Vittorio Iervese


> GC: Six different years involved in research work for the Festival dei Popoli of Florence, and since last autumn president of an Institute still active at international level and established, historically speaking, last century in 1959. The Festival dei Popoli (Peoples’ Festival) is declaredly dedicated to the documentary film. The word documentary in an artistic context, and in particular art linked to the image, evokes connoted and definite reflections and canons. How does one relate today, in comparison with only ten years ago, to such a specific field of inquiry and production – that of the documentary – within production of the image in movement?

Vittorio Iervese: For a start the term Festival embarrasses me, it’s so dense with references to an epoch in which the parade, the show window, the parterre were the distinctive code of initiatives aimed at exhibiting the latest cinematographic products on the counter of the audiovisual market. It isn’t that I lack the desire to celebrate, and I undoubtedly feel allied to all those who fight to produce and sustain cineastes and quality cinema (it is reductive to lower them to the phantom “market”). But on this point the founding fathers of the Festival dei Popoli were farseeing. Maybe they thought of making a disdainful gesture towards the more conventional idea of festival, imagining that the red carpet would be trod by “the people”, understood as those who live on the margins: not only the exotic other but also the other who lives on the edge of Society, or simply people with another way of conceiving the world. Bringing the margins to the centre is a still a topical challenge.

A cinema Festival is made up of glances. What I have always liked about the Festival dei Popoli is that its glance, setting out from the centre of the audiovisual word, has shifted to the margins of documentary cinema, making the latter a new centre. The project to bring the margins to the centre (of attention, debate, market etc.) is both a political-cultural project and a way of creating discovery, novelty and value (aesthetic but also economic). If I had to define what the Festival dei Popoli is today I should say that it is a place of freedom and quality that seeks to bring to the centre that which it tracks down at the margins.

Besides, the “documentary” has always had the vocation of looking at subjects, stories, at the margins. It is not, be it understood, a vocation as Samaritans but an expressive choice. But there’s a little clarification to be done because many different things fall under the category of documentary. On the one hand the “documentary” has been transformed into a cinematographic genre with its grouping of conventions which allow organization of expectations and guidance for the choices of authors and spectators. In a word, genres draw up a certain communicative contract with the public in such a way that the works turn out predictable and manageable. On the other hand, if we look at cinema history we discover that the distinction between fiction and documentary cinema is a relatively recent and ambiguous construction, with chiefly commercial ends in mind. For decades this distinction had no sense, and even Flaherty, one of the unquestioned fathers of documentary cinema, did not know whether to call himself a documentarist or a cineaste of fiction. As the historian Pierre Sorlin[1] recalls, at the dawn of cinema, by “authenticity” one intended faithfulness to the spirit, the way of thinking and living in a determined period. In this sense a director’s task was to grasp the atmosphere of an epoch and to capture it. Over the years however the sense of the authentic has been confused with the effect of veridiction created by the documentary genre. In seeking to keep one’s distance from an ingenuous documentarist realism, one often refers to the documentary of creation or art-house documentary, unsatisfactory terms which however place the accent on the fact that reality is the material employed by the documentary to create its forms. In this sense the documentary of creation in these years has carried out a massive operation of innovation regarding themes and of experimentation with aesthetic forms, unparalleled by any other audiovisual production context. We could linger for a long time over this subject, but I limit myself to briefly citing certain aspects which for me are fundamental to appreciation and positive exploitation of the avant-garde experience of the documentary cinema of the past and present:

1.     Awareness. The documentary film renders evident just how inevitable the construction of reality is. To make a film setting out from an explicit reference to the real means having to render more evident the choices made, precisely because they are not presented as distanced from reality. It is precisely this need that renders necessary a theoretical awareness and a methodological transparency of construction. In general art seems devoid of theory: apparently the theories belong to the critics, not to the artists. But that’s not the way it is, because it is impossible to create without a theory. Theory here means the way of building the meanings of the world and the practices. The documentary cinema of creation works on the awareness of constructions, which is to say, it questions itself about the inevitable decisions that each author must make  (in the phases of shooting, editing and packaging the work etc.) without giving in to the flatteries of ‘everything works’ or ‘it necessarily has to function like this’ (genres, format etc.).

2.     Transparency. Whereas with transparency we refer to the possibility of rendering the choices made perceptible and potentially intelligible to the spectator. Awareness and transparency of constructions are not the exclusive prerogative of the art-house documentary but of all the research activity with images which, more than an effect of reality, seek an effect on constructed reality. The realism of the art-house documentary therefore lies in the capacity to present a different but not arbitrary reality, and in this way contribute to the overall construction of the real in a world which is not made up only of objects or events but also (and above all) of observers who observe one another reciprocally.

3.     Interaction. Paraphrasing Johan van der Keuken, great author of documentaries of creation, a documentary is always based on ‘light and contact’, meaning on putting experience into cinematographic shape. The documentary deals with the real, setting out from the interactions and relationships that define it not only behind the camera but also and especially  in front of it.

4.     Unpredictability. The final aspect that may be attributed to the contemporary art-house documentary regards the ability to be unpredictable. We are certainly not talking about a feature exclusive to the cinema of the real but of contemporary art in general which is capable of rendering visible an otherwise invisible order, therefore also rendering probable what is otherwise improbable, that is to say an order in the world of the possible.

