» Co-working

Reflections inspired by Berlin Documentary Forum 2010

By Egle Obcarskaite

“For here we met

And here we kissed,

And here one cold and moonless night

We said goodbye”

I would not want to imply that there is an obvious link between the story of the ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de La Mancha and construction of utopian cosmology. And yet the temptation to play with such a path of interpretation arises. Especially as dictated from the perspective of things among which we find ourselves. A Don Quixote musical which was performed on Broadway and which found it’s way to virtual households through YouTube, is a musical that reduced the particular literary figure into a romantic hero defined by contemporary standards. It is a reality, a reality more real than itself, and it has kind of a utopian twist.

Utopian thinking has an ambiguous nature. First of all, one might ask, why do we create fairy tales? This symbolic representation of an environment that one finds him/herself in exposes longing for the inscription of their desired presence in it.

“It is not easy to exit the domain of presence” was said during the opening talk on the topic of documentaries at the beginning of the Berlin Documentary Forum, 2-6, June 2010. The domain of presence within the discourse that was produced during the Documentary Forum, more or less explicitly articulated, happened to be one of the key concerns.

And this is what followed: “There is something utopian about presence…”; the radicality of documentary is revealed through its claim of pertaining to the reality of presence and by bringing up the question as to whether or not there is an outside of the presence. The guess was that there is.  There is outside of the presence, and that it is “de-limited.”

“Documentary is about what doesn’t exist, not about what does exist.” I found this in the notes I took at the Documentary Forum.  Authorship dissolved in the flow of narratives, and the quotes became faceless.  This is what places me in the trajectory of bringing documentary and utopia into parallel spheres. Utopia is a way of thinking that has a solitary character, (which you will probably take as a highly arguable assumption). The perception and imagining of (non-)existence actualizes itself in the solitude of one’s mind. However, utopia has its own becoming: it is a solitary thinking of the social, where think is oneself in a role–that of a spectator, that of a producer, that of a thinker.

Is the fundamental characteristic of utopia its depiction of a non-existing world and the time that is yet to come? I would take the other direction and claim that the core moments of creating utopia are reflection and its indebtedness to textual articulation as its primary means of manifestation.

Well, maybe it is actually two sides of the same coin, this reflection and being based in language. The Western cultural tradition introduces utopia first through texts. Thus the utopia that we talk or know about most fails to escape its literary character. It entered the cultural discourse in a form of literary genre. One can surely think of the cornerstone of literary utopia–the Sir Thomas More Utopia is the one that pops up as the textbook example.  However, I was always tempted to follow Isaiah Berlin on his account of utopian thinking in the Western tradition, namely, that the embryo of utopian thinking is to be found as far back as texts by Homer and Hesiod. Probably the first significant utopia within the written tradition of the West, according to Berlin, was Plato’s Republic.

I would not say that it is a particularly philosophical tradition that gets me digging up the dimension of reflection within utopian thinking, even if it that may be the case to some extent. The fact of the matter is that it is hard to deny that the fictional construction of a desired cosmos starts with dissatisfaction with the existing one, which means: with critical interpretation of the current conditions. The paradox of this movement lies in the fact that the very first attempt to position oneself critically comes through language and therefore closes the potentiality of movement. However, the desire for intervention is satisfied, even if only on the symbolic level.

The call for reflection was one of the strongest concerns of the Documentary Forum. As festival director Hila Peleg stated,

“The notion of truth has been contested within the field of the documentary ever since it was first defined. Some forms have been explicitly denounced as particular modes of producing ‘truth’ in the service of hegemonic powers, and that very critique has given rise to other forms. The ‘old’ conception of the documentary as a somewhat ‘neutral’ window to a reality ‘out there’ gradually gives way to a new understanding of the documentary as representational practices that are ‘reality-driven.’

Such practices must reflect and question their means of representation in their capacity to account for complex, layered realities. Rather than ‘capturing’ reality, the documentary is then characterized–and differentiated from other forms of artistic and intellectual practice such as the writing of fiction–by a commitment to actual events, histories and sites. It is such a commitment that then becomes the backdrop against which the means of representation are being measured and assesed. This can, and indeed must, include a reflection of one’s own speaking position as a producer of images and narratives, and a critical interrogation of the power politics inherent to signification, of the economies in which images and histories circulate, and the performative nature of montage, rhetorics, gestures, staging and frames”.

It is such a beautiful claim which itself remains utopian. I will come back to its utopian scent at the end of the text. But now I am fascinated rather by how precisely the negativity that is etymologically inscribed in the very term of utopia predetermines its textual character. This name is heavily loaded by the negation ou- of the space, and thus by the negation of its potential materiality, which lands it nowhere else than squarely in a conceptual narrative.

