On Documentary Impulse: the desire to encounter the real through making records (2) 記述的衝動:長路漫漫(二)

On Documentary Impulse: the desire to encounter the real through making records (2) 記述的衝動:長路漫漫(二)

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

發表於: 27 Mar 2022

In part 2 of her 2-part discussion on documentary impulse, Linda Lai keys in on “there-ness” as a specific form of desire manifested in image-making in French cinema between the two world wars. With additional historical examples on the naming of the documentary, she contemplates moving image’s integrity in connecting and re-inventing our experiences as technics.「記述的衝動」的下半部,黎肖嫻專注於電影記述、保存、調解和開創現實的「他在」的個性,尤其以法國兩次大戰之間的電影實存和理論發展,以至紀錄片的被命名為特殊的歷史個案,再談到活動影像作為連結經驗的獨有的內部技術。

*feature image: a key image from Delluc’s Le Chemin d’Ernoa (1920) Source: https://www.cinematheque.fr/article/762.html  

**Citation of the original essay: Lai, Linda C.H.. “The desire to encounter the real through making records.” In Our Manifestos II: Videography, Documentary Impulses, 326-339; Hong Kong: Floating Projects, 2021.

***The English version is an expansion of the original published essay (11 April 2021), whereas the Chinese version is the original published piece, a summary of the English version with a different structure. 中文版為英語原文的短板。– 28 March 2022



Linda Lai | On Documentary Impulse: the desire to encounter the real through making records (revised 26 March 2022)

My effort to trace documentary impulses perpetuating through the history of creative media — from cave-marks, wall painting and map-making to photography, writing, printing and the many inventions of notation systems — takes me finally to the spot of the moving image. In the specific context of videography, I have been looking for ways to understand the many instances in which the documentary impulse manifests as the individual artists’ expressiveness which defines their activities. Expressivity here could not be fully understood unless by taking a materialist approach. The moving image must be considered as a spectrum of entities: an image as imagery, as a technical object, an utterance, as a speech act, and as an event. To advance this discussion, I return to a somewhat “forgotten” critic-theorist-poet and moving image practitioner, Louis Delluc (1890-1924, France). To him, cinema is mute yet direct and eloquent in communication. To him, the technical, perceptual and expressive are inseparable in cinema. To me, this describes a minimum characterization of “technics.” Delluc understands film as having a tripartite nature — as an industrial-commercial object, as a means of communication, and as a work of art (McCreary, 15) — which is a relevant starting point for my discussion here.

What also draws me to Delluc is his visionary thinking: he was “more concerned with what film could be than with what it was and what it had been (15).” McCreary made a list of Delluc’s keywords on an ideal cinema in his writings — sincere, true, authentic, natural, simple, alive, everyday, interior, modern, sober — which reads like a prophetic anticipation of what took 25 years to come, in Italy, realized in post-War Italian Neo-Realism (18). Indeed, there is a strange connection between INR and the videographic works presented in Manifestos II — the shared desire of reaching out to the real world out there with the belief that a certain organized language of sight and sound must be in place to highlight marvels and what is hidden. Cinema is about details; to Delluc, it is at once living painting, animated painting, and visual poetry (20).

Photogénie & the “There-ness” of Cinema 

Usually considered a concept of cinematic impressionism, “photogénie” (Flinn, Aitken, McCreary) was used by Louis Delluc to refer to the moving image’s unique capacity in rendering the expressive quality of an object or a character. In echo, René Clair (1898-81) pinned down such capacity on the camera’s transformative power, by which details of reality could be extended to “the realm of the wondrous.” (Aitken, 82) This latter addition by a fellow filmmaker turns the camera into technics — i.e. tools and machines that establish its own cognitive-perceptual parameters — which amplify expressive tenacity, leading to the transformation of experiences. In Aitken’s words, the latent power within the moving image is connected to the camera’s “ability to poeticize the ordinary and the prosaic” (82), afforded by the camerawork’s established parameters, such as framing, composition, motion, light and shade, which have subsequently been subject to continuous re-definition through the moving image’s chemical, electronic, intermedia and digital phases.

