Representation is tricky work.
I’m thinking here of Darstellung, which is the German term for representation that postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak uses to specify portrayal or embodiment in an aesthetic form. In her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (PDF) Spivak juxtaposes this term with Vertretung, or representation through speaking for someone or something in a political context. Darstellung traditionally occurs in artistic works and it is central—if not foundational—to the process of documentary filmmaking.
Undeniably, this type of representation is as ideological as it is aesthetic, locating both it and documentary work as firmly in the political realm as Vertretung. In both cases, representation is interpretive work and thus the individual or individuals responsible for the interpretation becomes a crucial detail in the overall meaning of a given representation and its political consequences.
As Robert Coles writes in Doing Documentary Work, “To take stock of others is to call upon oneself […]. This mix of the objective and the subjective is a constant presence and, for many of us, a constant challenge.” It’s clear that documentarians hold themselves to a code of ethics—ethics that are hinged on faithfulness to reality. However, documentary filmmakers are also motivated by their aesthetic aims. One such aesthetic decision filmmakers make is to exclude themselves from their films, giving their audience a “fly on the wall” perspective of their subjects.
But—is it really possible to observe something with a camera without influencing the events unfolding before its lens? And doesn’t the approach of “direct cinema” exclude that very important political detail of who is involved in a given interpretive representation?
The inclusion of the filmmaker’s image or voice in a documentary film becomes quite an interesting decision given the significance of representation and the aims of direct cinema as outlined above. If a filmmaker chooses to insert themselves into the frame, they risk taking their audience out of the world of their subjects that they attempt to portray. At the same time, if a filmmaker constructs their film to represent their subject as if they were never there at all, they ignore a crucial detail of that representation—the subject position of their interpretation.
Sure, a knowledgeable audience member might think to ask all of the questions regarding who is responsible for crafting and manipulating a given representation, but we know that this isn’t always the case and that problematic representations persist.