The Shock of the Real

Chuck Tryon's picture
In my senior seminar this semester, "Documenting Injustice," my students and I have been discussing several pertinent questions pertinent to documentary studies, including the limits of what counts as documentary and to what extent documentary images can shape public consciousness. We've been addressing these issues via a variety of documentary texts ranging from Walker Evans and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother photos to documentary films ranging from When the Levees Broke to Roger & Me. In the next few days we will be turning to a "limit case," Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, a fictional film that contains brief snatches of what might qualify as documentary footage. Most famously, Wexler includes a scene filmed during the protests outside of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago when protesters were subdued by the Chicago police using tear gas, nightsticks, and mace. While Wexler was filming a scene, the tension between the police and protesters erupts, prompting a member of Wexler's crew to shout, "Haskell, it's real!" The disruption provides a brief shock, challenging conventions of representation (Michael Renov has written extensively about this scene in The Subject of Documentary). I was reminded of Renov's discussion of Medium Cool this afternoon because of the recent controversy of Brian DePalma's fictional film, Redacted, which recreates the story of the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl by American soldiers, while also, according to the film's website, offering a profound meditation on representations of the war, on how images of the Iraq War have been packaged (another topic I've been discussing with my students, particularly with regards to the Abu Ghraib photographs). While I have, thus far, been unable to see the film, the controversy itself is worth taking about because it speaks to the political and representational challenges that many filmmakers who use documentary images face today. Essentially, the major issue is that Mark Cuban's Magnolia Pictures has told DePalma that Redacted's final scene, which consists of a montage of real and staged Iraq War photographs will be removed from the final cut of the film. According to a number of people who've seen the movie, the final montage is film's most powerful and important scene (Karina Longworth has many of these details). Many of these images feature people, including US soldiers, who have been severely wounded in the war in Iraq, and Mark Cuban has characterized the decision to remove the scene as both a business and moral one, noting that many of the images have not been cleared, potentially opening up Magnolia to lawsuits from the people depicted in the images (again, see Longworth for the specifics). Longworth speculates further that the film will likely be released with most of the documentary photographs removed, making what might have been a devastatingly shocking scene potentially less powerful. The key issues in this debate were raised during a press conference conducted by DePalma at a New York Film Festival Press Conference that was posted to YouTube, in which Magnolia's Eamonn Bowles initially contradicted DePalma's claim that the scene had been redacted. One of the film's producers, Jason Kliot, later stepped forward to confirm that the scenes would be removed because of Fair Use laws that make it impossible to "use images of our own culture to tell the truth about our own culture." And I think the Fair Use laws are worth talking about here because they have, at the very least, created some confusion about what images can be used and potentially limited what effect the film can have. As DePalma notes, these questions are far from trivial as we continue to get relatively filtered images and information about what is happening in Iraq on a daily basis. DePalma describes the incommunicability of war, and the film sounds like an attempt to address many of these representational challenges.