Codes & Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture, Conference at Hunter College November 7th – 9th 2014



The Integrated Media Arts MFA Program and The Department of Film and Media Studies at Hunter College present Codes & Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture. This free conference brings together scholars, makers, graduate students, and curators to interrogate the social spaces and the formal and thematic boundaries within which contemporary documentary culture is produced. The goal of the conference is to promote critical dialogue around how documentary culture is taught, how it is learned, how it is reproduced and what assumptions and possibilities lie in this terrain.

Register here:


Where: Hunter College, City University of New York
Hunter North Building, 4th and 5th Floor
(enter on 69th St. btwn Park Ave. and Lexington Ave)

When: November 7, 8 and 9, 2014

[su_spoiler title=”Conference Schedule”]



4pm:  Media Installations Open
(Work by Kelly Anderson, Su Friedrich, Isabel Hill, Barbara Hammer, Natasha Raheja, Paul Sargent, and Hope Tucker will run throughout the conference)

5:45pm:  Opening Reception

7pm:  Keynote Presentation:  Brian Winston
(Followed by a discussion moderated by Neta Alexander)



10:30am – 12pm: Panel A: The Loop
Participants: Samuael Topiary, Toby Lee, Colin Beckett, Tess Takahashi, Pooja Rangan, Josh Guilford, David Bering-Porter
This panel circles around the form of the loop, broadly defined, as a documentary image, object, function or problem, exploring ways that looping media complicate our current understanding of “documentary” as representation, performative action, and relational structure.  Examining how loops are used in non-fiction media practices as diverse as gallery installations, television news, museum exhibitions, and online media forms, participants on this panel will ask: How do circularity and repetition undermine hierarchical notions of authority? Is the loop political? Is it feminist? How might looping structures both empower and/or disempower viewers? How does the loop shape the experience of information? What are its affective qualities? And finally, what does the loop do to the notions of “truth,” “reality,” and “instruction” that are so central to the documentary genre?  Each of the six panelists will briefly explore a different manifestation of the documentary loop (and related forms of repetition), considering how the loop operates in relation to our present sense of time, labor, learning, and community, and examining the political implications, possibilities, and restrictions we associate with the loop as a form.

10:30am – 12pm: Panel B: Toward an Ethical Theory of Documentary Production Pedagogy
Participants:  Annette Danto, Andrea Weiss, Lonnie Isabel, Dyfrig Jones
This panel offers a range of ways of thinking about core ethical issues in documentary media: responsibility to the subjects, awareness of the power of images and narratives to shape public opinions, understanding of our own position in relation to broader structures of power and privilege. Panelists will present documentary examples from South Asia, East Asia, South America and Africa as well as from Europe and North America. In addition to geographic diversity these media examples will showcase a range of voices from independent minority producers to youth activism on social media to powerful global media industries in the US and UK.

1:30 – 3pm:  Panel A: Flammable Iterations: The Revised Queer Documentary Tradition
Pills Participants: Marc Francis, Lauren Treihaft, Jimmy Weaver
The aim of this panel is to examine the dialectical relationship between genre and documentary in queer films that blur the lines between both. How does the queer documentary, clearly in response to generic narrative and documentary conventions preceding it, reproduce and hybridize desires and frustrations through their attempts to revise them? Each paper will address a hope to recuperate spectatorial histories through revisional processes, constituting and re-constituting the dynamics within queer counterpublics.

1:30 – 3pm:  Panel B:  Flying Under the Radar: Altering Reception to Change Perception
Participants: Jill Godmilow, Ernie Larson, Sherry Millner
While documentaries are normally thought of as cultural products produced by filmmakers, and viewed by (relatively) passive audiences, the in-between space, the dynamic terrain where film and viewer meet is both highly significant for documentary and little considered. Outside of the circuits of festival, television, and home distribution lie a variety of spaces of potential that the panelists explore based on their own research and engagement. This panel will focus on a set of practices and thematics that “construct a documentary event.” Using a mix of recent and older short films from around the world, they seek to reframe programming around a curatorial thematics designed to offer viewer-participants an engaged relationship with works, one that changes and challenges notions of a documentary as a film-object/commodity consumable via traditional ‘channels.’ This approach also challenges normative categorizations of documentary into subgenres such as experimental, observational, or journalistic. The panel will include the screening of several short pieces.

