Disembodied Voice in Animated Interview Documentaries

The Power of the Disembodied Voice in Animated Interview Documentaries

Bella Honess Roe

University of Surrey: Department of Dance, Film and Theatre Studies


This paper addresses questions raised by documentaries that substitute animated bodies for the physical bodies of interviewees.  It has been suggested (Nichols, 1993; Renov, 2004) that the body is central to how we gain knowledge from interview-based documentaries.  This emphasis on the importance of unspoken knowledge is, in part, a reaction to the problematic, didactic, disembodied ‘voice of god’ familiar from the ‘expositional’ mode of documentary.  However, if there is no physical embodiment of the words we hear being spoken, if we are not allowed to witness gesture and body language, how do animated interview documentaries convey the subjective, embodied knowledge of their interview subjects?


Films such as It’s Like That (Southern Ladies Animation Group, Australia, 2004), Hidden (Gömd, Heilborn & Aronowitsch, Sweden, 2002) and His Mother’s Voice (Dennis Tupicoff, Australia, 1997) question the suggestion that the power of testimony comes from the body of the interviewee.  In the absence of indexical images of the body, the aural index of the voice takes precedence.  But the voice in these films is more than a marker of documentary authenticity, an indexical link between representation and reality.  The voice, as suggested by Michael Chion, has the capacity to go beyond the words we hear it speak.  It has, as Mladen Dolar describes, an ‘extralinguistic element’ that carries supplemental meaning through tone, delivery, timbre.  Furthermore, Dolar and Chion suggest this extralinguistic element is emphasized in the disembodied voice.


All animated documentaries assert the epistemological significance of documentary sound, but animated interview documentaries in particular invite us to rethink the status of the disembodied voice in documentary.  I suggest that in animated interview documentaries the disembodied voice is, rather than an untrustworthy authoritarian device, a powerful communicator of situated knowledge.  Moreover, the power of the voice works in tandem with expressive animated visuals in these films to create affective and evocative interpretations of their subject’s worlds.



Bella Honess Roe is lecturer in Film Studies in the Department of Dance, Film and Theatre at the University of Surrey   She completed her PhD on animated documentaries at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 2009.  She is currently working on a book manuscript on animated documentary that expands her doctoral work.


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