Authored by: John Corner

The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics

Print publication date:  June  2016
Online publication date:  July  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415717397
eBook ISBN: 9781315678863
Adobe ISBN: 9781317392460


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Documentary is often regarded as a generic area with an unavoidably political character, one given to it by its very attempt variously to connect ‘directly’ with social reality in however naïve or sophisticated a combination of ways. Its use of an array of modes, including archive, actuality footage, testimony, observation and exposition, in pursuit of this goal connects with historical and social space in ways which carry political implications even if these are not recognised or even denied by the film-makers. Such a sense of documentary’s inherent politicality is a productive idea and one to be kept in mind in all documentary analysis. However, it should not be allowed to block our perception of the distinctive project which some documentaries set themselves, of a self-conscious engagement with those core economic and political structures which regulate the social order and exert a framing influence on social consciousness. This way of being ‘political’ (indeed of making films which can be described as ‘political documentaries’) presents special challenges. Among these are the handling of political ideas in relation to political events and circumstances, a handling which often involves both analysis and suggested ways forward, and the placing of ‘politicians’ as a group of distinctive actors. In both cases, viewers are frequently addressed, explicitly or otherwise, as kinds of political actor themselves, albeit one placed in a spectatorial role by the film. Their own political subjectivity, both in its affective and cognitive dimensions, is a key element of the viewing positions offered. The film-makers have to work with a sense of what viewers might know already, what the likely range of their existing beliefs and values (including prejudices) might be. With some projects for some audiences, this is not so demanding a requirement; with others, however, especially those involving a broader potential audience, it will take strategic care and perhaps some compromises.

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