It is the excess of reality that puts an end to reality

This is the introduction to the dissertation I wrote as an undergrad at the Department of Film Studies at King’s College London, submitted 02.May.2017, which I (somewhat clumsily?) called The excess of reality: Media convergence and the post-cinematic documentary. Only posting the intro for now because I like intros.

The Flower-Seller of Aleppo

The current century has seen the category of documentary cinema experience numerous interconnected upheavals. Twentieth-century conceptions of the documentary film as unobtrusively observing and presenting ‘reality’ have been obliterated by formal innovations in the field, the changing meaning of the ‘document’ in the smartphone age and the increasing critical, popular and scholarly attention afforded documentary cinema. Describing the state of the discipline, scholars Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg state that in this “time of global emergency, contemporary documentary practices reach across media and across disciplines to form a rich site marked by imperatives at once aesthetic and political.”[1] This conception of contemporary documentary as being undefinable and “across media” by nature is taken by this thesis to be a dominant characteristic of the field.

What unites most shifts in contemporary documentary is that they signal an ever-increasing convergence. Convergence of different genres, different media, of fiction and non-fiction; the documentary is a category that is far from homogenous. What is often underplayed – or perhaps merely taken for granted – is that this is as true of their reception, that is, the channels through which we view and discuss them, as their form. The internet – particularly social media networks, streaming services and sites of online political discourse, which in this thesis I will address using the loose umbrella term “the social internet,” after Zeynep Tufekci[2] – has, I argue, been a key instigator of many of these convergences and blurs.

The social media network is a space in which all forms of audio-visual representation are flatly incorporated into a single vast sphere. Not only might a feature-length documentary film appear on a news feed, but on that site the film might be no more privileged in the user’s eye than a news report, a viral comedy video, ten-second Snapchat story or seven-second Vine. With more and more creators and distributors of non-fiction opting to make their work directly for online consumption, we encounter fascinating generic blurs. What are the repercussions here for documentary ‘cinema’ as a category, as it is popularly perceived? In a world where our conceptions of ‘documentary’ are vaster than ever, where then do its limitations lie?

This dissertation examines the ways in which this happened; or rather the ways in which it is currently happening, as the practical developments in technology and the ecology of the internet which I describe as creating these convergences in documentary media are recent and constant. Three key fields will be examined in which the generic limitations of ‘documentary cinema’ are called into question and expanded due to the social internet. They are: the Netflix distributive model, and the role of prestige documentary on this platform; the migration of T.V. documentarians onto streaming-exclusive models; and recent developments in the convergence of news journalism and short-form documentary in the emergent medium of Facebook Video.  The main characteristic of the kind of social-internet documentary examined here is its hyper-accessibility. As such, my focus will be not on the vanguard of experimental or necessarily formally audacious non-fiction cinema which is centred by most contemporary documentary scholarship, including Balsom and Peleg, but on forms of documentary which are, by definition, intended for a mass viewership.

In the first chapter, I apply ongoing debates regarding Netflix and similar streaming services’ aggressive ventures into feature-length film distribution to my wider questions about the changes that occur in documentary cinema as a generic category as a result of the evolving ecology of documentary content on the internet. Looking at Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016), a much-discussed documentary about the legacy of slavery in the modern U.S. prison-industrial-complex, which was made “exclusively” for Netflix, I examine how this mode of distribution both offers unprecedented reach for an activist-minded film-maker such as DuVernay, and raises questions about changing forms of consumer capitalism and the limitations of the ‘activist documentary’ in such an eco-system. Integral to this analysis are social media networks, and particularly how the logic of Netflix consumption combined with the director’s social-media celebrity helped certain clips from 13th to ‘go viral’, pushing the work to become unprecedentedly widely-seen – even if not in the feature-length scope it was intended for. I argue that the Netflix model, and its intimate relationship to other online means of advertising and reception, holds both positive and negative potentiality for politically urgent films such as 13th.

The second chapter utilises the ideas introduced here and in Chapter 1 to examine how ‘legacy’ media outlets – that is, purveyors of audio-visual content who predate the internet, in this case the BBC – are adapting to accommodate new online modes of documentary reception. Adam Curtis is a much-lauded documentarian who has been making feature-length works which marry journalism and the essay-film tradition for BBC television since the 1980s. His most recent films, Bitter Lake (2015) and HyperNormalisation (2016), however, were made for exclusive distribution on the iPlayer, the corporation’s online-only channel, where they were made available on-demand for a year or more. Not only has this had a transformative impact on the reception and reach of Curtis’ films (and thus the ideas contained within them), but producing works native to the internet has also marked a significant shift in his technique. Focusing on HyperNormalisation, I argue that the intensification of his signature style is an apt audio-visualisation of the logic of life on and alongside social media, which scholars have discussed using the framework of a ‘remix’ culture. If Netflix represents some degree of collapse between television, cinema and online video, what do we make of a ‘film-maker’ who has not only never made a film for theatrical distribution, but has now shunned even traditional TV broadcast in favour of online-native work?

