Documentary and Space: Introduction

by Ryan Bowles and Rahul Mukherjee 

[PDF version]

Documentary refuses to fit neatly into a particular genre, form, or mode. Opting instead to traverse them, documentaries are capable of shifting our perceptions of lived realities, as they tell stories of, comment on, and make arguments about the world in which we live. While putting together the call for papers for this issue of Media Fields Journal, we were interested in how the insertion of space into documentary’s aesthetic, narrative, and rhetorical potentialities could help us to better comprehend its artistic, cultural, pedagogical, historical and political value. We asked ourselves how a focus on documentary (in particular) and space would be different from a focus on film (in general) and space. Even acknowledging the assertion that documentary is not actuality or mere footage, perspectives that situate documentaries as offering us access to “the world” compared to fictional films presenting “a world” still resonates.[i] One can continue to emphasize the influence of narrative, editing, selection, studio-filmmaking, socio-historical context, and mise-en-scène techniques in the way documentaries portray space and yet, one cannot dismiss an argument that such a reconstructed, recreated, restaged, stitched together and mapped space of documentary [unlike a fictional film space] often does not separate the represented world from the viewer.[ii] The particular way in which documentary can both refer to “the world” and be part of that world sets in motion its tense and dynamic relationship with space[iii]—a tension that all of our contributors embrace in some way.  

Through our discussions we came to the understanding that in classical modes of film analysis, “space” is often relegated to the realm of aesthetics, with a film’s use of space then possibly evoking secondary effects that might be read as political or exploring operations of power. However, documentary studies has remained consistent in asking how aesthetic concerns relate to questions of politics or power; the sustained, passionate exploration of this relationship has been a reason why we have found ourselves so drawn to thinking about space in relation to documentary studies. Such explorations of documentary’s entanglement with politics, power, and truth cannot be dissociated from questions about documentary and space: to know what happened, how it happened, or even whether it happened, one would need to know where it happened[iv] and why it happened there. In other words, what is it about “there” that it should have happened at all?

In Nostalgia for the Light (2010), Patricio Guzmán’s marked dedication to documenting not only space-as-object but also space as productive and social moves us: to contemplation, to fierce emotions, to dreams. Indeed, we contend that Guzmán’s documentary cannot be comprehended without first having an understanding of how the film works on space; the socio-political impact of the film cannot be dissociated from its spatial practice. The object of Guzmán’s lens slips between the sand and sky of Chile’s Atacama Desert, from the home-space of the filmmaker, to the galaxy he dreamt of exploring as a child. While the film is in many ways about documentary evidence, it is able to be as attentive to the poetics of suffering as it is to the technoscientific “facts” about the universe—the telescopic imagery, use of the camera at multiple scales, sound effects, and the documentary voice-over all work to demystify and re-enchant both the outer space and the landscapes of Atacama. The film’s construction pushes us to acknowledge the ways in which the documentary itself participates in the spatial practice of making “the place” of the Atacama. This film brings forth so much of what we had imagined as the potentialities for a sustained focus on documentary-and-space that it seemed impossible not to briefly discuss it in our introduction to this issue. We are inspired by our contributors to try our hand at spatial analysis of the documentary, particularly after they have so generously and enthusiastically shared their work on documentary and space with us.


Stills from Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, 2010)

Working within a Lefebvrian spatial framework, while forgoing Lefebvre’s general skepticism of film, we argue that the documentary space of Nostalgia for the Light recognizes the place of the Atacama Desert as a socio-spatial product and expounds on its process of production, even as it continues to be a representational space.[v] According to Lefebvre, “representations of space” or “conceived spaces” are often shaped by the state, combining the knowledge and power tied to the order that relations of production impose.[vi] Guzmán is critical of the “conceived space” (read also “abstract space”) that was imagined and shaped by the Chilean Government during Pinochet’s dictatorship in the regime’s move to convert the early mining areas in the desert into the biggest concentration camp in Chacabuco. Guzmán is able to show that even as the state might try to appropriate places, ordinary people dwelling in “lived space” can experience and shape them.[vii] Luis, for example, links his lived experience as a political prisoner with his penchant for astronomy; he recalls how by “communicating with the stars he managed to preserve his own freedom.”

