factual status of realism and foregrounds the fictional status of objectivity. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which praises fascism, and Grierson’s Drifters,which compliments the fishermen are used in his analysis of realism in documentary film to build up the vision of how ‘the question of voice’ can be related to the “authorial personality and textual persuasion, that differs from that of fiction” (p. 165). He notes that “similar stylistic techniques comes into play but the end result is a distinct mix of style and rhetoric, authorial personality and textual persuasion that differs from that of fiction” (p.165). Nichols argues that this is a case in modernist narrative in documentary where both ‘objective representations of the historical world’ and ‘rhetorical overtness’ are taken into consideration to communicate an argument about the world (p.166). Nichols also discusses Grierson’s representation of the documentary, which, he argues, foregrounds the importance of the filmmaker’s devotion in establishing a particular relationship to the past: he relates Grierson’s vision of a documentary film movement as managerial elite. This suggests that Nichols implies that Grierson is at the forefront of the documentary movement. For Nichols, Griersonian documentary assures the immensity of actions through rituals of involvement of the documentary participant. In addition, George Lukács’s notion of ‘lack of convictions’ is discussed in relation to Scott, Balzak and Tolstoy’s experience of describing their characters. Nichols describes that the novelistic creation of characters differs from the documentary highlighting of characters, because the later is related to the involvement of the characters, which implicates the fact that characters are not only the choice of writers, but are part of the politics of representation. As Nichols clarifies, the politics of representation introduce questions of power and authority, showing that documentary is also the politics of representation.
Nichols certainly fulfils one of the goals of his project; namely, to elaborate the complexity and richness of representing reality in the documentary. On the general issue of histories that are attentive to discourses, however, there is perhaps a lack of good fit in attempts to integrate attention to historical discursive formations with concern for what is specific to documentary as a signifying culture. A discursive history, as it might be seen to develop out of Michael Foucault’s work, would be concerned with assessing the regularities and boundaries of a text or a cultural practice. Although Nichols discusses historical issues of truth and economy and speculates on the way ‘the Other becomes the precondition for the imaginary assurances of sublime independence’, his characterisation of the women as the object of male desire here bears the mark of formal rather than an historical distinction, since it invokes the conception of a position for ‘the Other’ that is wide-ranging from the actual conditions of documentary, pornography, ethnography and the discourses of power (p.202). This argument articulates a commonplace concern in cultural studies for the specificity of documentary. Nichols is, of course, concerned with form and Foucault’s History of Sexuality, but while thus, he is not writing a Foucaldian history. However, this does signal a more general problem in histories that extend a concern for formal specificity to elaborate more discussion of discourses, rather than just focusing on the discourses of power.
‘THE OTHER’ IN THE DOCUMENTARY
IfRepresenting Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentarymoves in the direction of the discourses of general field rather than of power field, it also intervenes in recent debates about documentary’s representing reality in cultural studies, particularly those concerning the relationship between representing the reality in documentary and cultural history. Part of Nichol’s intervention lies in the care with which he negotiates this relationship; and he is appropriately confident regarding the methodology of his study. Citing Craig Owens on the concept of narrative which calls for interrogation, the poststructural critique thought including Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, Nichols notes his own concern to avoid such theories. He points to four different problems of the representation of ‘the Other’ in relation to fiction in documentary, arguing instead for a consideration of its various functions. He also rejects an approach based among Laura Mulvey’s definition that women ‘are to-be-looked-at; they are objects of desire and spectacle’: “the camera represents male characters looking at female ones while female characters are the subjects of such views rather than their instigators” (Mulvey, cited in Nichols, 1991:207).
While Nichol’s incorporates certain arguments about realism writing in cultural studies, he also avoids the excesses of those arguments. He offered experienced arguments regarding the way of representation of reality in documentary function in each cultural field, and refrains from making rash claims concerning the political implication of the texts disrupted by contradictions. Hollywood filmmakers, he notes, use a different way to avoid such problems by incorporating sophisticated new methods: “they, [Hollywood filmmakers] try to do it the other way around and move “inside” the rhythms and values of another culture in a more holistic way than simply as “local colour” or descriptive passage” (p.206).
