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Reflexivity as dialecticity :

the brechtian documentary

The Act of KillingJoshua Oppenheimer, 2012 © Final Cut for Real

Writing about Brecht in relation to the difficulties of visually representing abstractions, Fredric Jameson notes that the industrial labor – taken as “raw material” and a variable in the equation of capitalism as the subject of visual representation – constitutes “a stumbling block for which only documentary seems to offer a solution.” [1] No sooner than this proposal is made of the documentary mode as an outlet for Brechtian representation, it is dismissed on account of Brecht's reservations about photographic realism, a property Jameson tacitly posits as innate to visual forms professing non-fictionality. In light of Brecht's statement that a hypothetical photo of the Krupp factory or the AEG does not make apparent any of those institutions' fundamental qualities – which Jameson cites to support his latter remark – it would appear that the unalterably photographic nature of the documentary film, with its inherent emphasis on the “here and now” of the pro-filmic event, indeed places it at odds with Brecht's broad artistic project of using the principle of dialectics to demonstrate that social phenomena are changeable, and exploring the mechanisms of that changeability. 


Yet Brecht's body of work offers ample evidence of a sustained interest in documents, understood as records of specific times and spaces: the texts on which the vast majority of his own literary output is based on or informed by; the time-textured props whose selection by Helene Weigel as part of her role-crafting process is celebrated in one of the dramaturgical poems; the textual and pictorial cut-outs on which the War Primer poems are based. Moreover, the play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich bears the subtitle of “a documentary drama,” whereas Kuhle Wampe – Brecht's only feature-length film as a co-director – contains multiple segments that assert their non-fictional quality.


Given his penchant for dialectics, Brecht would undoubtedly delight at the contradiction behind Jameson's assessment of his position toward photography on the one hand, and – on the other – the indication that the documentary mode is ideally suited for the dialectical method of cinematic representation. But this contradiction needs a synthesis. 


To narrow and apply to cinema the question of how the documentary mode might penetrate beneath the surface of perceptible phenomena, I first want to acknowledge Bill Nichols's distinction between documents as factual elements of the historical record, and documentaries as “the product of a persuasive, or at least poetic, intent to have an audience see and act differently.” [2] Tracing the hitherto neglected points of convergence between the modernist avant-garde and the documentary film, Nichols points out that the term “documentary” penetrated critical discourse at the height of the proliferation of the artistic “- isms” in the 1920s, about three decades after the Lumière Brothers had produced The Arrival of a Train at the Ciotat (1895). These films shared the quality of the hypothetical photograph of the AEG that Brecht uses to illustrate the limitations of “surface realism” as the medium's “natural” style, but lacked two of the other elements Nichols cites as crucial for the appearance of the documentary as it is commonly understood today: the use of the narrative structure characteristic of “Hollywood” and related cinemas, and of the modernist fragmentation. The first term refers to the equilibrium-disequilibrium-equilibrium storytelling pattern. The latter term, in Nichols's descriptive definition, refers to “collage, abstraction, relativity, anti-illusionism, and a general rejection of the transparency of realist representation”, a succession at whose beginning stands defamiliarization (in the sense of both Brecht's Verfremdung and Viktor Shklovsky's ostranenie) as the broadest of the terms employed [3]


Nichols' view of the mature documentary film is one of the genre as poised between the aesthetics of non-stylized pro-filmic event (with emphasis on the automatically reproduced geographic space and time as a corollary) and the aesthetics of montage (with emphasis on a uniquely filmic space and time, created by the filmmaker through framing and editing). Identifying the documentary's capacity to reconcile the cited opposites as the principal source of the genre's appeal for many artists affiliated with the 1920s avant-gardes, Nichols cites Brecht's vision of epic and documentary theater [4] as one sufficiently broad to accommodate the diversity of goals that distinguished these movements. That this vision continues to hold currency is well-indicated by its centrality in a 2008 essay that theorizes future avenues for the film genre, written by another leading documentary film scholar, Micheal Chanan. Like Nichols, Chanan uses Brecht's observation on the Krupp works and AEG as a departure point into an investigation of how the documentary film might express that what does not readily lend itself to the medium and genre, as a result either of its peculiar physical properties or of the singular circumstances of its being. The only kind of image suitable for the task, Chanan concludes, is what Walter Benjamin terms the dialectical image and pursues in The Arcades Project. Benjamin associates the elusive notion with recognition rather than with vision, and considers symbolic signs, rather than iconic and indexical ones on which film and related media predicate themselves, to be their ideal outlets. This allows him to at once subscribe to Brecht's reservations about photographic representation and adopt showing – as opposed to telling – as The Arcades Project's constitutive method.