In 1917, Delluc delineated that cinema is not a matter of stylization of transient reality – it moves beyond art toward “life itself” (Flinn, 26). Jean Epstein (1897-1953), another Impressionist filmmaker, took up this idea around 1935 to suggest camera mechanism’s power in moving towards the world’s secret reality,  which Flinn calls the “thereness” of cinema (Flinn, 26). Thereness refers to Delluc’s asserting cinema’s ability to exteriorize and objectify a phenomenon: “truth of reality is there, the camera is there, and the eye is here,” which also suggests cinema’s revelatory power. Thereness in Epstein’s discussion is expressed in his emphasis on cinema’s localization.

Both Delluc and Epstein highlight cinema’s partiality towards place-ness. Reality is out there, and must be found, revealed and understood when it is locatable. Thereness is the marker of the object of knowledge. In Delluc and Epstein’s time, it was by and large the modern city; and the concept is meant to be a response to the maturing “city film” and “city portraits” of the time, be it critical, argumentative or observational (Flinn). The city portrait is not only being in time, but also being in space. (Keller). In 21st-century contemporary society around the world, what is the thereness that artists seek to reveal in order to know? What kinds of portraits of the world? Should we open up the term “city film” or abandon it altogether? The there-ness of a camera-driven artistic practice connects what is appearance and what is hidden, on the assumption that all appearances have their unseen roots. What is the thereness we would seek to observe and find in our contemporary condition? Almost all of the videographic works in the Manifesto series are portrait of the space out there before us where we find and make sense of life.

Louis Delluc’s Fievre (Fever), 1921, 31m, silent, viewable on Internet Archive:  https://archive.org/details/fievre_202106


Epstein expounded on Delluc’s concept of photogénie to distinguish it from literature and visual arts. Photogénie brings together the camera, the maker, the place and the viewer so they become momentarily one. Although the term has been criticized to be elusive, mystical, abstract, sentimental, and even confounding, I am drawn to the desires that prompted Delluc and Epstein to create this term. What was it that they strived to contain and indicate? To contemporary videographers photogénie points us back to the fluidity and mobility of the moving image, whereby aesthetic vision and technology must not be separated. The presence of an imaging tool is positively transforming our cognitive-perceptual experience of the world. As such, videography is not biased towards interpretation, but the empirical conjoining of the tool (its eye), the author (her eye) and the viewer (my eye). I am ready to let go of the question of truth and beauty embodied in the transcendental subject that comes along in the same package with photogénie. The “thereness” of photogénie to me affirms the performative nature of the videographic moment, which then enables the viewer to enjoy “there-ness” as “here,” and “that moment” as “this moment,” and the hidden to seen – and this is central to the operation of our documentary impulse. The emotions on the spot play is critical, in the process of thereness turned “hereness.”

The above discussion from a specific moment of French cinema history by a few visionary individuals would not be properly understood unless we fully embrace their general quest for cinema — for Delluc, it is in order to realize cinema’s full potential and full responsibility (to his country France). Delluc was critiqued for his desire for expressive intimacy of the individual artist with his/her work. My emphasis here is not to rescue the fame of a modernist theorist-practitioner, but to understand him as the case of an earnest individual seeking to transform his creative-artist integrity into an urgent response to the crisis in his time, through understanding the “new” tool of great potential in his hand, which is what I connect with.  (See also William Wee’s essay for his critique of photogénie for weighing the elements of the photograph over the elements of the image.) The legitimacy of my case-selection lies within the media archaeology, by which I, a distant observer, free of the historicist baggage, re-discover broken links between 1920-30s France and the contemporary work of imaging. The imperfect deeds of a struggling individual, such as the short-lived Delluc, is a research subject that an archaeological method allows, on organological assumptions.


Image from Blacksmith Scene (1893), produced by Thomas Edison, directed by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, shot by William Heise; the first film ever publicly exhibited on the completed version of the Edison-Dickson Kinetoscope Wikipedia: public domain


Actuality Films + Trick Cinema: two arms of the same impulse

Our documentary impulse pre-existed the normalization of the documentary as a film genre; at one point it exploded with photography, then augmented by the moving image as the movie camera, the projector and the introduction of electric power for everyday use all came together in the 1890s.

