Authorship and the Documentary

edited by Maree Delofski & Virginia Madsen

This issue of SCAN canvasses the notion of authorship with reference to contemporary documentary forms across radio, film and television. Over the past decade there has been much talk of a ‘renaissance’ in radio documentary, while image-based documentary is expanding on television and finding new forms on the internet.  At the same time, the idea of formal authorship has never had less currency in the industry, and documentary makers, as with other producers, whether for television or radio, find themselves referred to by broadcasters (both public and private) simply as ‘content providers’. Indeed, the ‘authorship’ of any single broadcast work appears to be claimed by the corporate entity while the makers are ‘disappeared’ behind the on-air promotion of the program itself.

What place then for ‘the author’ in this hungry-for-content media environment where institutional pressures to conform often rub up hard against a desire for innovation? Does the idea of the ‘factual’ preclude the poetic, the personal, the uncertain, and lead to a loss of a sense of the author, not as an authority, but as an active shaper of a body of work or of an encounter, or even as an ethical presence? How can we begin to think again about authorship in this environment?  Perhaps authorship might be regarded as a concept in flux - one that obtains in various ways across a range of modalities? As such, ‘authorship’ would reflect the negotiation of a relationship between maker and subject, and discerning the traces of this negotiation would allow us to discover something of the author. Or, in seeking ‘traces’ of the author, we might discover that the presence of a subject can cut through and challenge the authorial desire to manipulate and shape.

The essays in this issue all, in some way, reflect on these issues as they discuss power, ethics and art in the documentary, and the negotiations the author must make in the current managerialist context where issues of length, personal voice and aesthetics may all be subject to institutional interventions. A history of the form in both audio and audiovisual documentary is also inevitably a context for much of the writing; in Delofski, Madsen and Merewether’s contributions there is a strong sense of an historical continuum for the “project” within the “reality-fiction” of what we traditionally call documentary.  The collection invites us to consider significant and culturally important radio documentary that has been almost totally neglected by the academy – for example the work of historian Martin Thomas, and radio auteurs  Kaye Mortley and Tony Barrell.  It gives insights into the creative, intellectual and conceptual approaches that they, and filmmakers Janet Merewether and Maree Delofski, employ in constructing a “documentary reality” – a “reality” that may be the outcome of an encounter between those recording and those recorded, or perhaps be shaped by the use of quotation, artifice, fantasy and decoupage – hybridity.  Ultimately in this discussion of authorship, we are returned by each contributor in an almost cyclical way, whether writing about their own or others’ creative practice in shaping reality, to Grierson’s original definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”.  

Thus, this issue of Scan reopens (as if it ever was closed) the question of the author, the auteur and authorship more generally in audio and audiovisual documentary, especially within the categories of documentary film/video, and the long form and related audio documentary for radio.

Virginia Madsen examines the radio work of Kaye Mortley from her earliest days in radio in Australia to her work with the renowned Atelier de Creation Radiophonique (Radio France Culture) connecting the histories of radio and film to delineate the project of documentary. Arguably, Mortley is one of radio’s few genuine auteurs, most notably of the documentary (in its broadest sense). She conjures worlds of great richness and subtlety: a “mise-en-ondes” as the French coined it (after mise-en-scene), captured by the microphone, written in the waves of sound.

Janet Merewether discusses her two most recent screen works as she explores her own distinctive creative practice.  Considering Jabe Babe – A Heightened Life (2005) and Maverick Mother  (2007) she analyses how reflexivity and hybridity, in their interrogation of “objectivity” and fixed definitions of history and culture, can contribute to a documentary filmmaker’s distinct “signature” or “authorial voice”.

Eurydice Aroney focuses on the radio work of Tony Barrell. Drawing on the history of cut-up artists and audio montage she discusses how Barrell has produced a hybrid oeuvre, something of an anomaly within the public service broadcasting culture of Australia and the United Kingdom. Aroney examines Barrell’s innovative form of audio documentary, positing the difficulties and pleasures of presenting work that is distinguished by a strong authorial voice.

Maree Delofski examines her own creative practice as a filmmaker. Using examples of emblematic moments in three films in her documentary corpus, A Calcutta Christmas (1998), The Trouble with Merle (2002), Tanaka-san Will Not Do Callisthenics (2008), she analyses the way ‘the real’ is constructed through the interplay between subject and filmmaker, arguing that authorship might be considered the outcome of a reciprocity that can develop between filmmaker and subject in projects filmed over extended periods. 

Susan Angel raises questions about the construction of audio documentaries concerned with Indigenous cultural material and the role of the author-narrator in these encounters. Angel discusses Return to Arnhem Land (2007 ABC Radio Eye), the recent work of historian and independent producer Martin Thomas.  In this documentary, we become witness to an audio event where the past and present seem to collide: ancient songs recorded on wire tape in 1948 are returned to the original descendants. Thomas makes us privy to this mediated, yet contested exchange.

COVER IMAGE: A page from the Prix Futura radio prize transcript of Kaye Mortley and René Farabet's "A path through Sami land/Du Cote de la terre sami" (ACR 1991).
Drawing by Johan Turi.