27 abril, 2015

Cinema and the Mobilisation of Empathy

‘Like in a poem, the key in a film is situated neither in the development nor the argument, but in the vibration of the images and its music’ (Ruiz, 2004:14)

 Since its beginnings in the last decades of the 19th century, cinema has been a powerful medium that influences how we see and think about the world. Through films we have experienced situations, places and realities in a way that no other medium or art form could offer us. As a kind of ‘pan-art’ (Sontag, 1966: 245) cinema has freshly combined elements coming from poetry, dance, painting, theatre and music. Its uniqueness relies in the sensorial experience that echoes the most inner emotional engagements of the human intellect. In such way, the technological means that cinema possesses –constantly being refined and perfected- structures an audiovisual universe that mingles styles of high emotions in order to express, in innumerable manners, human experiences. It is not coincidence then that the term cinema was named after the Greek word kinema, meaning both motion and emotion.    

In what follows, this essay will sketch some connections between cinema as a language of emotions and its capacity to awake empathic responses in the viewer, especially when it comes to experiences relating the suffering of others. By using Night and Fog as an early example of the human rights film, we will analyse the performative capacity that Resnais’ documentary possesses in both questioning and emotionally engaging with the viewer. Furthermore, the film will also serve as a discussion of contemporary human right issues, reflecting cinema’s capacity to tell stories from a first person perspective. The shift towards the new millennia will be crucial to understand some of the challenges that the medium has to address in order to authentically connect with the other and to depict with great accuracy the pluralistic world that we live in.

 As a language that speaks through emotions, cinema has aspired to become a universal one. Nevertheless, as any moving language, its elements have also varied through time. When films were silent and nevertheless technology to record people’s voices was available, moving image itself excited the inventors and their audiences so much that recorded soundtrack was not a necessary condition to enlighten the public. As film historian Mark Cousins suggests, the absence of language barriers had its practical implications, because it ‘ensured that the birth of cinema was truly international and the films of the first decade were shown all over the world’ (2006:18). 

 During the late 1920s, something else happened to cinema’s pretention of universality: filmmakers discovered that sound could make their films more personal by giving voice to the characters’ thoughts. The sound era made cinema more intimate and suddenly images were not the primary focus to draw film-goers into deep emotional exchanges. 

 But it is the third epoch, that of digital filmmaking, that has challenged cinema even more fundamentally than the introduction of sound. Before the 1990s –and more radically before the 1950s-, the walls around the world of film production only allowed a few lucky ones to enter into the exclusive citadel of film. The costs of shooting and editing, technical equipment and crew meant that the possibility of filming independently was rather illusory. Cinema had to rely in studios and sponsors who would subsidy filmmaker’s crafts in exchange of a no lower cost; that of the autonomy to speak freely. For that reason, the introduction of digital technology towards the end of the XX century has opened a third moment for film –which is still properly developing- that can be said to be fully ‘the first meritocratic one’ (Cousins: 2006: 215).  

 Consequently, if we agree that cinema is a highly emotional medium, the power of its language has finally broken free from constraints of the past. The depiction of the world is no longer a privilege for a few and neither is it a top-down built project. The chances to tell stories with a first person voice and to stretch our sensibility with one another through the screen has made possible, adopting Wilson & Brown’s expression, to ‘mobilize empathy’ (2009: 2) and to use it in order to denounce the suffering and many human right violations occurring across the world. The primacy of cinema as a medium to be used to condemn unfairness relies, I believe, in the assumption that our actions and ethical responses against injustice have always arisen from our emotions; that is exactly what Wilson and Brown insistently suggest. Furthermore, if cinema is in a privileged position to mobilize the human emotional fabric, then it should never settle to project passive contemplation, but to promote ‘immediate action to the end of suffering across the globe’ (2009: 3). Echoing what Walter Benjamin once suggested, cinema has finally come to be fully underpinned by a new practice; that of political action (2008) 

 This sort of epistemological earthquake has also occurred along the shift towards the new millennium. In his animated presentation at RSA Animate, Roman Krznaric (2012) has pointed out that the 20th century was the age of introspection, an era where the best way to discover who we were was to look deep inside ourselves. Even when I totally agree with Krznaric, he forgets to mention a no less important detail. Gazing at our own mirror not only hasn’t helped us to discover what to do with our lives, but most importantly, that the mirror has been simultaneously directed to assimilate the western self in the marginalized other: the non-western, non modern and non human. As Susane Sontag has pointed out, 20th century epistemology was ‘pledged to a kind of applied Hegelianism seeking its Self in its exotic Other’ (1966: 69). Thus, the primacy of the ego erforming a referential point for truth and interpretation is found along this century in a sort of psychoanalytical introspection where the signifying subject seats on the couch but where the thing signified stays out. 