These four constitutive aspects of documentary making are, in my view, indispensable but not exhaustive. The documentary by definition is a place of laic and plural hybridization which gathers, and is sometimes the first to identify, the reflections and apprehensions of the contemporary world.

> GC: Cultural planning and new media: the development and spreading of net art calls for specific categories of identification, comprehension, preservation and presentation of works and oeuvres. Works which are often characterized by the use of different practices and collaborations and mixtures of several means. Does cultural planning in this context, as things stand, envisage skills and a generally acknowledged operational standard? Or is it still too “soon”, meaning ahead of its time, to be able to identify shared practices?

VI: In my view the problem isn’t so much that of identifying specific abilities or affirmed, established and shared practices. In fact the practices are interesting when they are grasped in their doing, when one analyses them as processes under way. So attempts not yet fully achieved or not yet shared are perhaps the most stimulating.

In the framework of extempore, improvised, in-depth and meditated attempts that I see around me I grasp an important difference: there are those that look to the new media as instruments more or less functional to doing different things. Some consider them capable of creating other worlds, some believe they supply a different language, but nothing truly original and able to survive over time. I think there is a radical problem in these attempts: the work (and I feel there is still meaning in talking about “the work”) is made up of selection, whereas the web enjoys a non-selective accumulation. The potentially infinite possibility of linking up different people, heterogeneous materials, distant times and spaces, is attractive and in a certain sense inebriating. But what usually emerges is a map that does not succeed in indicating any territory. Perhaps in this difficulty lies one of the key-reasonings that must be tackled today: how can we pass from potentiality to act, from indistinct mass of data to proposal of an analysis, from the material of the work, from promotion to planning? And the response is insufficient that transfers to the spectator-enjoyer the task of selecting, choosing, recomposing the work. It is insufficient because this is not a broadening of the spectator’s freedom but a shirking of responsibility.

If we then enter into the specifics of planning and cultural promotion we shall see how the web produces new opportunities but also new problems. It is true that the “web” facilitates making oneself known and circulating information and abilities. But it is equally true that the “web” exponentially increases the “battle for attention” so it becomes enormously harder to get a hearing and maintain dialogue with users, participants, public etc. Internet always carries out an action that is contemporary and contradictory: it makes content available and at the same time conceals it; it creates connections and confounds discourses.

One of the things I find most interesting about the web is that it allows the creation of small sharing communities based on mechanisms of trust and on a new system of creating a reputation, as powerful as it is fragile. Yet it is highly complicated and risky to apply the logic of “trip-advisor” to art and culture, which are made up not only of consensus but also of provocation, of tiresome and unaccommodating moments, of confrontational dialogue and conflict etc. In this sense internet has given the coup de grace to critical activity and in general thrown expert knowledge into crisis, but it is unable to supply an alterative device that is solid and equally reliable. It will be interesting to see what happens. I have my ideas and I imagine certain scenarios, but it is a case of forecasts made to be proved wrong.

> GC: Are future and art two concepts, two categories that manage to coexist in a contemporary critical horizon, or do they evince incompatibilities at the level of theoretical reflection?

The future does not exist if not as a projection of the present based on a construction of the past. Art, as I said earlier, makes an improbable order probable, at once broadening the horizons of the possible and creating new possible interpretations of cultural presuppositions. In this way art, on the one hand, creates hyper-complexity in society through the combinations it permits in the world of the possible, while on the other hand it produces innovation, so it is always projected into the future, and uses memory only for projecting the future.

In this historical phase it seems to me that more than faced with imagination of the future we are at grips with an eternal present, a real without an elsewhere. A fleeting and mobile present cannot manage to share construction of a memory, is not even capable of projecting the future. This is not a problem specific to the art system but to the whole of society.

Art may be scornfully ignored, vituperated against, misunderstood and even attacked: nonetheless it is and remains an exceptional and surprising form of the culture of society. The paradox lies in the fact that art is observed as marginal (in comparison with economics, education, the family, politics, law etc.) but at the same time it is an avant-garde workshop of elaboration of that which society produces as its cultural presuppositions. Art therefore not only incorporates cultural presuppositions but also produces a narration of society’s cultural presuppositions, and is able to supply narrations of a possible that is yet to be realized, which is to say the future. Cinema and literature, for example, have often anticipated and constructed an idea of future by producing stories and metaphors that subsequently became models for expert systems (science in particular). Today we can still identify works that engage key questions of our present by imagining possible scenarios for a near future. The fact remains that these works are rarely capable of generating debate, reflection, a terrain of comparison which from art spreads to other social systems. This is perhaps a function that might bring together what was once defined as “criticism” and which today could become a form of mediation between the languages and modes of art and the other social systems. This is perhaps a contemporary critical horizon worth pursuing.

[1]P. Sorlin, Il cinema nella Storia, la Storia nel Cinema, in: Basso (editor) op. cit. p. 39


Vittorio Iervese is a professor of Sociology of Cultural and Communication Processes at Department of Language and Cultural Studies at University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. He actually teaches Visual Culture at Master of Fondazione Fotografia Modena (of which he was the creator and director) and Theory and Methods of Historal Documentary at the Master in Public History. He is president of Festival dei Popoli in Florence, festival where he has actively been working since 2007. He published several books and essays.

Cover image: © Festival dei Popoli