Ferocious RealityWith Ferocious Reality, Eric Ames makes a valuable contribution to the literature on documentary, offering a thoughtful and philosophically adept analytical approach and elucidating it with clarity and restraint. In the context of an in-depth consideration of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, Ames explores various means by which selfhood is constructed socially. Critical insights derived from multiple threads of deconstructionist philosophy are directed toward constructive ends, attenuating a postmodern tradition of theorizing, even exaggerating, the distributed intersubjective nature of selfhood to the point of infinite regress: “The upshot is not a postmodern sense of mise en abyme but a complex model of self-inscription.” (p. 228) This neatly executed subversion of reductive conceptualizations of the loss of the subject is what grounds Ames’ understanding of the ways in which Herzog has used representational technologies to rebuild his directorial persona in response to criticism following Fitzcarraldo (1982). With great care, Ames dismantles lingering absolutist misconceptions of authenticity and authorship, thereby unlocking opportunities for more nuanced investigation. Extending insights gained in performance studies, Ames proposes that performance, which has received sustained attention in documentary studies, is central to the genre in ways hitherto unexplored. (1) He locates the richest production of meaning in the spaces between pure scriptedness and total objectivity, finding plentiful examples in the many different techniques by which Herzog blends rehearsed and spontaneous materials. In this way, Ferocious Reality demonstrates deconstruction’s most powerful benefits in a layered illustration of hybrid configurations circulating between nonexistent absolutes. Readers interested in experiencing an introduction to the potentials afforded by a deconstructionist style of cinema analysis would do well to begin here. (2) Despite the depth and complexity of Ames’ argument, phraseology demanding philosophical expertise on the part of the reader is very rare. In addition to provocation, both academic and popular audiences will find patient explanations written with elegance and lucidity.

According to Ames, Herzog disavows documentary and in so doing “all the more actively intervenes and creatively participates” in it. (p. 260) Viewing Herzog through a ‘performance lens’ allows Ames to demonstrate the director’s ongoing contribution to “reimagining documentary after cinema verité” and also to subvert, or at least enrich, auteur theory. As Ames explains, the ‘received idea’ of Herzog’s work in documentary studies has been one of “singularity and isolation, not unlike some of the figures in his movies”—the classic image of the auteur or artist as a self-conscious genius. (p. 266) Ames acknowledges and complicates the significance of Herzog’s auteurism by identifying two specific strategies by which the director uses his authorial power to intervene in documentary. First, by highlighting his own oppositional tendencies, Herzog distinguishes himself from other documentary filmmakers. Second, this process serves to undermine ‘documentary dogma’ associated especially with American direct cinema. (p. 266) Culminating in Chapter 7, these insights lead to the development of a strong correlation between performance and autobiography, in which the question of what an author is gets reversed into an exploration of what kind of subjectivity the filmmaker is developing through the use of technological mediation in a social matrix. Despite the many unique and even excessive characteristics typically attributed to the director Herzog and his work are shown as “contingently produced and constantly reinvented in performance.” (p. 261)

Ames’ definition of performance relies on the work of Richard Schechner, a performance theorist, scholar of comparative religion, and theater director. Schechner’s conception rests upon a comparison of the principles of rehearsal and editing, which makes it especially useful to Ames’ argument. (p. 11) Involving “a vast range of ordinary and special events, actions, habits, practices, and movements, constituting much of the reality that documentary film would claim to represent”—in addition to the forms of artifice for which documentaries are most often criticized, such as staging—performance is here understood in contradistinction to an unattainable ideal of totally objective observation. (p. 267) Put simply, performance in documentary is revealed as nothing unusual. It is neither exceptional—in the sense of being one of the many specific modes of documentary filmmaking categorized by Bill Nichols—nor a mere “effect produced by the interaction of filmmakers, subjects, and spectators,” as in Stella Bruzzi’s approach, which is influenced by speech act theory. (p. 11) For decades, Ames explains, Herzog has used multiple techniques “to perform his own identity and difference as a filmmaker” in his documentaries, reworking the past of others and refining his own autobiography (pp. 16, 265-66) in a process of knowledge-making and representation that is “necessarily partial, authored, and constructed.” (p. 11) Thus, Ames presents Herzog’s documentaries as offering an extreme example of what necessarily takes place in the always already social documentary production process.