Film favors particularities and concrete presence over and against generalities. A critical review of Early Cinema (roughly 1895-1907) shows that people’s initial fascination with the moving image was the concrete “showing” (presentation) of something by placing it right in front of the camera, or by bringing the (clumsy) camera there. Whereas the desire for the image to move had lied long and low, the final completion of the new medium and its apparatuses immediately generated new curiosities: the (immobile) single shot (due to the immovable heavy camera) was considered for the frame’s indicative value – look at me, here I am, here it is! – and that is cinema’s epistemological source. From what was in between shots and how to connect them came the invention of magic played cinematically, also the rudiments of the animated picture, all innovative responses to the camera that remained still in the same place. 

A closer look calls one’s attention to the constructiveness of “truth” (the real). As a matter of fact, Edison’s own kinetoscopic peep-show (e.g. Blacksmith Scene, 1893, The Barbershop, 1894, and the Sandow series, 1894) and other projected shorts were all re-enactment of familiar, everyday scenarios – the re-staging of Edison Studio’s employees having a shave in a neighbourhood barber shop, seminary girls throwing pillows towards one another with feathers floating all over the place, vaudeville show performer Sandow showing his muscles in front of the camera and many more. The impulse to “show” the audience something to highlight its live-ness was as much as that to show the wonder of a piece of new technology. “Actuality films” and “trick cinema” shared the same documentary impulse — real life scenarios and the tricks cinema could play. Cinematic truth could refer to a photograph’s indexical transparency, but it was hand in hand with re-enactment and staging from day one of film. The fascination of seeing the real was almost equivalent with re-staging a normal activity in real life in front of the camera so that the new medium can “record” it as a “document” of the real. 

Within the historical discourse of the documentary film, we know the textbook classics, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922, 78 minutes, silent), was a perfected re-enactment of everyday activities resulting from many months and years of work by a traveling trader’s field presence. 

The film Nanook (1922) had grown over a 12-year time span, first as oral accounts of the bay of the Inuit region told by Weetaltuk to Flaherty, then a map he made of the region, and a book he published on the topic, My Eskimo Friends: Nanook of the North (1909). The impulse to record and to pass on was far more complex than the documentary film alone. As for the filmmaking part, it did start out in 1913 as an on-the-sport recording of life in the region, but turned to re-enactment for the camera in 1920 for communicative efficacy (Wikipedia: Robert J. Flaherty). The captions in the two images below speak of the details.

The Bell and Howell hand-cranked camera (1907) that Flaherty carried with his trade expedition in 1913 was an 8mm Movie Camera with Electric Eye. However, his cigarette ignited a fire on the nitrate and destroyed the entire 30,000 feet of footage in his editing room.In 1920, with new funds from a fur company, he made his return trip with two Akeley cine cameras (35mm with tripod and panning head), together with full developing, printing, and projection equipment to show the Inuit his film. (Wikipedia)


The fascination of seeing the real in Edison and Flaherty’s films was almost equivalent with re-staging a normal activity in real life in front of the camera so that the new medium can “record” it as a “document” of the real, preserving not only the people in activities, but also the ambiences. Flaherty’s classics pre-existed the naming of the “documentary” genre; the term was said to be introduced by British filmmaker John Grierson in his review for Flaherty’s Moana in 1926. But the emphasis all through had always been “the document,” or, the attempt to create a transmittable “document.”

The term “documentary impulse” is the title of Stuart Franklin’s 2016 book, which defends photojournalism. From the perspectives of the psychological needs of recording, he highlights many functional needs of news photos’s archiving significance — as support for objective reportage, therapy, observation of social rituals, evidence for the need of social change, and the immortalization of specific remembrance. These functions justify re-enactment and reconstruction for the sake of re-presentation in contingent moments.

