Twenty years ago (1993) a few schoalars, notably Michael Renov and Jane Gaines, conceived of a conference devoted to documentary film. It was two years after my book on documentary, Representing Reality, opened up this field to more than content analysis and the event was a small but great success.
It could easily have been over and out at that point.
But the ball started rolling and for the last 20 years an annual conference has taken place, everywhere from Canberra, Australia to Istanbul, Turkey.
This year’s event, in Stockholm, was spectacularly good. Malin Wahlberg and her team created a near ideal conference. A rich array of topics came up for consideration from shame in reality television shows to the impact of audiences of reenacted mass murder (in the astonding film, The Act of Killing). People, some people, still read their papers as if they were reciting the alphabet (presenting their thoughts, as orators learn to do, is a skill many academics never learn), but not all did so by any means and what gave great vitality to the conference was the adroit mix of events. Parallel panels, up to five at once, were one thing, but sandwiched between them were 30 minute coffee breaks that allowed for genuine minging and interaction. (That panels and other events stared punctually, made everything work even better; over the four days of the conference, I only attended one panel that started quite late; that lapse seriously harmed the panel’s format but it was a rare and perhaps unique lapse.) And panels were definitely not the only attraction in this multi-ring circus. Screenings of films also paralleled the panels or took center stage during parts of the day or at night. At other times, keynote speakers offered papers to the entire assemblage and lunches were available in the same building as everything else: Filmhuset, the national film center that is associated with Stockholm University, the national film archive and more. An exception was a buffet dinner/reception at the colossal, gold-leaf covered City Hall, where finely attired waiters brought out a tasty array of Swedish dishes and poured some excellent wines to mark the 20th anniversary. The only flaw was when the same waiters gathered up the serving trays and returned them to the kitchen, to the dismay of the assembled guests, when the pre-dinner speakers carried on longer than expected, but they eventually concluded their remarks, the serving trays were brought back out and everyone enjoyed themselves on a summer night in Stockholm.
It would be hard to imagine a more well conceived conference, with a more engaged gathering of filmmakers and scholars but I hope there will be many more like it in the future.