In this regard, Nichols appears to take up criticisms by Michael Renov of the work of the Griersonian model “in which the corporeal I who speaks dissolves itself into a disembodied, depersonalized, institutional discourse of power and knowledge” (Renov, 1993:6). However Stella Bruzzi is a primary advocate of Nichol’s definition, suggesting that the criticism of Noël Carroll is failure: “it is perhaps more generous and worth while to simply accept that a documentary can never be the real world, that the camera can never capture life as it would have unravelled had it not interfered” (Bruzzi, 2000:7). While he describes his own project as a theoretical one, and does not argue, as does Carroll that the first steps towards alternative realism imagery would lie in the field of basic values, such as representation of the events that relates to the historical connotation of the image and the relationship of its meaning with the soundtrack. In a very simple way it can related to all components of cultural interests, linked with gender, sex and ‘the Other’ as a concept brought by Nichols. Nichols has clearly taken Carroll’s critique into consideration: he includes large number of examples in his discussion, and is concerned to cover all the problems ranging of historical context until he clarifies Graig’s case against the narrative project of global explanation. Slavoj Žižek is taking a cue from Bill Nichols theory, when disagreeing Caroll’s argument. For him representing reality reminds us that real theory can show how documentary exposes the fragility of subjectivity and our failure to grasp the whole picture of reality (Žižek, 2001:77). Furthermore Nichols’ theory is supported and advocated by Renov noting in his book The Subject of Documentarythat “contingency, hybridity, knowledge as situated and particular, identity as ascribed and performed seem out of phase with the quest for standards of subjectivity ... to which Caroll desperately clings” (Renov, 2004:137). At the same time his analysis show issues of representation in pornography to be different from that in documentary:
“in documentary this impression of reality extends to the actual course of events; the actions, worlds and gestures; that states of mind of participants, and the outcome of resolution represented. In ethnography and pornography, concreteness centers on the evidence that the cultural or sexual practices represented occurred as depicted” (p.216).
So Nichol’s argument lead to that he analyses representing reality as the place where documentaries representational project can be problematical. In DeepThroat, for example, he notes that the ‘testimony to pleasure occurs in the visible proof of ejaculation’ (p.217). Furthermore, he sees this problem when comparing both two films DeepThroatand Insatiable II‘with Marylin Chamber’s whole body shuddering with pleasure’, contradicted by the character’s subjective experience, about embodiment versus the appearance/performance of embodied pleasure, which foregrounds the way social conditions have produced her as deviant.
THE BODY IN ANOTHER CONTEXT
The final chapter is concerned with the body, questions of meaning and magnitude, covering films such as Sophie’s Choice, ThePawnbroker, The Holocaust, Playing for Time, War and Remembrance, Robocop,The Terminator, Max Headroomand Bladerunner. Once again the body for Nichols is ‘the battle site of contending values and their representation’ but the analysis and the sheer volume of material discussed means that references are provocative but lack detailed exploration due to the brevity of analysis (p. 238). Chapters follow on narrative in documentary, history of documentary, myth in documentary, sacrifice and the body, negative space, counternarrative, antimyth, self-referentiality and crisis and magnitude. The course between history and narrative or documentary texts that Nichols negotiates is a rocky road in documentary theory and cultural studies. Nichols intervenes in this debate by involving documentary texts and the historical domain in a historical project. He achieves this by using a range of individual scenes from Hospital, Primary, Lorang’sWay,Salesmanand television shows like “Cops” combined with different theoretical frameworks such as performance of people (social actors), testimony, formalism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, antimyth and representation to establish his agendas for documentary representation and the historical world. Moreover he makes a general argument for a flexible methodological approach, given that ‘unlikely historical fiction, documentary lacks the problem of finding itself with a body too many, namely that an actor’ (p. 249), and stresses the value of not limiting his project to a single theoretical vantage point.
