Rethinking Documentary in the Digital Age – some relevant ideas for Transient

April 27, 2010 — 1 Comment

When considering documentary formats in the contemporary, digital communications landscape, it is easy to cast generalizations and rhetoric but it is important to always keep in focus the practical outcomes of the documentary project. For instance, fragmentation and non-linearity does not have to equal non-cinematic aesthetics. The ‘Digital Age’ does not rule out the use of film stock for shooting. The ‘Digital Age’ does however provide many difficulties and challenges when it comes to distribution and commercial viability. Birchall points out in his essay, The Avant-Garde Archive Online (2009): “For the audience, the problem now is less how to see it than where to begin, and how to organize, or even understand, it. For archives, co-ops, and filmmakers themselves, the question is whether a vast new audience for the work comes at an unacceptable cost to the integrity of the works themselves.” (Birchall, 2009, p12)

In relation to this concern for the integrity of the work, it is my view that the documentary filmmaker should be clear about the intended ‘theatre’ for viewing. A film intended to be seen on a large screen, which requires that particular power relationship between audience and film should be viewed in a cinema. However, especially with the creative, and highly personalized approaches to filmmaking to be found in Avant-Garde practice, perhaps there is an aesthetic particular to viewing on the Internet, a smaller screen space. In regards to the website Animate Projects, it can be seen that certain types of film are conceived, produced, reflected upon and refined over the network. Birchall points out; “born-digital work presents a challenge for many traditional film archives, Animate Projects treats the web as a fully-fledged channel of distribution and begins the archiving process before the work is even complete.” (Birchall, 2009, p14)

Some websites that specialize in viewing experimental film and documentary include: and

These websites all provide criticisms, feedback, debate and review but none of the integrated production practice that can be seen in the animation genre/industry. The question is, of how much interest is the process of documentary filmmaking to the audience? Also, can the process be displayed on the internet in an entertaining and critical way? Birchall goes on to observe: “Nevertheless, just as the ubiquity of digital media increases the perceived value of live music and performance, so the prevalence of avant-garde moving image online returns some of the original films’ aura as artistic objects.” (Birchall, 2009, p14)

“Whatever the nomenclature, there is never a neat division between so-called media ages – video versus digital, for example.” (Ginsberg, 2006, p129)

It is also evident that in seeking a solution to the integration of documentary production and distribution with the internet that it need not seek all new revolutionary modes of aesthetic or commercial activity. The distance between the tradition of viewing in a cinema and viewing on-line may not be such a precipice. Ginsberg observes in her critique, Rethinking Documentary in the Digital Age (2006): “Perhaps it is time to invent new language and begin to use terms other than Digital Age that better fit a more inclusive future. After all, when the conceptual playing field is leveled, it is much easier to see beyond the immediate horizon.” (Ginsberg, 2006, p133) .

The connection that I see between Avant-Garde film practice and the consideration of the life of the documentary on the internet, is that Avant-Garde continuously challenges representation, and therefore is in a perpetual state of change. Zryd states in his essay Avant-Garde Films: Teaching Wavelength (2007): “truly avant-garde films are defined by the ways they challenge prevailing patterns of form and rhetorical address.” (Zryd, 2007, p109) This challenge is ever-present when considering a new, ever-changing media environment.

Zryd goes on to say in regards to the film Wavelength (Snow; 1967): “Rather, the challenge is to experience the film, to see (and hear) its complexity and patterns, and to be sensitive to its atmosphere and mood – more modest and meditative work than the heavy lifting involved in most cinematic analysis.” (Zryd, p110) This resonates with the early films of Errol Morris, such as Gates of Heaven (Morris; 1978) and Vernon, Florida (Morris; 1982) and before him Vittorio De Seta. For this reason, the focus on mood and personal engagement, Avant-Garde seems the appropriate avenue for the search for process and methodology.


Birchall, D; 2009; “The Avant-Garde Archive Online” in Film Quarterly, Fall 2009, no63 University of California Press p 12 – 14, viewed 7/4/10, Research Library (ProQuest), Full Text

Ginsberg, F; 2006; “Rethinking Documentary in the Digital Age” in Cinema Journal, 46, Fall 2006, no1 University of Texas Press p128 – 133, viewed 7/4/10, Research Library (ProQuest), Full Text

Zryd, M; 2007; “Avant-Garde Films: Teaching Wavelength” in Cinema Journal; Fall 2007, no47 University of Texas Press pp109 – 116, viewed 8/4/10, Research Library (ProQuest), Full Text


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  1. the documentary in the digital age » - July 9, 2011

    […] James as some interesting reflections on the impact of the digital on documentary, comparing it to the vast interest shown in animation production, and wondering why a similar flowering of enthusiasm has not taken place in behind-the-scenes analysis of docos. he compares online documentary to to POV needed when addressing avant guarde practices. Share on Facebook […]

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