Experimentations in the Real

Photo: Hanna Oksanen/ Aurora

Dr. Ilona Hongisto
Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Fellow, Media Studies, University of Turku, Finland
Honorary Fellow, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, Australia


My relationship with the disciplines of Film and Media Studies could be described as a series of experiments or as an archeology of the very term ‘experimental’. In my early years in the academia, I was fascinated with the genre of experimental film. I was more interested in the experimental form than cinematic narratives; until I fell for the documentary. Real bodies, stories and histories unfolding in front of the documentary camera and expressed with creative cinematic means enticed me in unforeseen ways. There was, and is, something utterly gripping in reality unfolding simultaneously to its cinematic expression.

In the beginning of my PhD project, I tried to channel my new infatuation via experimental film. I talked about ‘experimental documentary’ and emphasized its difference to the so-called traditional documentary. As I dug deeper, I came to the realization that the experimental cannot be reduced to questions of form or genre alone. What I had come to call experimental seemed to be located at the very spot where film and reality intertwine. I was, and still am, convinced that documentaries do not only show and tell what has been or what is; they also experiment with the limits of the real, shape its consistency with the available means and push reality to actualize in new ways. Soul_cover

As existing conceptualizations of the documentary did not address this link between the experimental and the documentary, I set out to develop a new concept of the documentary in my PhD dissertation, a concept that places the experimental at the heart of the documentary’s relationship with the real. A fully elaborated version of this work is now available from Amsterdam University Press.

Soul of the Documentary: Framing, Expression, Ethics discusses the documentary as an experimentation in the real; a practice of framing that intervenes in the real in its becoming. With close-readings of a diverse body of films – from The Last Bolshevik to Grey Gardens – the book shows how documentary cinema captures and creatively contributes to a perpetually unfolding reality. The emphasis on framing brings new urgency to the documentary tradition and its objectives, and provokes significant novel possibilities for thinking about the documentary’s ethical and political potentials in the contemporary world. In my new and ongoing research project, I elaborate on this proposition in the context of post-Soviet Eastern European documentary cinema by asking how documentaries from the region enact their pasts and fabulate futures at a time of intense social ruptures and political upheaval.

Endorsements for Soul of the Documentary
“Documentary does not simply document what is; it presses reality to reveal what is to come. This thrillingly original and well-argued book brings a shot of energy to studies of documentary cinema, film theory, and the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. Ilona Hongisto shows that documentary cinema is an active space of becoming, whose power lies not in indexicality but in capture, the selection of certain aspects of the real to actualize. Her analysis of the aesthetics of the documentary frame, which captures and expresses according to the distinct operations of imagination, fabulation, and affection, will inspire scholars and filmmakers alike.”
Laura U. Marks, School for the Contemporary Arts, Simon Fraser University

“With this book, Hongisto breaks new ground. She introduces a fresh vocabulary to explore our experience of documentary reality as a becoming, a transit zone between what is and what is not yet. There is a deep purpose here: to reconsider how we engage with and understand documentary film, and perhaps cinema itself.”
Bill Nichols, author of Introduction to Documentary and a regular consultant with filmmakers