Ilona Hongisto: Soul of the Documentary: Framing, Expression, Ethics

Ilona Hongisto: Soul of the Documentary: Framing, Expression, Ethics

Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015, ISBN 978-90-8964-755-9, 179 pages.

Natalia Klimova
Kanerva Cederström; Chris Marker; Pirjo Honkasalo; David Maysles; Albert Maysles; Jayce Salloum; Chantal Akerman; Gilles Deleuze; Félix Guattari; Jacques Rancière; Stella Bruzzi; Bill Nichols; documentary; film aesthetics; cinematic frame; affect; ethics.

In her book Soul of the Documentary, the scholar of film and media studies Ilona Hongisto introduces “an aesthetics of the frame” (Hongisto 2015: 14) to conceptualize documentary cinema in its relation to reality as a process and to the world in its constant dynamic transformation. Her study enters into a scholarly polemic with the well-established critical tradition in theorizing documentary cinema, inaugurated by John Grierson’s work dating back to the 1930s, that foregrounds “an aesthetic of the document” (ibid). Hongisto juxtaposes documentary’s potential to express and participate in reality in its unfolding to Grierson’s representational paradigm which posits the world as external and stable and highlights documentary’s indexical relationship to it (Grierson 1966). Hongisto’s approach finds its genealogy in the recent field of documentary film studies. Authors in the field such as Elizabeth Cowie, Stella Bruzzi, and Jaime Baron investigate the generative effects of limitations of cinematic representability (Cowie 2013; Bruzzi 2000; Baron 2013). More broadly, the theoretical optics of Soul of the Documentary is framed by philosophical works on cinematic aesthetics and ethics by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Jacques Rancière, and Michel Chion et al. (Deleuze 1986, 1989; Deleuze and Guattari 1987, Rancière 2006, 2007; Chion 1999). Hongisto masterfully brings together ideas on cinema from over a dozen influential, mostly West European and Anglo-American theoreticians, situating her own work at the forefront of ongoing scholarly debate.

Soul of the Documentary consists of three parts, each dedicated to one of the documentary frame strategies, or operations, that characterize documentary cinema’s ability to capture the real and express it, according to Hongisto. “Imagination: Relational documents” (chapters 1 and 2) focuses on the documentary practice of reframing documents, activating the capacity to imagine multiple possible realities beyond the images seen on screen. The author grounds her discussion of documentary imagination in the analysis of two documentary films, Kaksi enoa/Two Uncles (Kanerva Cederström, 1991, Finland) and Le tombeau d’Alexandre/The Last Bolshevik (Chris Marker, 1993, France). Both films include archival photographic and cinematic material which is used not so much to reconstruct a narrative of one’s life, but to imagine, to rewrite this history anew. Hongisto draws on André Bazin, Roland Barthes, and Mary Ann Doane to examine the questions of temporality and historicity in connection to the photographic image of a missing person in Two Uncles. The author mentions her interest in “the material specificity of the documents” (Hongisto 2015: 27), and this section could benefit from an exploration into the intermedial tension between cinema and photography. Nevertheless, her thorough analysis of Cederström’s film introduces the idea of documentary imagination that is further developed in the section on The Last Bolshevik. Marker’s documentary on the Soviet film director Alexander Medvedkin serves as a case study of fragmentation, recontextualization, and, ultimately, imagination in documentary cinema. Taking Rancière’s claim that film is a “thwarted fable” as a point of departure (Rancière 2006: 147), Hongisto demonstrates how documentary cinematic images from various archival sources come together as an assemblage in The Last Bolshevik, to tell the story not only of Medvedkin, but of Soviet history.

Hongisto’s allusion to The Last Bolshevik as a documentary fable allows for a seamless transition to the second part, “Fabulation: Documentary visions” (chapters 3 and 4). Here, the author discusses observational documentaries Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysels, 1975, USA) and Tanjuska ja 7 perkelettä/Tanyusha and the 7 Devils (Pirjo Honkasalo, 1993, Finland) in relation to documentary’s potential to co-create reality together with the filmed subjects. She argues that documentary fabulation, which is less interested in revealing the truth, but rather in capturing multiple instances of self-invention and “fabulous storytelling” (Hongisto 2015: 69), articulates alternative ways of being in the world for the documentary’s subjects. For example, Hongisto studies playful interactions between the camera and the women filmed in Grey Gardens, to show how singing, dancing, and posing for the camera are transformed into acts of resistance for them. Building on Béla Balázs and Deleuze, Hongisto connects the cinematic device of close-up with the capacity of a documentary frame to invite and provoke a kind of performance for the camera, which makes it possible for the filmed subjects to transcend or gain control of the actual circumstances of their existence. It is by virtue of this affirmative power of documentary that the two case studies are connected in the fabulation section of Soul of the Documentary. Otherwise, the cinematic manner of Honkasalo in Tanyusha and the 7 Devils, as well as the silent schizophrenic girl portrayed in the documentary, could not be in sharper contrast to the style and the filmed subjects of the Maysels’ Grey Gardens. In her discussion of the documentary fabulation in Tanyusha and the 7 Devils, Hongisto highlights the role of the voice in documentary, referring to the works by Chion, Kaja Silverman, Jacques Lacan, Mladan Dolar, and a few others. According to Hongisto, the sonic structure of the documentary, which includes music and multiple speaking and singing voices of several people shown in the film, elevates the protagonist, allowing her a figurative escape and a possibility of existence beyond the confines of the monastery where she is kept. In this case, documentary fabulation is an example of “what the documentary can do” (ibid.: 97) to imagine and present an alternative to otherwise difficult and unjust reality.

