Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Documentary Film Festivals as Ideological Transactions: Film Screening Sites at Hot Docs

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Documentary Film Festivals as Ideological Transactions: Film Screening Sites at Hot Docs

Article excerpt

My interest in the interactions that occur at film screening sites during the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival was first inspired by an exchange I witnessed at the festival in the early 2000s. After the screening of a documentary dealing with violence against women in a Global South nation, the English-speaking filmmaker and the film's non-English-speaking principal subject-a survivor of rape, whose story is featured in the film-were on hand to answer questions. During the Q&A, a festivalgoer asked the film's subject if she had experienced "flashbacks" after being assaulted. On hearing the question, a number of other audience members responded by hushing the questioner, and telling the filmmaker, "don't ask her that!" The filmmaker said that while he was willing to translate the question and pose it to the film's subject, she might not be willing to answer it. Hearing this, at least one member of the audience reiterated that the question should not be translated, and in the end it was not.

Was the question about flashbacks a valuable discussion point but clumsily posed? Or was it motivated by a voyeuristic impulse to incite an affective response from the film subject? If it was the latter, and designed to press the subject to reveal aspects of her personal trauma for no other reason than the pleasure of the questioner, it suggests that at least one member of the audience was drawing from the screening pleasures rooted in voyeurism, not linked to the erudite, sober epistephilia that is commonly professed to be the attraction of documentary film.1 Were those who objected to the question motivated by an ethical concern for the film subject's well-being and worried about the pain that a question of this type might resurrect, or merely by a desire to portray themselves as serious-minded documentary viewers, filled with empathy for the suffering or struggles of others? The question may have been problematic for any number of reasons, but the effort by other festivalgoers to determine what is appropriate or not appropriate to ask a film's human subject reveals that at least some within the crowd were invested in privileging certain kinds of relationships between the audience, the film, and its human subject, while prohibiting others. And what should we make of the fact that the films subject was ultimately not asked the question? By not translating it so that she could comprehend what was being said and respond as she wished, was she protected from having to respond to a question that should not have been asked? Or was she marginalised, made voiceless, and inscribed as a victim in need of the cloaking protection of the director and some within the audience?

While it is ultimately impossible to deliver a decisive explanation for the motivations of those involved in the exchange, the instance draws attention to the array of discourses that are mobilised at a film festival's screening site. Writing on political theatre, Baz Kershaw proffers the term "ideological transaction" to describe the exchanges that take place at the site of a theatrical performance, as performers and audience respond to the creative work presented and generate an understanding of the nature of event they attend.2 In similar fashion, at the screening sites of a documentary film festival an array of ideological transactions are in operation as the festival's staff, filmmakers, guests, and festival attendees frame the reception of individual documentary films and the themes they depict, and generate an understanding of documentary filmmaking and its discourses, as well as of the film festival they attend. This reveals that the documentary film festival screening site can be a productive location at which to examine the nature of documentary film viewership-a subject that remains significantly under-theorised in contemporary scholarship-as well as explore the operation of documentary film festivals as important institutions within documentary film culture, and as social occasions within society at large. …

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