Provocative book reexamines documentary film in light of digital era

Professor Gail Vanstone, a homegrown success story having earned her PhD in Social and Political Thought at York University

Witnessing and engaging in a paradigm shift of epic proportions, Professor Gail Vanstone, director of the Culture & Expression program at York University, is interested how the documentary is changing in light of new digital technology. How is this 100-year-old art form evolving into a different animal altogether − something enhanced or enriched; something that captures and reflects the marginalized and gives a voice to previously absent experiences; something profoundly aspirational?

To answer this question, armed with a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant, Vanstone teamed up with British counterparts, Professor Brian Winston and PhD student Wang Chi from University of Lincoln, United Kingdom (UK).

The resulting book, The Act of Documenting: Documentary Film on the 21st Century, published by Bloomsbury (UK) in January 2017, cuts to the very core of the documentary film. It does this by revisiting both the original query (Why, how and with whom does one tell a true-to-life story?) as well as the idea of film as “an archive of humanity,” in the words of Chilean film director Patricio Guzmàn.

“Our book is a call to reexamine traditional documentary film in light of the advent of the digital,” says Vanstone. “It addresses what this means for the documentary’s 21st Century position … for its future in a world where assumptions of photographic image integrity cannot be sustained,” she adds.

Today, the documentary has almost no boundaries

A documentary film is defined as a nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education or maintaining a historical record, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Act of Documenting. Image reproduced with permisison of the publisher, Bloomsbury
The Act of Documenting. Image reproduced with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury

The term ‘documentary’ was coined in 1926, but the art form dates back to the pre-1900s. Over the course of the 20th Century, documentaries were created to serve many different purposes − from newsreels and propaganda machines during wartime, to avant-garde films in the 1920s, to anti-studio cinéma-vérité in the 1950s to 1970s.

Over the last 20 years, the nature of documentary films has greatly expanded. In fact, the idea of the documentary is continually evolving and it is, today, without clear boundaries. More specifically, the line blurs between documentary and narrative. Some works are subjective, personal and poetic, rather than information or news based.

It’s an exciting time for this art form. The documentary has never before attracted such a wide global audience. Theatrical releases such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth have been box office successes. As well, documentaries have never before been produced with such ease from all over the world, and never before embraced such diversity of expression and creativity.

This new book by Vanstone and others brilliantly captures the sense of potential and dovetails with Vanstone’s ongoing research, which frames women and the stories they tell as powerful critical tools for understanding women’s experience in a world where their voices are often suppressed.

“We wanted to examine new forms; expand the boundaries of the documentary; and recast the roles of the filmer, the filmed and the spectator.” − Gail Vanstone

Traditional documentary foundations undercut by the digital

The first page of Vanstone’s book regenerates an assertive quotation from Britcom (2014), “The power of [documentary] film to change the world has become impossible to ignore,” and in doing so, sets the stage for a meaningful discussion.  

The Act of Documenting is organized in an unconventional way. The first part of the book, “Digital Potentials,” addresses what current changes mean for the traditional supports of the Western documentary – specifically, scientism (the view that only scientific claims are meaningful), Eurocentrism (a worldview centered on Western civilization) and patriarchy (a social system in which males hold primary power) – all of which are deeply undercut by the digital, Vanstone argues.

The Western documentary tradition is being dismantled by the digital era
The Western documentary tradition is being dismantled by the digital era

The fact that these previous frameworks no longer dictate, that their dominance is unsustainable, is where the great potential lies. “The potential of that liberation is the real triumph of the documentary. This is what is truly liberating of the act of documenting in the 21st century,” Vanstone explains.

“Voices of the excluded and marginalized are being heard because what were once insurmountable technological barriers to entry are no more.” − Gail Vanstone

Book seeks to recast roles of filmer, filmed and spectator

With the supposition that the very distinctions between the filmed, the filmer and the spectator are being dissolved in the modern documentary, the second part of this book considers the actual effects of the documentary on the three components of the Western hegemonic documentary tradition.

“We wanted to examine new forms; expand the boundaries of the documentary; and recast the roles of the filmer, the filmed and the spectator,” Vanstone explains.

New voices emerge via the digital era. “Voices of the excluded and marginalized all over the world are being heard because what were once insurmountable technological barriers to entry, thanks to complexity and expense, are no more,” says Vanstone.

Vanstone was especially pleased to be able to include a reference to a 2016 Canadian documentary Angry Inuk, by Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. This important film gives a voice to a tech-savvy generation of Inuit and presents the Inuit as a modern people seeking a sustainable economy.

The Act of Documenting explains how new understandings of the process of documentary production are transforming the theoretical, critical and political implications of what documentary is and does. By necessity, it debunks certain ideas about the documentary, while it puts forward new and original ideas that will be fodder for very interesting discussions in classrooms, conferences and symposia across the globe and well into the future.

As noted, this work was funded by a grant from the SSHRC that is related to extending ideas set out in Vanstone’s 2007 book, D is For Daring: the Women Behind Studio D of the NFB.

To learn more about the book, The Act of Documenting, visit For more information about Professor Vanstone’s work, visit her profile.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University,