As a demonstration of the broader applicability of some of the various interlocking elements of Ames’ approach, a brief analysis follows of a largely neglected ethnographic film associated with Maya Deren. (3) The point is not to suggest that Ames’ performance lens should be adopted and applied by rote but rather that it succeeds in elucidating overlooked possibilities and complexities. (4) Here, too, Ames’ performance lens allows for enhanced discernment of the collaborative, intersubjective process of inscription in which a director’s persona is shaped in negotiation with others. (5) Several similarities make this comparison possible while substantiating Ames’ argument by pointing toward deeper attributes of filmmaking in general. As mentioned above, like Herzog’s documentaries, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (Deren, 1985) has been overlooked or dismissed by scholars due to its oppositional and sui generis qualities. (6) Each brings an artistic sensitivity to affect and to other forms of nonverbal communication to bear on their documentary practices, provoking criticism from empiricists. (7) In addition, Ames’ articulation of Herzog’s performed, distributed, and technologically mediated selfhood applies equally well to Deren. As Ames explains, analyzing various filmmaking strategies reveals linkages between Herzog’s diverse bodies or selves: his physical person, his performed image in his own films and in those of others, the bodies of others that represent Herzog metonymically, his persona as received and shaped by spectators and critics as well as by his own efforts, and finally the material bodies of his mediated works. The same is true in Deren’s case: her variously mediated persona has continued to undergo transformation posthumously with the creation of Divine Horsemen and by other means. Deren, for instance, is still remembered and spoken of in Haiti. (8) Similarly, as Ames describes, Herzog’s sojourn in Peru is commemorated every year by the tribe who burned down his production team’s campground during the filming of Fitzcarraldo. They celebrate the event with a ritual reenactment. (p. 151)

Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

Taking Herzog’s Grizzly Man as an example in which these dynamics are pushed to their extremes, Ames demonstrates precise relationships among the various levels of performance involved. For instance, the central figure’s video diaries reveal the influence of unseen companions as well as the agency of animals, and Ames explains that Herzog assembles these materials in ways that shape the main character’s persona as well as his own. Ames shows that, in addition to determinations of social interaction, the “interrelationship of different forms, genres, and media are at issue,” an approach that catalyzes new ways of thinking about Deren’s work in Haiti. (p. 228) Deren recorded the materials used in the film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti from 1947 to 1951. These include 1,000 still photographs, 20,000 feet of film recorded with a Bolex 16mm, and 50 hours of audio recordings obtained with a wire audio recorder. (9) Years after her death in 1961, Deren’s husband, Teiji Ito, and his second wife, Cherel, began to assemble the materials into a film completed in 1977. In addition to departing from the chronological order in which the events were recorded, the Itos inserted stills of ceremonial drawings and voice-overs of excerpts from Deren’s book, also entitled Divine Horsemen. (10) Clearly, the authorship of this film is of a complex nature reflecting negotiations among many subjectivities.

Documentation of the sophisticated system of in-camera editing Deren had developed by this time suggests that she was the sole operator of the camera (11). However, cinema scholars have long recognized that the production of a work of cinema is always already social. Indeed, as Ames explains, many have pointed out that first-person cinema is also deeply intersubjective, since the self is constructed collaboratively. (p. 217) The tendency remains, however, to assign credit almost exclusively to a single director. Like many of the films Ames discusses, Divine Horsemen provides an extreme example of how misleading this practice can be. Deren is usually listed as the filmmaker, while the Itos are credited with editing the film and sound, though it is largely their compositional choices that continue to reshape perceptions of Deren in response to the film. The Itos’s version is still distributed commercially, while Deren’s original footage remains virtually unknown, even among ethnographers. (12) Yet Divine Horsemen has also been ignored, especially by scholars, partly as a consequence of its confusing provenance. To avoid reinscribing extant misunderstandings during this discussion, authorship of Divine Horsemen should be assigned as much to the Itos as to Deren.

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (Deren, 1985)

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (Deren, 1985)

Although Deren’s persona is not staged as directly in Divine Horsemen as Herzog’s is in his documentaries and in the various films about him, Ames’ performance lens provides insight into the methods by which Deren’s self is constructed in documentary practice and in filmmaking in general. (13) As Ames highlights in his discussion of Herzog, a complex assortment of asymmetrical power relations influences the results of the production process. (p. 228) For example, Divine Horsemen records the traces left by other hands on the development of Deren’s identity subsequent to her death. In Ames’ view, each of these many artifacts involves scripted, rehearsed, and/or edited behavior—performance. Therefore, traditional notions of authorship are exceeded because the resulting layers of selfhood, with fringed boundaries and never completed, are remade collaboratively by technological means. (p. 221) In Divine Horsemen and in Herzog’s documentaries, intersubjective complexity illuminates central junctures of power structures, great and small, which are amplified through their mechanical reproducibility.

