Ironic Documentaries

I just had an opportunity to teach a summer course to a large group of professors and filmmakers, mainly from Eastern Europe, at the Central European University in Budapest.  You may heard of CEU as the product of George Soros’s investment in promoting democracy in the former Soviet Union after the Berlin Wall fell. CEU had its origins in that gesture and is a very successful graduate level university focused not on technology and science, as so many are, but on the humanities and social sciences as tools that assist in the understanding of others.

The course was on what the impact of documentaries is, how our belief in an underlying reality caught, in some measure, on film has much to do with the impact of most documentaries ,and how mockumentaries that pretend to have such an underpinning pull us up short. The result can be amusement or anger depending on many factors but what these films have in common is their irony. They don’t say what the mean or entirely mean what they say: they wink. And if we have familiarity with the form, we eventually get the wink, understand the irony, and process its effect.  I wanted to stress how conventions often frame the meaning of a message so that the belief in an underlying reality caught on film stems as much from the use of voice-over, interviews, reference to experts, B-roll editing that illustrates claims as if to prove them, and so on, as it does in any absolute form of reliability.  That being so, it is then fairly easy to mimic these conventions to produce irony.  it is less easy to do so skillfully but over the course of our meetings, we were able to explore the implications in a rich and rewarding way.  There’s more to say and that will probably become an article in the near future.