 In the light of this reasoning, I propose to paraphrase Krznaric’s term differently. Rather than calling it ‘the age of introspection’ (2012: 2), echoing Viveiros de Castro’s unfinished project (2014), I would name it the age of Narcissus; the Greek mythological character who by always seeing its own reflection in the outside, ended up in a very blind domain where what he only cared about was exclusively what interested him: himself. Narcissus of course is Western subjectivity here.

 But if the 20th century was colonized by Western thought, the 21th century has to be different. According to Krznaric: ‘Instead of an age of introspection we need to shift to an age of outrospection’ (2012: 2). By this he means that in order to discover who we are we need to step outside ourselves. Then, following my own terms it would be the age of Anti-Narcissus, a moment were the decolonization of thought returns to us –through cinema for example- an image of the other as an experience and as an occasion to play with our own. True empathy then, would be to step into somebody else’s world view, by understanding ‘their beliefs, their fears, the experiences that shape how they look at the world and how they look at themselves’ (2012: 2). So, if Narcissus was the candidate to determine the criteria that separated the western from the non western, then Anti Narcissus would be the image of a pluralistic discourse cohabiting in a shared world. Consequently, empathy does not rely any more in our capacity to impose, but to connect with each other. 
 In order to connect films matter, indeed. Cinema moves, because as a time-based art, it depends on precisely that kind of intensity: the movement of emotion, e-motion. As Raul Ruiz used to say: ‘a film moves, or it dies’ (2004: 45). Shortly, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955) will be analysed in order to address some of the issues discussed above. It will be an opportunity to illustrate the capacity of film to create an empathic response in the viewer. Also, it will be a chance to exemplify Narcissus’ episteme and the problem concerning the suffering of others that the documentary depicts. Night and Fog sets a socio-historical context that some could easily claim to be well buried in the past. However, as we argue, the documentary presents historical footage mediating a traumatic past that uncovers issues of discrimination connected with our daily routine.  

 The United Nations, along with many international human right organizations have agreed to determine that ‘the treatment of human beings as commodities, or products to be bought and sold, is considered a violation of their most basic rights to freedom, autonomy and human dignity’ (In Fergus, 2005: 1). Consequently, a documentary that touches on the holocaust tragedy would appear as a central figure for the human rights film project. According to Daan Bronkhorst (2003), Night and Fog functions as an early example of such documentary tradition, not only because it reflects human rights violations against a particular group of people, but most importantly, because it is a story that claims ‘to follow the truth’ (2003: 9). In order to operationalize truth, Bronkhorst draws a conceptual framework borrowed from Habermas. He states that:

 ‘A communication to convey the truth must first of all correspond to the facts. Second, it should comply with a normative system within which both those who make a statement and those who receive it are able to make judgments. And third, the most interesting element and the most difficult to define, a true statement should be sincere, honest, i.e. "truthful".’ (2003: 9)
 Night and Fog seeks to convey a sense of truthfulness in what it depicts. First, it relies on footage that focuses on a particular abuse based on historical evidence. Second, it is clear to denounce human right violations and to set responsibility for those; it further makes a judgment about the holocaust open for the public to interpret. And thirdly, Resnais presents his own vision of things by violently introducing the question of evil surrounding the concentration camps. It is in such a way that cinema here not only deals with a matter of aesthetics: It is a matter of ethics rather than aesthetics what the documentary is looking at.       

