By Alisa Lebow
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Additional info for The Cinema of Me: Self and Subjectivity in First-Person Documentary Film (Nonfictions)
Subjectivity is by no means a new documentary modality, yet the traditional posture of the theatrical and television documentary around the world has been historically that of objectivity. The personal point of view of the filmmaker was typically elided, left to languish on the cutting-room floor, while more positivist assertions have always taken preference. 3 The artist’s vision could be foregrounded at a time when the documentarian’s had to be suppressed. 4 However, for the past quarter of a century, especially but not exclusively in the West, incursions into the first person mode of address have become increasingly common, with the field of first person filmmaking gaining steady momentum.
The essay film is not a genre in the normal sense, built out of a permutation of a certain repertoire of features. With my theoretical cap on, I have long believed that this is anyway not a very good way to approach the nature of genre, which in practice is always, as Mikhail Bakhtin demonstrated throughout his work, much more fluid and porous than logical definitions seem to suppose. This is especially true in the case of the documentary, of which Joris Ivens somewhere wrote that it constitutes a ‘creative no-man’s land’, like an interloper in the genre system.
Nevertheless, if we are going to talk sensibly about the essay film, there is no point in restricting its varieties by arbitrarily limiting its criteria. Of course, in working for television, I’d accepted that films had to have commentaries – it was part of the deal – but I grew to strongly dislike them. Especially after the experience of a piece of current affairs reportage on human rights in Cuba (Cuba From Inside, ‘Dispatches’, Channel Four, 1988) where the house style not only required a tight journalistic commentary but wall-to-wall speech, with no space for the pictures to breathe.