Veerle Ros | The Subjective Frame: a Cognitive Approach to Authenticity in Documentary Film

Veerle Ros | University of Groningen, Faculty of Arts | Promotor(es); supervisor(s):  Prof. dr Liesbeth Korthals Altes, Dr Miklós Kiss and Dr Susan Aasman | March 2017 – March 2021 | v.ros[at]

The Subjective Frame: a Cognitive Approach to Authenticity in Documentary Film

Project description:

The idea that photographic and filmic images contain traces of historical or actual reality has long been thought of as central to documentary’s defining quality as a ‘document’ of historical reality. This paradigm proved untenable in the face of arguments concerning the inherently constructed nature of representations, given additional momentum amidst the current digitization of visual media. Recent documentaries abandon this referential claim altogether by utilizing innovative techniques such as re-enactment, animation, and digital image manipulation. While this has led to an understanding of documentary as something more diverse, subjective and performative than previously assumed, a side-effect is that the boundaries between documentary and fiction film appear to become ever more nebulous. Nevertheless, the cognitive distinction between fiction and non-fiction remains of crucial importance to human communication.

This project aims to construct a functional model of the cognitive processes by which viewers of documentaries distinguish fact from fiction in engagements with contemporary, genre-defying forms of documentary, such as animated documentaries and video memoirs. These provide challenging border cases that force us to critically reflect on the different mechanisms viewers utilize to assess the (non-)fictionality of a medial representation. The working hypothesis is that such assessments depend on the cognitive principle of framing, with viewers drawing on a wide array of textual, contextual, and intertextual cues to construe a film as fiction or nonfiction. The proposed model takes into account not only these three levels of textuality, but also examines the largely roles that embodied simulation and perceptual specificity play in reality status evaluations. Thus, the research seeks to bridge the gaps between existing text-, context- and reception-oriented approaches to documentary film and the embodied cognition of a hypothetical viewer.