Representing (the Other) Reality: Interpretive Interactionism and the Documentary Films of Nick Torrens

By Duncan, Sheila | Metro Magazine, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview
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Representing (the Other) Reality: Interpretive Interactionism and the Documentary Films of Nick Torrens


Duncan, Sheila, Metro Magazine


'... There can be no doubt that the one characteristic of 'reality' is that it lacks essence, That is not to say it has no essence, but merely lacks it'

Woody Allen. (1)

THE PROBLEM INHERENT IN representing reality is the presumption that reality is tangible, definable and can be represented. Representing 'the other' reality--the other's perspective of reality--is even more problematic, because the very act of representation demands an interpretation, and therefore the distortion of that reality. Over the last century the social sciences have debated the ethical problems of representing 'the other' with assiduity. A large volume of work is available to the student and social researcher on research methodology, interpretation, construction, and the argument that notions of truth and reality are complexly negotiated assumptions or archaeologies of knowledge (2) which cannot be fixed, but can only be traced through a process of 'thick description'. (3) Documentary filmmakers on the other hand, who are arguably at the cutting edge of representation, are rarely given the philosophical and methodological training or tools to construct representations of 'the other' reality which go beyond the techniques of filmmaking; (4) the institutional, market-driven demands of form and content via the increased dependence on television production; (5) or the analysis of style, structure and genre in relation to the burgeoning discipline of film theory. (6) Why is this the case, when so much practical and ethical advice is available from years of intellectual rigor in the social sciences? Bill Nichols' (7) work pioneered a correlation between anthropology/ ethnomethodology and documentary practice, but he is more concerned with the analysis of existing texts than the approach to researching new projects.

In this article, I hope to introduce documentary filmmakers, students and teachers to Interpretive Interactionism by Norman K. Denzin. (8) This work is both a practical and philosophical guide to qualitative research methodology that has immediate relevance to documentary filmmaking. I will then look at some of the films of Australian documentary filmmaker Nick Torrens, whose work demonstrates a definite, though unconscious, correlation with the aims of Interpretive Interactionism.

Interpretive Interactionism

Interpretive Interactionism encompasses the ontological hermeneutics of Heidegger (9)/ Godamer (10) and the Symbolic Interactionist approach to participant-observation and ethnography. (11) It incorporates theories of semiotics, postmodern analysis, case study and creative interviewing in fieldwork. Its basic thesis lies in the assumption that interpretation and understanding are key features of social life; that 'everyday life revolves around persons interpreting and making judgements about their own and others' behaviours and experiences'. (12) Its basic tool is the personal biography of both researcher and the subjects involved. The researcher must place him/herself in the story, so to speak, with an acknowledged presence. It demands from the researcher a thorough and intimate knowledge of his/her subjects, either through personal involvement, or through a long period of association and participation. The approach encourages multivoices. It is not so much a commentary or 'inscription' by the researcher, as a 'contextualization'. This provides codes for meaningful interpretation to an audience outside of the experience itself, encouraging the audience to construct its own interpretation rather than having the researcher present it to them.

Another important aspect of this methodology is the attempt to capture the experiences of individuals at a time when certain life experiences radically 'alter and shape the meanings persons give to themselves and their life projects'. (13) Described as 'epiphanies', Denzin argues that these highly charged times in a personal history not only highlight aspects of character, but also the multitude of social and ideological pressures working upon the individual at the time of the experience.

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