Experimentations in the Real

Photo: Hanna Oksanen/ Aurora

Dr. Ilona Hongisto
Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Research 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 tell what has been or what is; they also experiment with the limits of the real, shape its consistency with the available means and make us think about issues yet to come.

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 revised version of the thesis is coming out from Amsterdam University Press in 2015. The book, Soul of the Documentary: Expression and the Capture of the Real, discusses the documentary as an experimentation in the real; a practice of framing that both captures and expresses the real, thus foregrounding reality as a process prone to transformation.

In my ongoing research project, I take this theoretical setting further in the context of post-Soviet Eastern European documentary cinema. In the project, I ask how documentaries from the region fabulate realities to come at the moment of intense social ruptures and political upheaval.