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Looking in, looking out: the self-reflexive mode of representation in a selection of contemporary South African documentary films.


John Grierson first coined the term 'documentary film' in the 1920s (Rabiger 1987, p. 11). Since then the objectivity or subjectivity of the film-maker has been a source of debate. Some theoreticians believe that a documentary film-maker may not interact subjectively with her subject (Snyman 2007, p. 2). Contemporary perspectives lean towards acknowledging the subjectivity of the film-maker, and accept that subjectivity is intrinsic to the making of documentary films. Some would even argue that it is precisely the subjectivity of the film-maker that makes a particular film unique, as it entails the meeting of an individual perspective with the profilmic world, the actuality that is unfolding in front of the camera (Renov 2007, p. 14).

The film form used by mainstream Hollywood fiction films and television documentaries has been established through years of film-making practice. The conventions of mainstream modes of fiction and non-fiction film-making, including continuity editing, have become so widely used that they have become virtually invisible to audiences (Murch 1995, Dancyger 2002, Bordwell and Thompson 2004). Continuity editing is intended to be 'invisible' to the audience and, I contend, leads to less active decoding of the text and less critical engagement with the message. The conventions of established, mainstream film forms can be subverted through making the cinematography and editing visible to the audience (Mulvey 1993, pp. 113-18). The awareness of the construction of the film also implies an acknowledgement of the 'authoring agent,' the film-maker (Nichols 1991, p. 58). And so the text itself acknowledges that the subject matter is being shown from a particular point of view and is open to critique. This self-reflexive mode of representation can be used in non-fiction film to signal the presence of the film-maker and explicitly acknowledge the constructedness of the film.

Writing about theatre in the 1930s, Bertolt Brecht expressed the view that the structure of a theatre piece could be used to counter the audience's uncritical emotional engagement and identification with the content of the work. This notion of the Verfremdungseffekt (Brecht 1984) could be fruitfully applied to the contemporary documentary film as it encourages the audience to engage intellectually with the work and maintain critical distance. This distance does not have to entail disengagement from the film. Self-reflexivity can at once distance the audience critically and enhance the text's potential to entertain. This critically engaged position is, in my view, the ideal one for watching documentary film, since it allows the audience analytical freedom.

This article offers a structural analysis of four South African documentary films to identify and examine the self-reflexive mode of representation: Afrikaaps, Imam and I, Porselynnkas and Sea Point Days. These films are not representative of the mainstream of film production in South Africa, but should rather be seen as part of the innovative periphery; not as followers of existing conventions, but rather as indicators of emerging trends. The films were selected for inclusion in this article because they represent different, overlapping documentary types, namely event-centred, personal, historical and observational documentary. The aim of the structural analysis in this article is to explore the use of self-reflexivity as a mode of representation in a variety of types of documentary film.

Some documentary films employing the self-reflexive mode of representation are overtly self-reflexive in mode, such as Imam and I and Porselynnkas. Others, such as Afrikaaps and Sea Point Days, include references to the film-maker's presence. A film may also be structured in a way that is self-reflexive. All of the films selected for this article also display formal elements that can be described as self-reflexive. Such self-reflexive devices may include the mise en scene of a shot, or a particular edit or meeting point between two shots.

The inclusion of the film-maker in the film

The most overt self-reflexive device is the inclusion of the film-maker in the film, whether in moving shots, photographs or voice-over. The film-maker can allude to his directorial position as Francois Verster does in his ode to the Sea Point promenade, Sea Point Days. The director can introduce himself to the audience explicitly and explain his position in relation to his subject matter, as Dylan Valley does in voice-over at the beginning of the event-centred film Afrikaaps in which he relates the creation of the theatre production of this name. Sometimes, as in Khalid Shamis's personal exploration of family history and identity, Imam and I, the director himself can be a subject in the film. More often directors are seen or heard in their role as interviewer, the position Matthew Kalil ironically interrogates in Porselynnkas, a film about a 1990s Afrikaans performance poetry movement. All of these self-reflexive strategies are useful in positioning the film-maker as 'authoring agent' (Nichols 1991, p. 58) or encoder of the text, regardless of the documentary type in question.

In Afrikaaps Dylan Valley uses voice-over and a family portrait (Figure 1) to introduce himself and declare his subjective perspective as director. The photograph of Valley, his parents and his sister is used as visual accompaniment to his explanation of how he and his sister ended up having English as their first language though their parents are Afrikaans. English was chosen as home language as a form of resistance against what was regarded as the language of the oppressor. Valley explains how working on this documentary has changed his view of Afrikaans and given him new respect for a language that is associated with, but represents much more than, apartheid. By showing himself to the audience, mentioning his family and referring to their parenting decisions, Valley makes himself a part of the documentary, acknowledges his subjective view and in so doing frames his event-centred documentary as self-reflexive.

