Voices and Visions
Doing Documentary beyond mass media practices
PANEL Proposal
NECS 2021

The topic of migration has been taken up many times in documentary film. In recent years, participatory documentary films have become increasingly popular, even though they are becoming less and less widespread in conventional media dispositives.
It is striking that documentary films consciously seek a different attitude, a different approach to the subject of migration than the established mass media. It seems that the preformatted patterns of television in particular, i.e. TV news, reports and magazines, deliver standardized images and create images of migration that apparently leave gaps.
Do new documentary film projects represent a corrective to such standardised images? What potential for expression do participatory projects have in contrast to other documentary films? What do they show that previous documentary films did not? Perhaps their potential is not only revealed by the content, but rather by the way in which they suggest a different form of use to their viewers. Or does their impact rather unfold through the cooperative form of production, i.e. in a DOING and not through the content presented?

This panel sets out to discuss probable alternatives to mass media’s dealing with migration – with a special focus on collaborative factual storytelling. Thomas Weber kicks off the panel by probing into the potential of documentary projects to construct (post)migrant identities by means of negotiation processes. Jasmin Kermanchi analyses the role which different agents play within socially engaged participatory documentary, ranging from foundations, nonprofits and documentary producers to makers and distributors. Anna Wiehl, final, too, deals with new media documentary practices, however with a slightly different focus: in her contribution, she takes up different forms of interaction and immersion and debugs the hype around new media documentary – especially VR documentary – to promote empathy.


Doing History and the negotiation of post-migrant identities in participatory documentaries

Thomas Weber

Do participatory documentary film projects on the topic of migration contribute to giving migrants a voice and if so, in what way? What is the character and potential for (self-) empowerment of the actors in the different participatory structures?

This presentation deals with documentary filmic approaches in different media, which, in the context of a DOING HISTORY, create narratives that construct (post-)migrant identities through negotiation processes. The constructed frames of reference and narratives, the functioning of the developed self-designs as well as the identitary negotiation processes will be analysed. In particular, the handling of well-known narratives will be questioned and the potential offered by participatory documentary film projects of various media will be observed.

One focus will be to clarify what participation can mean in each case. From the perspective of media studies, it should be illuminated how participatory documentary film projects themselves become a medium for negotiating (post-)migrant identity.



Giving voice to refugees
The nonprofit documentary project Dadaab Stories between new collaborative practices and the tradition of social documentary film

Jasmin Kermanchi

Dadaab Stories (US 2013) is a collaborative community project about life in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya. Presented as a nonlinear multimedia documentary, it combines videos, photography, poetry, music and journalism. Instead of making a documentary film about the camp residents, Dadaab Stories serves as a platform for the stories the residents tell themselves, for example with donated smartphones. What sounds like an innovative approach goes back to a long tradition of socially engaged documentary. For example, the participatory documentary project Challenge for Change by the National Film Board of Canada (1967-1980) aimed to give the protagonists a voice and therefore provided cameras for them.

This contribution seeks to examine to what extent Dadaab Stories follows the tradition of social documentary film, but also focuses the potentials of the new documentary form and practices drawing on the concepts of collaborative interactive documentary (Mitchel 2015; Miller/Allor 2016) and open space documentary (Zimmermann/De Michiel 2018). What new opportunities do projects such as Dadaab Stories offer for the self-representation of the refugees? How does the project with its numerous videos create a complex narrative about life in a refugee camp?

Equally interesting are the actors and practices behind the project, which are exemplary for a new development: an emerging „parallel ‘industry'“ (Nash/Corner 2016: 228) consisting of foundations, nonprofits and documentary producers, makers and distributors working together to achieve social change through documentary storytelling. Dadaab Stories was created by the humanitarian organization FilmAid. The project shows how NGOs, global organizations, impact agencies, filmmakers and funders can collaborate to empower the refugees to shape their own narratives.



The I, the eye and the other

Regimes of gaze as means of (dis-)immersion in interactive documentary

Anna Wiehl, University of Bayreuth

Are we currently dealing with a crisis? A ‚refugee crises‘? Or are we not rather witnessing a ‚crisis of representation‘ of this presumable crisis, as Bennet (2018) provocatively asks? And if this is the case – what role does documentary play in this regard?

This contribution discusses current tendencies in emerging documentary practices, taking two paradigmatic configurations as a test stone for the empathetic potential of user engagement: Clouds over Sidra, a virtual reality/360° documentary, and Refugee Republic, an interactive multimedia web-documentary, combining film, sketches, maps, stills and text-scroll. Beyond touching upon different symbolic and pictorial regimes active in these documentaries, the presentation explores in how far the interface through which a documentary experience is afforded affects the engagement with content.

Especially during the early hype around VR non-fiction, the technology was hailed as „the ultimate empathy machine“ (Milk 2015), and it was only consistent that NGOs embrace the technology to raise awareness for their causes. However, more recent discourses (Rose 2018; Farmer 2019) question the power of VR to achieve social change – not only as the depiction of refugees remains stuck in stereotypes, but especially as the regime of gaze and the medial presence of ‚immersive witnessing‘ (Gregory 2016) lead to an ‚improper distance‘ (Nash 2018): bringing the ‚I’/’eye‘ of the spectator spatially and temporally into scenes of in fact distant suffering, VR pretends to directly mediate the subjective experience of ‚the other‘. This, however, brings forth cultural-technological as well as media-ethical constellations in which the spectator imposes his/her truth over the actual experience of ‚the other‘.

Following Sutherland (2015) in ‚debugging the empathy machine‘, I propose a critically distancing estrangement (in the case of Refugee Republic e.g. through multi-layered images) as a means to induce a responsible cognitive and affective response to the representation of refugees‘ fates.