3:30 – 5pm: Panel A: The Weak Image: Documentary as Research
Participants: Irene Gustafson, Charles Musser, Aparna Sharma, Sabiha Khan
‘Research’ is a ubiquitous yet vague phrase. At once generously used to describe almost any quest for ‘new knowledge,’ its practices are also heavily regulated by well-established disciplines and research methodologies. This panel examines the phenomenon of documentary media that is produced under the sign of ‘research.’ Although not a new phenomenon, it is a fascinating genre— straddling the realms of reading and writing, image and word, art and scholarship and teetering on the edge between legitimacy and illegibility. This panel addresses the intersection of ‘research’ and ‘documentary’ through a variety of perspectives.

3:30 – 5pm: Panel B: Participatory Cultures of Documentary and/as Social Practice
Participants: Rachel Stevens, Mandy Rose, Jody Wood, Nicola Benizzi
In this session interactive media producer Mandy Rose and interdisciplinary artist Rachel Stevens will present case studies of collaborative, interactive and social practice storytelling in order to examine notions of agency, participation and audience. Stevens will engage artist Jody Wood and cinematographer Nicola Benizzi in conversation about their process of making a documentary on Wood’s project Beauty in Transition – a mobile hair salon offering free services at homeless shelters in NYC, supported by a 2014 A Blade of Grass fellowship. Rose will discuss strategies and projects that might lay the groundwork for a “participatory culture” of documentary. Methods employed by ethically and politically engaged interactive documentary makers operating within the framework of ubiquitous media and networked culture include Kat Cizek’s Manifesto for Interventionist Media and Chaka Films’ use of a participatory design process. From documenting social practice to documentary as social practice, the panel convenes a dialogue about the craft of self-representation and the relationship between documentary subjects, participants and authors.

7pm: Eduardo Coutinho, Master of the Documentary Encounter
A short introduction on Coutinho’s contribution to Brazilian documentary with Prof. Ivone Margulies,  Dept. of Film and Media Studies, Hunter College

Screening of Jogo de Cena (Role Play) (Brazil, 2007, 80 min.) 

In this program we pay homage to a seminal figure of Brazilian documentary cinema, Eduardo Coutinho, who died last year. The film, Jogo de Cena (2007), continues Coutinho’s exploration of a technique of filmic encounter that promotes inventive forms of self-revelation from his subjects. This aesthetic practice is at work in many of his brilliant explorations of Brazilian society — Purchase Santo Forte  (Powerful Saint, 1999) where Coutinho asks Brazilians to explore their faith and their futures; Babilonia 2000, where he culls the Rio de Janeiro favela of Babilonia for people’s inventive speech, and Edificio Master (The Master Building, 2002) where a cross section of Riocans living in one former office tower offer us a view of their lives.

A seminal and rarely seen film in the director’s provocation of everyday people’s expressions and performance, in Jogo de Cena Coutinho takes the life/theatre analogy to its utmost poetic consequences. As Wexner Center curator Chris Stults puts it, “The film is an exhilarating look at performance, storytelling, the lives of women, the line between fiction and documentary, and so much more. Coutinho placed an ad in a Rio de Janeiro newspaper asking for auditions from women over the age of 18 with interesting stories to tell. A handful of these women then filmed interviews with Coutinho and recount dramatic stories of heartbreak, loss, love, and life. Coutinho then complicates things by having some of Brazil’s finest actresses recreate the interviews with Coutinho, treating the monologues as texts.”

Q&A with Ivone Margulies and Prof. Marty Lucas, Dept. of Film and Media Studies, Hunter College

This program is presented with Cinema Tropical.


11am – 12:30pm: Panel A: Documentary Infinitude
Participants: Jeanne Finley, Dan Geva, Lynne Sachs
This panel will feature two approaches to refiguring the relationship between documentary practice, the maker, and the concrete language of documentary film. Dan Geva will draw on Heidegger’s understanding of time as a “movement of human finitude” to rethink the role of the documentarian as a kind of temporal crisis. Looking at the extensive lifework of Joris Ivens, he will ask for us to join him in an effort in reinterpreting the Griersonian “creative treatment of actuality” as a call to creative effort at “being-documentarian-in-the-world.” Lynne Sachs and Jeanne Finley will use the work of a variety of filmmakers to look at “how traces of imaginative thinking become imprinted into the cinematic document.” Looking at the work of makers including Sanja Ivekovitz, Christoph Schlingensief, Keith Haring and Omer Fast, they explore how the work of artists who insist on inventing their own visual language must move fluidly between empirical analysis and doubt, between examination and introspection.