In Khalid Shamis's Imam and I the director becomes the subject of the film. It is through including shots of himself on his journey to establish his identity and through a voice-over delivered by Shamis himself that the film is most obviously self-reflexive. But Imam and I also contains many self-reflexive cinematographic and editing devices. Shamis first includes a reference to his relationship to his grandfather, the eponymous Imam Abdullah Haron, in voice-over in the first minute of the film: 'he was my grandfather.' Soon after this a clip is included in which an interviewee addresses the film-maker directly through the use of phrases such as: 'You must understand Khalid ...' and '... your grandfather ...' Shamis is then shown on screen, walking through London before recounting his own history in voice-over (Figure 2). The title Imam and I gives a clear indication of who the subjects of the film are: both Shamis, the film-maker and the Imam, his grandfather. Shamis appears on screen at intervals and the narration, delivered in his own voice, continues throughout the film. He uses his familial relationship with Imam Harun as a device through which to explore the Imam's life and death and the myths that arose around him. But the film is as much an exploration of Shamis's own identity, an attempt to define himself as the grandson of a legend, who is an absent person but yet an ever-present symbol in his life. In this personal documentary the self-reflexive mode of representation is appropriate as it allows the film-maker to position himself and to examine himself as subject of the film.



The film Sea Point Days (2008) begins with a point-of-view shot from the perspective of a person paragliding towards the Sea Point promenade, where the rest of the film unfolds. Feet are visible for much of the shot (Figure 3). This perspective shows how the aerial view of Sea Point was filmed and acknowledges the presence of the film-maker. The filming is quite explicitly from the filmmaker, Francois Verster's perspective and the inclusion of this shot at the opening of the film alerts the audience to this in an overt way. This shot connotes the position of the film-maker: he has a wider perspective than any individual subject; he is outside the subject but draws ever closer as the film progresses. The film ends with a return to the same shot and this framing device clearly points to the use of the self-reflexive mode of representation in this predominantly observational documentary.


Porselynnkas explores the search for identity and the shifting nature of identity, and does so in a light-hearted way. When the director Matthew Kalil introduces himself at the beginning of the film, the shot shows him virtually wrestling with an old typewriter along with his main subject, Sjaka Septembir, the founder of the Porselynnkas performance poetry movement (Figure 4). We hear Kalil speak before we hear the 'formal' voice-over in which he supposedly introduces himself. It is clear that the voice-over is being delivered by someone other than Kalil. In addition, the voice-over voice identifies Matthew as 'Matewis,' acknowledging the difference between the director we see on screen and the voice identifying himself as the director. There is no clear indication to the audience who the real Matthew is. This play with identity recurs throughout the film and becomes one of its main themes. The juxtaposition also creates tension between reality and representation, and encourages critical evaluation of the role and position of 'director' in this historical documentary.

Self-reflexive structuring

Narrative is the most widely used structure in fiction film. According to David Bordwell, the classic mode, in which 'the story ends with a decisive victory or defeat,' is the form that 'conforms most closely to the "canonic story", which story-comprehension researchers posit as normal for our culture' (1986, p. 18). This narrative mode tends to allow a high level of immersion in the world of the story and encourages emotional engagement with the characters.


Narrative structure is also a prevalent structure for many different types of mainstream documentary film, including nature, historical and biographical films, and 'nonfiction films ... in recent years ... have followed a handful of familiar models' (Scott 2011, p. AR8). Mainstream documentary film-makers tend to see it as 'professional' practice to combine visuals and sound in a flowing and logical way to represent the events of the film in a way that maintains (narrative) coherence of time and space.

This classic narrative structure is typically used with the continuity style of editing, because it does not draw attention to itself. Continuity editing is aimed at promoting suspension of disbelief, and providing content in an accessible and seamless way to increase audience engagement with the narrative and emotion of the film. Joseph V. Mascelli writes in The Five C's of Cinematography, still one of the most widely prescribed texts in film schools around the world, that 'it is Continuity that decides success or failure of the production' (1965, p. 67).