 The film also questions the viewer in many respects. By stressing memory over history, Night and Fog displays an emotional desire to make the audience feel and remember something traumatic: Why and what should we remember of a catastrophe like the holocaust? The stylistic and technical devices to create empathic responses can be drawn from what Bill Nichols has defined as the ‘performative mode of documentary’ (2010: 124). As he suggests: ‘a performative documentary stresses emotional involvements rather than rational and intellectual engagements’ (2010: 124). In fact, even when Night and Fog has depended on commentary to tell a story about the holocaust, it relies less heavily to convey information than to convey emotion. In this way, the voice over that accompanies the footage of the concentration camps exposes an affective dimension that stresses a sense of lived experience. It suggests that an intellectual comprehension of the world is somehow incomplete without an emotional response. In this regard, it is relevant to notice that the commentary in the film is neither anonymous nor abstract. The text has been written by camp survivor Jean Cayrol, and it is in such a way that his tone reflects the strongly personal quality producing an emotional engagement in the viewer.

 Night and Fog depicts memory in black and white with unbearable images from the concentration camps. In stark contrast to this grey past, Resnais visually introduces his historical present through all the calmness and colourfulness of a vast prairie: 

‘Even a peaceful landscape (…) can lead to a concentration camp. Strüthof, Oranienburg, Auschwitz, Neuengamme, Belsen, Ravensbruck, Dachau. These were names like any others on maps and in guide books.’ (1995)
 From Resnais’ point of view, memory stands out as a vital tool to prevent a recurrence of the original catastrophe. In line with Hannah Arendt’s seminal work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1967), comments on the Nazi national project -its desire to become a free zone from the alien intruder- are also underpinned by the ‘vibration’ (Ruiz, 2014: 14) of the film. The music composed by Hanns Eisler, an exile from the Nazi Germany, is loaded with elements of the Deutschlandlied. The German national anthem is poetically introduced into the Westerbork sequence, right at the moment when the transport is being boarded with Jews. Here, the examination of the Nazi past and the question of national guilt are sensory embedded to stress our empathic involvement with the ‘rightless Jew’ (1967: 267). As Arendt has suggested, 20th century Europe constructed a new political domain, a moment in history where European nations had put forward a political framework to define who is considered citizen and who is not in order to guarantee national rights. Thus, by denationalizing and creating new categories of people, ‘the stateless Jew’ appeared. According to Arendt, the decline of the Nation-State emerging in Germany at the beginnings of the century -but rapidly expanding across Europe- disintegrated the most basic sense of humanity that human rights declarations can proclaim: ‘The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursue of happiness (...) but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever’ (1967: 295). 

 In a similar direction, Zygmunt Bauman has sketched controversial links between Nazi’s regime and the modern industry. In his book Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), Bauman has stated that whether it is a concentration camp or a modern factory, the same instrumental rationality is displayed; no matter the means employed to pursue the objectives. Here and there, efficient decisions are driven by market conditions and managed by bureaucrats, engineers, bidders and investors. Bauman seems to be echoing Resnais’ words: ‘A concentration camp is built the same way a stadium or a hotel is built: with businessmen, estimates, competitive bids, and no doubt a bribe or two.’ (1995). 

 Holocaust and modernity share instrumental rationality as a common principle. The treatment of human beings as commodities, dehumanized as the Jews, traded as products to be bought and sold in a world market economy, still bringing us the breeze of the atrocities committed under the name of totalitarian politics. The kapo and the official claimed not to be responsible for the atrocities occurred. So, who is responsible in the new millennia for the asylum seekers, starvation in Africa, the working conditions of children in developing countries, sex-trafficking, global warming, and so on? Along with Resnais, Arendt and Bauman, my reply would be rather pragmatic: evil appears when lack of reflection rules. ‘Banality’ (Arendt, 2006: 2) has come to support and legitimate an evil reality with blind eyes towards the human rights of the human others.

 Night and Fog presents many signs of the cinema’s sound era earlier described. The film was released in 1995 and the director had both a limited budget and a time schedule in which to produce the documentary. As Ewout van der Knaap (2006) points out, Resnais signed a contract on 24 May 1995 and, due to subsidy, had to finish the film before 24 December of that year.  Constraints were also carried out by French authorities. The French Board of Film Censors demanded to remove a scene in which a French policeman on active duty appeared, mainly because ‘they were afraid of insulting the authorities of the day’ (2006: 10). Nevertheless, even when restrictions and top-down orders have applied, Resnais’ autonomy to speak freely was not revoked. As a result, the emotional impact of the film is deep and convincing, because it has shown us what real people suffer in the real world.   