Deconstructing the various layers of artifice in Divine Horsemen reveals a rich interaction among a broad assortment of performing selves. In many cases, commonly accepted standards of authenticity are sacrificed to the production of meaning. The soundtrack, for example, features music nearly continuously, all of it corresponding to specific ceremonies. However, throughout much of the film the music does not match the ritual shown. (14) Deren was committed to avoiding such contradictions, but the Itos, it seems, wished to “match image with location sound” in what they felt was the most compelling representation possible given the materials available. (15) Listening closely to the soundtrack reveals other elements of fabrication, as well. In the musical layer, large areas of the low and high ends of the audible frequency spectrum are notably attenuated, yielding a tinny sound quality consistent with the limitations of the now defunct type of wire recording device Deren used. By juxtaposition, certain percussion sounds and other effects seem as though they were recorded with more sensitive recording equipment and added in post-production. They have a substantially fuller, brighter presence in the mix. At times, these highly evocative sounds, such as those of ceremonial rattles, of water libations being poured on the ground, and of bird wings flapping as the sacrificial moment draws near, suddenly become audible above the music, sounding as crisp and proximal as the studio-recorded voice-overs. They serve to direct the viewer’s gaze toward particular details in the moving image, artificially dramatizing the ritual’s proceedings. Many possible motivations could have shaped the Itos’s choices; what matters for the purposes of this discussion is that they remediated Deren’s work. In doing so posthumously, they operated within an inarguably uneven relation of power, since Deren could not consent to this performance of her persona.

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (Maya Deren, 1985)

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (Maya Deren, 1985)

The Itos’s use of Deren’s slow motion footage in combination with the real-time, though heavily edited, soundtrack constitutes another instance of fabrication. The resulting anachronism blurs the traditional distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic sound in a highly suggestive manner. The musical layer of the soundtrack is introduced simultaneously with the first appearance of dance movement, which begins in real-time. The resulting effect of temporal synchronicity between the visual and the aural generates a sense of verisimilitude, as if the shot were recorded using synchronized sound. An attentive spectator soon notices, however, that the rhythmic movement of dancing feet and of hands and sticks striking drums only occasionally matches up with the beats heard on the soundtrack. Two real-time representations are in motion but they are only occasionally in phase with one another because they are driven by totally different ceremonial tempos. During the ensuing minutes, while a series of cuts and the gradual introduction of slow motion into the image increasingly drive a wedge between representations of the physically sensible and of the spiritual, the music soundtrack proceeds at the same steady tempo. The combination of slow-motion images with real-time audio evokes a divided subjectivity and split experience often associated with possession or trance. This divergent effect enters gradually, as if to articulate a formal repetition of the incremental process depicted onscreen in which the character of a dancer’s movements begins to change as the subject is overtaken by the presence of a deity. In this instance, the Itos adopt elements of stylization learned from Deren’s experimental films in an attempt to render, as Deren phrased it in a different context, “the invisible visible.” (16) Years before traveling to Haiti, Deren had already begun using slow motion to capture the details of body movement. However, in the case of her Haiti footage, she felt that her use of slow motion and stills had the effect of decontextualizing the Voudoun ritual and misrepresenting it. For this reason, she felt unable to edit the footage into a film. She wrote that altering the speed of the camera introduced a level of distortion entirely distinct from the subtler effects produced by separating continuous motion into a film strip divided into still frames—to which she was also very sensitive. (17)

Applying Ames’ framework is productive here. Moira Sullivan convincingly advocates that, instead of the film project completed by the Itos, it is the unedited recordings Deren collected in Haiti that “deserve recognition as ethnographic documentation and belong in appropriate archives for historical research.” (p. 207). They are “complete” as they are: essentially unedited. (p. 213). Undoubtedly, scholars would benefit from studying her original footage, but this is not an issue of authenticity, authorship, or subjectivity. Following Ames, however, it could also be argued that Deren’s Haiti footage and the collaborative project of Divine Horsemen both perform layered modes of constructive intersubjectivity. As such, they could both be seen as prefiguring the important movement of reflexive ethnography that would reconfigure the ethics of anthropology decades later, in which the subjectivity of the researcher or researchers is recognized as unavoidably, even desirably, shaping the document interactively in co-authorship with its subjects. In this respect, another similarity with Herzog emerges, since Herzog’s long-established use of artifice and self-reference in documentary has only recently found widespread acceptance and scholarly interest due to the recent critical and reflexive turn in the genre’s mainstream. (pp. 3-9)

In addressing the need to improve and extend theoretical models of subject formation as new media technologies and practices continue to proliferate (p. 267), Ames reminds us that subjective agency is neither fully sovereign nor completely reducible, an insight with broad political consequences—though Ames tends to focus on the micro- rather than the macropolitical. (18) As the above analysis reveals, a filmmaking entity’s motivations for pushing the element of performance to extremes may catalyze a deeper consideration of the ethics or politics involved. Ames’ refinement of the problematic reinscribes questions regarding psychological, ideological, and other forms of self-interest with often deeply serious material effects, clarifying them and pointing toward renewed significance.