So-called 'art cinema' provides an 'alternative to [the] classical narrative system' and continuity editing by eschewing structure and linearity, leaving endings open, omitting details and not showing what motivates characters (Orpen 2003, p. 60). Cinema desordonne or disordered cinema, a term coined by David Denby, refers to films that are characterised by '[f]ragmented narratives and convoluted plots,' where closure is 'more elusive and subjective' than in commercial cinema (Hassapopoulou 2008, n.p.). Sea Point Days avoids both the classic narrative structure and continuity editing and is an example of art cinema and disordered cinema. It consists of a collection of vignettes, connected only by their shared link to the Sea Point promenade. Some characters recur in the film, while others are seen only once and show no 'character development.' None of the stories is overtly concluded positively or negatively. The closure is 'aesthetic' (Hassapopoulou 2008, n.p.) rather than narrative. The film ends with a visual return to some of the content shown in the introduction. As at the beginning of the film, we see the ticket counter of the public swimming pools at the Sea Point promenade. The shot of the director's feet as he descends to the promenade that started the film is also used to end it. It signifies the end of the filmic journey, but the film provides no clues to what will happen to the characters whose lives it glances at. This provides a 'sense of difficulty, of an obdurate and complicated reality submitting only partially to the film-maker's demystifying will,' as Scott might call it (2011, p. AR8). This tension between what is and what can be shown signals the limits of the film-maker's structuring control over the 'real' world. Through its lack of resolution, Sea Point Days acknowledges that the film can only contain a part of its subjects' lives; that the film-maker can never capture reality, only a part of it; that he cannot show 'the truth,' only a subjective version of it. But because audiences have come to expect closure, the open-endedness of Sea Point Days can trigger an awareness of the structure and therefore the construction of the film.

Because traditional documentaries tend to tell 'a complete story' (Snyman 2007, p. 3), ellipses of content are self-reflexive. Leaving out contextualisation and jumping around in time is contrary to the problem-solution structures that typify conventional film-making, in which 'causality is the prime unifying principle' (Bordwell 1986, p. 19). In traditional documentary films, as in classic Hollywood narratives, 'narration tends to be omniscient' and 'knows more than any or all of the characters' (Bordwell 1986, p. 22). Self-reflexive films tend not to provide 'omniscient' narration nor 'complete' stories, but rather show elements, even seemingly unconnected ones, and leave space for the audience to add their own interpretations and conclusions in the decoding of the text.

In retelling his family history in Imam and I, Khalid Shamis uses temporal jumps to compress the time needed to relate pivotal events. There are, for example, jumps from the Imam's wedding to the birth of their daughter (Khalid's mother) to a letter written from prison to the daughter and finally to a contemporary interview with the daughter, now grown up. These jumps in time are large and therefore conspicuous. The audience is further made aware of time passing through the way the letter is presented in the film. Shamis reads the letter in voice-over as the words gradually appear on screen. The association of the Imam's words seen in the visuals and Shamis' voice-over emphasises that the film's story takes place simultaneously in the past and present. It also signifies the growing association Shamis feels with his grandfather, even though they never met.

Later in the film, when Mr Khoisan talks of how a Christian priest fasted for 40 days at a Muslim Kramat (shrine) in homage to the Imam, the statement provides the motivation for a cut to a present-day image of Shamis and the priest eating together while sitting on the floor of the shrine. The jump in time is large, but by cutting from the past to the present, it is possible to engage the viewer intellectually by creating the association between the priest of Mr Khoisan's story and the person shown with Shamis at the shrine.

In Porselynnkas the interview with Willem starts with Septembir setting an alarm and stating that the interview location will be changed every time the alarm sounds. The interview is then, indeed, presented in that way, with frequent cuts from place to place. Each change in location is signified by a shot that shows the point of view of one of the two cameras as it is picked up and moved (Figures 5-7). The self-reflexive structuring is thus emphasised, because the subject refers explicitly to the filming strategy for this interview. The audience is aware of the motivation behind the ellipses and discontinuities. This interplay between the content and form leads to a heightened awareness of the film-making and of the structuring power of the filmmaker.

In the self-reflexive mode of representation the structure of the film is sometimes inspired by its theme or content. Though Afrikaaps chronicles the creation and performance of a theatre production, the scope of the film is not limited to a behind-the-scenes look at the theatre piece. Digressions allow for inclusion of subject back-stories, historical contextualisation and observational footage of current events in the lives of the subjects. It is the film's episodic structure that allows for freer associations of statements and visual evidence, and for material that does not pertain exclusively to one topic to be collected together.


