The position of the documentary maker

A reflection on the position of the documentary maker inspired by Walter Benjamin

Elias Grootaers


In my paper I want to reflect upon the position of the documentary maker – inspired by the writings of Walter Benjamin.
It is important to state that I regard documentary film as more than a filmic object alone. I wish to perceive it not only as a thing, but also as an experience and an attitude (Sobchack, 1999: 241). One could speak of a documentary being-in-the-world or a documentary consciousness. My research positions the documentary maker at the same time as the melancholic brooder who is aware of the gap between the observer and the fragmented reality and as the alert collector who understands that there are valuable thruths to be found within the forgotten waste-yard(s) of history.
Walter Benjamin writes in his Theses on the Concept of History: “Doesn’t a breath of the air that pervaded earlier days caress us as well? In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of now silent ones?” (Benjamin cited in Löwy, 2005: 29-30). The suppressed will return time and time again in disfigured and strange images and sounds. But that which comes to haunt us are not the images of the past themselves, but the unfulfilled promises of a just future inherent in these images.
For centuries in western thinking the concept of time has been dominated by the vulgar representation of time as a precise and homogeneous continuum (something monolithic, impenetrable). This representation of time denies the forgotten and oppressed other its place in the political discourse (Agamben, 1993: 91-105). A radical dislocation of this linear continuum can create the necessary space for the time of this forgotten and oppressed other.
So should documentary film be benevolant and leave alone (or even restore the peace among) these phantoms of the past or should it summon these phantoms and in a way give them a platform to present themselves? Shouldn’t the documentary maker dismantle the obsession with the often narrow actuality and topicality that has very much dominated the history of documentary film?
Isn’t what Benjamin recognises as the position of the modern historian not also the role that is put away for the documentary maker: the awareness that each era in a way dreams the next era, but is dressed in the garments of the past? And isn’t the engagement of the documentary maker to be found in allowing the (forgotten) past and the (unthought) future to haunt in the delicate present of his work?





I am a documentary filmmaker and a lecturer in documentary film. Currently I am preparing a PhD in Arts at the University College Ghent, Faculty of Fine Arts – KASK. My research focuses on documentary time as haunted time, the idea that the present is always impure and out of joint. It addresses documentary film as a projection screen on which past, present and future mingle and jostle each other, and the lived experience of this haunted time. Important in my work is the exploration of the vital role of the soundtrack in conveying this experience.


Throughout my artistic practice I have always thought of the relationship between documentary film and (the experience of) time as being highly complex. I have always sensed documentary time to be a time inhabited by ghosts and have always been intrigued by “the non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present” (Derrida, 2006: xviii).


Two of my previous films, Cinema Central (2005) and Lignes. En quête d’une mémoire (2006), not only explore the way the past sustains in the present, but even more how the past hijacks the present and because of that brings the present to a standstill (or at least protracts, temporises and slows down the present). These films are not only concerned with the interlacing of past, present and future, but also with the connection between personal and political time.


My latest documentary Not Waving, But Drowning (2009) focuses on the experience of Indian refugees during their arrest and detention by the harbour police in Zeebrugge, Belgium. Within the tense, haunted context of the harbour and the seaside, and together with them, we slowly lose all sense of time and place. Without investigating their past or their future, the human trafficking organisations or the Belgian legislation, the film transgresses into the timelessness (a powerless and impotent non-time and the continuous recurrence of standstill) in which our society imprisons people without papers.


In my research I wish to explore this idea of haunted time throughout the philosophies of time of Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida. I want to discover the ways in which these philosophers can help me in creating a theoretical framework for a non-linear documentary time and how one can engage in the imperative “to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it (…)” (Derrida, 2006: xviii).


At the moment I am working on a documentary film on the ambiguous time of the immigrant.


Comments are closed.