Cognitive film studies and four approaches to documentary film

Brylla, Catalin ORCID: and Kramer, Mette (2017) Cognitive film studies and four approaches to documentary film. In: Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Images (SCSMI) Conference, 11-14 June 2017, Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland. (Unpublished)

Full text not available from this repository.


Traditionally, there has been little convergence between cognitive film theory and documentary film studies. Cognitive film scholars have largely focused on fiction films, whilst documentary scholars have deemed cognitive models too limited in that they address only the hardwired attributes of audience reception, thus hypothesizing a universal body of spectators and neglecting individual, social, cultural and historical contexts of authorship and spectatorship. The aim of this paper is to overlap these two disciplines by proposing four interrelated approaches for cognitive film studies to examine the wide spectrum of documentary forms (Brylla & Kramer, forthcoming). This will be followed by two particular case studies that illustrate the efficacy of our model: Jon Bang Carlsen’s It’s Now or Never (DK, 1996) and Brian Hill’s Pornography: The Musical (UK, 2003).

Cognitive scholars have tentatively explored documentary in relation to, amongst others, the specificity of documentary in relation to fiction (e.g. Currie, 1999; Ponech, 1999; Carroll, 2003), different modes of narrative address (e.g. Odin, 1984; Plantinga, 1997; Smith, 2007) and the spectatorial reception of documentary texts (e.g. Bondebjerg, 1994; Eitzen, 1995). Although all these texts are rigorous and constitute seminal landmarks that establish key paradigms for our endeavour, they remain largely embryonic and isolated from a larger, overarching discourse. Creating such a discourse, we argue, requires a pragmatic bricolage approach covering four areas of interest:

1. Experience, Emotion and Embodiment

As the current stage of cognitive film theory embraces empirical research within the affective and social sciences, the focus here is on on-line (moment-to-moment) processes with regards to somatic responses. Metatheoretically, this area highlights an alternative to the predominant, narrative top-down approach to filmic experience by focusing on ‘low-level features’ of film, which comprise any “physical, quantitative aspect that occurs regardless of the narrative” (Brunick et al., 2013, p. 133).

2. The Mediation of Realities

The spectator’s construction of reality is informed by the film text, but also by his/her dispositions and context constituting individual, social, cultural and historical schemas and attributes, as well as by previous knowledge about represented topics and characters – knowledge that may be paratextual or intertextual. This area addresses emotion-generation, as well as hermeneutic processes in relation to ethics and the assessment of truth claims.

3. Character Engagement

In documentary the indexical relationship between screen characters and their status as real people may inform spectatorial engagement, since the consequences of their actions are real (Eitzen, 2005). On the other hand, documentaries that don’t use conventional plot structures may elicit momentary spectatorial experiences embodied within the film text, transcending the indexical relation between screen character and real-world referent.

4. Documentary Practice

This area can be seen as a reverse-engineering process that enables the practice-led researcher to gauge audience response to particular filmmaking choices. On a theoretical level it provides insight into the (intended) reception in relation to the production of a film. This “filmmaker-audience loop” (Plantinga 2011) describes the shared social and (folk)psychological dispositions of filmmakers and spectator, and it illuminates the popularity of certain documentary forms with particular audiences.

Deploying these four areas in a bricolage manner has the potential to examine the vast spectrum of documentaries and non-fiction texts, such as participatory documentaries, docudramas, documentary musicals, essay films, compilation films and activist web videos. Our first case study, It’s Now or Never, uses amateur actors and scripted scenes to stage a seemingly observational documentary, based on the director’s longitudinal primary research on Irish bachelors. Despite being technically a docudrama, the film’s refusal to index its fictionalised dimension produces different layers of character engagement depending on the audience’s knowledge/ignorance of Carlsen’s modus operandi, their schematic knowledge of observational documentaries, or their critical assessment of documentary-fiction hybrid forms.

In the second case study, Pornography: The Musical, porn stars are interviewed about their profession, but they also sing their stories in stylised interludes. The constant oscillation between conventional documentary and music video unsettles not only the spectators’ schematic expectations of genre but also their expectations of fixed, stock character identities in prototypical narratives. The viewer is invited to renegotiate the relationship between the documentary image and reality by awkwardly positioning the film artefact between authorial creativity and consumerist commodity.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Subjects: Film and television > Film theory
Film and television > Screen studies
Depositing User: Catalin Brylla
Date Deposited: 21 Jul 2017 16:51
Last Modified: 28 Aug 2021 07:23

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item