Each episode in Afrikaaps is initiated with a 'glossary of terms' insert that is different in style from the rest of the footage. These inserts do not function as chapter titles, but rather halt the flow of information and restart the film in another direction. They may comment on a theme that arose in the previous section or a theme that will follow. It is possible to explain the distancing effect here with reference to Brecht, who believed that 'individual episodes have to be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily noticed' in order to be effective in inducing Verfremdung. If the episodes are conspicuously divided, the audience is given 'a chance to interpose judgement' (Willet 1984, p. 201). In the construction of the 'Afrikaaps glossary of terms' inserts, several devices combine to make them more noticeable. The first of these 'knots' (Figures 8-10) appears in the first quarter of the film after the main characters and the setting of the film have been introduced. It is presented in black and white, differentiating it from the preceding and subsequent colour footage, and starts with a close up shot of a Teach Yourself Afrikaans album cover (Figure 9). Each insert features a DJ behind a mixing desk (Figure 10), who provides an appropriate sound track for the term explained. The source of the music used for the insert is thus acknowledged. It elevates the significance of the music from background accompaniment to active commentary. The inclusion of the visual of the DJ is self-reflexive, as it places emphasis on the production of the music and makes the musician, who is not part of the Afrikaaps theatre production, part of the content of the film. These visuals and their matching sounds serve to make the inserts more noticeable, while demonstrating and commenting on the influence hip hop has had on the style of the film as a whole. This influence is evident not only in the soundtrack of the film, but in its structure and reflects the inclusion of hip hop as an element of the stage production. The episodic structure is reminiscent of a hip hop song, the glossary inserts forming a repeating chorus. The editing pace of the film is rapid and the aesthetic draws on hip hop culture and wall art. The glossary insert ends with the sound of a record scratch, the sound made as a record player needle is pulled off a record. This sound signifies that the insert has come to an end and introduces a change in topic. It is appropriate to the hip hop aesthetic and provides a catalyst for a sudden change to a completely different location, sound and atmosphere. These insert 'knots' are conspicuous and as such would, in Brecht's perspective, allow the audience space to 'interpose judgement' (Willet 1984, p. 201).


Similarly Porselynnkas contains many vignettes that are reminiscent of the performance poetry 'happenings' (their word) it seeks to document. The search for Alex Omega is shown in a montage of attempts to track him down. The montage features shots of Septembir urinating against a tree, the director dancing, the crew's car breaking down and a dog running away from camera (Figures 11-13). The sequence is self-reflexive because it compresses time conspicuously by jumping from moment to moment in the search for Omega, highlighting the key tension between stasis and movement in the film. The action of the film revolves around trying to pin down the value and definition of the Porselynnkas movement as a phenomenon, but by their very nature 'happenings' are fleeting events. They are, in the opinion of the female Porselynnkas member interviewed in the film, not significant because they happen and are then over and another follows. This search for Omega, too, is not significant, because he is never found. It is fleeting and a new search begins as soon as one is concluded. The montage summarises the crew's failed attempts to locate Omega, which then becomes a 'happening' in itself. Its impact arises from the ellipses of content that allow selected moments of the search to be foregrounded.

Only one of the female members of the Porselynnkas performance poetry group is seen to agree to be interviewed for the film. The others are mentioned or shown in archive photographs and video, but do not speak on camera. The absence of the female members of the group is foregrounded and different strategies are used to expose and address the ellipses of content. In the absence of an interview with Lulu, for example, a shot of her in her car, filmed when the team coincidentally spots her in traffic, is included in the film instead. The inclusion of the shot of Lulu in her car and a voice-over and interview explanation of her absence highlights this ellipsis. Later in the film Septembir states that Miriekie Kiekie was interviewed, but not on camera. Instead he relates after the fact what she supposedly said. In conventional documentaries interviewees are usually seen on camera in the interview setting, so this situation is quite uncommon. It highlights the absence of Mariekie Kiekie's interview from the film and so is self-reflexive. The viewer is led to question how accurate Septembir's recollections of her statements are and whether these statements are even hers at all. When she does appear on camera, she herself serves as a substitute for someone else, since she reads a poem written by another female Porselynnkas member. Instead of simply leaving the female members of the group out, the film addresses the ellipses overtly. As a matter of fact, addressing these ellipses of content becomes a major theme of the film. This strategy of pointing out a failing of the film within the film is self-reflexive, because it focuses attention on the construction of the film, alerting the audience to the limitations of the film and the film-maker. As much as traditional documentaries try to create the impression through their 'omniscient narration' (Bordwell 1986, p. 22) that they contain the ' complete' story (Snyman 2007, p. 3), self-reflexive documentaries acknowledge explicitly through their structure that they can never reflect all views on the subject matter at hand.


Self-reflexive form

Documentary form is diverse and stylistic elements are different for the different types of documentary. Contemporary mainstream documentary, for example, makes use of sit-down interviews that are carefully composed and well lit. Cinema verite and observational documentary are characterised by handheld camerawork, long takes of developing action and the absence of formal interviews. Self-reflexive documentaries tend not to adhere to only one set of formal characteristics, but rather shift form and break the conventions of form.

The aim in the continuity editing system--the dominant mode for fiction and documentary film--is to make editing invisible in order to facilitate unimpeded transfer of story and emotion from the text to the audience. When a film contains what Brecht refers to, in the context of theatre, as 'an element of "unnaturalness"' it becomes noticeable to the audience, reminding them of the construction of the film and is therefore self-reflexive (Brecht 1964, p. 191). Applying Brecht's principles in the film-making context, and here specifically to documentary film, can shed light on the signification value of formal elements used to construct the film.

