A Toolbox to Think of Documentaries and an Invitation to Create Images for Social Research

Receipt: January 14, 2021

Acceptance: May 25, 2021

Methods in Action. Studies on documentary and social research

Lourdes Roca (coordinator)Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José María Luis Mora, Mexico, 299 pp.

Published by the Instituto de Investigaciones José María Luis Mora, with the support of conacyt and the support of logo Editores, Métodos en acción. Estudios sobre documental e investigación social brings together eight essays that describe and analyze, with an interdisciplinary perspective, diverse audiovisual phenomena where social research and the documentary field interact in a complex way, opening up theoretical, methodological, ethical and aesthetic questions. With a foreword by Victoria Novelo -to whose memory the volume is dedicated- and coordinated by Dr. Lourdes Roca, the book is the corollary of a long-standing group trajectory committed to the consolidation of the field of documentary studies in Mexico, and is the result of an exercise in critical and interdisciplinary thinking that for more than a year made possible the elaboration of hypotheses and arguments that later took shape in the texts. This space for collective and collaborative work had as its institutional framework the Audiovisual Laboratory for Social Research (lais) which, for almost twenty years, has been building and sharing proposals that examine with conceptual and historiographic rigor the documentary phenomenon in its interaction with the sciences, humanities and education. In this sense, the Interinstitutional Seminar on Documentary and Research, created in 2017, served as the initial engine for this publication.

As its title indicates, the book offers a plurality of research and epistemological approaches -situated analytical praxes- that illuminate different aspects of a conflictive copula: documentary film/audiovisuals and social, historical and anthropological research. In the essays, the question hovers over the question: how to approach the dialogues, borrowings and tensions between art and science in the documentary phenomenon; between sensitive stimulation and forms of knowledge about the world, culture and history? In order to break down this and other questions and elaborate answers -always open to new searches-, the book organizes its works along three axes, in each of which complements and counterpoints are established between articles: 1. Institutional production, teaching and independent filmmaking; 2. Nourished by diverse disciplinary experiences (history, anthropology, communication, Latin American studies), each article manages to reconstruct the material, sensitive and intellectual conditions of films, audiovisuals and/or productive experiences, considering historical, economic, institutional, legal and technological variables that conditioned and made the cases possible. All this without forgetting the channels of diffusion and circulation in terms of consumption, and the relevance of oral history and the documentary filmmakers' own critical thinking in the reconstructive enterprise. And although several of the texts study local phenomena, the authors do not fail to pay attention to the productive reception of methods and proposals from Europe, Canada and the USA, leaving open the question of exchanges, transnational flows and North-South, South-North and South-South relations in terms of documentary production. Precisely among these problematic relations that require more analytical attention, the "Latin American dialogues" are evidenced as an unavoidable vein that the book could have explored and exploited more and that, undoubtedly, constitutes an area of vacancy to which the lais can respond in future projects.

After an introduction by Lourdes Roca, in the first part the texts by Gracida, Rivera Rodríguez and Cordero focus on the official and institutional character of post-revolutionary Mexican production, and its reverse in independent proposals in the areas of teaching-learning, visual production and publishing.

D. in Modern and Contemporary History Alejandro Gracida intelligently examines the crossover between the journalistic industry, collective cinematographic experience (consumption) and official culture, addressing the newscasts during the process of "stabilizing development" in the 1950s and 1960s. As highlighted by Mikel Luis Rodríguez (1999) for the Bolivian case, or by Clara Kriger (2009) for the Argentine case -references that could have enriched the approach to the Mexican corpus-, official production goes beyond mere information. In effect, shared imaginaries are presented and reinforced, political life is ritualized and a calendar of practices and memories is constructed. Precisely, Gracida analyzes how, through cultural policy, social consensus, sensibilities and public affections are built, placing performances of power before the eyes. At the same time, as the author argues, there was room for experimentation and the development of a technically advanced pattern in the news programs, a standard of quality that, in addition, was transformed into aesthetic matter in correlation with the surrounding world, turning solemnity into humor or seduction of the viewer, within the framework of modernization and consumption processes. What is the relationship of the masses, the people, the multitudes with the presidential leader staged by the news? What synchronized choreographies of the collective become visible -and audible- in the documentary? In short: it is a matter of continuing to question the ways of imagining the people and public life that, historically, have configured the national imaginary through the institutional documentary, and its possible reverberations in the present.