The heart of Nichol’s study lies in his selected documentary-film analysis and his concern with documentary form: his integration of history and theory is affected predominantly by pushing a formalist historical analysis of documentary in the direction of culturally and theoretically informed interpretations. In this regard, it is useful to locate Nichol’s study within the debate that has surrounded the analyses and histories of Diane Scheinman, particularly since this debate has established certain terms for thinking about this ‘discursive practice penetrated by relations of power’ (Scheinman, 1998:201). As Nichols says “documentary texts recruit people but they continue to be historical figures functioning as members of a social activity” (p. 249), makes it clear that history and theory is neither new nor is it one debate. It also allows from this point of view that documentary criticism and documentary theory is and continues to be, diverse and only partly scientific. To make a clear connection to this fact, let’s borrow Lukács’s argument ‘real knowledge of what goes on in society’ (Lukács, 1968:15). Poetic documentary or maybe other related forms of documentary to poetics may be able to offer mythic identification and narrative characterisation attached to historical people or there always will be a need to draw on the other knowledge that is related to cultural studies and cultural knowledge. In particular for Nichols “this very process of mythologization works in two directions, transforming the dead into the eternally remembered and taking from the living something of their historical specificity” (p. 254). To understand Nichols’ aim on this issue, one has to have resource to Louis Althusser empirical theory, where he says: “the act of abstraction whereby the pure essence is extracted from concrete individuals is an ideological myth” (Althusser, 1969:191). So, from critiques of nineteenth century philosophies of history to the connection between Nichols and Althusser can be another subject of much argument.
However, as it has recently been mentioned within documentary theorists, and more particularly in other film critic’s work, a key issue is conceptual domain of bodily representation that Nichols has been concerned with: ‘into a literal embodiment of social practices and cultural ideals’ (p. 255). Nichols’ book is to integrate important facts with interpretation and with a notion of the historical figure indebted to history of documentary there remains a question regarding the factuality between theorist analysis and other work on this field. For example, in relation to documentary-filmmakers, would the theory of the historical figure need a consistent theory of the subject of the documentary? It has been argued that there is a disproportion between the techniques of documentary makers and theory that has been used to describe it. This leads to the general issue of Nichols’ use of theory. He correctly notes that each theoretical example foregrounds different issues and ways of approaching the arguments of a documentary text.
Nichols’s analysis does not deal with the broader implications of some questions he explicitly raises. His analysis is also limited by his failure to ask certain questions in the first place. This is especially clear in relation to the category of docu-soap, home movies or documentary gender and representation of personal life for public sphere in reality TV documentary. I was unclear as to whether he was using ‘variations of a single person’ to refer to the characters of Colonel Mandrake, President Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove. This becomes problematic in his argument about ‘home movies’ (p. 160). On the one hand he refers to ‘the recognition of a historical specificity’, but on the other Nichols is categorically clear that “what is one person’s historical evidence is another person’s fiction” (p. 161). However it is clear and perfect theory on neorealism and documentary. Neorealism as a way of understanding the function and effect of travelogues and new reports discourses in general of the beginning of the cinema goes to the final development in Nichols’s theory: “the emphasis in neorealism remains with story more than argument, with fictional representation more than historical one, with imaginary characters more than social actors” (p. 169).
In summary, the strength of Nichols’s work is also his weakness: that is the ease with which he is confident and professionally able to converse with his subjects. He has a much firmer grasp of the history of the representing reality in the documentary he is delivering for his readers, and of what is at stake for the theory of documentary today as a whole than do other theorists and scholars. Despite the criticisms, I think Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentaryis an important and interesting text. Not only does it provide huge information and critiques of previous understandings of the relation between history and film-documentary, but it also constitutes a positive and useful way of documentary modes of representation. Also Nichols addresses clear arguments about the relations of documentary within history and its subjects and gives understandable direction for the future of rethinking those relations.
Althusser, L. (1969) For Marx. London: Penguin Books.
Bruzzi, S. (2000) New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London & New York:
Lukács, G. (1968) History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. London:
Nichols, B. (1991) Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary.
Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.