Self-reflexive mise en scene

The term mise en scene refers to all the elements that have been included in the frame. This may include the location, subject, lighting and the framing of the shot. Filmmaking equipment is seldom visible on screen in a documentary film. It is sometimes inevitable, especially when events unfold quickly and equipment or even crew are accidentally included in the frame. These instances are included in mainstream films only if the content is of such a powerful or unique nature that the film-maker is prepared to include the shot despite what would be seen, in the mainstream context, as a filming mistake. Most often this entails the accidental intrusion of a hand-held or pole-mounted microphone into the frame. In a self-reflexive documentary film there is space for inclusion of shots that show the filming equipment and crew, since revealing the filming tools is an effective strategy for acknowledging and referring to the filming process within the body of the text.

Such self-reflexive mise en scene is evident in Porselynnkas, where shots of the camera operator are included on several occasions during interviews for which two angles were filmed. The inclusion of these shots allows for the film-making strategy behind the two-camera interviews to be acknowledged. During the interview with former Porselynnkas member Rochell, he points out each of the two cameras (Figure 14), identifying the one as a Sony (video camera) and the other as an Apple (iPhone). A shot of the camera operator reclining on a couch with the camera resting on his belly while filming an interview with Floyed de Faal is even included in the film (Figure 15). It is at once humorous and self-reflexive, because the stance is so different from the shots of him included elsewhere in the film. In most of the other shots he is seen filming actively (as in Figure 16) while here he sits seemingly comfortably. This raises the question of how seriously he is taking the filming. And if the camera operator does not take the filming seriously, the viewer may wonder how seriously she should take the resultant film.


Technical adjustments are aesthetically unpleasing changes to focus, exposure and composition made by the camera operator in order to improve the overall quality of the following shot or to compensate for changes in lighting and subject position that have occurred while filming. These changes should be seen as distinct from intentional camera movements and focus pulls that are designed to enhance the narrative or emotional thrust of the scene. Such technical adjustments are usually excluded during the editing of traditional documentaries, but are often included in self-reflexive films, since they serve as acknowledgements of the filming process.

When Shamis visits the prison cell in which the Imam was found dead in Imam and I, a warden describes the Imam's last day as they walk around the prison courtyard. There is a moment when an extreme close up of Shamis' eyes is used as Shamis listens to the warden. The image starts out of focus, but then comes into focus (Figures 17a and 17b). This focus shift coincides with a wobbly readjustment of the framing, which indicates that this is a technical adjustment and not an intentional focus pull. The conspicuous change from out of focus to in focus is self-reflexive, but it also signifies Khalid's growing knowledge about his grandfather's death. The way in which Shamis' eyes become more clearly visible as the shot comes into focus is a visual metaphor for how information about his grandfather's death is being revealed to him.


Porselynnkas contains an instance where archive footage of Alex Omega describing the Porselynnkas performance poetry movement as 'the most well-documented non-event in the history of whatever' is introduced in voice-over as being 'out of sync.' The synchronisation between visuals and sound seems to have been lost somehow through degradation of the video source or a technical problem during recording or transfer of the footage. Video cameras record video and sound in synchronisation. But here the visuals and sound of the video clip are overtly identified as having become separated. The image is of Omega seated as for an interview, so the lack of synchronisation is conspicuous and emphasised, because it is clear that Omega's voice and lip movements don't match. If the sound and visual are indeed from the same source footage, it should have been possible for the film-maker to synchronise them during the editing. This would have been done during the editing of a mainstream film. Including the unsynchronised clip in Porselynnkas was thus a conscious choice and, I argue, used and emphasised here for effect. This disjointed moment in the film emphasises the absence of Omega from the film. Like the sound and visual in this clip, Omega has become separated from the rest of the movement and from the film. The mismatch reminds the audience of the film as film, since the components used to construct a film are overtly mentioned in voice-over and the effect of the mismatched visuals and sound is conspicuous. A perfect match between sound and visuals is normally taken for granted, but here that expectation is challenged. Video footage is defamiliarised to the extent that the audience is prompted to question the role of the film-maker in the construction of the film. Because the film-maker chose not to synchronise the visuals and sound, the question arises whether the two elements do belong together at all. The ostensible desynchronisation of the footage could very well be a device used to hide the fact that a statement has been ascribed to Omega that he did not make in this interview. It is the unfamiliarity of seeing visuals and sound play out of synchronisation in an interview that opens the text to this kind of questioning and criticism.