Finally, the third part, “Affection: Documenting the potential” (chapters 5 and 6) addresses a political dimension of the aesthetics of the frame. While documentary imagination envisions multiple possible realities via the technique of reframing, and fabulation exhibits documentary’s affirmative potential through implementation of close-up and sonic composition, documentary affection intensifies and renders visible sensations that resist direct “discursive argumentation” (ibid.: 101). Hongisto’s claim here is supported by her analysis of three documentaries with explicit political content: everything and nothing (Jayce Salloum, 2001, Canada), D’Est/From the East (Chantal Akerman, 1993, Belgium), and Trans-Siberia, Muistiinpanoja leireiltä/Trans-Siberia: Notes from the Camps (Kanerva Cederström, 1999, Finland). For instance, her study of visual conventions of the testimonial documentary in Salloum’s everything and nothing featuring the Lebanese resistance fighter Soha Bechara, emphasizes the excess of experience beyond the cinematic frame. The experiential excess does not diminish political value of Bechara’s testimony, rather – when registered by the camera – it expands the affective potential of the film. This connection between the political message of the documentary and “the primacy of feeling” (ibid.: 120) is central to Hongisto’s discussion of the documentaries about Post-Soviet East Europe and Russia, From the East and Trans-Siberia. Here, she focuses on the visual juxtaposition of movement and stillness within the documentary frame, and the subsequent sensation of momentum and duration. Within the context of these documentaries, showing people and countries at the threshold of major political transformations and dealing with their complicated histories, the feeling of momentum corresponds to lived experience of time. According to Hongisto, this effect of time rendered through a cinematic representation in documentary makes it possible for the viewer to sense and to think about what remains unseen and unspoken - beyond the documentary frame.

As in previous chapters, Hongisto situates her own work within a larger film-theoretical discourse initiated by such authors as Vivian Sobchack and Judith Butler, Linda Williams and Steven Shaviro, Brian Massumi and Bill Nichols. Soul of the Documentary contains references to a wide range of scholarship: not only documentary, but film studies in general, psychoanalysis, critical theory, and philosophy. Overall, Hongisto demonstrates an incredibly detailed and almost encyclopaedic knowledge of various competing theoretical frameworks in these fields, as they pertain to her own research. However, at times Hongisto’s own ideas, contributions, observations, and arguments are overwhelmed by concepts and analyses borrowed from other authors. Not quite two hundred pages of Soul of the Documentary bring together all of the above-mentioned writers, from Grierson and Barthes to Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari, and Rancière, and many more. That being said, Hongisto does not limit herself to mere overview of existing scholarship but enters into productive dialogue with influential thinkers.

Overall, Soul of the Documentary is a thoroughly researched and well-argued study of documentary cinema, with a clear structure and far reaching conclusions. The book will be of interest not only to specialists in documentary film due to its rigorous analysis of documentary form, aesthetics, and ethics, but also to scholars and students of cinema and media in general, who will find in it an introduction to key conceptual frameworks in the field. The theoretical scope of Soul of the Documentary and the canon of literature on cinema with which Hongisto engages, correspond with the selection of documentary films discussed in the book. Most of the references are made to significant figures in film studies from West Europe and North America. Similarly, all of the documentaries studied in the volume are made by West European and North American directors in the past thirty years (except for Grey Gardens, released in 1975). Since documentary cinema is a global phenomenon with a century long history, it is virtually impossible to address all of it in one book. The author notes that her “conceptualization is formed with a selection of documentary films in which the entanglement of creative work and documenting the real is particularly striking” (ibid.: 14). However, Hongisto’s claims on aesthetics and ethics of documentary seem to possess a universal value, and it would be beneficial to test them within a larger global cinematic, theoretical, and historical context. It could be achieved by bringing in not only film-critical thought from authors like Trinh T. Minh-ha and N. Frank Ukadike, for example, but also by including documentary films by directors from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America.

Throughout the book, Hongisto raises questions about the ethics of documentary, as it relates to the cinematic frame strategies outlined earlier (imagination, fabulation, and affection). Signalled in the prologue to Soul of the Documentary as one of its major subjects, documentary ethics is addressed directly in the section on observational documentaries and is linked to the documentary’s performative role. Thus, Hongisto claims, documentary’s ethical stakes reside not so much with its commitment to truth telling and authenticity, but rather with its capacity to incite change. As the author consistently shows in various case studies, documentary ethics is inseparable from its form and aesthetic choices, among which framing is of particular importance. The book ends with an epilogue on documentary ethics, which ties together Hongisto’s meditations on documentary form, its aesthetics and place in the world. As she writes, “The aesthetics of the frame, then, promotes ethics as an act that sustains the potential of becoming in the real” (ibid.: 135).

Natalia Klimova

Princeton University


Natalia Klimova is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Her dissertation, Human Documents on Screen and Stage: A Contrapuntal Reading of Post-Soviet Documentary, focuses on documentary modes in Post-Soviet culture in Russia in the 1990s-2000s, across such media as film and theater. Her research is informed by performance studies and film studies; and she is interested in Post-Soviet culture and critical theory of the 1920s-1930s.


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Suggested Citation

Klimova, Natalia. 2019. Review: “Ilona Hongisto: Soul of the Documentary: Framing, Expression, Ethics”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 9. DOI:


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