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The Fiction in Nonfiction: ‘Recording Reality’ Deconstructs Documentary Storytelling

By Mary Moylan


RecordingRealityRecording Reality, Desiring the Real
By Elizabeth Cowie
Minneapolis: Visible Evidence, University of Minnesota Press
$25, Paper, 217 pps.
ISBN 978-0-8166-4548-0


Elizabeth Cowie’s Recording Reality, Desiring the Real is a sharply focused theoretical resource organized as a series of previously published articles  spanning a period from 1997 to 2007. As part of the notable Visible Evidence series of texts on documentary theory, Cowie’s book emphasizes documentary storytelling as nonfiction, exploring and distinguishing this from fictional cinema, while noting its specific emergence as a discursive effect, as opposed to an epistemological or philosophical distinction. This topic of the discursive nature inherent within documentary is theoretically engaged through sustained arguments among critical thinkers such as Slovoj Zizek, Jacques Lacan, Charles Pierce and Michel Foucault throughout the whole.

Not an avid fan of critical theorists? A willingness for an introductory and at times deeply abstract journey to documentary, and a curiosity for the question “What is the nature of actuality?” after documentary, may suffice. One helpful concept is offered up by Pierce, in an explanation of the indexical relationship between the photograph and reality. Illuminating the reflexive and diegetic nature of film, a tripartite model of icon, index and symbol points the way to understanding that film both indicates reality, and is caused by that same reality.

Cowie, a professor of film studies at the University of Kent in England, delivers a continuous and creative defining of the documentary mode, and a keen historical contextualizing of the evolution of the genre unfolds. Early on, documentary is located in terms of the aims of cinematography, a realization of knowing reality through its images and sounds figuratively. Noting the factual cinema that emerged in the 1920s and the central concerns characterized by this “new art,” Cowie lists an opposition to the mass cinema of fictional narrative as a key motivation for these early documentarians.  John Grierson is featured prominently throughout this text, with his original concept for the capacity of documentary to bring the spectator to an understanding of her “world anew.” Cowie puts much emphasis on the definition of documentary as filmed reality–as a presentation or performance of recorded reality. She posits, “Debates about issues of fabrication and manipulation are as real today as they were with these early documentary filmmakers.”

In light of this current trend within the documentary field–and the demand for reality programming–Recording Reality, Desiring the Real is both timely and relevant. This book shines when periodically referencing insightful historical points of origins of the documentary. There is a pleasant section devoted to the early literary works of 18th century British writers Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe, as their works are presented as true accounts, and are thus forerunners to documentary, and not the novel. Set apart from the genre that preceded it, the hybrid character of this “new art” is discerned from that of fairytales and romances. Discussions of “The fiction and the non-fiction of documentary” excel, especially when focused on the significance of employment and the need for verisimilitude to be produced within nonfiction cinema.  Philosopher Paul Ricoeur is quoted regarding the employment of the narrating voice: “Indeed, it was as a narrative form that the documentary distinguished itself from the actuality film and the travelogue that preceded it.”

Structurally, as a sound historical contextualizing of the documentary genre is sustained throughout, critical theories are interwoven. Infused with claims for an inherent anxiety and loss within documentary, Cowie features critics such as Lacan, Charles Baudelaire and André Bazin. Perhaps her most clear contribution to this claim can be understood in this statement: “In its desire to show the real, however, the documentary becomes prey to a loss of the real in its narratives of reality. It is a loss we cannot mourn, but anxiously return to, that is it is a loss of reality imagined before its fall into mediation, interpretation, narration and presentation.” Quoting Louis Althussar, Antonio Gramsci and Lacan, Cowie incorporates documentary into dense discussions on self, identity, a unified whole and the imaginary. Noting the problematic use of dramatic devices, Cowie links documentary to this process of an opening up into meaningfulness. As a helpful repetitive feature of this book, Cowie’s continual reference to documentary as spectacle, and as the presentation of recorded reality, is effective. Quoting documentary editor and novelist Dai Vaughan to make her point, she offers, “What defines documentary as such, is the way we approach it: the fact that we look to its images as records of the specific, not as envisionings of the possible.”

This highly textual account of documentary film is perhaps problematic, lacking in real mise en scene analysis. Though Cowie states the importance of a phenomenological and even mise en scene interpretation, this book is very much taken up in the psychoanalytic. Cowie claims, “The documentary evidential of cinema is first and foremost a space and a time. It is a mise en scene of action, reaction and becoming.” Yet, in a cumbersome discussion of the notable documentary Capturing the Friedmans, a laborious breakdown of “emplotment” ensues, lacking any reference to filmic devices or scenes. Indeed, this “loss” of the phenomenological or any connective descriptions of what is seen on film is confusing.

As this book is a compilation of Cowie’s writings over time, there is an elliptical revisiting of theories and topics that serves to drive home their meanings. In her final chapter, “Specters of the Real: Documentary Time and Art,” Cowie touches on a trend for the new indexical technology of documentary. Here, Cowie links “documentary time” to political art. Clarifying indexicality, she states, “The new forms that are emerging in the virtual space of the digital are discursive structures that also instantiate an array of possibilities for engaging with and in the digital.” Ending where we began, with Charles Saunders Peirce, we are asked to consider  ourselves as the desiring subjects, concerned with the actual, the virtual, spatial and geographical, and the temporal articulations of our desires.

in: Reviews