Self-reflexive montage

Sergei Eisenstein believed the maximum effect came from shots that do not fit together perfectly but rather jolt the viewer, because 'the collision of two factors gives rise to an idea' (1999, p. 21), a strategy that is clearly self-reflexive in nature. Instead of hiding the film's construction from the audience, it is purposely made visible.

The aim with intellectual montage, the fifth and final component of Eisenstein's theory, is to combine shots in a way that communicates an ideology and has the potential to influence the audience's perceptions. The meaning comes from the juxtaposition of the shots more than from the meanings of the individual shots that are combined (Eisenstein 1949, p. 82). When juxtapositions are included in documentary films, they force the viewer to consciously compare the two contradictory visuals or pieces of information with each other, making her aware of the text as a construction. This strategy increases the viewer's awareness of the construction of the text, because the contradictions:

fold the viewer's consciousness back onto itself so that it comes into contact with the work of the cinematic apparatus rather than being allowed to move unimpeded toward engagement with a representation of the historical world. (Nichols 1991, p. 58)

Different subjects are not aware of the contradictions that arise when their statements are juxtaposed to contrary statements from other interviewees. These contradictions do not occur at the time of filming, but are created through the arrangement of shots during the edit. In Porselynnkas one of the interviewees, Albert Snyman, a University of Stellenbosch Drama Department faculty member, says: 'Dit het net mense se persepsie van teater 'n bietjie rondgeruk' (It shook up people's perception of theatre a bit). He is followed by a lecturer in the Art Department at the same university saying: 'I really don't see how come you think that this is that significant that the rest of the country, the rest of the world, would care.' She in turn is followed by poet/singer Gert Vlok Nel who says: 'In my opinie was Porselynnkas die pioniers van performance poetry in Afrikaans' (In my opinion Porselynnkas were the pioneers of performance poetry in Afrikaans). It seems as if the interviewees are engaged in a debate, but the oscillation between the opinions was created through the editing process. The juxtapositions are self-reflexive, since they foreground the construction of the film. The audience is not presented with one opinion and the film-maker does not introduce or conclude the sequence with his own opinion. Instead the viewer must take in the contradictory statements, weigh them against each other and come to her own conclusion about their merits. This editing device therefore encourages intellectual engagement with the content of the film.

A jump cut is an edit point that is visible to the audience because it combines two shots that are too similar or too different to form an invisible match cut. It is a sudden, jarring or conspicuous change on a cut which results from 'the joining of two non-continuous shots' (Dancyger 2002, p. 132). There are different types of jump cut that are pertinent to this study. One type is a temporal ellipsis, or a leap in time where the camera does not move at all. Here it is clear that time has passed in reality, but has been left out in the editing. In Porselynnkas, when the alter ego of the main subject, Sjaka Septembir, namely 'Dr Adam Chaos,' waits for the first interviewee, Jaap, to open his door, there are several jump cuts. The shot size and angle remain much the same, but it is clear that 'dead time' while he waits has been cut out. These jump cuts are a disruption of the natural flow of the shot and acknowledge that the shot has been manipulated by the film-maker. The jumps also signify that 'Dr Chaos' stands and waits for a long time and this is emphasised by his facial expression, which clearly shows his discomfort at being left outside waiting. During the interview with Jaap, several jump cuts follow that signal that parts of the interview have also been cut out.

Jump cuts are used twice during the introductory interview sequence in Imam and I. In both cases the framing is identical before and after the cut (Figures 18a and 18b). This makes clear that part of what was originally said has been cut out. When a jump cut is used to connect two parts of an interview, it makes clear that a section of the interview has been cut out during the editing. In a continuity-style documentary such jumps in time would most likely be covered by cut-aways in the form of visual evidence illustrating what the person is talking about. This creates a seamless flow in the visuals and hides the fact that interviews are cut up and stitched together to form the argument the film-maker wants to convey. But by using temporal jump cuts Kalil and Shamis acknowledge that they have left parts of interviews out, keeping what they found useful. It is thus signified in the construction of the text that the text does not contain the whole truth, that the interviewee's full statement has not been included and that a structuring agent, the film-maker, has constructed the film in the way that he saw fit.


When one of the interviewees, Weideman, is introduced in Porselynnkas, this is done through a sequence in which jump cuts are used to combine shots of him reading lines from different books in his bookshop in Stellenbosch (Figures 19-21). All of these cuts entail a change in time and continuity, and many in space. Because jump cuts are used and it is clear that the lines Weideman reads are from different books, this sequence is also an instance of self-reflexive editing. By combining lines from different books in this way, the result sounds poetic, even though it is clear that many of the lines are from different actual texts. The viewer is engaged intellectually as she tries to decode the meaning of the 'video poem' constructed from the unrelated lines Weideman reads. Because Weideman is visible on screen reading from the different books, the different sources of the ideas are acknowledged. This video poem thus acknowledges its inspiration within its construction, triggering a metacognitive process of meaning construction in the audience.