And what about a reenactment of Flaherty’s reenactment? Kabloonak (1994, 103 minutes, fiction film) takes up this legendary effort to record by creating another “document” that is a placeholder for the moods, sentiments and the thick controversial rumours surrounding the record to be considered as a set of shareable, open-ended experiences. Thus, film announcements dub: “the film is about the making of Nanook of the North, a 1922 film about an Inuk called Nanook and his family in the Canadian Arctic.” Some enthusiastic viewer took the pain of comparing Nanook and Kabloonak on their visual presentation. [……] “The making of…” is part of our everyday usage now to suggest the inevitable intervention of reality via technics. It also suggests the open-ended nature of human experiences, whereby there are always layers of reality awaiting our ponderment, before we could start talking about textual interpretation. An interesting moment in Kabloonak is character Flaherty (played by Charles Dance) showing his footage to the natives. This is a moment we learned was suggested by the equipment list in the 1921 expedition (– a projector listed), but never seen in the final 1922 film circulated. Could we consider Kabloonak a more holistic coverage of the experience? I couldn’t help thinking about the many documentaries made about 2019 HK. Many commentaries have been written. To me, while these are comparable, compatible records, they are addressing different layers of a shared experience. Perhaps many more layers remain silent and silenced. Away from the streets, away from university campuses, how have our traumas manifested?


Mnemonic technics, self-techniques

The pre-WWII period of cinema in France could offer yet another interesting case to illustrate the ramifications of film as a unique mnemonic technics in times of contingency. In The Social Architecture of French Cinema: 1929-1939, Margaret Flinn discussed the French government’s new initiative – the genre of cinéma éducateur (educational film) – which includes not only “all documentary films that were made for classroom use, but also documentary films with theatrical releases.” The same policy encouraged the use of films as audio-visual supplements in teaching. As well, the production of public announcement films was institutionalized, targeted at juveniles, youths and adults to educate them in general health knowledge, civic responsibilities and so on. It was a moment of Nazi threat intensifying by the day, of a belated yet severe economic depression (– in around 1931, which was 2 years after the start of USA’s Great Depression in 1929 –) looming, as well as commercial anxiety due to the belated transition from silent to sound film in 1929 (compared to 1926 in the US). Yet some interesting crossovers emerged as a result — cinema scientifique (science film), which leaned towards research and discovery rather than pedagogy, such as surgical films limited to teaching in hospital settings, propaganda (health issues such as contraception and abortion) and military film, and feature-length “fiction films of some edifying moral nature.” (Flinn, 27-28)


Videos of “thereness”: Radical Empiricism 

Our documentary impulse is defendable and traceable from a media archaeological perspective. The articulation of that impulse as videographic practice is to strive for “radical empiricism.” (See discussion in “Prologue.”) Videography is a mode of radical empiricism, refreshing, via technology, and asking what it means to experience. As a form of individuated experience (from other artistic methods), videography resists singular classification; it embraces multiplicity and what is becoming. It liaises with what is concrete and what is virtual; it channels the flow between what is interior and what is exterior. Videography is a technological form of life that is neither purely linguistic nor aesthetic. By this, we situate our discussion in a new materialist paradigm that understands our being and subjectivity in relation to affordances of technics. Co-agentic realism also necessitates the refinement of what “experience” means and the role it plays in the truth procedures of art.

Videographers occupy the here and now, being mindful of the pain and struggle of the past, and yet directing at certain points of the future, desires yet to be named. Experiences “written” and crafted as videos could be concrete, detailed, presencing “there-ness” or narratively procedural; they could be equally elusive and ambiguous, resisting authoritarianism, and pointing to what lies in the negative domain. Human and technics form actor-networks (Bruno Latour’s term). In videography, our documentary impulse moves toward the bridging relations between video as speech acts, as technological affordances and aesthetical dialectics – or an assemblage of all this. We thus arrive at the threshold of a total reinvention of our vocabulary for videography, to suggest how we remember. 

