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Towards the horizons of humanity

Immediations. The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary
Forfatter: Pooja Ranga
Forlag: Duke University Press (USA)
The gesture of the participating documentary genre where the camera is given to the other is just a new way of installing and confirming dominance, says Pooja Rangan's critique of documentary "humanitarian impetus". 


It's a "dangerous road" Pooja Rangan has moved on, she notes in the book herself Immediations, which is a critical analysis of the documentary film's "humanitarian impulse." And it is. Criticism of someone who thinks so well is rarely welcomed. Nevertheless, Rangan has formulated compelling and thought-provoking criticism of a tradition that tries to give marginalized and oppressed a voice – because through the voice they can claim their humanity.

When progressive documentarians in the last century portrayed "the other" and its unfair terms, thereby invoking the viewer's sympathy, there was an inherent – and often colonial – relationship of power in representation itself. The problem today's participating documentary genre has tried to solve by giving the camera to the other. But, in practice, it doesn't go very far, says Rangan's assertion: "I consider the representation of humanity to the suffering other and the invitation that these may represent themselves as two sides of the same misunderstood problem," the film manuens writes. According to Rangan, the basic problem of both approaches is that they seek to evoke the other's humanity based on already established notions of what humanity is at all. In this sense, these progressive documentary genres help to exert the power of regulating what counts and does not count as human.

pseudo Participation

Pooja Ranga

She makes readings of four films within the genre of participatory documentary that in each way play the same scene: the other is brought out of the jungle and humanized by getting a camera in hand. One of those films is Born into Brothels (2004) about children of sex working mothers in India who are offered a way of life by the instructor through the Kids with Cameras project. That movie reads Rangan in the context of what she calls its predecessors: cinematic representations of "wild children" (especially Truffaut's "based on a true story" movie The Wild Child, about trying to cultivate a child who seems to have grown up among animals in the woods) and early experiments with ethnographic film production. Rangan calls Born into Brothels "Pseudo-participant documentary" which, by placing the camera in the children's hands, claims to be able to show the world through their eyes. Instead, they are transformed into producers of "humanitarian goods" – both in the form of the documentary about them and the images of their world of life that they sell. 

According to Rangan, the participating documentaries often have in common that they try to establish a sense of acuteness. We must act now, almost before we can think. The possibilities of analysis are closed down and what could be a political matter – for example, the social impact of natural disasters, extreme poverty, child labor – is transformed into the object of humanitarian intervention. The documentary and viewer, even when the camera is in the hands of the other, is the one who can initiate the rescue operation and become the happy giver of the other's humanity.

Outside the framework of humanity

Pooja Rangan has set out to find ways in which the act of giving the camera to the other can redeem its radical potential – "even if this involves letting go of the human, or at least of what we believe the human is". First, it requires that attention be shifted, or at least extended, from what happens in the meeting between viewer and image to what happens in the meeting between filmmaker and media. So not only what comes after the picture, but also what comes before, Rangan writes, asking: "What message is being sent to the community when asked to document themselves and claim their humanity?" 

Pushing the humanitarian impulse out of the documentary also implies that it is not enough to give the unfeeling voice a cliché sound. Instead, space must be made for those speech acts that may seem immediately incomprehensible and which "require the audience to take the plunge into the unknown". 

Rangan wants to contribute to a media practice and form of analysis which, rather than (be) showing the other's humanity in recognizable forms, targets what cannot be defined within the context of what is human. Such an approach, she believes, will open the horizon to what humanity can be at all.

Her suggestion of an alternative practice – which involves, among other things, "surrendering" to the case – is perhaps less convincing (or at least less obvious operationalizable) than her critical analyzes. They, in turn, fire and should arouse the thought of everyone who wants the good with their camera and with the other.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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