And this negativity brings two things together with it — the failure of language (or let’s say from now on ‘narrative,’ taking into account its bond to the textual) to represent the happening, and the necessity of utopia turning into dystopia. Utopia never ends up as a happily-ever-after. It always presupposes its natural conversion into a dystopia that is predetermined by its limits. Whether we talk about limits of language or we talk about limits of representation, we end up dealing with the limits of the medium. Language is a medium, therefore, it corresponds the documentary’s failure of medium.  Thus, documentary dystopia is the failure of the medium, and utopia is the failure of language to become something else than language.

It is of no surprise that Baudrillard puts the image of Borges’ maps at the start when he introduces his notion of simulacrum. It has some utopian character of ‘not-space’. And the ‘not-space’ that doesn’t go anywhere else than language. When I think of documentary, it is the Gulliverian utopia par excellence. It creates maps of places that are, and always remain, imaginary places, places of one’s own narrative. Places where we travel only as Gullivers.

Utopian thinking at its core is related to reflection and construction of the narrative, and thus to discourse. Curator Okwui Enwezor was the one at the Documentary Forum who beautifully introduced the discursive dimension by articulating the term “documentary’s discursive practices” and arguing for the necessity of talking about it. He delivered the term from the context in which it was introduced by Rosalind Krauss in her book Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Okwui Enwezor does not rest his notion of discursive documentary primarily on the issue of narrative or language; however, the way he introduces it opens the path for further discussions of the disposition of the documentary through the perspective of language. It comes to me in the back of my head even when he talks about the documentary image:

“The documentary image is supposed to perform truth effects. The social contract surrounding such images cannot be sundered, for to do so is to shatter the public trust, the belief we all invest in the search for truth. But not all images provoke the desire for truth. Some provoke the public desire to mask the truth, to keep it from public exposure, a situation that constitutes intolerable image, and its intolerability.”

Such intolerability, I would argue, is unavoidably present in utopia as well, both in its emergence (the intolerability to an environment that inspires the construction of utopia) and its manifestation (the critical reflection upon and articulation of said environment). Further, utopia is fundamentally intolerable to itself, and that manifests through its position of being ever-prepared to become dystopia.  Even though utopia is mostly narrated as a “happy condition,” and then dystopia appears as a situation of misbalance, of the crisis of utopia, of its failure, this failure is embedded in it right from the beginning.

So here it is: the narrative, textual, and compositional character of utopia, as well as its embedded negativity, its a priori failure, this potentiality that continuously actualizes itself, just in the same way — and thus I say symbolically — manifests itself in the ‘real’ of the documentary.

The very fundamental principles that define documentary today move in parallel to the principles that define utopia. It takes its share from language and text, even if the textual form is only related to it as a narrative.  Its claim to represent reality is basically the claim for its critical reflection. It ends up in a closed circle.  Utopia is its embedded negativity and basis in language, which a priori implies its dystopian character.  Documentary falls under the dys-/u-/topian telos of its very medium. Failure is promised to everyone.
In a last attempt to save itself, documentary begs for a new definition. And it is rather easy to give it one.  Going back to the statement by Hila Peleg, the new definition of documentary does not rest on its medium or its claim to represent the reality.  Documentary, however, finds itself related to reality, as she puts it, “reality-driven.”  In this way, the relation to reality places agency in the position of reflection, and reflection has roots in language.

The new path, however, cannot set documentary free from its acknowledged fallacies and failures, as it cannot rid it of its tendency to create an illusion of representing ‘the real.’ The reason for this is the audience.  Its relation to reality seduces us, enchants us, and the ‘real’ narrative imposes its own rules on us. The reflective position that the audience ought ideally to take is not common knowledge.  It hides and pretends to be something other than it is. The fact that reality pretends to be real, as caused by the relation of documentary to reality, causes documentary to pretend to be a representation of reality. As long as this keeps happening, we will be tempted to believe in it. And we will believe.

Documentary will remain utopia: utopia as deterritorialization, de-temporalization, and displacement of “not-place” and “not-time.”


Evidence; Image; Author-ity; Elsewhere; Possibility; Moment;  Presence; Legitimacy; Balance




PHOTO CREDITS:  Video stills from:

Drinnen, das ist wie draußen, nur anders (1977) Directed by: Michael Mrakitsch. Picture from Berlin Documentary Forum Archive.

Schalom oder Wir haben nichts zu verlieren (1983) Directed by: Michael Mrakitsch. Picture from Berlin Documentary Forum Archive.