  Night and Fog also mingles between Narcissus and the XXI century episteme. True empathy, as we have stated, relies in our capacity to step into somebody else’s world view. In cinema it means that we have the chance to tell and hear stories from a first person voice, like Cayrols’ for example. But the real protagonist of human right stories, as Bronkhorst has suggested, ‘are those local people reflecting their actual state of human right violation’ (2003: 13) Wouldn’t Night and Fog be more ‘truthful’ and authentic if the same story had been told by the Jews who actually suffered those right violations? The unfeasibility to undertake such endeavour during the 1950s as prisoners in the concentration camps makes the question somehow tricky. But now, the possibilities to shoot with a digital camera smaller than a loaf of bread and to use crews of two rather than fifty people has allowed cinema to address human right issues from the testimony and experience of its protagonist; the local culture and the unmodified other. In such way, when the camera becomes the protagonists’ own eyes, cinema outrospects: it connects with the beliefs, fears and experiences that others might have to tell. 

 Today it is time to articulate a different cosmology, one that embraces diversity and reconciles the particular reality with the universal character of our rights. And films can be powerful, because as a language of emotions, they move. But the kind of energy that cinema possess is not its own; energy is everywhere in the cosmos. And that same energy holding the planet, which attracts the sun and our bodies, is the kind of aura that animates the telling of our stories and makes us connect with one another through the screen.   


Arendt, Hannah (1967) The Origins of Totalitarianism. George Allen and Unwin. 3rd ed.

Arendt, Hannah (2006) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Pinguin Classics. London: 312

Bandis, Helen. Martin, Adrian. & McDonald, Grant (2004). Raúl Ruiz: Images of Passage. Rouge Press & International Film Festival Rotterdam: 114

Bauman, Zygmunt (1989) Modernidad y Holocausto. Sequitur Editions. Madrid: 272.

Benjamine, Walter (2008) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Pinguin Books. London: 111

Bronkhorst, Daan (2003) Human Rights Film Network: Reflections on its History, Principles and Practices. Amnesty International Film Festival. Amsterdam.

Cousins, Mark (2006). The Story of Film. Pavilion Books. London: 512.

Fergus, Lara (2005) Trafficking in Women for Sexual Exploitation. Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault. ACSSA Briefings, no. 5, June: 42

Krznaric, Roman (2012) Outrospection. RSA Animate. London: 4. 

Nichols, Bill. (2010) Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies. Norton & Company Ltd. New York: 545. 

Pollok, Griselda & Silverman, Max (2011) Concentrationary Cinema: Aesthetics as Political Resistance in Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog. Berghahn Books: 358. 

Sontage, Susan (1966) Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Picador. New York: 312.

Van der Knaap, Ewout (2006) Uncovering the Holocaust: The International Reception of Night and Fog. Wallflower Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo (2014). Cannibal Metaphysics. Univocal Publishing LLC. Minneapolis: 245.

Wilson, Richard A. & Brown, Richard D. (2009) Humanitarianism and Suffering: The Mobilization of Empathy. Cambridge University Press.


Resnais, Alain (1955) Night and Fog France: Argos Films

18 diciembre, 2014

Cine-Magic: Reality Effects and the Ethnographic Documentary

‘For scientist, dawn and twilight are one and the same phenomenon and the Greeks thought likewise, since they had a single word with a different qualifying adjective according to whether they were referring to morning or evening (...) But in fact no two phenomena could be more different from each other that night and morning.’
(Levi-Strauss, 1995; 62)

“Rather than establishing what is true, I want to see how truth is established”

(Miller, 1998: 3)


 By focusing in the connection of cinema with magic traditions and scientific rationale, this article states that film has always been a technologically produced special effect. Under the concept of reality effect, we will analyse the power of illusion that ethnographic documentaries possess in depicting objects and subjects. The aim will be to remove pretensions of reality as opposed to fantasy or the common notion of documentary as opposed to fiction films. Focusing in magic’s concern with understanding nature and its notion of knowledge is power this article aims to trace a line of continuation linking the figure of the magician and the scientist through their systematic means to possess the world. Thus, as a magician-anthropologist, connecting the rational of the scientific with the supernatural of the magical, we further suggest that cinematographers enjoy an influential position in our society to induce discourses of truth through what they show; hence to fabricate something which does not as yet exist. 

