The idea of “creative practice-based academic research” has increasingly been an area of focus for the University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) over the past number of years. The predominance of liberal humanist approaches to education (which foreground Enlightenment values such as reason, universality of human rights, and so on) have been radically challenged by protest movements in South Africa (and elsewhere) over the past two years – and thinking about the relationships between formal centres of learning and the societies they serve through the medium of art seems to be a promising mechanism for delivering understandings that might as yet not be articulated, or are not articulable within governing academic discourses.
The field of documentary film (and photography) fills an interesting space within such an approach. Inherent tensions in the form between subjectivity and objectivity, art and “reality”, politics and “truth” all make for a dynamic and fluid space wherein notions of knowledge, understanding, authenticity, identity, value, political commitment and so on – both within the form and its subjects – can be actively relativized and, if needs be, contested. As a relatively direct instrument of engaging with the “real” world, documentary is however traditionally more closely aligned with the gathering of knowledge and by implication with academic study. How should we situate the form within debates around creative practice-based research? What are the dynamics between documentary as instrument and as object of enquiry?
A series of formal exchanges between the University of Toronto and the University of the Western Cape will bring together documentary practitioners, theorists and students in one space to present sometimes contradictory, sometimes symbiotic views on the understanding and functioning of documentary film and photography in society. How can we conceive of a “practice-based theory” and how does theory play out in practice? What are the limits of theory and what are the limits of practice? Is mutual understanding between practice and theory always beneficial, or is there an argument to be made for constructive discursive isolation? (Is the “theoretically cognizant” documentary an appropriate aim or should formal space be given for more intuitive approaches? And similarly, is it valid that theoretically based analyses of film should be grounded in understanding of “industry parameters”?) How should one conceive of the public good when comparing the relatively abstract form of academic texts with the relatively populist ones of film and photography?
1. A three-day symposium at the University of the Western Cape in April 2017 attended by academics, students and documentary practitioners, covering papers, debates, screenings and practical documentary experiments. 2. A small-scale festival event – either in South Africa or Canada - whereby films or photography series developed over the course of the exchange are made available to the public, together with a number of talks.
Panel discussion at symposium, University of the Western Cape, April 2017. From left: Julie MacArthur, Meg Rickards Damian, Sean Samuels, Perivi Katjavivi, Simon Wood. Photo credit: Ri'aad Dollie