Academic journal article CineAction

Uncanny Documentary

Academic journal article CineAction

Uncanny Documentary

Article excerpt

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In this paper, I will be considering whether we might think of "the uncanny" as both a mode and condition of contemporary documentary film. Drawing on Freud's famous essay, I want to suggest that documentary --something so familiar, so close to our understanding of reality, so "heimlich," if you will--can become strange and disorienting to audiences, and disoriented as a genre. Tracing the etymological criss-crossing of "heimlich" and "unheimlich," Freud concludes that, at its heart, the "unheimlich" stems from something that was once familiar but which has become strange --something that "ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light." (1) In looking at various phenomena that cause a feeling of the uncanny, Freud includes "wax-work figures, artificial dolls, and automatons." In particular, he expands upon the work of Ernst Jentsch, who notes the strong uncanny feeling caused by such figures, and links it to the uncertainty over whether they are living or dead, animate or inanimate--an uncertainty which I think can be related to the "real" versus the "fake" or "staged" in documentary. (2) Freud reserves another category for the uncanny effects of doubles or doppelgangers, and the related notions of repetition and coincidence. In addition to those well-known features of the uncanny, I also wish to draw attention to Freud's lesser-noted discussion of the relation between fiction and reality and how that might be brought to bear on the question of documentary. Freud insists on the importance of our orientation towards a fictional text and its relation to what he calls "the world of common reality" in determining a text's ability to produce a feeling of the uncanny. That is, Freud notes that when confronting fiction, many things that would be uncanny in real life are not, in fiction, because of genre expectations. In other words, we expect witches and ghosts in fairy tales, so they don't produce an uncanny feeling; however, as Freud puts it:

   The situation is altered as soon as the writer
   pretends to move in the world of common
   reality. In this case he accepts all the conditions
   operating to produce uncanny feelings in real
   life... We react to his inventions as we should
   have reacted to real experiences; by the time we
   have seen through his trick it is already too late
   and the author has achieved his object; but it
   must be added that his success is not unalloyed.
   We retain a feeling of dissatisfaction, a kind of
   grudge against the attempted deceit. (3)

In a sense, then, we must be properly oriented in order to feel disoriented. In adapting these notions to explore documentary film, I suggest that our contemporary moment disorients both the documentarian and the spectator. Confronted by the commodification of "reality" and the ubiquity of digital video technology, the documentarian seems to find his/her doppelgangers everywhere: reality television is often portrayed as the evil (or entertaining) twin to serious documentary, while the documentarian can seem gratuitous in the face of so much amateur video making and self-documentation. (4) This leads to power struggles within documentary films, and to unease in audience responses to them. Many filmmakers have capitalized on this sense of unease--on a productive uncanniness--to unsettle the spectator and the genre, with recent experiments with animation, lip-syncing, re-enactments, and documentary/fiction hybrids coming to mind. (5) Other films, however, become uncanny without "trying"--often in part because of their imbrication with amateur video and "reality culture."

In exploring this latter category, I'm focusing on Catfish (2010) as a model, in part because the film can be understood as a replaying of the story that functions as Freud's case study in the uncanny: E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman." In that story, the protagonist (Nathaniel) falls in love with Olympia--a woman he sees in a window, who turns out to be an automaton. …

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