Chanan adjusts the concept of the dialectical image to cinema by tacitly pluralizing it: for him, the dialectical image comes to existence through juxtaposition with the images that surround it. Except for the relatively rare cases where a dialectical relationship already exists among the constituents of the pro-filmic event and is instantly recognizable as such, the documentary film's dialectical image is, then, relational: defined as much by the elements of the image that precede and follow it as by its own “content” and “form.” [5]

Chanan's essay is entitled “Filming the Invisible” In the example from Brecht that he uses, the noun is, of course, not random and metaphysical, but specific and materialist: its revelation is motivated by an interest in the dichotomies of social reality and their resolution. A documentary's very ability to exist despite those dichotomies carries a paradox, however. Diagnosing such social ills as war has long been a raison d'être of prominent strains of documentary filmmaking. But the capacity of a documentary to be filmed, for instance, in a Syrian war zone and premiered in a glamourous West European film festival problematically suggests that that particular contradiction can be suspended or transcended.


Realizing the paradox, many documentarians have sought to be reflexive: to address in their films the implications of the fissure separating the subjects of cinematic representation and the representation itself. The earliest major reflexive documentary, Vertov's The Man With a Movie Camera (1929), puts a twist on the then popular city symphony genre by depicting a day in the life of a city that does not exist in actuality, but is constructed through editing from images photographed in different urban centers of the Soviet Union. As in “Hollywood” and “Hollywood”-like films of both then and now, the unity of filmic time in The Man implies a unity of filmic space. The mechanism of this process is, however, demystified throughout its occurrence by frequent acknowledgments of the mediating roles of the cinematography and editing in constructing the film's semblance to what Vertov referred as “life caught unawares” through an array of techniques that foreground the difference between segments of the real as experienced with naked sight, and as represented by the cinematographic apparatus: nonstandard speed of filming, double exposure, freeze frames, stop-motion animation. Applied to the portrait of civic life in the USSR, these medium-specific techniques stress the uniqueness of the newly formed socialist country. The film's narrative and style thus conflate to produce not an impression of transparency that films of “Hollywood” and related industries strive for, but a meaning that does not reside in either of the two formal aspects of The Man. This is reflexivity as related to dialectics, and can therefore be meaningfully characterized as Brechtian.


Relating the term to such films as The Man – which predates Brecht's first elaborate articulation of epic / dialectic theatre concept – points to my understanding of the term's essence as ideational, rather than historico-biographical. This is to say that a documentary film's affinity to Brecht's project does not need to be expressed nominally, as an instance of appreciation of the man, in order for it to be recognizable and justifiably designated as such. To support this claim with an analogy that concerns Brecht's own theoretical preoccupations, a play does not need to profess its affinity with Aristotle's Poetics in order to be seen as representative of the concept of drama expounded in the treatise.

Brecht employed a range of strategies intended to stress the constructedness of his artworks and draw the perceiver's attention to her role in the process of making meaning of both those artworks and the realm beyond their boundaries, ordinarily called “the real”: separation of elements and montage and the techniques associated with the two principles constitute but some examples. The emphasis in his practice and theory on the “how” of the artwork seems an important reason for his appeal in the 1960s and the following decade to Roland Barthes and other proponents of the semiotic discourse, notably in France, England, and the United States, where academic humanities in general and film studies in particular were until recently dominated by discourses combining semiotic, Marxist, and psychoanalytic approaches.


