H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-PCAACA@h-net.msu.edu (May, 2000)
Janet Walker and Diane Waldeman. Feminism and Documentary.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 365 pp. $49.95
(cloth), ISBN 0-8166-3006-2; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8166-3007-0.
Reviewed for H-PCAACA by Patrick H. Griffin ,
College of the Canyons and El Camino College
Few intellectual movements have had as much impact on post-modernist
social and behavioral studies as feminism. This especially the case
with its impact on film studies. Right from the start thirty-plus
years ago, with the street-wise beginnings of feminist writing, an
academic tradition of feminism and film was shaped which has
steadily pushed the boundaries of understanding film theory and
experience. The exploration has looped with the post-modernist work
of Lacan, Barthes, Derain and Foucault, both nourishing them and
being nourished by them. Along the way, feminist approaches have
made major contributions to the discussion of film issues such as
the question of putative and pro-filmic, direct cinema, voice,
reflectivity, and power and victim in documentary.
Feminism and Documentary is a survey of this achievement. A part
of a series on feminist thought ("Visible Evidence"), this
collection is an updated representation of feminist writing which
explores the "thin crust of historical reality" (as the editors put
it in the "Introduction") in documentary and historical studies.
The "Introduction" is well worth the price of admission. In an
essay richly footnoted, editors Diane Waldman and Janet Walker trace
the issues and changing images of feminist thought and documentary.
It includes a balanced pro and con of documentary issues raised by
feminist concern with film.
The pace of the introduction is pretty well maintained in the essays
that follow. The articles are not solely a discussion of feminist
theory, although each proceeds from a feminist perspective. They
open up broad issues in historical studies such as the role of the
documentary film seminar as a record of documentary thought, the
sentimentalizing of the labor movement, rockamentary, sexuality and
modern cultural studies, the reconstruction of memory in historical
studies and film, African American documentary, taboos and fetish in
historical studies -- to isolate several of the issues.
In the first section, "Historicizing the Documentary," there is an
engaging dialogue between documentary and feminism. Paula
Rabinowitz's "Sentimental Contracts" uses the works of Michael Moore
(Roger and Me) and Barbara Kopple (esp. American Dream) to explore a
labor movement which has lost its guts in genderized dreams of
sentimentality. Alexandra Juhasz's "Bad Girls Come and Go" is about
the borders and "danger places" of sexuality in contemporary times,
the shaping of anger and desire in transgression "video," and the
"taboo" areas of historical situation (popularized by Camille
Paglia, among others).
The collection of articles under "Filmmaker and Subject: Self/Other"
includes essays on African American feminist documentary,
rockamentary and a cross-cultural filmmaker's account of making a
documentary in feminist and ethnic space. Especially suggestive is
the essay by Susan Knobloch on D. A. Pennebacher's documentary on
Bob Dylan, Don't Look Back in Anger. She applies the feminist
concept of the "gaze" to a male subject with interesting
I found the third section of the book most rewarding. It is a
notable discussion on memory and historical reconstruction, in the
context of ethnic experience, with implications both for documentary
filmmakers and historians. Sylvia Kratzer-Julifs' discussion of the
reconstructed experience of Turkish women in German film concerns
the constructed nature of our subjectivity. Laura Marks levers Andre
Bazin's observation that "photography is fetish and fossil" to a
thought provoking analysis of the documentary about artist Shauna
Beharry and her mother in the film "Seeing is Believing." The
contribution by Deborah Lefkowitz on her own holocaust documentary,
"Intervals of Silence: Being Jewish in Germany," raises significant
questions concerning silence -- and space -- in both documentary
film witnessing and in historical document generally. Part IV of the
book includes self-analysis by feminist documentary filmmakers,
including a summary of feminist documentary by Julia Lesage.
The collection of essays expands and updates the pioneering work of
some of the key break through figures in feminist thought about
film, including Eileen McGarry, Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp
and, especially, Kate Mulvey and E. Anne Kaplan.
Feminism and Documentary is more than a document about feminism in
film studies. It is a guide to the major issues in the study of
documentary film today, a tribute to the impact of feminism on film
and history studies, and especially the concept of "the gaze." Both
the recognition of the historical study of film and the emergence of
feminist thought occurred at roughly the same point in time thirty
years ago, and the methodological link is solid and significant.
The relationship has another dimension. In many ways, historiography
has reached a cul-de-sac under the post-modernist pressures of
deconstructionism . Social and behavioral sciences have moved on to
a post-post modernist concern with organic structure, organic
feedback and praxiological studies There has been only a muted echo
of this in historical studies. The feminist "gaze," as reflected in
this book, offers a view from post-modernism from which historical
studies can approach these new directions in social and behavioral
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