These jumps in time, space and continuity emphasise the editing. This leads to a heightened awareness of the medium and of the film-maker's particular use of the medium. This in turn allows the intellectual distance (or Verfremdung) that makes space for the viewer to decode the visual metaphors used to embody the themes, attitudes and emotions shown in the film.

Self-reflexive use of effects and transitions

Effect transitions that are unconventional or designed to be visible can also be self-reflexive. In Imam and I a sequence about the Imam's love of cinema ends with a photo of the Imam. The transition to the next section of the film is a replica of a film roll-out, the freezing and shifting of an image which results from the slower running of the projector at the end of a roll of film (Figures 22a-22c). This is accompanied by the sound effect of a film projector. There is tension between the stillness of the photo and the movement of the transition effect. The editing device, the film roll-out transition and the sound that amplifies it, signifies moving pictures, but the image it is used to transition from is clearly a still image. This tension leads to an awareness of the film as a film, because it is clear that the film roll-out was not organically created during the filming; it was added in post-production.


In the same film a quick white flash, accompanied by a soft popping sound, is used as a transition to a photograph over the shoulder of a man holding a camera to his eye. When the shot zooms out, it is revealed that the photograph is of the Imam being photographed by several people in a small crowd. The flash represents a camera flash and so signifies the moment a photograph is taken. And yet the image it is associated with is not a moving image of a photographer in action, rather it is a still image that contains no movement or sound. This transition is therefore conspicuous, as it emphasises the tension between stillness and movement. This specific photograph is particularly apt for acknowledging subjectivity, since it creates the feeling of looking over the shoulder of the photographer. This photographer is an individual among others with cameras. His viewpoint is different from the others. And our viewpoint is different from his, because we are looking at him from the perspective of another photographer. This photo within a photo signifies that the way history is captured is relative, and the flash transition serves to focus the audience's attention on the image and thus heighten this effect.

Photographs are used throughout Imam and I to visualise the story of the past, so these instances of mise en abyme created by the effect transitions are very apt to foreground the construction of the film. The Imam's history is told through 'the eye of the beholder,' a subjective perspective. The film acknowledges that its content consists of information gathered from many different sources.

In Afrikaaps an extract from an old film about the story of the VOC is used to illustrate an interview about history. Towards the end of the section the traditional fiction film extract is given a hip hop edge when the seventeenth century settler on screen walks backwards as the film is reversed to signify the interviewee's statement: 'But, we need to take one step backwards.' This association of the statement and visual is humorous and self-reflexive. There is very little doubt that the manipulation of the playback direction was not a feature of the original dramatisation, but that it was created in the editing of the contemporary documentary. This self-reflexively acknowledges the presence of the film-maker at a moment when Afrikaaps is arguably at its most conventional, making use of archive footage to illustrate the content of a sit-down interview. The power of the film-maker to 'reverse' history and to make a character on screen bend to his will is signified in this moment. As I have observed viewers laughing at this effect on several occasions, I believe that there is awareness of the film as construction both in the encoding and the decoding at this moment. An interaction between the film-maker and viewer through the text is triggered.


Self-reflexive text

A chyron is text stating the name and designation of an interviewee. It is customary for chyrons to be superimposed over interview shots in the lower third of the screen to identify speakers and justify their inclusion in the documentary. Chyrons identify interviewees as experts in their fields and signify that the information given by them is legitimate and carries weight.

If chyrons are omitted, this creates a certain amount of tension for the audience. In Sea Point Days chyrons are omitted throughout the film. The audience can only rely on the content of the film to surmise who a speaker is. This triggers a heightened interaction with the material. Rather than taking the content in passively, the viewer is forced to analyse the content for clues to the identities of the various subjects. In some instances it is possible to find out who a person is because another person addresses them directly or refers to them in the film. Councilman JP Smith, for example, is shown appearing on a radio show and he is introduced by name and designation by the DJ. In other instances the viewer can deduce a person's role or station in life from their actions, but may never find out their name. Most of the homeless people pictured in the film remain nameless. This anonymity within the structure of the film signifies their anonymity living on the streets and their rejection by mainstream society. The lack of identification in the film signifies that they are seen by the police and council volunteers as statistics rather than people.

A sequence of unidentified interviewees is used at the beginning of Imam and I to introduce issues around the Imam's life and death. As in Sea Point Days, no chyrons have been superimposed over the shots. Later in the film this kind of sequence recurs with many of the same speakers introducing the security police interrogator, Spyker van Wyk. This time chyrons are superimposed over the video so that viewers can see who the speakers are. They are identified as activists or somehow involved with human rights or the anti-apartheid struggle. Having access to their resistance credentials here emphasises their views and adds to their credibility. We believe their statements because they are established as having the right kind of experience to make them. The fact that the earlier sequence did not have chyrons is emphasised by the fact that this one does. It also makes it clear that the omission earlier was a conscious decision by the film-maker.