Reflexivity came to be seen as a defining trait of Brechtian art, and signs foregrounding their materiality regarded as an expression of the politics that can be associated with Brecht's name. That this often came at the expense of subject matter was first noted by Dana Polan, who in 1974 published the first version of an article that derided the contemporary discourses of “the politics of sign” by noting the reflexive procedures of a Duffy Duck cartoon that – needless to say – shares none of the concerns of Mother Courage or Galileo Galilei [6]. Prominent in these writers’ criticism of Brecht is the notion of reflexivity as politically futile or cognitively redundant, a result of a concealed tautological nature that the outcome of a truly successful reflexive operation is supposedly bound to possess. To elaborate the reasoning behind this criticism, as there is only so many elements that the artwork can accomodate its revelation of itself as a construct has to come at the expense of important truths unrelated to the artwork’s identity.

The scholarship focusing specifically on documentary film has to an increasing extent interrogated the capacity of reflexivity to assist the political goal of Brechtian realism. Since the 1970s, such documentary film scholars as Nichols, Jay Ruby, and Annette Weiner have celebrated reflexivity as a formal strategy ideally suited to problematize the relationship between the cinematic representation and its referent. In the earliest major contribution to the discourse on reflexivity in documentary filmmaking I have been able to access, Ruby thus wrote that “[t]o be reflexive is to structure a product in such a way that the audience assumes that the producer, the process of making, and the product are a coherent whole,” so that “an audience is made aware of [those] relationships” and “made to realize the necessity of that knowledge.” [7] The desired result of the reception process is, then, comparable to the corresponding one envisioned by Brecht for his epic / dialectic theatre: a spectator who “stands outside […] and studies,” thereby gaining “a picture of the world[8]. In a 2007 article, however, the critic Charlotte Govaert applied to documentaries the question of whether reflexivity guarantees a positive epistemic effect on the viewer [9]. In the more general commentaries of film reception by Nöel Carroll and other critics who in the 1980s and 1990s articulated sustained critiques of the then reigning psychosemiotic paradigm in film studies, that question received unambiguously negative answers.


Indeed, one would be hard pressed to prove the usefulness of reflexivity for producing politically-valenced estrangement if one regards it as a set of repeatable techniques. The contemporary viewer of, say, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1959) may have found estranging the film's jump cuts and direct addresses to the camera – techniques hitherto reserved for nonfictional filmmaking. But by the time Richard Lester employed those techniques in A Hard  Day's Night (1964), they had already petrified into conventions of European art and youth cinema. In that respect, reflexive techniques in fictional and documentary cinema alike are not different from those used by Brecht the theatre practitioner and, later, his various epigones. What secures the continued relevance of Brecht's aesthetic concepts is his care to couch them not in such specific techniques as the use of half-curtain, open lighting, and placards – to name but a few that have been associated with his name and overused over the decades – but in the general, and for that reason robust, concept of dialectics. It is this kind of reflexivity that I – following the logic of Brecht, Benjamin and Chanan – see as a prerequisite in documentary filmmaking that can be rightfully called Brechtian. That reflexivity employs medium-specific devices not to call attention to those aspects of the filmmaker's self “necessary to reveal so that an audience is able to understand both the process employed and the resultant product and to know that the revelation itself is purposive, intentional and not merely narcissistic or accidentally revealing,” as Ruby formulates it, but to expand the horizon of meanings beyond the direct concerns of the film's representation and bring attention to the political aspect of their being (understood broadly as concerning “polis”, in the sense of a body of citizens). To illustrate with an allegory, the Brechtian documentary does not operate in the fashion of a magician who astonishes the spectator by sawing his assistant in half before proceeding to recover that same spectator from the described state by demonstrating the trick's mechanism. Rather, the Brechtian documentary operates like a magician who follows the trick with an analogy between the woman curling up in the coffin to avoid being severed, and the necessity of their sharing an apartment with their circus co-workers the trapeze artists, in order to save money on rent. Put differently and more concisely, the Brechtian documentary  fulfills the mandate that Brecht, Benjamin, and Chanan identify as unattainable to the photographic image.