11am – 12:30pm: Panel B: Documentary Film: Art or Agenda? Competing Paradigms in the World of Non-Fiction film
Participants: Whitney Dow, Julia Haslett, Jonathan Oppenheim, Jennie Livingston, Joslyn Barnes
Current trends in documentary funding as well as in the form’s broader cultural reception are undermining the documentary art form. Focusing on feature-length films destined for large festivals and/or TV broadcast, panelists will discuss the push towards a metric-driven formula of social change that instrumentalizes the value of documentaries. It will also look at the ways these films are discussed in the press, which consistently emphasizes their content and neglects their form. From the perspective of maker/artists, panelists will elaborate on challenges faced, from funding to the impact on process, and they will discuss how the cultural landscape might change in order to support a far more expansive comprehension and appreciation of documentary.

1:30pm – 3pm: Panel A: “The Art of Losing Isn’t Hard to Master”
Participants: Barbara Hammer, Natasha Raheja, Paul Sargent, Hope Tucker
The four artists will critically engage their creative work, and each other, as they explore relationships between documentary, the body and performance, questions of spatiality and hidden linkages in various networks. Barbara Hammer uses her own body to intervene on medical and poetic forms of imaging in What You Are Not Supposed To Look At. Natasha Raheja’s Cast in Indiaexplores the ways that the built infrastructure of New York City conceals the labor infrastructure that links this city to West Bengal, India. Paul Sargent’sArtificial Corridors: Erie Basin Meets Erie Basin navigates the waters of the Erie Canal to document the economic, labor, trade, and nautical relationships between its two termini. Hope Tucker uses the frame of her ongoing Obituary Project to transform what we know as a daily form of narrative through a compendium of contemporary salvage ethnography that documents the passing of cultural markers and ways of being.

1:30 – 3pm: Panel B:  Building Documentary Cultures With Urban Youth and Their Communities in Neoliberal Times
Participants: Steve Goodman and Lora Taub-Pervizpour
This panel examines youth media’s effort to produce a culture of documentary that creates critical space and opportunity for young people to engage in documentary making as a means to speak back to their structured powerlessness. It will focus in on the growing impact of venture philanthropy currently insinuating neoliberal market-driven initiatives and ideology into the structures and practices of youth media, threatening to dismantle work that grows out of the social documentary tradition.

3:30 – 5pm: Panel A: Answers without questioning: talking about affect and documentary with the non-guilty, or what color are the bodies in the room?
Participants: Benj Gerdes, Jennifer Hayashida, Ben Foley, Lyell Davies
Despite the long association of many documentary filmmaking forms and practices with actually existing social movements, struggles, and solidarity, the perceived distance between filmed site or situation and seated audience is still too frequently one which implies that crisis or injustice can be fought and won, but “over there.” This panel first explores some of the conventions of the overdetermination of humanitarian values in social justice documentary that lead to depoliticized and dehistoricized sites of reception. It then proposes some alternatives to reframe the encounter between viewer and site, ones that start inside the room before being allowed to travel outside of it.

3:30 – 5pm: Panel B: Refiguring the Urban Imaginary: Documentary and Gentrification
Participants: Kelly Anderson, Su Friedrich, Isabel Hill, Betty Yu
While gentrification as a phenomenon has become a commonplace, it is explored perhaps most extensively in the documentary film. This panel will include three filmmakers whose works take on the rapidly changing landscape of Brooklyn. What does it mean to talk about the full dimension of urban experience, from systems of power and policy, often invisible at their roots, to the physical and emotional consequences, often internalized? What are the difficulties and contradictions between the position of documentarian and the position of citizen? What do different approaches offer our understanding? Short segments of My Brooklyn (Kelly Anderson, 2012), Gut Renovation (2012) and Brooklyn Matters (2007) will be screened.

5:15 – 6PM: Conference Wrap Up