What is a documentary? Film theorists have mulled this question for decades, but Jihoon Kim takes a capacious view in an effort to draw together the various kinds of media labeled “documentary.” In his new book, Documentary’s Expanded Fields: New Media and the Twenty-First-Century Documentary, Kim decenters traditional documentary film, focusing instead on gallery installations, activist videos, interactive projects, virtual-reality environments, and experimental cinema. All combine the aims of documentary film with novel uses of digital technology and the affordances of networked communication. While his jumps from i-doc to multiscreen art installation to protest witness video can be dizzying—and lead to questions about milieu and intended audience—Documentary’s Expanded Fields is an ambitious and worthwhile attempt to map the wide array of documentary projects in the twenty-first century.
In the introduction, Kim explains the idea of “documentary’s expanded fields” by invoking theorists of avant-garde motion pictures and contemporary art. His touchstone is Gene Youngblood’s 1970 study, Expanded Cinema, which derides traditional narrative film and its supposed “passive” viewing, and celebrates artists using then-new technologies like video cameras, synthesizers, and computers. Other thinkers have carried this ethos forward, including Lev Manovich, with his argument for a postmedia aesthetics that adopts the operations of a computer era, and Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow, with their demand that documentary film decouple from traditional narrative in favor of interactive forms. His other touchstone is Rosalind Krauss’s idea of the expanded field in contemporary art, her explanation for postmodern art practices that transcend a given medium. For example, postmodernism embraces sculpture as not only a three-dimensional object in a gallery but also as architecture, landscape, photographic documentation, and performance. A similar collapse of boundaries explains how such a diverse range of projects came to be called “documentary,” as Erika Balsom and other scholars have argued.
Kim is keen to situate his work in a particular theoretical context and acknowledges that these disparate fields—new media, experimental cinema, political communication, art—each had their own intellectual histories, which he carefully surveys with extensive literature reviews before asserting his own claims. This practice means that Kim’s own argument can be muffled at times by all the other voices; whenever encountered, though, his interventions are valuable.
In his first chapter, “Expanded Vision,” Kim explores digital graphics and the digital manipulation of images in documentary media. He offers a clear-eyed corrective to the worry that digital tools necessarily create a break with indexicality. In fact, he points out, the use of these tools is so normalized that they have done little to weaken the truth-value of a photograph. Rather, digital tools offer knowledge other than what the camera alone can offer.
Kim points to the power of this type of imagery for documentary: “Artistic visualizations are capable of representing the world beyond the scope of the camera and giving expression to its ‘magnitude’” (40). He offers both Jer Thorp’s Just Landed (2009) and the work of the investigative journalist group Forensic Architecture as examples in this chapter. Thorp scraped Twitter for tweets with the phrase “just landed in” and gathered location data for those users. Expressing this data on a map, Just Landed makes visible the domestic and transatlantic flows of people, alongside their individual communication about travel—an idea of such magnitude that it cannot be captured or expressed cinematographically, except through metaphor.
In chapter 2, “Expanded Vision,” Kim concentrates on new recording technologies (drones and GoPros) and new viewing technologies (virtual reality). Like data visualization’s ability to express magnitude, drone cameras can capture a distant view beyond the human scale, while GoPro cameras can go places that camera operators cannot, offering a nonintentional vision. Here, Kim analyzes the use of these cameras in more-traditional documentaries, like Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird (2016), Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow (2017), and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2012).
He also pushes back against the common belief that virtual reality (VR) is necessarily immersive. Kim wonders: even if a viewer is immersed in VR, does this immersion necessarily increase engagement with the documentary’s subject, like a humanitarian crisis? Kim adds nuance to the claims around new technology’s potential, drawing out the lazy conflation of immersion and engagement. Through his analysis of VR documentaries like Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness (Arnaud Colinart and Amaury La Burthe, 2016) and Carne y Arena (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2017), Kim demonstrates that the design of the VR experience affects the viewer’s engagement more directly than the mere fact of using VR.
In the following chapters, Kim deals with new spaces of engagement with documentary: in the gallery and online. In chapter 3, “Expanded Dispositif,” Kim looks at the so-called documentary turn in contemporary art, helpfully mapping these multiscreen installations onto familiar documentary modes, like the city symphony and the interview. He argues that, by relocating the documentary to a new place and redistributing the audiovisual material onto multiple screens in multiple spaces, the work transforms the spectator into the visitor. In one installation—Küba, by Kutlog Ataman—interviews with residents of the Istanbul neighborhood of Küba play on dozens of old TVs. Visitors can linger on worn sofas, watching the interviews in whatever order they choose. In arranging the sociological documentary adjacently rather than sequentially, Ataman creates an open-ended experience, compelling visitors to watch at their own pace and create their own narratives from the material.
In chapter 4, “Expanded Archives,” Kim explores interactive documentaries (i-docs). These documentaries have been eagerly covered by documentary scholars because of how they prod spectators to take an active role in experiencing and creating them. Kim takes a nuanced approach to i-docs by considering the technological components as cocreators along with the user. He tracks the software protocols and database structure behind i-docs, showing how much and what kind of interaction they allow users.
One interesting project he spotlights is Man with a Movie Camera: Global Remake. The website for this collaborative i-doc allows an unlimited number of participants to upload their own videos that mimic or parallel shots from Dziga Vertov’s eponymous 1929 film. Kim writes, “The website then produces a split-screen film with Vertov’s images on the left side of the frame and their parallel, uploaded images on its right side. A new split-screen film is produced every day as participants upload new images drawn from disparate geographical and authorial sources on the site” (170–71).
The collaboration afforded by internet connectivity is also central to the works in his final chapter, “Expanded Activists.” In this compelling chapter, Kim tackles the work that will be most familiar to readers: amateur activist videos. Using Tina Askanius’s typology of radical videos, Kim details witness videos, documentation videos, mobilization videos, and political mash-ups from across the globe. He points to commonalities in the form of videos from such political protests as Occupy Wall Street, the Umbrella Movement, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement. While some authors are eager to draw links between these and guerrilla video practices of the past, Kim points out the salient differences: new audience behavior and networked circulation.
In the twenty-first century, it is not only guerrilla video makers who create radical content or alternative cable television networks that show them. More people than ever before can create and circulate activist videos. In addition to amateurs creating vernacular videos, they also organize and contextualize the videos, by collecting them on YouTube channels and Facebook pages. Activists curate the deluge of videos to create awareness, amplify messages, and provoke communal action. These practices have also, from the bottom up, worked their way into traditional documentary films and mainstream journalism.
By decentering documentary film, Kim makes room for a nuanced study of cinema-adjacent works and new-media projects. It is admirable work to bring these documentaries into contact with documentary film studies, while also drawing on other fields of scholarship. Kim’s book yields greater value and knowledge than those who would police the boundaries with tired arguments about what is and isn’t a documentary.