Camcorder Aesthetics and the Psychology of Medium Variations: The First Years of DV Documentary

Abstract by Ohad Landesman

This lecture will show how any discussion of digital technology’s technical potential to the documentary cannot be separated from an assessment of its hands-on practice, contextualized within the history of documentary and compared across different media. The digital camera will be theorized not as a film technology abstracted from the culture in which it is produced and has predictable effects on, but as a technological platform constituted in hybridities and continuities, placed within an ongoing dialectic of old and new, and emerging as an effect of social and cultural determinations.

I want to suggest that DV in its early days played a role in constructing textual cues for the viewers watching puzzling and hybrid films, and encouraged them to embrace a documentary mode of engagement. DV cameras, technologically refining older lightweight equipment (16mm, Hi-8, Betacam), entered upon their release an already developed and familiar tradition of camcorder aesthetics. In several of the films made upon the first years of the technology’s inception — films made by Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Costa, or Lars von Trier, to name a few — these cameras were used strategically to achieve a strong degree of intimacy and immediacy with an associated aesthetic of drabness that granted a criterion of credibility to the image.

I will also show how DV as an emerging technology changed the traditional ways of looking through a film camera. The use of an LCD screen in a DV camera, often in complete substitution to a standard camera viewfinder, not only afforded immediacy in analyzing shooting results, but also generated a new spatial relationship between documentarist and subject, where “the eye of the lens is replaced by the I of the documentarist” (Michael Chanan). This is an encounter where no strict and clear framing separates the filmmaker from what exists outside of his filmic gaze, a meeting between the on-screen and off-screen spaces, which necessitated filmmakers like Agnès Varda or Abbas Kiarostami complete rethinking of documenting strategies. The shift from a viewfinder to an LCD screen was a technical trigger that moved documentary further away from an inherently observational outlook, where the camera functioned as a window to the world, towards a participatory style where a documentarist interacts with the world in which she is located, and responds to the visual and audial fields where her camera is placed.