Guzmán’s documentary is not only concerned with the exploration of outer space through the giant telescopes stationed in astronomical observatories in Atacama but also social space, the space of social suffering, as we meet women whose family members were murdered and/or were made to disappear by Pinochet’s regime. These women still walk the dry and dusty terrain, bending down to sift the soil through their fingers, searching for bone fragments that might help them to reconstruct the past and come to terms with their pain. In the same desert, the film captures looming white domed edifices—housing giant telescopes, these man-made mechanisms allow an unmatched glimpse into a view beyond our vision and even understanding. Guzmán notes in the voice-over that these glimpses are afforded by some key physical and material attributes of Atacama, the fact that it has an exceptionally dry climate, a high altitude and a thin atmospheric layer above it. 

It is through this juxtaposition—between the women who wander the desert space, eyes on the ground, and the scientists who adjust their mechanical eye and turn it to the sky—that Guzmán’s film makes its most telling, painful and yet comforting observation. We are all searching, and our interactions with space (including outer space), in part constitute our relationships with the people around us, with our past, and with ourselves. Scientists using telescopes attempt to solve the mystery of “where do we come from?” as Violeta Berrios, still searching for the remains of a family member long lost, wishes that “the telescopes didn’t just look into the sky but could also see through the earth.” These juxtapositions should not be considered at the level of metaphor only for they also are a way of bringing together mental, physical and social spaces; these spaces are not only mutually constitutive of—but are in a dynamic relation with—the place of Atacama. Far from abstracting thoughts from lived experience and everyday materiality, Guzmán engages with the empirics of physical and social space, draws poetic and material connections between them, and as a result, the documentary space of Nostalgia for the Light is attendant to human interactions as they shape and are shaped by spaces around them. Following Edward S. Casey, one might conclude that the Atacama desert as inflected through Guzmán’s created documentary space does not remain a “site” for scientific or state project, but rather becomes a “place” with memories.[viii]

Our mode of analysis here is but one way to carry out a spatial analysis of Nostalgia for the Light. The scholar of documentary-and-space might, for instance, go out into the field, traveling to Atacama, tracing Guzmán’s travels, mapping out his shooting locations; or perhaps he or she would track the festivals where the film was shown, or spend time with the astronomers and trauma survivors depicted in the film, or research the role of the telescopes figured in the film, considering the ways in which they influenced the technologies Guzmán then used to render outer space.

Like Guzmán’s film, Documentary Studies itself wrestles with projects including the construction of history, the presentation of evidence, the projection of memory, and the drives toward pleasure and knowing. Debates in the subfield have often centered on how best to fulfill these projects, using methods ranging from reenactment, to expert testimonies, to voiceover. Each of these approaches and their combinations involve recreation and manipulation of space-times, and thus questions of space, explicitly or implicitly recognized, have always been there in documentary studies.

New forms, modes, and genres of documentary have sparked their own debates and raised their own particular issues. And it is perhaps this moment of changing modes, technologies, and practices that draws our attention to the importance of considering documentary space. But ours is not a new consideration; rather, it is a reconsideration of why space has always been a hugely important issue not only for those in documentary studies but also for visual anthropologists, geographers, ethnographers and journalists, among others. Yes, when we look to online production and video sharing, interactive “documentary games” and “immersive nonfictions,” it seems apparent that “viewers” are indeed interacting with and experiencing documentaries in different ways. [ix] However, we do not claim that these “new” modes are that which makes space suddenly important. Rather, it is this moment that draws our attention to the questions we might have been asking all along. For example, debates about whether one should rely on archival footage and testimony of social actors as opposed to opting for dramatic re-enactment involve spatial concerns, such as deciding in which locations to shoot, which bodies to film, and in what places. Such questions resurface again and again because they have a bearing on documentary’s ability to mediate and translate experiences of place, embodiment and subjectivity. Likewise, the call for “situated testimonies” is a call for a particular spatial relationship between text and subject, stressing that place matters for, and has an influence upon how a testimony is rendered.[x]