More than on productions, Karen Rivera Rodríguez, a History graduate and specialist in Cultural Heritage Management, focuses on processes, although here she also explores the relationship between documentary image and institutionalism: the difference is that she moves from the center (the State) to the periphery, examining within the university a territory whose marginality made possible an important space of freedom. This is an analysis of the teaching of documentary filmmaking at the Centro de Estudios Cinematográficos (cuec) between 1963 and 1975, as part of a broader process of professionalization of the activity. This phenomenon of consolidation of the field of production and reflection on one's own work had its first exponents in the middle of the previous decade with the Instituto Fílmico de la Universidad Católica de Chile (1955) and the Escuela Documental de Santa Fe (Argentina, 1956) directed by Fernando Birri: cases with which the author, based on a series of critical dialogues with Latin American peers (Mouesca, 2005; Corro et al, 2007; Aimaretti et al., 2009, among others), could have established comparative relationships in terms of pedagogical perspectives and visual production. In his work, Rivera Rodríguez pays attention to the synergic relationship between film clubs, specialized magazines and sociocultural and demographic changes, with the emergence of a key category in those long sixties as was that of youth; and invites us to think about the internal tensions of the film school. That is: the difficult harmonization between theory and practice; teaching "in the classroom" and production "in the field"; the limited presence of women in the early years of cuec; the progressive institutionalization of the school in parallel to the growth of desertion, and the emergence of a marginal zone within the already peripheral space of cuec at the University, with the October Film Workshop and then the emergence of the Cine-Mujer Group. Rivera Rodríguez's historicizing exercise allows us to advance along a line that is gaining strength in contemporary studies on Latin American cinema (Núñez and Tedesco, 2015; Seguí, 2018; Amieva, 2020, among others): rather than focusing on works, the audiovisual canon and the politics of the authors, to explore the work processes, sensibilities, practices and political-cultural horizons that organize them; for often what endures and functions as historical sediment for the continuity of a field are the formations and initiatives, projects and debates.

Along the same lines, completing the first section of the book -in this sort of mapping or cartography of practices, processes and devices linked to documentary in Mexico- Liliana Cordero, PhD in Anthropology, moves from the teaching-learning praxis and training spaces to the field of publications; to focus on the analysis of José Rovirosa's book Miradas a la realidad, published in 1990. The importance of examining this text, overlooked by local critics and historiography, lies in the fact that it is a sort of "thermometer/seismograph" of the perceptions and conceptualizations about the vernacular documentary articulated by and among Mexican professionals themselves. Cordero proceeds to a true dismantling of the interview book, and at the same time insists on the value of Rovirosa as a "bridge figure" or intergenerational and modernizing articulator, who promoted access to the knowledge and study of Mexican documentary, established a selective tradition, gave way to a drive to legitimize the field and established a rich base of testimonies or sources for future research. Rovirosa is memory and transference of experiences, and is a symbol of educational action and public management, so its conversion into an award in 1997 (Best Mexican Documentary) and a library in 2013 (cuec Library, Ciudad Universitaria) are the logical signs of the same consecrating process of Rovirosa and the documentary.

In the second part of Métodos en Acción, Marvic, Sánchez Macedo and Morales study the documentary camera as a trigger for social encounters, a means of political denunciation and mediation of mass culture. Perhaps in this section it would have been more productive to continue investigating vernacular experiences in order to map the aesthetic, theoretical and methodological elaborations that, throughout its history and in a specific way, have been made by different local agents of the Mexican nonfiction audiovisual field, from filmmakers and technicians to analysts and historians.

D. in Political and Social Sciences Gloria Marvic raises a series of provocations related to the method and ethics that arise from Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's cinéma vérité proposal to think what are the social relations and the links between bodies and voices that, in front and behind, or even more so through the camera, configure direct cinema, in a back and forth between ethnographic work, the transfer and appropriation of media, and visual production, problems that, it is worth remembering, Álvaro Vázquez Mantecón (2017) articulated to think about a corpus of films produced in Mexico based on the methodology of the Talleres Varan, founded by Jean Rouch. The author especially repairs on the need to build an ethics of encounters, given by pacts between positionings and places of enunciation: that is, an ethics of contact and of the gaze between filmmaker, filmed subject and spectator. Ultimately, the power of the provocations of the Rouch-Morin duo lies in having illuminated the scope and limitations of a camera that triggers, precipitates presentations, self-representations and masking.

For his part, Jaime Sánchez Macedo, master in Regional Studies, analyzes not only the relations between Mexico and Canada -a key productive node in the field of documentary cinema- but also the decentralized local images of the national capital, addressing the case of the 1978 film Tierra y libertad, produced by Maurice Bulbulian in Monterrey and financed by the National Film Board. The author explores a theme-problem of mixed or heterogeneous condition, since the film was a product that combined academia and grassroots militancy, professionals from the educational, research and audiovisual fields, and popular organizations. In this case, if the camera is a device for denouncing social injustice, it is not without a paradox: the institutional support for the filming of Tierra y libertad was part of a political strategy of rapprochement between the State and the social movement Frente Popular Tierra y Libertad, and the achievement of the project should be reviewed in the light of complex alliances and negotiations. As in the case of Marvic, the visibility of certain bodies and the audibility of certain voices have a delicate relationship with politics, with power and its control devices, which are shaping ethical, political and aesthetic limits, substantial debates on strategic invisibilities, the precariousness of bodies and visual empowerments. It is worth asking, then, how to continue investigating the expressive power of an image that oscillates between archive and poiesis, document and invention: that is, in what ways denunciation, memory, performance and creative play combine in works such as the one analyzed by Sanchez Macedo, and how to interrogate this type of materials.

