Reviewed by Patrick H. Griffin (College of the Canyons and El Camino College)
Published on H-PCAACA (May, 2000)
Few intellectual movements have had as much impact on post-modernist social and behavioral studies as feminism. This especially the case with its impact on film studies. Right from the start thirty-plus years ago, with the street-wise beginnings of feminist writing, an academic tradition of feminism and film was shaped which has steadily pushed the boundaries of understanding film theory and experience. The exploration has looped with the post-modernist work of Lacan, Barthes, Derain and Foucault, both nourishing them and being nourished by them. Along the way, feminist approaches have made major contributions to the discussion of film issues such as the question of putative and pro-filmic, direct cinema, voice, reflectivity, and power and victim in documentary,
Feminism and Documentary is a survey of this achievement. A part of a series on feminist thought ("Visible Evidence"), this collection is an updated representation of feminist writing which explores the "thin crust of historical reality" (as the editors put it in the "Introduction") in documentary and historical studies.
The "Introduction" is well worth the price of admission. In an essay richly footnoted, editors Diane Waldman and Janet Walker trace the issues and changing images of feminist thought and documentary. It includes a balanced pro and con of documentary issues raised by feminist concern with film.
The pace of the introduction is pretty well maintained in the essays that follow. The articles are not solely a discussion of feminist theory, although each proceeds from a feminist perspective. They open up broad issues in historical studies such as the role of the documentary film seminar as a record of documentary thought, the sentimentalizing of the labor movement, rockamentary, sexuality and modern cultural studies, the reconstruction of memory in historical studies and film, African American documentary, taboos and fetish in historical studies -- to isolate several of the issues.
In the first section, "Historicizing the Documentary," there is an engaging dialogue between documentary and feminism. Paula Rabinowitz's "Sentimental Contracts" uses the works of Michael Moore (Roger and Me) and Barbara Kopple (esp. American Dream) to explore a labor movement which has lost its guts in genderized dreams of sentimentality. Alexandra Juhasz's "Bad Girls Come and Go" is about the borders and "danger places" of sexuality in contemporary times, the shaping of anger and desire in transgression "video," and the "taboo" areas of historical situation (popularized by Camille Paglia, among others).
The collection of articles under "Filmmaker and Subject: Self/Other" includes essays on African American feminist documentary, rockamentary and a cross-cultural filmmaker's account of making a documentary in feminist and ethnic space. Especially suggestive is the essay by Susan Knobloch on D. A. Pennebacher's documentary on Bob Dylan, Don't Look Back in Anger. She applies the feminist concept of the "gaze" to a male subject with interesting methodological implications.
I found the third section of the book most rewarding. It is a notable discussion on memory and historical reconstruction, in the context of ethnic experience, with implications both for documentary filmmakers and historians. Sylvia Kratzer-Julifs' discussion of the reconstructed experience of Turkish women in German film concerns the constructed nature of our subjectivity. Laura Marks levers Andre Bazin's observation that "photography is fetish and fossil" to a thought provoking analysis of the documentary about artist Shauna Beharry and her mother in the film "Seeing is Believing." The contribution by Deborah Lefkowitz on her own holocaust documentary, "Intervals of Silence: Being Jewish in Germany," raises significant questions concerning silence -- and space -- in both documentary film witnessing and in historical document generally. Part IV of the book includes self-analysis by feminist documentary filmmakers, including a summary of feminist documentary by Julia Lesage.
The collection of essays expands and updates the pioneering work of some of the key break through figures in feminist thought about film, including Eileen McGarry, Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp and, especially, Kate Mulvey and E. Anne Kaplan.
Feminism and Documentary is more than a document about feminism in film studies. It is a guide to the major issues in the study of documentary film today, a tribute to the impact of feminism on film and history studies, and especially the concept of "the gaze." Both the recognition of the historical study of film and the emergence of feminist thought occurred at roughly the same point in time thirty years ago, and the methodological link is solid and significant.
The relationship has another dimension. In many ways, historiography has reached a cul-de-sac under the post-modernist pressures of deconstructionism . Social and behavioral sciences have moved on to a post-post modernist concern with organic structure, organic feedback and praxiological studies There has been only a muted echo of this in historical studies. The feminist "gaze," as reflected in this book, offers a view from post-modernism from which historical studies can approach these new directions in social and behavioral studies.
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Patrick H. Griffin. Review of Walker, Janet; Waldeman, Diane, Feminism and Documentary.
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