Even as we assert the need for a sustained discussion of the documentary-and-space relationship, we would be remiss to not direct attention to the important work already done explicitly in relation to this area of inquiry. Judith Pernin has foregrounded the influence of spatial constraints on documentary themes, editing, and shooting locations, and has made the compelling assertion that within documentary, space itself can emerge as a filmic character.[xi] Michael Chanan has mapped out the ways in which documentary’s representational space is created through its relationship to ideology and montage.[xii] Vivian Sobchack has theorized the “documentary space of an ‘elsewhere.’”[xiii] Scholars including Dabide Deriu and Lisa Parks have noted the tension between distant and proximate views of traumatic images, examining the relationship between the spatial and emotional distance enabled through aerial photographs and satellite images.[xiv] Indeed, whether and how documentary images can make testimony is inextricably tied to questions of space. Feminist scholars have problematized documentary as a mode of spatial control, in turn exploring documentary as capable of carving out a more discursive space for women with new technologies and exhibition spaces.[xv]

Central to documentary’s epistemological project has been its long-term association with presenting evidence and scientific knowledge. In turn, documentary scholars have explored the specifically spatial implications of documentary evidence. New technologies and modes of exploration from x-ray to satellites have enabled the visualization of previously “impossible topographies”[xvi]; Craig Hight has considered, for instance, how spatio-temporal investigations of biochemical processes can be rendered through CGI/CMI-dominated animation sequences.[xvii] Recent changes in media production technologies and industrial organization have had effects on documentary practices. Noting our move into what he identifies as a “post-documentary culture,” John Corner has examined hybrid documentary forms, including reality TV, which offer “intensive or relaxed diversion,” and as others have argued, naturalize footage of surveilled space.[xviii] Ian Bogost and Cindy Poremba have argued that, in the context of documentary games, a different kind of actuality is at work wherein the games offer “possibility spaces in which multiple instantiations for real world activity can exist.”[xix]

Given this existing scholarly literature, when we asked for contributions that could rethink documentary’s relation to space, we quite expectedly invited durable contestations and generative debates. With the inclusion of digitally recreated spaces and documentation of events in responsive, interactive environments within documentary spaces, we—along with some of our contributors—have grappled with the hesitancies, anxieties, and excitements of drawing connections between digital media interventions and documentaries, at times claiming and naming such interventions to be documentary practices. Rather than conceiving such processes to be appropriations, we consider them modest provocations in exploring the limits and possibilities of what documentaries can do, as well as the new spaces of analysis documentary scholarship can enter.[xx]

It has been our firm belief and contention that documentary’s incessantly shifting and yet enduring intimate relationship with the socio-cultural world makes it particularly striking for spatial studies. Without creating dichotomies between fiction and non-fiction, and without investing documentaries with exceptional capabilities for telling the truth, we were interested in what greater freedom the documentary process affords its makers, and how they work in and on space within at times severe monetary, physical, and cultural limitations. In our call for papers for the issue, we asked contributors to consider a wide range of spatial issues: boundaries and bodies; soundscapes and soundtracks; pictorial and constructed space; environments and explorations; exhibition and distribution; testimonies and archives; reenactment and fabrication; remembrance and imagination; monitoring and surveillance. We knew we were asking for a great deal (too much, even), yet rather than ever feeling that something was “missing” from the corpus represented, we found ourselves (then, and still) excited to think with our contributing authors. We were gratified to see the connections that our contributors drew between the questions we had put forth. We received papers tying together questions raised on bodies and subjectivities with queries about documentary’s negotiations with geopolitics and globalization. This issue thus brings together a diverse group of contributors whose collected work makes significant inroads toward a sustained discussion on the significance of Documentary and Space. The included essays, interviews, and artworks cover a wide range of documentary objects and practices.