“Video Manifesto 2,” or Our Manifestos II: Videography, Documentary Impulses (writings + videos), assembles many experiments. Together they form a web-work of desires, awaiting endless future re-configurations. (11 April 2021, revised 26 March 2022, Hong Kong)

The Infernal Cauldron is a 1903 hand-colored trick film by Georges Méliès. Wikipedia: public domain. Those who had fun with the moving image in the early days of cinema knew that in addition to bringing their camera to an interesting object, there was tremendous room for creativity in how to frame, how to connect footage and how to project — space of magic indeed!「玩」電影的人,早已同時理解電影的「拍」「接」「投影」之間有很多可玩的「魔法」



電影作為記述的媒體傾向具體的、此時此刻的,而不是普遍性的對真相的採納。當然,瞭解電影史的都知道:把具體的事物呈現在鏡頭前是早期電影的衝動,或說是發明相關器具的原動力。而這個強調「具體像真」、「實時收錄、稍後展現」的慾望,由電影的起步,便和另一種我們淡化了的操作不能分割,就是在攝影機前把現實「重組重構整理以仿真」(re-enactment, re-staging, in order to re-present),有如把經常發生的「真實」再一次復活於攝影機前好被記錄。對現實觀察、理解、然後重構先於拍攝的安排;於此同時,「玩」電影的人,早已同時理解電影的「拍」「接」「投影」之間有很多可玩的「魔法」,又或三者各自有其實驗性。這是為何二十世紀頭十年充滿了既是記錄又是動畫 (actuality film + trick cinema) 的好玩片子。

經典紀錄片例子固然有攝影師兼探礦者 Robert Flaherty 的 Nanook of the North (1922),憑藉攝影再現的指涉上的透明性,展現了在鏡頭前重演的真實。也是相約時段「紀錄片」這個類型被冠名,傳說是1926年蘇格蘭電影拍攝者John Grierson 為 Flaherty 的另一部的片子 Moana 寫評論時起的名稱。在此教科書級的例子出現前,早期的真實的為捕捉而重演或刻意安排的表演俯拾皆是。愛迪生著伙計把攝影機抬到鄰居的理髮點前面即興重演被刮鬍子的情景,又或著一群女孩在房間裡互拋睡枕弄得漫天羽毛等等,一鏡到底,都捉著了人們對新科技的好奇;同時也滿溢著為真實製造記錄的旨趣,以至對電影帶來的新鮮的記錄功能而興致勃勃。這個新媒體還可以為我們記住些甚麼?

1894, Thomas Edison’s Barbershop



在電影媒體的歷史證據裡,教化、知識傳遞、表述的創作性和政治經濟求存往往是勾在一起的事。Margaret C. Flinn 論述法國電影兩次大戰期間約1929-1939年作為社會建築的面向時,提到了當時出現的一個電影類型 — 「電影教育者」(Cinema educateur / educatif)  — 所涵括的有所有為教室課堂用的以至戲院放映的紀錄片。由政府發動,「電影教育者」政策一方面鼓勵在課堂裡用電影輔助教學,又有特別針對青少年和成人的教育性電影,推廣公民意識和衛生常識。我們該能夠想像當時德國納粹黨拔起,法國國內經濟大蕭條,對默片變聲片的過渡的遲緩構成種種障礙。政治和商業壓力(– 面對荷李活電影王國而言), 國難在即是事實,文化領域上,卻冒出了科學電影 (cinema scientifique) ,促成了研究、發明為重點的電影品種,包括用於醫院內教學用的臨床手術電影,接著有宣傳健康課題(如避孕、墮胎),以至軍事電影。(Flinn, 27)



從電影的創作性的角度 – 即電影作為文學詩性和視覺美學的延展和繼承,不乏強調「媒體特殊性」(medium-specificity) 的論述,回到電影的本質問題,例如 Jean Epstein (1897-1953) 延伸 Louis Delluc (1890-1924) 的 Photogénie 就是一個例子。對很多人來說,這個觀念抽象、神秘、虛、過於感性,總說不清。但這個觀念來自的是數個電影創作者,那我們可以想像性一點去挨近他們造這個詞的時候背後的渴望。對數碼媒體創作的今天來說,Epstein 對電影技術與藝術性不能分開的起點有了新的關切性。(Keller) 他對電影影像的「流」(fluidity) 和「動」(mobility) 的重點,指向的並非解讀而是對電影文本和觀者在經驗上的接合。Photogénie 強調攝影機的存在改變了我們對世界的認知,技術轉化了我們對物質世界的觀感經驗。按這個理念,攝影機在那裡、真實就在那裡、我們的眼睛也在那裡,三者得以匯聚。(我樂於放棄Epstein對所謂「美」「真理」的擁抱,仍然可以問:)這為我們的「記述的衝動」打開了怎樣的門呢?《錄像宣言2》就是一個詳盡無法簡化的回應。