Chapter 3 takes this idea of evolving online media enacting a near-total collapse of traditional generic barriers to its next logical step, to examine the near-seamless convergence of television news and short-documentary cinema on social media. As Facebook’s algorithms evolve towards an ever-greater prioritisation of video content, both legacy and digital-native outlets are clamouring to produce shareable video content in high volume. Channel 4 News is perhaps the most significant example of this phenomenon as it pertains to documentary. I argue that the outlet’s innovations in Facebook-native video, producing sophisticated, sometimes poetic adaptations of its TV news segments to play in isolation on users’ news feeds, represent untested, potentially game-changing new directions for documentary media. I analyse the Inside Aleppo series of Facebook videos, which throughout 2016 transmitted one citizen-journalist’s dispatches from the war-torn city of Aleppo to an audience of many millions on Channel 4 News’ Facebook page. Traditional boundaries of citizen-journalism, short-form documentary and television news collapse almost entirely to suggest an entirely new mode of documentary potentiality.

This dissertation is conscious of contextualising these developments in post-cinematic documentary within the specific socio-historical conditions which characterise both their content and means of reception. According to Natalie Fenton – whose work I apply to my analysis of the case of 13th in Chapter 1 – “a narrow, decontextualised focus on the technology of the internet leads to misperceiving its impact.”[3] DuVernay’s and Curtis’ films were both released online in October 2016, in the weeks immediately preceding the U.S. Presidential election. Footage of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is in fact included in both films, and the works might function as complementary analyses of the historical conditions which enabled the rise of the eventual President Donald Trump. Their circulation as internet-native works lent both films a hyper-accessibility and a prominence in the wider discourse around the election that would have been unthinkable before the age of streaming.

In her editorial in the Spring 2017 issue of Film Quarterly, B. Ruby Rich describes how “the day-after shocks of ‘11/9’” – that is, the immediate impacts, both practical and existential, of Trump’s electoral victory – “have radically re-edited everything that was made before, diminishing some, enhancing others, changing everything in their path.”[4] She situates the uncertainty and anxiety which characterises the phenomenon for many writers, scholars and practitioners in the cinematic community as a distinct cultural moment encompassing not only the result of the election but all that falls within a few-month radius. This is the contextual lens through which I view all three of this thesis’ case studies; as works which signify shifts in documentary cinema in a technological sense, but also as key texts of a time characterised by upheaval and uncertainty, not least regarding notions of media’s truth bond. Underpinning the thesis’ ideas of the hyper-accessible social internet as a flat space where all kinds of images are afforded near-equal weight are the ideas of the late French theorist Jean Baudrillard, writing in 2000:

“If the Real is disappearing, it is not because of a lack of it—on the contrary, there is too much of it. It is the excess of reality that puts an end to reality, just as the excess of information puts an end to information.”[5]

This “excess of reality” described by Baudrillard at the turn of the century appears more prescient than ever in this age of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, in which the superabundance of audio-visual material which saturates our attention economy every day has been weaponised by political actors. With documentary cinema and its discourse migrating online at a rapid pace, the role documentary media play in this online economy must have something to contribute to these debates.

Looking to documentary’s future, I advocate a greater consideration of the shapeshifting, pluralising nature of contemporary popular documentary forms, and a recognition of the centrality of the ‘social internet’ to developments in the field. I do not proclaim that “an end to documentary” is occurring, as Baudrillard might. But certainly it is mutating in dramatic ways. Documentary on the social internet provides an important site on which the traditional dividing lines between cinema and other media have been eroded. This thesis looks hopefully towards the openings that have emerged, and will continue to emerge, from that erosion.

[1] Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg, ‘Introduction: The Documentary Attitude’ in Documentary Across Disciplines (2016: MIT Press), 13.

[2] Zeynep Tufekci, ‘The Social Internet: Frustrating, Enriching, but Not Lonely’ in Public Cultures vol.26:72 (2014), 13.

[3] Natalie Fenton, ‘Conclusion’ in Misunderstanding the Internet (2012: Routledge), 179.

[4] B. Ruby Rich, ‘When History Makes the Cut’ in Film Quarterly vol. 70, no.3 (2017), 5.

[5] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Murder of The Real’ in The Vital Illusion (2000: Columbia University Press), 66-67.