 Michel de Certeau initiates his seminal book The writing of history (1988) describing Amerigo Vespucci as the voyager who arrives from the sea to the nuova terra. As if it were an inaugural scene, that moment will be the origin for the conqueror to write the body of the Indians and to trace their path with western ink. In fact, naked America will be now dressed as “Latin” America (1988: XXV) and such moment of rupture, of writing, will fabricate a new history starting also from a new origin. As I begin to write this article, I also start to fabricate a narrative, or more precisely, to strengthen a paradigm that has already been written in the last decades: It will be a discourse about cinema’s discourse, an archaeological investigation to claim that film has always been a technologically produced special effect, an art where reality and fantasy, veracity and depiction, transparency and trickery are side by side, horizontally as it were. Echoing Foucault (1972), I am supposing that as any discourse, this formation of cinematographic objects and subjects have also been controlled, organized and selected from a hegemonic position with its own rules of separation and labels. In studying cinema’s connection to magic traditions and scientific rationale, the figure of the magician will be central for our task. The line of investigation adopted here will try to reveal the formation of tricks and its coexistence with statements of truth -or verité- in documentary films. Hence, the kind of counter-attack proposed in what follows will not serve to envelope but to remove distinctions of reality as opposed to fantasy or documentary as opposed to fiction films. After all, as Schopenhauer used to believe ‘the world is my imagination’ (In Bachelard, 1969: 150) and films are a magical realization of such dreams.

 In the short documentary film No Lies (Mitchell Block, 1973), the female protagonist Shelby Leverington reveals to the camera her recent sexual assaults: it happens ‘all the time’ she says. Cinematically, we argue, she has also been a victim of aggressive assault through the constant questioning employed by the camera man with his direct cinema style. Towards the climax of the film, yelling in a very disturbing manner, she pronounces the following words: ‘You want to know what a rape is. You will never know what a rape is. You will never know what a rape is! So, how can I explain it to you? There is no way of explaining it to you’.  

 Once the documentary has ended and the screen turns black, the credits inform the audience that the film has been a constructed fiction rather than an unscripted confession: the film has been an entire lie and an assault on both the film’s female subject and its audience. Rape, as Vivian Sobchack has noticed, becomes here part of the act of cinema itself as soon as we are revealed to be victims as well (1977: 15). As such, No Lies’ conjure is not very different from the visual trickery employed by early filmmakers to astonish the audience. Magician himself, George Méliès for example used to perform trick shots to introduce special effects in order to make appear or disappear his characters. In one of his first cinematographic endeavours, the Vanishing Lady (1896), Méliès amazed the audience by making a woman vanish and later replacing her with a skeleton that appeared in front of the camera (Boron, 2011).  As he says: ‘I invented this special type of unusual shot, which my clients called transformation shots (...) I had found a trick stopping the camera, which permitted me all kinds of substitutions’ (2011: 19).

 If we were now to take these two examples together and draw a common ground between ethnographic documentaries and science fiction films what is seen as intrinsically cinematographic is the power of illusion that the medium posses. In The Vanishing Lady as much as in No Lies the camera performs its capacity to make dreams metamorphose into verité and illusion to become interchangeable with reality itself: While special effects mediate our fantasy experience in the former, reality effects are produced in the later by showing things and making people believe in what they show. (Bourdieu, 1996) In this way, cinema’s pretention of verité becomes an unrealisable fantasy when unmasking the illusion portrayed by the camera and the montage. After all, as Bazin used to believe, the myth that inspired the invention of cinema was the re-creation of the world; a new medium with the capacity to simulate our own natural processes to perceive the “world out there”. (Currie, 1995: 79). The task ahead then is to extend Méliès magical conjures and see what kind of trick is hidden in the meaningful and coherent cinematographic montage.  

