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Manipulations: A Program of Experimental Documentaries

14th Singapore International Film Festival
April 13, 2001

Catalogue Essay by Ken Paul Rosenthal, Program Curator
© 2001


Film is intrinsically about manipulating time—and by extension its subject—in the medium of light. This manipulation requires a phenomenal deception commonly referred to as ‘the persistence of vision’. It is only with our active participation as viewers that a static string of images flickering across the screen at 24 frames per second can perpetuate the illusion of motion. From this most fundamental level to a filmmaker’s editing strategies, moving images are predicated on a visual sleight of hand with which the viewer is entirely complicit.

Questioning the construction of a projected image allows us to question our perceptions of reality and truth—two notions that documentary films allegedly define more accurately than any other motion picture genre. One need not be a Buddhist to understand that the world as we know it is a product of our senses. Truth is not only in the eye of the beholder, it is the eye of the beholder. If ‘cinema verite’ truly reflected the perspective of a fly on the wall, the point of view would appear as refracted as a mirrored geodesic dome.

Perhaps this is the best metaphor then, for illustrating the multi-faceted state of documentary film today. Differences in documentary styles are often a matter of the degree of manipulation the filmmaker chooses to impose. However, in these technocratic times when pictures are as easily produced and reproduced as they are disposed of, it is increasingly difficult to trust our own eyes. Thus, we must question not only techniques, but how the tools a filmmaker employs to create images affects our relationship to the subject—and by extension ourselves.

Even a camera set up to shoot independent of an operator is subject to the limitations and biases of its own mechanisms. Picking up any camera automatically perpetrates a form of manipulation irrespective of the intention to allow the action or events to unfold naturally without interference. From Robert Flaherty’s ‘Nanook of the North’ to the television show ‘Survivor’, the trajectory of truth in cinema has been less about objectively recording reality, and far more about interpreting it.

Experimental, or ‘Personal Cinema’ boldly reflects a highly subjective view of the world, or the subject it addresses. These films are generally short, non-narrative and structurally idiosyncratic, though the makers often use narrative elements and conventional structures in unconventional ways. Such aesthetic risks usually defy any effort to suspend disbelief. Experimental documentaries take the liberty of formally de and reconstructing their subjects in order to question the primacy of the image as a conveyor of truth.

This program strives to present alternative forms of documentation. The films address cultural anarchy, domestic and political history, television news reportage, and how blood and travel can mediate one’s relationship to place. Collectively, they implicitly question how recording an image reflects or redefines the world, and inspire us to consider how pictures not only mirror our lives, but transform them.


Mother Tongue (1991) by Irina Leimbacher

Blood Story (1990) by Greta Snider

Blackbirds (1998) by Ken Paul Rosenthal

Human Remains (1998) by Jay Rosenblatt

Along the Way (1983) by Michael Wallin