Elizabeth Cowie explores the ways in which documentary organizes landscape scenes in order to produce an experiential place of view for the spectator. Erica Stein is also interested in thinking through documentary’s relationship to experiential space; in her discussion of The City, Stein argues that the film navigates between “space as concept” and “space as experience,” and frames documentary as possessing the potential to critique abstract spaces which exclude spatial practices. Cowie’s and Stein’s theoretical and analytical objects fit snugly into the corpus of documentary studies, bolstering their convincing demonstrations that a spatial approach to the documentary text can sculpt the landscape of this subfield. Other work in the issue focuses on the spatial characteristics of documentary’s self-reflexive provocation of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. Maggie Hennefeld is interested in the codification of spatial representation when compared across a single film’s play with fictive and documentary generic attributes. We also find Christina Corfield’s artwork to be productively maneuvering the genre of historical documentary as it tells stories about the past through myth and cliché and, in turn, draws attention to the flexibility of historical facts.

Other contributors raise questions about the stakes of an examination of space in relation to “new” media documentary forms and spaces. Bernadette Flynn’s essay looks at the role of digital documentation in experiencing and enacting spatial praxis of cultural heritage sites. Nonny de la Peña discusses the concept and practice of “immersive nonfiction” wherein audiences are able to enter a virtually recreated scenario narrativizing a news story through embodied digital representations. This manner of constructing non-fiction not only extends debates surrounding documentary reenactment, but also invites us to reconsider the spatial stakes of such debates both in terms of experience and practice. Flynn and de la Peña’s essays demonstrate a move to further the documentary project of experiencing and interpreting history and culture, whereby knowledge and claims of authenticity are no longer subject to verisimilitude of images, but are instead predicated upon a spatial practice involving embodied analysis where user/audience participation and interaction are valued. Issues of interaction and navigation are also key to Alexandra Juhasz’s essay, as she discusses the potential for feminist places to inhabit online documentary spaces, in particular YouTube.

Several pieces in the issue address the spatial aspects of the triadic relationship between documentary film(maker), subject, and audience, recognizing the potential to examine the power relations that extend across them, but also asserting space as a productive and worthwhile object, letting it speak for itself, and on its own terms. Laura Rascaroli, for example, draws attention to the interstitial space which the non-fictional voice-over creates between the text upon which it comments and the audience whom it addresses. And while Rascaroli is interested in the space between text and audience, Jason Alley examines the communicative spaces that emerge and manifest between documentary filmmaker and subject in documentary interview—what he refers to as “spaces of reticence.”

Affect emerges as a fruitful focus for spatial thinking about documentary. Dan Fleming argues that under specific conditions, a documentary’s “affective staging” can enable the mapping of a single, concretely-staged filmic space across multiple space-times. His essay in turn has implications for rethinking documentary reenactment and use of archival footage, and the ways in which memory-spaces can potentially be linked to relatively contemporary events in documentary films without didactic juxtapositions and disembodied voice-overs. While Fleming’s work proposes the possibility for “mapping” a single filmic space across multiple space-times, other pieces address mapping those physical spaces where documentary films are shot. Renée Rhodes, for example, presents her documented choreographies, and discusses the ways in which she attempts to bring distanced mediated socialities into the realm of physical negotiations—or, put another way, how “moving makes a map.” Walker, Haar, Gray, and Petermon’s discussion is concerned with mapping the physical geography of documentary texts as a way of thinking about the construction of diegetic space. The discussants at the roundtable felt that documentarian Ido Haar’s willingness “to move with and be moved by his subjects” open his film 9 Star Hotel to spatial analysis.