Master of Communication Felipe Morales closes this second section by proceeding to the case analysis of Ken Burns' television series The Vietnam War, released after ten years of work in 2017. The author unpacks Burns' method organized by two constructive principles, the archive and the testimony, in its zigzagging relations with memory and oral history. Morales' reading of the television series allows us to address the question of mass circulation, global consumption, the logic of entertainment and the educational scope of a serial-documentary, although -as we indicated above- it would have been very interesting to make the same approach when dealing with a vernacular case; or to examine the possible derivations of the Burns method among Mexican documentary filmmakers. In the description of this combination of testimonial voices and documents, it is necessary to continue asking ourselves some questions, such as: how tight or flexible/elastic is the visual story so that it is possible to question its ideological meanings, its historiographic construction and its effects on the viewers? To what extent does a series such as The Vietnam War favor or hinder the questioning of the archive and its storage policies, going beyond fascination or reverence? How to maintain interpretative alertness in order not to reproduce epistemic deficiencies: that is, not to continue invisibilizing the frameworks that regulate audiovisual and archival production?

The last section of the book is a first-person review of action-research processes, and involves the dismantling of social, historical and anthropological research that took shape and public figure through images and sounds.

D. in Anthropology and coordinator of the Audiovisual Laboratory for Social Research (lais) Lourdes Roca shares an important chapter of her professional career with regard to the making of Km C-62: un nómada del riel, from 2000, which is an ethnography of the life of a railroad station manager who worked for decades at the Cima train station until its closure in 1997. The author describes and reflects retrospectively on the efforts, doubts, successes and stumbles of a praxis that we could call amphibious, which develops between affection and sensitive evocations, the matching of documentary sources, ethnography and the development of an analytical, testimonial and imaginative narrative. Likewise, Roca insists on the value of music and acoustic atmospheres as means and devices of historical reconstruction -a sort of sound archeology-, and the relevance of making the archives produced by the research itself available to other colleagues and interested parties: that is, turning the source into an archive in shared, socialized use. Perhaps, because of their richness and originality, these two reflective vectors would have required further development and depth in the text, although they may well function as a kick-start for future work.

Finally, history teacher Lilia García Torres opens her work log on the making of the documentary Trinchera sonora, voces y miradas de Radio Venceremos, 2019, which narrates the journey of the Salvadoran guerrilla radio station through its photographs, in the voice of those who appear in them. The book makes an interesting twist, as this chapter is linked, almost in a circle, with Gracida's: in both chapters, what is studied are the production processes of those images that gave memory, face, figure and voice to politics, from an "official" position. The radical difference lies, beyond the historical and national contexts, in the fact that the book opens with a hegemonic institutionality and closes with a plebeian, insurgent formation. García Torres lays bare the exercise of placing the body in the material space of research: both the body of the researcher and that of the person who is the protagonist in an investigation. He also exposes the complexity and richness of making history "in an abyss" of its mediations: that is, to examine and reconstruct, through images, the visual memory of a central political experience for the popular movements in Central America.

Beyond some specific critical remarks to the articles, perhaps the most important limitations of the book lie, on the one hand, in the scarce exploration of the exchange relations with other Latin American documentary cinematographies -whether in terms of human resources (people), aesthetics (schools, currents) or critical theories-, which would have implied a greater dialogue with the fields of study on documentary in Latin America. On the other hand, there is a lack of an extensive and consistent reflection on contemporary vernacular documentary, noting its novelties and thematic ruptures and narrative procedures, as well as its weaknesses and reiterations. Likewise, the problematic presence/absence of women in Mexican audiovisual praxis remains undiscussed: the exhumation of names and practices, formations and projects led by women, or in which they have played a decisive role.