I want to refine this by comparing the described strategy with what Bruno Latour terms infra reflexivity and contrasts with meta-reflexivity (likewise his original coinage). In Latour's words, meta-reflexivity is “based on the idea that the most deleterious effect of a text is to be naively believed by the reader as in some way relating to a referent out there.” [10] Latour dismisses the notion that reflexivity can counteract the described effect as “a very naive set of beliefs in the naive beliefs of readers”, and elucidates this view in focusing on self-reference as a privileged technique of meta-reflexivity, and Steve Woolgar's work on reflexivity in ethnography as a specific example. “When Woolgar shows a photograph of himself writing a caption for this same photograph in an article about a book on the observation of observers,” Latour writes, “he seems to suggest that he is several loops of reflexivity above a 'naive' and 'unproblematic' photograph of a naked native. Semiotically he has not moved an inch; the two pictures, side by side, just show different things.” Expressed in the terminology of dialectics, the constituents of Latour's example do not lend themselves to a synthesis of meanings that would trascend the ones inferable from the two images: the whole in this case is not greater than the sum of its parts.


Whereas meta-reflexivity aims to make a text not believed by its readers, infra-reflexivity “[does] away with the paraphernalia of methodological precautions” and “[offers] the lived world” as an alternative. Latour seems to suggest that in the contemporary condition, where reflexivity operates as a representational norm, the textual producer's refrain from its use can operate as what Yuri Lotman terms the minus device: a text's purposive thwarting of  the expectations formed by the combination of the text's formal properties and the circumstances of its reception as envisioned by the textual producer.


This logic makes sensible Latour's lack of conviction that the post-modern deconstructionists are a match for the Evangelists and his praise of the narrative lacunae of such biblical books as the Gospel of St Mark that complicate the attempts of arranging their events into the order of simple causality, thus forcing the reader to "[become] the writer or the commentator, or the preacher of another text that transforms, translates, embroiders, and adds to the unbroken chain of commentaries”. To bring the discussion back to Brecht, was not the dialectically contradictory nature of The Bible a key reason he professed it to be his favorite book?

Latour's understanding of reflexivity has been related to documentary by the Latin American culture scholar Joanna Page, who draws upon the insights of the ethnographic filmmaker and theorist David MacDougall to propose that ethnographic films no longer need reminding the viewer that they are constructed, and that “an author's personal reticence may in fact show trust in the audience's recognition of this fact, or be eloquent of a particular spirit of attentiveness to the subject[11]. Page goes on to cite MacDougall's prediction of a transition to an intertextual cinema, which would render films “repositories of multiple authorship, confrontation, and exchange,” so as to reflect a novel understanding of societies as entirely infiltrated by “external and historical forces.” Mutatis mutandis, this last segment of Page's commentary could be used to define Brecht's concept of Historisierung.

I want to briefly turn my attention from the “why” of the generally infra-reflexive, and specifically Brechtian, documentary to its “how” – using the example of one such film, Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (2012). The Act focuses on a group of Indonesian paramilitary executioners who took part in the country's 1965-1966 anti-communist purge, which claimed between half a million and two million lives. The film is profoundly disturbing due not merely to its subject matter, but also to its refusal to establish a clear demarcation line between reality and fantasy – a strategy analogous to what Latour, discussing infra-reflexivity, refers as avoiding a text not being believed by its readers. The Act comprises reenactments of the historical events, produced according to the specifications of the former death squad members, and scenes showing everyday situations of the characters' present-day lives: from fishing to running for a local political post. This formal premise lends itself to a high degree of meta-reflexivity, too. Throughout the film's duration, we observe scenes of killing as they are cast, rehearsed, filmed, played for and commented upon by the killers, and – sometimes – re-filmed with a goal that remains unrevealed until the end. Is it to capture the essence of the titular act, and the characters' position toward it, or to dispel that essence and render the characters' stance toward it inscrutable to both the viewer and themselves – a kind of defensive mechanism that, in light of the relative media silence that continues to surround the genocide, appears applicable equally to the individual psyches of the executioners, and the collective psyches of the various nations implicated in the genocide: Indonesia, the Unites States, and the United Kingdom?

