Our mission statement
In the past two decades documentary has exploded in popularity with the changing media landscape lending itself to media forms that represent the real world. Documentary images and approaches have emerged in film, television, radio, on the internet, in journals, in museums, in galleries, and on billboards. We see the influence of documentary form, method, and ethos in personal YouTube videos, in the proliferation of radio documentaries, in multimedia blogs, in personal websites, as well as in certain reality TV and comedy genres, to name just a few. Documentaries have also found a place on large theatrical screens, prompting new industrial investments and sparking high production values. Concomitantly, documentary has exploded as an area of critical inquiry.
Documentary, in its diverse and multimedia forms, relies on a direct engagement with and commitment to the lived world. Documentary media makers work creatively with nonfiction audiovisual material for the purposes of preservation and revelation, persuasion, analysis, and expression. Put differently, documentaries combine images and sounds from the real world to say something about that world.
Documentary work has a vital communicative function. From its inception, documentary has been imagined as bringing people together, playing a key role in the building and constituting of publics for the purpose of expressing and explaining increasingly complex and intricate systems and ideas. It can make visible to the public the deep inner-workings of institutions. And it can communicate scientific ideas, historical events, and social problems, for example, in a way that brings the world alive to those publics. In other words, it can explain complex concepts and processes to a diverse constituency and help them know the objects of thought in ways previously not possible. In the new media culture, this way of speaking has become increasingly influential. Documentary has become one of the dominant forms of political, artistic, personal, and academic speech, informing and infusing previous models in the process.
The methods and intentions of documentary work resonate with the work of scholars from across the academy. Many academics likewise work with materials from the real world in order to explain and help people know that world anew in all its complexity. Documentary thus provides a model of how to speak about the historical world and a vehicle for communicating complex ideas to a broad audience (and often doing so pleasurably). As a media genre, as an artistic form of cultural expression, and as an approach to engaging the natural world, history, and contemporary society, therefore, documentary connects disciplines and practices from across the university in a way that has rarely been recognized. The Center for Documentary Research and Practice sees this connection as an opportunity — one that brings together scholars and artists from across the university in an effort to explore how we express ourselves, critically and creatively, when we speak about, and with, the lived world. At CDRP, we do so not only by presenting and analyzing our own methods of research and writing — in the process developing new forms of academic scholarship — but by studying how some of the most innovative historical and contemporary documentary filmmakers have approached the multiple challenges inherent in documentary work, as an art and as scholarship.
The multidisciplinary reach of documentary, while at first glance obvious in that documentaries are about a host of topics of interest to multiple disciplines, has rarely been explored with the depth we engage in CDRP. Documentary’s history, form, politics, and ethics have been most carefully examined in the field of cinema and media studies. Film scholars have theorized documentary in relation to other film forms, marking its production histories, forms of sponsorship, purposes, aesthetics, performances, circulation practices, and political/ethical implications in relation other film forms such as feature-length fiction, the avant-garde, and other nonfiction sub-genres. They have also reminded us that, despite its kinship with other nonfictional systems that have instrumental power — such as politics, economics, and science — documentary is a form of artistic expression. The films’ ability to persuade and promote rely on their ability to induce our pleasures and engage our senses. Moreover, this artistic dimension does not always serve the rhetorical dimension. Rather, the history of documentary reveals numerous films and movements that highlight nonfiction film’s particular capacity for expressivity.
But in addition to the work produced in cinema and media studies, documentary also has direct connections with a host of fields across the academy. Documentary can be understood as essentially an historiographic practic — documentary filmmakers, like professional historians, make arguments about historical events and processes by organizing historical documents into a logical sequence or argument. Moreover, documentary filmmakers have consistently explored fundamental questions related to history, memory, and trauma through this form — its reliance on witness testimony mark it as a privileged form of oral history. Documentary filmmakers also can be thought to function as ethnographers — they spend considerable time with members of another social group and aim to communicate, through thick, indexical description, the central tenets of that group’s culture to an audience. Or, documentary can be seen as a practice particularly suited to do policy work — its simultaneous function as witness to the world and argument about the world prompting such associations. And the associations with journalism, rhetoric and public culture, and history of science are likewise deep.
