Documentary practice in a participatory culture

Tarrant, Patrick Anthony (2008) Documentary practice in a participatory culture. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Debates concerning the veracity, ethics and politics of the documentary form circle endlessly around the function of those who participate in it, and the meaning attributed to their participation. Great significance is attached to the way that documentary filmmakers do or do not participate in the world they seek to represent, just as great significance is attached to those subjects whose participation extends beyond playing the part of eyewitness or expert, such that they become part of the very filmmaking process itself.

This Ph.D. explores the interface between documentary practice and participatory culture by looking at how their practices, discursive fields and histories intersect, but also by looking at how participating in one might mean participating in the other. In short, the research is an examination of participatory culture through the lens of documentary practice and documentary criticism. In the process, however, this examination of participatory culture will in turn shed light on documentary thinking, especially the meaning and function of ‘the participant’ in contemporary documentary practice.

A number of ways of conceiving of participation in documentary practice are discussed in this research, but one of the ideas that gives purpose to that investigation is the notion that the participant in contemporary documentary practice is someone who belongs to a participatory culture in particular. Not only does this mean that those subjects who play a part in a documentary are already informed by their engagement with a range of everyday media practices before the documentary apparatus arrives, the audience for such films are similarly informed and engaged. This audience have their own expectations about how they should be addressed by media producers in general, a fact that feeds back into their expectations about participatory approaches to documentary practice too.

It is the ambition of this research to get closer to understanding the relationship between participants in the audience, in documentary and ancillary media texts, as well as behind the camera, and to think about how these relationships constitute a context for the production and reception of documentary films, but also how this context might provide a model for thinking about participatory culture itself.

One way that documentary practice and participatory culture converge in this research is in the kind of participatory documentary that I call the ‘Camera Movie’, a narrow mode of documentary filmmaking that appeals directly to contemporary audiences’ desires for innovation and participation, something that is achieved in this case by giving documentary subjects control of the camera. If there is a certain inevitability about this research having to contend with the notion of the ‘participatory documentary’, the ‘participatory camera’ also emerges strongly in this context, especially as a conduit between producer and consumer.

Making up the creative component of this research are two documentaries about the reality television event Band In A Bubble, and participatory media practices more broadly. The single-screen film, Hubbub , gives form to the collective intelligence and polyphonous voice of contemporary audiences who must be addressed and solicited in increasingly innovative ways. One More Like That is a split-screen, DVD-Video with alternate audio channels selected by a user who thereby chooses who listens and who speaks in the ongoing conversation between media producers and media consumers.

It should be clear from the description above that my own practice does not extend to highly interactive, multi-authored or web-enabled practices, nor the distributed practices one might associate with social media and online collaboration. Mine is fundamentally a single authored, documentary video practice that seeks to analyse and represent participatory culture on screen, and for this reason the Ph.D. refrains from a sustained discussion of the kinds of collaborative practices listed above. This is not to say that such practices don’t also represent an important intersection of documentary practice and participatory culture, they simply represent a different point of intersection. Being practice-led, this research takes its procedural cues from the nature of the practice itself, and sketches parameters that are most enabling of the idea that the practice sets the terms of its own investigation.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 26975
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Cunningham, Stuart, Hamilton, Jillian, & Dowmunt, Anthony
Keywords: documentary practice, documentary criticism, film studies, participatory culture, metaculture, practice based research, media audiences, reception studies, media convergence, new media, found footage filmmaking, music culture, reality television
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Creative Industries Faculty
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 24 Aug 2009 23:20
Last Modified: 28 Oct 2011 19:53

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