 In fact, the magical properties of cinema and its connections to scientific reason have been acknowledged from its beginnings. As Angela Ndalianis (2004) points out, it was the figure of the magician who acted as an ‘artful scientist’ (Stafford in Ndalianis 2004: 227) to reveal the scientific properties behind the apparent fantastic illusions portrayed by charlatans of the eighteen-century. As expressed by Martin Scorsese: ‘We all know, of course, that movies are the product of science and technology. But an aura of magic has enveloped them right from the beginning, [because] the men who invented movies were scientist with the spirit of showmen. (In Ndalianis, 2004: 227) This mediation of magic and science found in early cinema is not surprising when looking at its connections to previous optical technologies. Instruments such as the magic lantern or the camera obscura not only displayed relevant scientific functions; they were also linked to magicians of earlier centuries. In this regard, the definition of the word “screen” might be useful to draw a path to underpin such historical connections. In 1810 the Oxford English Dictionary described screen as a ‘transparent screen for the exhibition of the phantasmagoria’ (Huhtamo, 2001: 2). As a matter of fact, phantasmagoria was a variant of the older magic lantern projections. It enjoyed great popularity among the public showing images projected from behind the screen. Echoing Huhtamo, it aim was to create a sensory experience in the public only achievable by hiding the technological tricks: ‘Phantasmagoria showmen did their best to keep their machinery secret; they pretended that their show had nothing to do with the old magic lanterns’ (Huhtamo, 2001). In this way, as a phantasmagorical art, cinema can be read as this systematic concealing of the process of production (Crary, 1999), and by render it invisible, cinematographers become magicians who can make the source of moving images unidentifiable and hence mystified.

 Magic, by definition, is believed; an unconscious fantasy that has the potential to create a reality. In his influential work Theory of Magic (2001), Marcel Mauss has observed that magic might probably be the earliest form of human thought, the foundation of ‘the whole mystical and scientific universe of primitive man’ (2001: XX). By giving great importance to knowledge –its concerns in understanding nature- magic is attached to science in the same way as it is linked to technology. Magicians, says Mauss, became early containers of information for the astronomical, physical and natural sciences; In India, Greece and elsewhere magicians were alchemist, doctors and astrologers, where ‘they quickly set up a kind of index of plants, metals, phenomena, beings and life in general’ (2001: 177). They knew how to dominate nature; their mainspring was ‘knowledge is power’ (2001: 176). Thus, what these observations provide is that as a magician, cinematographers are in an influential position to conduct hypnotic processes in their audience and to generate reality effects through their representations; their moving image assumes the nature of a symbol in which the spectator’s mind –governed by the old habits of magic that our specie is slow to throw off- still contains a good part of those non-positive mystical elements that might shape our notions of force, cause and effect (2001). Thus, at this point of my investigation I see science not as a rupture but as an extension of the systematic methods employed by magicians to understand and possess the world. In fact, it is in science where we have now located the old notion of ‘knowledge is power’ and it is through such belief that science has acquired its current status in dominating the world.

 Here, the concept of symbolic efficacy applied by Claude Levi-Strauss might be of help to trace stronger connections between magic and science, and hopefully, to clarify why cinematographers enjoy a central position in the production of myths. In his influential book Structural Anthropology (1974), Levi-Straus observed a particular cure that shamanic rituals had among the Kuna Indians in assisting women in difficult labour. There, the sorcerer’s words, songs, gestures and glances emanated an influence in the patients that removed their physical discomfort. Through their symbols, shamans performed a cure consisting in the ability to make explicit a situation existing on one level of the human system –emotional- to render it acceptable to another level – psyche-. Interestingly, such isomorphism of our organic composition is also at the heart of scientific therapy: psychoanalysis. Here the figure of the psychoanalyst plays the same role as the shaman in provoking those experiences. Nevertheless, they do it in a complete inverse manner: while the psychoanalyst remains silent and becomes a listener to establish a direct relationship with the patient’s unconscious, the shaman is the orator who invokes the supernatural to penetrate the endangered organs and free the captive soul. It is then through this particular symbolic capacity that both psychoanalyst and shaman provide the unwell person with a language to express the pain and allow him to recover.

 Under these connections between the magician and the scientist, the cinematographer becomes now a master conjurer; a synthesis of both. In communicating his ideas, the director’s force to induce myths relies in the explosive combination that connects the rational of the scientific with the supernatural of the magical. Hence, this sort of shamanic-psychoanalytic composition of the filmmaker allows him to provoke situations that unite our experiences of the psyche with the emotions of the organic body: his symbols are thrown to the unconscious –in possessing the logical- as much as to the viscera –in possessing the sensorial-. Cinema, as such, becomes an art of doing things and must be read in the domain of pure production. In this vein, we argue that cinematographers hold a resourceful medium and can easily take advantage of their know-how: The transformations, disappearances and ghostly apparitions of Méliès’ trick films can now be extended as a metaphor of the ethnographic documentary.

