Some ruminations on animated documentaries and sound

by criticalhit009

In the animated documentary, sound becomes the indexical connection to the real world. Whether it be animated interviews, recordings, or other archived work, the sounds itself are what connect the animation to the real world, to validate its claim as documentary. Most documentaries discussed rely on recordings or reenacted transcripts of interviews. The image is no longer the indexical connection to the world, but sounds are.

This raises the question of what is needed to be a documentary. Could a short animated documentary be silent and still impart truth? Perhaps, but in that case text would most likely be used on the screen to impart knowledge that way. Either way, language is the connecting feature to the “real” world.

Because language is the indexical (or rather, iconic) connection to the world, this puts strains on the definitions and boundaries of the documentary genre. We recognize that images are no longer inherently truthful, so animation becomes more prevalent in light of this freeing notion. But animation retains sounds as a key connection to the real world, in an assertion of itself as documentary.

Sounds have always been subordinate to images since the beginnings of cinema, and remain so in terms of our attention (scholarly and otherwise.) How is sound treated in documentary?

I believe Bill Nichols notes how voice over narration, the “voice of God,” is automatically a sign of authority in film. In that way, sounds/voices/audio is prevalent and dominant in documentaries, but what about animation? Many animated documentaries are a collaborative effort, archives of interviews between the artist and its subject. Most animated documentaries do not partake in the “voice of god” approach, and when it does (Silence or perhaps waltz with basher) its only in lieu to illustrate one’s personal narrative and experiences.

It goes part and parcel with animation’s focus on subjective experiences rather than overarching issues.

One counter example I can think of is “The story of stuff,” which uses animation to illustrate a larger system in an admittedly abstract way. however, the speaker who is the “voice of god” in the piece is a real person separate from the animation. the voice of god is real, not animated.

Annabelle Honess Roe’s work finds three purposes/uses for animated documentary: mimetic and non-mimetic substitution, and evocation.

My question is, in a digital age where the cynicism of the “reality” of an image is always questioned, can we have animated documentaries that are *not* about subjective notions of being?

Animation is incredibly helpful for discovering these new worlds of thought, but is that all its limited to?

I think of lectures animated by that one youtube artist, such as david harvey’s lecture. Perhaps Vox’s short animated investigations are also a form of documentary.

But again, the question of “are they documentaries” arises. Because most of these works do not posit themselves as documentaries, which is Roe’s third qualifier for an animated documentary.

I might be brave enough to posit that the third requirement isn’t necessary: the genre of “documentary” is withering away as its boundaries are breeching and reshaped. But in a way, it is necessary, because we only call documentaries “documentaries” when they themselves designate that title. We might argue that a documentary is more of a soap opera, or a bad documentary, or something, but rarely do we argue that something not posited as a documentary is in fact a documentary.

Perhaps the erosion of the documentary genre illustrates how fluctuating truth has always been. Biopics, “based on a true story”, and other such films lie on the edge, both fiction and non fiction. “teh difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” And yet with documentaries, there’s always the sculpting of non-narrative events to make a narrative, a story, a fiction.

Andrei Tarkovsky definition of art may come in handy here:  “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

Making us good, making us whole. This can happen through fiction or non-fiction.

Again, perhaps non-fiction is something we can never perfectly grasp, due to our own biases, are own need to construct stories. This is not a bad thing, this need to create stories to make meaning of the world. But I wonder who much longer we need to keep the distinction of “fiction vs, non-fiction.” Does it clarify more that it obscures? For now, I suppose so. But with the evolution of new media and the surging of media convergence, the packaging and distribution of narratives is increasingly in flux.