The Berlin Documentary Forum’s second edition set itself the task of addressing the documentary image and its purported state of instability in the field of tension between the excessive image output of digital media and the gratuitous realism of news outlets. The biennial forum, initiated by Berlin-based curator Hila Peleg in 2010, is a hybrid platform engaging the documentary form not merely in film, but across the arts, through a program including performances, academic talks, screenings and discussions side by side. This edition’s accompanying exhibition A Blind Spot, curated by Catherine David (the previous edition’s exhibition curator, Okwi Enwezor, was of equal documenta calibre) provided a brilliant counterpart to the four-day festival program and its premises filtered into much of the discussion in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s main auditorium.

DAYS, I see what I Saw and what I will See – Day/Night

The exhibition opening preceded the official opening of the forum with two panel discussions moderated by Catherine David and anthropologist Christopher Pinney, in which artists reflected on the workings of the documentary image. How can still life photographs such as Joachim Koester’s atmospheric close-ups of marijuana plants (From the Secret Garden of Sleep, 2008) be political? How does the artist implicate him or herself in the work? Melik Ohanian, whose two-channel video installation DAYS, I see what I Saw and what I will See – Day/Night (2011) portrays a Sharjah labour camp at day and night, argued that he saw a parallel between his film crew’s work and the work of the labourers living in the camp. Interestingly, at the same time, he explained that he and his film crew decided not to speak to the workers during the process of filming, which seemed to contradict the former claim in favour of the traditional distance between author and subject. By contrast, Vincent Meessens, whose Vita Nova (2009) traces the biography of Roland Barthes’ grandfather, the founder of the colony of Ivory Coast, questioned the authorial self-effacement professed by Barthes.

On the same evening, Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué provided a powerful start to the forum itself, with his performance The Pixelated Revolution. In his trademark direct address of the public, he tackled the role of the image in the current Syrian uprising. Having sampled codes of conduct shared on Facebook by Syrian opposition activists for the filming of demonstrations via mobile phone, Mroué compiled a new list of guidelines, merging these instructions (only film demonstrators from the back to impede recognition, only film faces when there is an assault, so perpetrator and victim can be identified) with the Dogme 95 manifesto, in a détournement that rendered the latter’s ambitions to objectivity absurd (the camera must be a handheld camera; murder, weapons etc. must not occur).

Christmas in St Pauli

On the second day, three different sessions moderated by Harun Farocki provided a reflection on the “panning gesture” and its implication of control and surveillance, but also of the dissolution of the subject in the world, (as in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her – in which “she”, incidentally, is not the female protagonist, but Paris). Discussion also circled around one particular variety of the pan – the “sweeping gesture” of the handheld camera, associated with contingency and what Barthes termed “the effect of the real”. In the presence of octogenarian Klaus Wildenhahn, his wonderful Christmas in St Pauli (1968) was screened, which portrays the interaction of the motley crowd of a bar in Hamburg’s red light district on the night of Christmas Eve. Wildenhahn’s close-up camera work inspired by direct cinema manages to be surprisingly unobtrusive, making for an incredibly intimate portrayal of the bar-goers’ unscripted interaction as it unfolds in the here and now.

Moving away from technique, the third day gathered reflections on the medium of the documentary. In a performance-lecture entitled Objectification, Hito Steyerl considered the inefficacy of 3D scanning and printing in providing reconstructive forensic evidence, based on two individual narratives from the Bosnian War and the PKK’s clashes with the Turkish army. Orchestrating a phantasmagoric show of closed-circuit video, projections moving through the auditorium and shadow play, Steyerl proved the “point clouds” or 3D images purported by industry to provide not just an image of the evidence, but the evidence, to be nothing more than a tool of projection and augury. Displaying a similar ability for constructing chains of association, on the same evening Christopher Pinney gave a lecture on photography and colonialism or, in his words, “the apparatus and the colonial habitus”. He made elegant leaps from discussing indigo as a testimony to the history of British oppression in India to Bhopal’s more recent cyanide leak disaster to the cyanotypes (blueprints) of industrial machinery. Pinney linked Thomas de Quincey’s musings on opium as an agent able to reveal secret inscriptions to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “optical unconscious”. History, Pinney argued, is written not by the photographer, but the photograph, which is again and again an object of divination.


The question of the documentary image in historiography came to the fore on last day of the forum in a session led by Florian Schneider titled Continuity. It featured The Laughing Man (1966), an interview documentary made in the GDR, in which the infamous Congo Müller, a mercenary responsible for atrocities in the then Republic of the Congo, and himself a former Wehrmacht officer, candidly exposes the way that West German foreign policy then is still defined by individuals hailing from the Nazi nomenclature. The film Wundkanal (1984), screened next, enacts a haunting interrogation of a former Nazi by a filmmaker. Disturbingly, the actor cast for the leading role was Alfred Filbert, himself a former Nazi. In a further mise en abyme, in the discussion that followed the screening, critic Thomas Heise compared the director Thomas Harlan to Hitler by virtue of his supposedly terrorising directing style. The question of the continuity between fascism and the post-war period is not a healed wound, and the need to persevere in questioning the forms of history-writing through the documentary proved to be all the more pressing.

The Berlin Documentary Forum proved once again to be an incredibly fertile ground for intellectual reflection across disciplines. Aside from the videos and documentaries featured in the exhibition, however, the forum’s film selection focused heavily on the period between the 1960s and ‘80s, at the expense of more recent positions. At times, a generational gap emerged between the speakers and the generally younger audience, as for example when Sylvère Lotringer and audience members altercated over the question of whether his filmed re-enactment of a New York grocery shooting looked real or not was still relevant, or when Catherine David admitted she was dissatisfied with mobile phone images of the Syrian uprising – “the best image I’ve seen of Syria is a text (by the Alawite writer Samar Yazbek)”. Rabih Mroué’s brilliant examination of a current political problem and contemporary modes of recording and distribution (mobile phones and the internet) proved an exception in the forum. An enhanced engagement with ongoing political issues as well as new developments in the documentary form would be desirable in the next edition. The online magazine issuezero was launched at the forum with the stated aim to “explore contemporary modes of developing, producing, and distributing documentary in and across networked environments”. It is to be hoped that the magazine, which will provide platform for discussion until the next forum, will help bridge the gap.

Berlin Documentary Forum
31 May – 3 June 2012
Festival website: http://hkw.de/berlin.doc.forum