The movement of documentary filmmakers in space and its political, aesthetic, and narrative implications comes up again in André Jansson and Erik Gandini’s discussion. In our call for papers for the issue, we had asked for considerations of the ways in which documentary filmmakers, driven to represent social realities, often transgress boundaries in order to foreground aspects of cultural and institutional spaces that might otherwise go unseen, ignored, or undervalued. Jansson and Gandini answered this particular call with their attention to the documentarian’s “trespass” into Guantanamo, examining its paradoxical status as at once a hypermediated space, and yet still very much a space that operates by the logic of exclusions. Both the Walker et al. roundtable discussion and the Jansson-Gandini dialogic essay delve considerably into the experience of documentary filmmaking in specific places. The Walker et al. piece also puts forth a methodology of analyzing documentaries: accompanying filmmakers to their shooting locations and mapping their movements. Understanding media through fieldwork—and within a field of relations—is a central theme running across issues of our journal, and these contributions further the scope of such an endeavor.           

The filmmaker’s body, and its spatial movements, is coupled with contributors’ attention to the bodies of documentary subjects. Sukanya Sen, for example, observes wandering bodies as they travel through transformed everyday spaces, and frames this as a way in which those bodies in turn testify to that transformation. And just as Sen’s analysis of her chosen documentary text demonstrates the ways in which bodies can draw attention to transformations of space, so too does Brett Lashua’s discussion foreground the ways in which changes to the space of Liverpool has obscured the historical events that continue to trouble the city. Lashua’s essay shows how a documentary oral history of Black experiences in Liverpool during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s becomes an archive of collective memories, which in turn is able to (re)create a politics of spatial relations that continues to trouble the city today.

In our own discussion of Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light, we share with Lashua and Stein, the belief in documentary’s ability to question the politics of spatial relations. In doing so, we certainly do not discount documentary’s role in promoting state-led development projects or the use of documentaries for all different kinds of institutional propaganda that support formations of abstract spaces. We continue to hope that a keener attention to the process of documentary filmmaking would help us in drawing connections between the aesthetics of spatial representations deployed in documentaries and their political effects in terms of critiquing hierarchical/dominant spatial relations of production, consumption and circulation.  

It is our hope that the diverse contributions in this themed issue evince the particular importance of considerations of the documentary-space relationship for documentary studies, and for spatial studies of media. For us, this issue demonstrates that space should never just be an afterthought, a footnote, or a given for documentary scholars. The conversations and debates in documentary studies have, we believe, always been inflected and influenced by the particularly spatial elements of our object; this issue demonstrates that a big reason we need to talk about documentary and space is that we have always been talking about documentary and space, even when we were talking about something else. This issue shifts space from the underlying, implicit, undergirding role it has long had in the subfield to a central point of consideration—one that, we argue, has the potential to not only take the subfield in “new” directions, but also to open up and reinvigorate debates that may seem to have gone stale. Realizing that there are significant aspects of the conversation we have yet to cover—reality television, film festivals, science documentaries and more—we are inspired by the work herein and hope that this discussion will find a life well beyond the space of the issue.



[i] Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), 120.

[ii] The social reality portrayed in documentary space is one in which, as Chanan argues, “a viewer could in principle find themselves present, putatively, or as a potential historical subject, and sometimes palpably.” See Michael Chanan, “The documentary chronotope,” Jump Cut, no. 43 (2000): 56–61.

[iii] Here we are thinking of work including Michael Renov’s: “What differs is the extent to which the referent of the documentary sign may be considered as a piece of the world plucked from its everyday context rather than fabricated for the screen.” “Introduction: The Truth About Non-Fiction,” in Theorizing Documentary, (New York: Routledge, 1993), 7.

[iv] See Walker, Haar, Gray, and Petermon’s roundtable discussion in this issue.

[v] A documentary film, within a Lefebvrian spatial framework, can be considered to be a product of representational space, which “overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects.” Michael Chanan has befittingly argued that applying Lefebvre to cinema would also entail a critique because of Lefebvre’s harsh criticism of visual media like film for the manner in which it abstracts lived experience of space. See Henri Lefebvre, “Plan of the Present Work," in The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1991; 1972), 39. Also see Chanan, “Documentary Chronotope.”