The subject as producer in The Act of KillingJoshua Oppenheimer, 2012 

© Final Cut for Real

Prior to their promotion into paramilitary executioners during the process that led to Sukarno's replacement by Suharto, the central characters had worked as black market movie ticket sellers. The film emphasizes the characters' described affiliation with cinema, and configures the medium as an inspiration for their atrocities. Anwar Condo, who receives most of the film's screen time, thus describes the manner in which he performed the executions in terms of his moviegoing experiences. Watching an Elvis film, he recounts, made him leave the theater in a good mood and “kill in a happy way.” Similarly, the reenactments are often rendered as the characters' takes on their favorite genres, and staged in terms of codes and conventions associated with those kinds of films. Lighting schemes characteristic of the film noir, settings typical for the western, and make-up distinctive of the horror succeed one another in a pattern that literalizes the Freudian displacement – understood as placing apparently unresolvable conflicts from the primary relationship into a new situation.

Horror iconography in The Act of KillingJoshua Oppenheimer, 2012 

© Final Cut for Real

The same function (psychological, for the characters, and formal, for the film) is served by the killers' recurrent debates on what word choices best describe their acts. For example, we witness the following exchange between two executioners on the set for a re-enactment scene: “So, the communists were not more cruel than us. We were the cruel ones,” “No, cruel is totally different from sadistic.” “No, it isn’t. They are synonyms.” “You’re playing with words.


In light of the film's linguistic emphasis, the inscription “apathetic” that adorns the shirt of Anwar's friend Adi, who displays no remorse about his participation in the killings, acquires a thematic significance: it comments on the character unbeknownst to him, while also thematizing the gap between the verbal signifier and the pictorial signified in a way reminiscent of René Magritte's The Treachery of Images: the inscription “this is not a pipe” at once “honestly” acknowledges the artifice of the object represented in the canvas, and “deceptively” conceals that that the inscription and the image share the same ontological status. Like the  painting's, the reflexivity of The Act renders impossible the traditional division between subject and form: the devices that such commentators as Jay Ruby hailed for their ability to help the viewer recognize a film's artifice, constitute this documentary's very subject. Considered in relation to the film's historical topic, that fact has an added hermeneutic implication: because the characters understand both their individual and the collective history of their nation as but freely rearrangable links in a chain of signifiers, the two gradually become conflated and confused. Concomitant with that pattern is the progressive decrease of the reenactments' correspondence to fact: the earliest one shows Anwar and the other killers burn a neighborhood suspect of nurturing communist sympathizers, and a later one has Anwar perform the role of a victim. In the final reenactment-cum-fantasy scene – which completes the revelation of the psychological purpose of vindicating the killings that the reenactments have for their creators – Anwar's victims thank and decorate him with a medal for taking their lives and transferring their souls to heaven.

In a run-of-the-mill documentary, the topic of the massacres would receive a restrained treatment ostensibly respectful and honouring of the victims. Oppenheimer's film, in contrast, is on the face of it a cornucopia of bad taste: the last described scene is staged against a backdrop of a waterfall that looks as if pilfered from a moving wall décor, and other scenes are pervaded by such motifs as Anwar's and his sidekick Herman's retching, and the two of them forcing each other to cannibalistic deeds. This stylistic choice is at first reminiscent of what is perhaps the most aesthetically and ethically suspect corpus of documentaries in cinema's history: mondo films, collages of cultural exotica popular in the 1960s and the following decade. But The Act goes far beyond the superficial shock effects of mondo to produce effects that Latour would call infra-reflexive. The horror, the humor, and the peculiar combination of the two reactions the film elicits typically concern the characters' bodily aspect. The source of the viewer's reaction to the film's stylistic excesses, then, relates ideationally with the topic signalled by the film's title. Considered together, the two formal elements give rise to the conjecture that committing a crime as immense as the murder of approximately one thousand people – which Anwar confesses to in the film – first required a mental reduction of the victims to their flesh, to mere matter. This inference is corroborated by the film's several scenes that challenge the perception of the killers as one-dimensional beasts, such as that showing Anwar lovingly tending to a wounded duckling, and Herman gently advising his daughter on how to cope with life's failures. By promoting affects that are contradictory and difficult to reconcile, the film complicates and – ultimately – frustrates our emotional positioning toward the characters, inviting instead a cooly analytical approach characteristic of Brecht.

