Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art book reviewIn this original and dense cinema study, Dirk de Bruyn redefines the experimental and the avant-garde as “materialist film”, but in a much broader way than Peter Gidal’s anti-illusionist notion, given de Bruyn’s own practice as an avant-garde film artist engaged with the literally handmade, textural manipulation of the film material.

Originally a social worker, de Bruyn experimented with creating “sketchbooks” of film material. His feature film Homecomings (1987) was constructed from fragments of film stock, as a diaristic narrative about he and his young family’s visit to his homeland, Holland. His return to sites remembered in a series of photographs taken decades before, seemed to trigger a physically disorienting shock, reconnecting him to the person he’d been as an eight year old in Holland years before. The genesis of this book then, seems to be what de Bruyn himself describes as his own experience of the “traumatic paradox”: an experience of remembering, prompted by the impact of fragments and glimpses. As he notes, film can register an event’s lack of coherence in a dramatic experience, unlike human memory, which cannot replay an incoherent event without either re-narrativising it, or losing it altogether. In trauma, de Bruyn reminds us, story is lost. Marooned episodic events express themselves in fugue states as unconscious fixed ideas. Dissociation is a defence against overwhelming experience.  Intense emotional experiences disrupt the integration of perceptual and thinking processes, and memories of overwhelming events are stored as inaccessible fragments.

Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art book review

Homecomings (De Bruyn, 1987)

In his meticulous and original analysis of the history and nature of psychological trauma, de Bruyn traces the evolution of (experimental) film theory and practice and its overarching parallels in Western industrial culture’s significant shocks of the new: early cinema, train and automobile travel, and newspaper reading, as well as early studies of “hysteria”; “shell shock” and combat neuroses after World War I (later revisited through the anti war movement around the Vietnam conflict); and also the emerging women’s movement raising awareness of sexual and domestic violence. He correlates these with cycles of the appearance, waning and reappearance of avant-garde film, from the dissociation aesthetic of Dada, the 1970s anti-narrative avant-garde, to feminist counter-cinema, and so on. Indeed in his close and detailed analysis and comparison of cinema of the 1920s and the 1970s, de Bruyn exposes what is ultimately revealed as Wollen’s essentialist false dichotomy between the two avant-gardes: one as non-narrative and formalist, the other as political, emphasising the social implications of text and language. De Bruyn proceeds from this discussion to other dual processing models which weave through both the histories of trauma and screen studies. He presents a range, extended over several chapters, of exemplary case-studies of the work of Deren, Breer, Tscherkassky and many others, exploring neurological and trauma research, and preparing the ground for his emerging argument for the retrieval of “materialist film” into the genre of “trauma cinema”. Laying the two avant-gardes dichotomy and dual processing models over one another enables a convincing discussion of memory and recall. Drawing on McLuhan, de Bruyn claims that the contemporary digital media environment has fundamentally affected the way we process information, which, in our age of simultaneous information flow, need not continue to be experienced as traumatic, but perhaps only as an intermediate period of stress, an old ground seen as figure through a new ground.

Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art book review

Homecomings (De Bruyn, 1987)

It is through its ability to articulate trauma that de Bruyn argues for a role of materialist film in unpacking that “technical image” dominating digital media. The complexity of de Bruyn’s discussion of the therapeutic integration of the verbal and the visual memory systems is a reminder of the many paradoxes suggested by Judith Butler in dealing with the trauma of loss: that “the past is irrecoverable, and the past is not past; the past is a resource for the future and the future is the redemption of the past; loss must be marked and it cannot be represented; loss fractures representation itself, and loss precipitates its own modes of expression.” (1) Indeed Caruth describes trauma as being experienced “as the inability to fully witness the event as it occurs, or the ability to witness the event fully only at the cost of witnessing itself. Central to the very immediacy of this experience that is, is a gap that carries the force of the event and does so precisely at the expense of simple knowledge and memory.  The force of this experience would appear to arise precisely, in other words, in the collapse of its understanding.” (2) De Bruyn’s thesis also echoes Michelle Citron’s comments on her film Daughter’s Rite:

In representing the incest trauma, experimental and narrative film strategies can have very different meanings and functions for the author than they do for the viewer. For the filmmaker, narrative can integrate experiences for which memory has not always functioned adequately. Narrative renders the incomprehensible understandable. Narrative offers the much needed illusions of coherency and cause and effect where there was none. Narrative puts the author at ease. For the audience, however, narrative reduces a complex and half-found awareness into something that is linear, understandable. It cleans up the trauma, makes it tidy, and makes it, at the structural level, familiar. Narrative makes it seem safe. This is a lie. Everything that makes narrative honest for the author is precisely what makes it false for the audience. Pieces not wholeness, discontinuity not fluidity, is a more authentic language for the expression of trauma and its aftermath. (3)

Claude Lanzmann noted that the making of Shoah (1985) proceeded precisely from what “one does not understand”: “I did not try to add new things to the knowledge or to the documents we already have. […] Before, my knowledge had no strength, no force. It was an abstract knowledge, an empty one. The whole process of Shoah was to connect, to link up, to accomplish the whole work of rememoration.” (4) In other words, to dispense with conventional linear temporality and very much like psychoanalysis, work through repetition and through ever deepening circles. As de Bruyn puts it, “erasure of the past can also be witnessed as content denied.” (p.71, emphasis added)

Despite this book’s genesis as an original thesis, and consequently with its density, occasional opacity and relentlessly sustained narrative trajectory, The Performance of Trauma will nevertheless provide an outstanding contribution to wider cinema literature, and will find readers from the many areas of screen studies: history, politics, philosophy, practice, and also those interested in reception and understanding, loss and trauma, and narrative issues.

Dirk De Bruyn, The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).


1. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (eds.), Loss (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), p.467.
2. Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 7.
3. Michelle Citron, Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p.50. Emphasis added.
4. Caruth, p.211.