[vi] Lefebvre, “Plan of the Present Work.”

[vii] For a useful extension of Lefebvre’s “abstract space,” and the distinction between “abstract space” and “lived space,” refer to Alexandra Kogl, “The Political Problem of Space,” in Strange Places: The Political Potentials and Perils of Everyday Spaces (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2008), 13–31. 

[viii] Edward S. Casey, “Place Memory,” in Remembering. A Phenomenological Study (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987), 180–215.   

[ix] On documentary games, see Ian Bogost and Cindy Poremba, "Can Games get Real? A Closer Look at 'Documentary' Digital Games," in Computer Games as a Sociocultural Phenomenon: Games Without Frontiers - War Without Tears, ed. Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and Ralf Stockman (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 12–21. For more on Immersive Nonfiction, see Nonny de la Peña’s article in this issue.

[x] For more on “situated testimonies,” refer to Janet Walker, “Rights and Return: Perils and Fantasies of Situated Testimony after Katrina,” in Documentary Testimonies: Global Archives of Suffering ed. Bhaskar Sarkar and Janet Walker (New York and London: Routledge, 2010), 83-114.

[xi] Judith Pernin, “Filming Space/Mapping Reality in Chinese Independent Documentary Films,” in China Perspectives, China perspectives, 2010–11, http://chinaperspectives.revues.org/5052. See also Yingjin Zhang’s work on concepts of translocality and polylocality with respect to cinema including documentaries: Cinema, Space, and Polylocality in a Globalizing China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2010).

[xii] Michael Chanan, “Documentary Chronotope” and Michael Chanan, “Going South: On Documentary as a Form of Cognitive Geography,” Cinema Journal, 50.1 (2010): 147–154.

[xiii] Vivian Sobchack, “Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience” in Collecting Visible Evidence, ed. Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 241–54.

[xiv] Davide Deriu, “Picturing Ruinscapes: The Aerial Photograph as Image of Historical Trauma,” in The Image and the Witness: Trauma, Memory, and Visual Culture ed. Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas (London: Wallflower Press, 2007), 189-203; Lisa Parks, “Between Orbit and the Ground: Conflict Monitoring, Google Earth and the ‘Crisis in Darfur Project,” in Documentary Testimonies, 245–67.

[xv] Diane Waldman and Janet Walker, eds., Feminism and Documentary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[xvi] Akira Muzuta Lippit, “Phenomenologies of the Surface: Radiation-Body-Image,” in Collecting Visible Evidence, 65–83.

[xvii] Craig Hight, “Primetime digital documentary animation: the photographic and graphic within play,” Studies in Documentary Film 2.1 (2008): 9–31.

[xviii] John Corner, “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions,” Television and New Media, 3.3 (2002): 260. See also: Gareth Palmer, Discipline and Liberty: Television and Governance (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).

[xix] Bogost and Poremba, Can Games Get Real?, 16.

[xx] Two inspiring precursors to our issue are Ruth Erickson’s analysis of Pierre Huyghe’s multimedia installations and Karen Beckman’s exploration of Coco Fusco’s experimentations with re-enactment. The papers explore works which bridge the worlds of art and documentary practice, and at the same time point out the differences between the two. See Ruth Erickson, “The Real Movie: Reenactment, Spectacle, and Recovery in Pierre Huyghe’s The Third Memory,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 1&2 (2009): 107–24; Karen Beckman, “Gender, Power, and Pedagogy in Coco Fusco’s Bare Life Study #1 (2005), A Room of One’s Own (2005) and Operation Atropos (2006),” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 1&2 (2009): 125–38. 


Ryan Bowles is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with an emphasis in Feminist Studies. Her dissertation project examines the complex forms and functions of a global network of Human Rights Film Festivals.

Rahul Mukherjee is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests include alternative media and new social movements, documentary, database management systems, and network protocols. Rahul's dissertation project involves exploring media's role in socio-technical debates and controversies.