Academic journal article Post Script

Documentary: Trauma and an Ethics of Knowing

Academic journal article Post Script

Documentary: Trauma and an Ethics of Knowing

Article excerpt

This essay re-evaluates the ethics of subject relations in documentary film in the context of films dealing with traumatic memory and disaster. Using a mix of personal insights developed in the context of making a film about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and an examination of notions of representation in the literature of documentary film studies, trauma studies and social science, the essay suggests that the case of disaster testimony and its witnesses, the keystone location of the witness to the disaster in the story arc is a position that needs to be re-examined. From a narrative angle, the disaster story is a representational limit situation, where meaning and language break down. From a social point of view the notion of the "use" of testimony as part of a narrative raises complex ethical questions as witnesses are deployed in film and literature. Looking at recent work in anthropology and trauma studies, I document how survivors of traumatic situations have tried to acquire agency in relation to their own stories and their use. The paper notes that such stories are now part of a growing set of discourses in juridical contexts (reparations) and political ones (truth and reconciliation commissions) and looks at how problems of social and personal trauma elide in the construction of larger narratives. It suggests that the urgencies of such contexts are themselves implicated in a traumatized interplay, one where an accepted historical narrative itself potentially resides in denial. Examining the role of archival images as another pillar of documentary storytelling suggests that rather than buttressing the legitimation of witness testimony, archival material holding an ethical demand for the maker to explore the cracks and crevices revealed in the facade of historical narratives to prod out points hidden by rnutal denial and sheltered pain.

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In this essay, 1 seek to extend a discussion of documentary filmmaking that involves the ethics of subject relations and of historical representation to incorporate the idea of an "ethics of knowing," an ethical duty to the construction of knowledge and structures of feeling in relation to personal and collective traumas that lie at the heart of historical memory.

My quest and the impetus for my research derive from the making of a personal, essay-style documentary, Hiroshima Bound (2015), which attempts to unpack America's collective memory of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The pillars of historical documentary, particularly the histories of war and mass death, are a triad that includes the archival image, survivor testimony and the return to the site of the disaster. How can these elements be used ethically? Rather than being deployed to mutually buttress a fixed idea about history, can they help us to unpack the traumatic heart of historical events? And can that unpacking be done without creating new traumas or victims?

A typical strategy for a film that focuses on a disaster such as this one is to make a humanitarian appeal based on survivor testimony. We as viewers can empathize with the horrible experience of the survivors in a way that will remind us of the even more terrible fate of those who did not survive. The use of a strategy of survivor testimony offers several advantages in raising awareness of the horrors of war and crimes against humanity. One is the authenticity of witness accounts. The other is empathy, the fellow feeling that is one of the desired responses to a documentary film. But what are the implications of deploying survivors in a story when the story is one of disaster? As Maurice Blanchot suggests, "I call disaster that which does not have the ultimate for a limit: it bears the ultimate away in the disaster" (28). One could say that the disaster destroys everything, including the language necessary to talk about it.' How, then, should witnesses be treated? What is our duty, as documentarians, to them and their testimony, and to the way we use or deploy them in our films? …

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