Photogénie 強調主體性和情感、景物因攝影而充分結合;但我更覺有指導性的,是錄像如何繼承了電影的「他在」的性格 (“there-ness”,Margaret Flinn 由 Louis Delluc 的 photogénie 引伸出來的說法) — 我們因作品而看到一個新的世界在我們的面前展現。「他在」性沒有把真理全融入一個影像的包袱,而是把活動影像看成為外在於我們,且不等同於外在真理的實存 – 在眼前,在「那裡」。(Flinn, 26)

image from the first Lumière film, La sortie des usines Lumiere (Workers Leaving the Lumière factory, 1895).Wikipedia: CC BY-SA 3.0



這個集子的「序言」已討論過,錄像書寫指向前衛刷新的經驗主義,是一個新唯物論所引伸的「協同實在論」(co-agentic realism),科技(器物)和人以至語言活動、各種建制條件等等組成了一張經驗的網,而經驗,若要被記述的話,也不是獨立個人為中心的、單由一個「我」的主體去申訴的經驗,而是不同經驗之間的千絲萬縷的關係所構成的。「他在」性啟發的起點,刷新經驗,打開經驗的門。錄像書寫的始肇是個人的,強調洞見、獨到眼光,可日常經驗是紛繁多序的,那用錄像去書寫經驗,又怎能把豐富的、被經驗的壓縮為單一的「我所感」的陳述,簡化的視像符號?用不少「錄像宣言2」的作者的說法,錄像書寫很多時候啟發了發現的過程,作品出現了,「我」才冒現,經驗才再次成形,於是可以被感知。這也是「他在」性。

錄像書寫人盤據此時此刻,滿心是已過去的茵陳(比喻:災難處境中的苦楚,不公平的事),朝向的是未來的某點某處某個尚未起名的渴想。有些經驗是具體的,時間人物地點背景語境都不能弄錯,有些是有板有眼的,有些確實可見細節玲瓏剔透,卻有更多的躺臥在虛無虛擬的領域,你只能搭一條橋或多放幾塊踏腳石去接觸它,又或勇敢的騰空跳取個鳥瞰;器具 (藝技 technics) 就在此間變得不可或缺。錄像書寫關於的是語言的事?以科技為載體的生命?是美的表現?難道我們真的那麼急著要個單一的答案嗎?

《錄像宣言2》的一眾書寫人提供了很多實驗、此階段的總結,也合成一張述說「經驗」– 也包括慾望的 — 可變陣的網。




Aitken, Ian. European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction. Edinburgh University Press, 2001.

Delluc, Louis. Photogénie. Paris: M. de Brunoff, 1920.

Farmer, Robert. “Epstein, Jean” in Senses of Cinema number 57, December 2010, read on 8 April 2021: https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2010/great-directors/jean-epstein/ 

Flinn, Margaret C.; Edmund Smyth, Charles Forsdick. The Social Architecture of French Cinema: 1929-1939. Liverpool University Press, 2014.

Franklin, Stuart. The Documentary Impulse. Phaidon, 2016.

Keller, Sarah. “Gambling on Photogenie: Epstein Now,” Cinea, 25 October 2012, read on 11 April 2021: https://cinea.be/gambling-on-photogenie-epstein-now/ 

Keller, Sarah; Jason N. Paul (ed.). Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations. Amsterdam University Press.

McCreary, Eugene C.. “Louis Delluc: Film Theorist, Critic, and Prophet.” Cinema Journal, v16 n1 (autumn, 1976): pp. 14-35.

Shell, Hanna Rose, and Gregg Mitman. “The Documentary Impulse.” Technology and Culture 58, no. 3 (2017): 846-855.

Wees, William C.. “The Camera-Eye: Dialectics of a Metaphor.” In Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film, chapter 1. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft438nb2fr/


RELATED READING: part 1 of “Documentary Impulse” [… …]



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