 Similarly to psychoanalysts, director-ethnographers –arguably through more silent effects and with less apparent tricks-, induce reality effects in which they show us things with such conviction and coherence that we can only believe in what they show. Such power is probably what Robert Flathery meant when writing in 1951 that ‘film is the great pencil of the modern world’ (In Lewis, 1969: 215). In fact, as a director-explorer he used the camera to capture the life of others, and in that way, made of cinema an equivalent of anthropology; the camera would be the new ethnographer’s notebook, an encounter in which cinema will only solidify its magic traditions with the scientific rationale of the XX century.   

 Flathery might arguably be one of the founding figures of observational documentary cinema. In capturing the reality directly he opened a path for a long tradition of ethnographic cinema which has continued up to now through leading figures such as Jean Rouch, Errol Morris, and more recently, through the innovative cinematographic expressions developed by visual anthropologist at the Sensory Ethnographic Lab in Harvard University. As a general principle, we could say that their cinema becomes a language to express the reality from reality itself, a kind of duplication of “the real” that is presented to us not as text, but as evidence (1979: 42). However, as it might be inferred already, the tone of this essay has provided a quite different reading of such pretensions of truth: What can cinema tell us about reality after all?

 Let’s take Flathery’s Nanook of the North (1922) as a last example. Here I state that his pretensions of verité are not inherently more truthful than fiction films, hence, I am suggesting that documentaries and fiction films do not fundamentally differ, because as Albert La Valley has correctly noted, all cinema is a technologically produced special effect (In Ndalianis 2004: 214). The implication of this statement is that documentary films are not efforts to bring the “real life” to the screen but the imaginary life of our own fantasies and myths. There, the camera’s subjects might seem real, but their character still imaginaries; they are still performing a role. As William Rothman has pointed out in his text The Filmmaker as Hunter: Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1998), Nanook is claimed to be a real person, not a fictional character. However, real people too, are characters within fictions: Our own definition of persona comes from the Greek word prosopon, employed to designate the mask used by actors to perform theatrical roles in the amphitheatre. In cinema then, we are not only creatures of our own imagination, but also we become creatures of the imagination of others, that is, exposed to the filmmaker’s eyes. The “real” Nanook then, is he himself a character, ‘a creature of myth in the sense that all human beings are’ (29, 115), but the Nanook that we see is not only a person –or actor- that he himself imagines to be, but the man that Flaherty films. The director has created a new persona, a hero that we already infer from the title of the film. Flaherty’s Nanook is the greatest hunter in all Ungava and we confirm it through what we see: a camera that has the tendency to raise Nanook as the chief while the others are merely his character’s decorum; the story of a man’s epic effort to keep his family alive in a harsh natural environment.

 Hence, cinema’s power of illusion finds in the ethnographic documentary a particular visual effect, what we have defined in this article as reality effect. The filmmaker, this kind of magician-anthropologist has finally realized how to keep his tricks secret. He now knows how to make the source of his images invisible, transparent as it were. Like the sorcerer, his magic relies in the art of preparing and mixing materials that come together through the montage. In his own way, he ‘prepares images from paste, clay, wax, honey, plaster, metal or papier mâchè’ (2001: 66) to provide us with representations of our social life. Echoing Foucault, It seems possible then, that filmmakers can make fiction work within truth, to induce truth effects within fictional discourse, and in some way to make the discourse of truth arouse, ‘fabricate’ something which does not as yet exist. (1998).

 In tracing cinema’s connection to magic traditions and scientific rationale, we have argued that cinematographers enjoy the capacity of a master conjurer who makes of his tricks coexist with what we claim to be real. Thus, as an ethnographer, the filmmaker is in an influential position to induce discourses of truth through what he shows. In this way, film becomes an art in which reality and fantasy, transparency and trickery walk side by side.

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Boron, Lukasz (2011) Méliès and early cinema(gic): Conjuring the science-fiction film genre. York University: Cine Action.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1996) Sobre la Televisión. Spain: Anagrama
Crary, Jonathan (1999) Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
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