Eric Ames, Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2012).


  1. Those theoretical works by Bill Nichols that Ames cites in this regard are from the 1980s and ‘90s. In the introduction to Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, which Nichols edited in 2001 (University of California Press), he writes about performance and embodiment in additional ways. Ames does not refer to Nichols’ work on Deren, but as the analysis of Deren’s Haiti film included in this review demonstrates, comparing Deren and Herzog promises great analytical potential. For a detailed discussion of Nichols’ introduction, see Erin Brannigan, “Maya Deren, Dance, and Gestural Encounters in Ritual in Transfigured Time” in Senses of Cinema 22 (October 2002), http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/22/deren/.
  2. For an overview and history of Derridean deconstruction and cinema, see the introduction to Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory by Peter Brunette and David Wills (Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 3-32.
  3. Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Mystic Fire Video, 2005. On the DVD, as in the film credits, authorship is attributed to Deren, while Teiji and Cherel Ito are mentioned as posthumous editors.
  4. Despite Deren’s acclaimed status among American avant-garde filmmakers as “the mother of us all” and the only woman filmmaker of note in the U.S. for many decades, Divine Horsemen has received little attention in scholarship on the relationship between documentary and the avant-garde. See, for example, Bill Nichols, “Documentary Film and the Modernist Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 27 (2001), pp. 580-610.
  5. Deren and Herzog share many affinities, a greater number than is appropriate for discussion here: a fascination with the representation of actual death, an interest in trance states, an emphasis on embodiment, etc.
  6. Moira Sullivan, “Deren’s Ethnographic Representation of Haiti,” Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, ed. Bill Nichols, (University of California Press, 2001), p. 215. See, for example: Roderick Coover, “On Verité to Virtual: Conversations on the Frontier of Film and Anthropology,” Visual Studies, vol. 24 no. 3 (2009), p. 246; Lois Wilcken, “The Sacred Music and Dance of Haitian Voudou from Temple to Stage and the Ethics of Representation,” Latin American Perspectives, vol. 32 no.1 (January 2005), pp. 193-210. On p. 195, Wilcken mentions Deren’s book in order briefly to cite a short passage from it and also indicates that Deren was a filmmaker but never mentions the Haiti recordings or the documentary finished by the Itos. In 1985, Wilcken wrote a detailed and incisive comparison of the book, the published audio recording (Lyrichord), and the completed film representing Deren’s research in Haiti. Although most of the discussion remains trapped in a questionable opposition of “subjectivity and scholarship” (p. 314), it is helpful in understanding the interplay of media technologies in Deren’s work and has therefore been cited elsewhere in this review.
  7. Sullivan, p. 223; Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, (New York: McPherson, 1953), pp. 7-11. Deren was the first artist to win a Guggenheim film grant.
  8. Martina Kudlacek, In the Mirror of Maya Deren, Zeitgeist Video, 2004.
  9. Sullivan, p. 212.
  10. Ibid., p. 231.
  11. Ibid., p. 212.
  12. See Sullivan, p. 221. Since embodiment and comparison of cultures figure prominently in many of Herzog’s documentaries, Ames describes them in ethnographic terms, choosing to forego the distinction commonly drawn between documentary and ethnographic film. His example is followed in this review (p. 35).
  13. Divine Horsemen could also be read as a performance of the dynamic the de- and reconstruction of Deren’s subjectivity as she became involved in Voudoun.
  14. Lois E. Wilcken, “Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti by Maya Deren; Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren; Teiji Ito; Cherel Ito; Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti by Maya Deren; Teiji Ito; Cherel Ito,” Ethnomusicology 30, no.2 (1986), pp. 313-18. For a detailed discussion of the disparate ceremonies evoked by the image and soundtrack, see pp. 316-17.
  15. Sullivan, p. 221.
  16. Ibid., p. 208.
  17. Ibid., pp. 213, 221.
  18. Ames is dismissive of politicized film theory. See, for instance, pp. 148-50.