Although in the articles the voices of Victoria Novelo, Everardo Garduño, Aurelio De los Reyes, Carlos Mendoza and, especially, Guadalupe Ochoa -both as author and in her role as compiler of a must-read volume (2013)- are usual interlocutors, other local historiographers, such as Álvaro Vázquez Mantecón, Ángel Miquel, Carlos Antamián, Cristián Calónico, Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro, Israel Rodríguez, José Luis Mariño, José Peguero, Lauro Zavala and Ricardo Pérez Montfort, are also mentioned. On the other hand, if, as expected, the theoretical appeal to the already classic (and international) studies by Bill Nichols, Erik Barnouw and Carl Plantinga is frequent, the dialogue with specialists from the region and Spain such as Paulo Antonio Paranaguá, María Luisa Ortega, Antonio Weinrichter, José Miguel Palacios, Javier Campo and the Grupo gesta from Uruguay -which in 2018 published a volume interrogating documentary practices in their country from the 1920s to the present-, to name a few references, is considerably less. Perhaps a horizon for the next studies of the lais is to integrate debates and ideas that have been produced and are produced with rigor and creativity from and for Ibero-America, in pursuit of enriching analytical approaches on vernacular empirical cases, especially when it is possible to make synergy with prestigious public institutions dedicated to the preservation and availability of collections and archives, an enviable situation if we take into account the reality of most Latin American countries.

These comments do not diminish the value of Métodos en Acción, which is, of course, a good contribution to the field of Mexican film and documentary studies. The volume rehearses methodological entries with which to produce critical looks at non-fiction production, while exposing conceptual and practical tools and scaffolding to generate documentaries that serve as a source of research -something rare in the area of audiovisual studies. Each text answers the question about the ways in which a film constructs knowledge and gives it to be perceived - puts it into circulation - among viewers; or what are the powers and limitations, the scope and paradoxes of the use of the image in research. And in turn, each chapter is a line of escape towards the reader in search of new questions and, hopefully, new volumes: to what extent can research enhance an image or "drown" it, saturate it, detract from its sensitive force? In what ways does research condition the documentary? How can we think about those investigations that, when they become images, are transformed, acquire an amphibious condition? What do these two domains and regimes of meaning: science/research and documentary film, share and how do they differ in terms of method? Métodos en acción. Estudios sobre documental e investigación social is a plural space to continue building critical thinking and testing analytical tools for an interdisciplinary approach to non-fiction film.


Aimaretti, María, Lorena Bordigoni y Javier Campo (2009). “La Escuela Documental de Santa Fe: un ciempiés que camina”, en Ana L. Lusnich y Pablo Piedras (comp.) Una Historia del cine político y social argentino. Formas, estilos y registros. Vol. I 1896-1969. Buenos Aires: Nueva Librería, pp. 359-394.

Amieva Collado, Mariana (2020). “Modelos cineclubistas latinoamericanos”. Revista Encuentros Latinoamericanos, vol. 4, núm. 2, pp. 69-95.

Corro, Pablo, Carolina Larraín, Maite Alberdi y Camila Van Diest (2007). Teorías del cine documental chileno, 1957-1973. Santiago de Chile: Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Kriger, Clara (2009). Cine y peronismo. Buenos Aires: Siglo xxi.

Mouesca, Jaqueline (2005). El documental chileno. Santiago de Chile: lom.

Núñez, Fabián y Marina Tedesco Cavalcanti (2015). “Pensar el documental en Latinoamérica: el singular método fílmico de Marta Rodríguez y Jorge Silva”. Revista Cine Documental, núm. 10, pp. 1-15.

Ochoa, Guadalupe (coord.) (2013). La construcción de la memoria. Historias del documental mexicano. México: conaculta.

Rodríguez, Mikel Luís (1999). “icb: el primer organismo cinematográfico institucional en Bolivia (1952-1967)”. Revista Secuencias, núm. 10, pp. 23-37.

Seguí, Isabel (2018). “Auteurism, Machismo-Leninismo, and Other Issues. Women’s Labor in Andean Oppositional Film Production”. Feminist Media Histories, vol. 4, núm. 1, pp. 11–36. https://doi.org/10.1525/fmh.2018.4.1.11

Vázquez Mantecón, Álvaro (2017). “El impacto del método Varan en el registro de las nuevas identidades urbanas en el cine independiente de los años ochenta en México”, en Deborah Dorotinsky Alperstein et al. (coord.), Variaciones sobre cine etnográfico. Entre la documentación antropológica y la experimentación estética. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México y Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, pp. 179-201.

María Aimaretti holds a PhD in History and Theory of the Arts from the uba, is an associate researcher at the conicet, a professor at the uba and a researcher at the Gino Germani and Artes del Espectáculo institutes. Member of the study group "Art, culture and politics in recent Argentina", and member of the Argentine Association of Film and Audiovisual Studies, the Network of Researchers on Latin American Cinema and the Argentine Association for Research in Women's History and Gender Studies. Her areas of reflection are linked, on the one hand, with the relations between art and politics in Latin America -with an extensive research work on Bolivian cinema, theater and video-, and on the other hand, with the links between popular culture and mass culture in Argentine cinema, paying special attention to the figurations of the feminine.


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