Te banality of evil in The Act of KillingJoshua Oppenheimer, 2012 

© Final Cut for Real

Those are the key techniques The Act uses to reconcile documentary cinema's defining trait of factual realism with an aspiration to endow its indexical signs with the complexity of symbols. The film's procedures confirm Chanan's view that the medium of film, through montage, grants every image the capacity to become an embodiment of Benjamin's idea of the dialectical image as “the figurative appearance of the dialectic [and] the law of the dialectic at a standstill.” Chanan unsurprisingly supports his view with the examples of Soviet filmmakers who emerged in the 1920s, such as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov. Yet The Act embodies a broader understanding of montage, correspondant with that expressed by Brecht in the “Notes to 'Mahagonny'” and other texts: as construction. In the context of this film, that means forging meanings through both editing (as in the juxtaposition of scenes suggesting Anwar's empathy and lack thereof) and conspicuous mise-en-scène elements (as in the reenactment-cum-fantasy scenes featuring a monster whose design appears to have been inspired by a classical horror).

I have indicated what makes The Act's reflexivity dialectical, and how that trait, in combination with the film's political slant, allows it to be productively compared with Brecht's aesthetic project. A number of critics have done so. Christine Mayor thus sees The Act's self-reflexive moments as utilizing Brechtian alienation techniques to highlight the performative nature of history (2016: 126), whereas Sara Kendall has argued that the film displays a “Brechtian concern for exposing the underside of political and social structure.” 

Significant in term of its aesthetic achievement and critical success, Oppenheimer's documentary is far from being the only recent documentary that recognizes the limitations of photography – still and moving – in the pursuit of connotational, as opposed to denotational, representation, and chooses montage as a means in that pursuit. The works of a range of filmmakers including Errol Morris in the United States, and the now late Eduardo Coutinho in Brazil and Harun Farocki in Germany, exemplify that Brecht's dramatic concepts – whether nominally acknowledged or not – are relevant in documentary cinema despite Jameson's suggestion cited at the beginning of this essay.

Nenad Jovanovic

[1] Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method, London and New York, Verso, 1998

[2] Bill Nichols, « Documentary Film and the Avant-Garde », Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, No. 4, Summer 2001, p. 587

[3] Bill Nichols, op. cit, p. 593

[4] Michael Chanan, « Filming the invisible » Rethinking Documentary : New Perspectives, New Practices, Ed. Thomas Austin and Wilma de Jong, Maidenhead and Berkshire : Open University Press, 2009

[5] Michael Chanan, op. cit, p. 129

[6] Dana Polan, “Brecht and the Politics of Self-Reflexive Cinema.” Jump Cut 17 (1974), pp. 29-32

[7] Jay Ruby, “The Image Mirrored : Reflexivity and the Documentary Film”, Journal of the University Film Association, Vol. 29, No. 4, The Documentary Impulse : current issues (Automne 1977), pp. 3-11


[8] Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre. Ed. John Willett. London: Methuen, 1964


[9] Charlotte Govaert, Studies in Documentary Film Vol. 1 No. 3 (2007), pp. 245-263


[10] Bruno Latour, “The Politics of Explanation ; An Alternative ”, Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge, Ed. Steve Woolgar. London: Sage, 1988, pp.155-177


[11] Joanna Page, “Ethnographic Encounters and Interculturalism : New Modes of Reflexivity in Contemporary Documentaries from Argentina.” Latin American Documentary Film In the New Millenium. Ed. Michael J. Lazzara and Maria Guadalupe Arenillas, New York: Palgrave, 2015, pp. 135-153

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