From whence comes the source of the verite in verite or fly-on-the-wall documentary? Fetveit argues that it is technologically-driven: the emphasis on the evidential became stronger with new light-weight and therefore portable technology of the 1950′s, which led to an aesthetic
…strongly based on observation and interviews, often documenting events as they unfold through an ‘objective’, ‘fly on the wall’ technique. (Fetveit, p. 791)
The essential relationship remained the same, however: a director and crew capturing something other than their own existence and behaviour, ‘out there’. Since the 1950′s, the evident complicity of director and crew in the creation of image and document steadily eroded documentary’s alleged evidential integrity. Now it is commonplace to argue, as Fetviet does, that:
…inherent in the very fabric of photographical images seems to lie an unresolvable tension between the illustrative and the evidential, the iconic and the indexical — (Fetveit, p 792)
It is a conundrum that Dai Vaughan explores so eloquently:
…it is documentary which is the paradoxical, even aberrant, form. True, the first films were of a ‘factual’ nature; but the medium was not out of its immobile, one-shot infancy when someone saw the possibility that it might be employed to signify something other than that which it recorded–this step being taken by Melies, a prestidigitator. From now on, it was nonfiction films which were to be distinguished by a special name: actualities.
The problems latent in the idea of actuality become compounded at precisely the point where this name becomes inadequate and must be replaced by the more evasive one, “documentary”: the point at which the primordial image becomes articulated as language. (Vaughan, p60)
Can social media meet our desire for evidential media? And if it can, what sort of evidence does it provide? Vaughan wants a way to ‘structure material so that whatever it may become as experieneced language may in some sense keep faith with its character as pro-filmic fact…’ (Vaughan, p66). He envisages something that resembles a gigantic database, in which
…the various strands of discourse – the referential nature of the images, their demonstrative disposition, the construction of narrative continuities in time and space, the filmic and extrafilmic codings – may be denied elision and offered as separable to the viewer’s scrutiny. (Vaughan, p75)
Can social media function in this way? The sum total of Youtube is not quite what Vaughan had in mind, perhaps: it is a random collection of videos with every possible intent, genre and production value, and most of it is designed to stand alone. Even if there are ‘series’, few of them are the fragmented takes that Vaughan wants the careful viewer to be able to sift and evaluate. Such individual takes that are on Youtube are generally dilettante work, or short pieces of remarkable footage of the ‘there’s a puma in the Australian bush’ genre. But there is a type of verite offered on Youtube and other social media: that of the confessional voice; mediated individuals offering up their own ‘truths’ to the internet.
Putting aside how we can evaluate the integrity of such material (which I touch on here), what profilmic event do such texts represent? In social media, the subject never overcomes self-consiousness, the text s/he creates is always with publication in mind. We can never forget the camera is rolling, for we ourselves are both director and camera-person (as well as talent). Vaughan (p 56) cites an early public ‘performance’ of this ilk, the Nazi Party Conference of 1934, staged so Leni Reifenstahl could get good shots. It was an event that would never have been held but for the needs of the camera. Social media, no matter how confessional, is staged, scripted and performed. And if the author doesn’t like the result, it can be redone/edited/unpublished/removed. In social media, there is no profilmic event. The event is the film. There is nothing for the camera to capture in an off-guard moment; there are no off-guard moments. The performance is the reality.
Fetveit (p797) argues that the credibility of images is discourse-specific. That may be true, and the credibility of confessional social media may be contextual and consensual. Does all the social media from personX add up?
Our desire for the evidential is, perhaps, a naive one, and Vaughan’s desire to hunt down a strategy to attain it doomed. Perspectives, rather than evidence, is what media offers us, and what we use to form our own judgements, and perhaps that should be enough. Unless you live in a completely solipsistic bubble such evidence as we gain from our always-partial senses and the always-perspectival media is what seems to serve us well, most days of the week.
Fetveit,A., (1999) ‘Reality TV in the digital era: a paradox in visual culture?’ Media Culture Society 21.
Renov, M (2004). The subject of documentary. Minneapolis: Univ. Minnesota Press.
Vaughan, Dai (1999) ‘The Aesthetics of ambiguity’ in For Documentary: twelve essays. Berkeley: Univ. california Press, pp. 54-83
[Image: ‘Fly on the wall’ by Rakka: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rakka/2532479587/