In addition to the connections with the humanities and social sciences, documentary resonates deeply with the hard sciences. Both traditions are associated with positivism and its accompanying realist models of communication. But documentary filmmakers and scientists have long recognized the challenge of communicating complex research and have consistently developed innovative forms of expression as a solution to those challenges. That is not to say they abandon their connections to the historical world. Rather, they have strived to develop methods of image management that make it possible to see or hear objects of study that would otherwise be unavailable to human perception. This may be a problem of scale (micro cellular photography and macro images of galaxies), a problem of time, a problem of access, or a problem of concept. Documentary filmmakers and scientists thus not only converge on films about scientific matters, many of which can be understood as documentaries, but moreover, their experiments in communicating visible evidence of the world to an audience also have the potential to spark new ideas in each community.
Documentary’s capacity for articulating social problems, presenting evidence, and engaging in the art of persuasion are increasingly well known to lawyers. Documentary media not only functions as witness to social problems, it can utilize visual tools to illuminate the complexity of legal history, legal systems, and political problems, while also engaging audiences’ visceral sensibilities of, for example, overcrowded prisons, the dangers of illegal border crossing, or the challenges posed by the current state of Second Amendment law. Legal scholars increasingly require fluency in the language of documentary, not only in support of their own advocacy work, but so as to account for the varied ways that mediated documents function in an evidentiary capacity across legal practices.
Indiana University is extraordinarily well-positioned to be a leader in the field of documentary studies and production. We have a tradition of excellence in film study and a highly rated Ph.D. program in cinema and media studies. We boast one of the top university cinemas (IU Cinema) in the world. We have unparalleled nonfiction film holdings — the Black Film Center & Archive, the Kinsey Institute, and the educational film collections that are part of the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive. And we have internationally renowned scholars (Jeffrey Gould, Christiana Ochoa, Susan Seizer, Michael Martin, and Sarah Phillips) who have expanded their research profiles by making documentaries in association with their written scholarship. In addition, the university’s world-class Jacobs School of Music and Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts are home to musicians and artists who, increasingly, find expressive outlets in documentary work. Finally, The Media School has plans to develop an M.F.A. in documentary in the near future.
Historical documentary, in particular, is a genre of growing importance both as a practice and as a field of inquiry. IU is particularly well-suited to address both dimensions: Among our historians we have faculty and doctoral students who make documentaries and numerous others who study and write about them. And virtually all faculty use them in their teaching. Many of our historians and others interested in the relation between visual media and history have been grouped within the Center for the Study of History and Memory. CDRP maintains CSHM’s overall mission as well as its oral history archive (certainly the largest in Indiana and one of the largest in the Midwest).
The Center for Documentary Research and Practice is the research center that both supports these endeavors and does what no unit, department, or school can — it functions as a multidisciplinary center that brings together scholars and artists from across Indiana University. It has the potential to change the field by greatly expanding the field of documentary studies. And it has a public-facing mission while providing scholars the tools to achieve that mission.
- The Center for Documentary Research and Practice brings together scholars and artists from across Indiana University who work on an array of documentary projects, including:
- traditional scholarly written work .
- experimental/creative documentary production .
- critical/creative production work that connects with larger research projects.
- The center brings these people and their projects together by:
- offering technological and artistic support for ongoing projects .
- creating a forum for faculty and graduate students to present both in progress and completed scholarly and critical creative work.
- The center serves as a space of innovation and experimentation for the production of new forms of multimedia scholarly publication.
- The center works with IU collections (the Black Film Center & Archive, the Kinsey Institute, and the Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive) to facilitate research on and exhibition of their holdings.
- The center coordinates programs with IU Cinema on documentary and nonfiction-specific film and media.
- The center serves as one of the institutional homes for visiting artists and postdoctoral scholars who work on projects with a documentary and nonfiction media component. It also supports and promotes doctoral research on documentary-related topics.
- The center supports teaching of documentary and nonfiction media at both the graduate and undergraduate level by coordinating events associated with courses and serving as a community for ideas about films and videos to teach.
- The center hosts documentary symposia and conferences, out of which book and journal publications develop. In particular, the center hosted the Visible Evidence International Documentary Conference — the leading international, interdisciplinary conference of scholars and artists devoted to documentary film, media, culture, and politics — in August 2018.
- The center serves as web host for the Visible Evidence International Documentary Community. This involves development and expansion of the current site, including a new curated forum on critical issues related to documentary. Developing and maintaining the premier website and academic forum associated with the critical study of documentary calls significant attention to the center and IU’s film community and institutions.
- The center encourages development of collaborative multidisciplinary documentary research and creative projects by faculty and graduate students.
- The center supports initiatives that focus on documentaries with local or Indiana state issues and concerns.