The voice-over statement 'Toe vra ek die opinie van 'n deskundige' (So I asked an expert) introduces an interview segment in Porselynnkas. No chyrons are provided in the film, so there is no way for the audience to judge the validity of the voice-over assertion that the interviewee is an expert. There is also no way of judging what she is an expert on, so there is no way to conclude what her perspective on the subject matter might be.


When the members of the Porselynnkas performance poetry group are interviewed, however, they are given chyrons of a sort in an organic, creative way. Each member's segment starts with their getting a cream-pie squashed onto their faces (Figure 23a). The pie dish has their name on the bottom, created using cut-out letters that recall the collage-style main title of the film. This handmade 'chyron' is then held up, so it is organically included in the frame rather than superimposed as would be done in a conventional documentary film (Figure 23b). These unconventional 'chyrons' are self-reflexive in and of themselves, but also emphasise the absence of superimposed chyrons on the expert interviewees in the film.

The omission of contextualisation for the interviewees in these films opens the content of the interviews up to critique. It is more difficult to place a statement and to weigh its validity without knowing its source. This prevents snap judgements based on the background or level of expertise of the speakers. The decoder is forced to take each statement in the text at face value. This leads to some disquiet, because information that is usually provided in this kind of text is withheld by the encoder. Consequently the decoder must decode the message critically in the absence of the missing information. This Verfremdung effect increases the level of intellectual engagement required from the decoder to decode the text.

End credits in mainstream documentary films are most often white lettering on a black background and roll across the screen at the end of the film. The end credits of Porselynnkas consist of head and shoulder shots of the director and the camera operator superimposed over the collage-style letters that were used to construct the opening title of the film (Figure 24). This unconventional way of providing end credits acknowledges the presence of the individuals behind the production of the film. Kalil and the camera operator state their names and roles in the production, highlighting the constructed nature of the film. The two superimpositions also interact with each other. While the camera operator introduces himself, Kalil looks left to right as if at the camera operator. When Kalil introduces himself, the camera operator looks right to left as if at Kalil. The letters of the word 'Porselynnkas' are swept together and set alight, signifying the end of the performance poetry group and of the documentary. The circularity in the use of titles provides aesthetic closure to the film. Burning the title signifies the end of the journey for the film-makers, but also the death of Porselynnkas as a movement. Because the title is destroyed, posing a question about the merit of the subject matter of film, the audience is invited to come to their own conclusion about the value of the Porselynnkas performance poetry movement and of the film that takes the movement as its topic.



Inclusion of references to the means of representation in the structure, form and content of the four films analysed above signifies the film-maker's presence to the audience. These references to the encoding of the text trigger a more aware and active decoding, opening the text to critical viewing by the audience. This intellectual engagement with the text acknowledges the subjectivity of the sender and promotes critical awareness of this in the decoding of the text by the receiver.

When a film employs the self-reflexive mode of representation, the viewer is not only aware of the content of the film, the primary layer of meaning, but is also faced with the secondary layer of the construction of meaning, a glimpse at the way the text has been encoded. This prompts the audience to engage critically with the content of the text, interrogating its authenticity and veracity. My contention is that viewing is most active when there is a mutual awareness by the encoder and decoder of this self-reflexivity. In such instances, the film-maker uses certain strategies intentionally in encoding the text for the purpose of engaging the audience intellectually. The viewer in turn is aware of the film as a film during the viewing, 'prompt[ing] the viewer to a heightened consciousness of his or her relation to the text' (Nichols 1991, p. 58). Because this allows the audience to engage critically with the content of the text, enabling a critique of its authenticity and veracity, I believe that this reduces the pressure on the documentary film-maker to remain objectively uninvolved with the subject matter of the film. The self-reflexive mode of representation allows the filmmaker to be subjective and to acknowledge her subjectivity. My view is that this is a desirable, if not the most desirable, encoding position for contemporary documentary film-makers regardless of a film's content, theme or type.


Afrikaaps. 2010. Dylan Valley. Plexus Films & The Glass House. 52 minutes. Imam and I. 2011. Khalid Shamis. Tubafilms. 80 minutes.

Porselynnkas. 2011. Matthew Kalil. K Productions. 50 minutes.

Sea Point Days. 2008. Francois Verster. Undercurrent Film & Television / Luna Films / Lucinda Englehart / ITVS International. 93 minutes.


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Liani Maasdorp *

Drama Department, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa

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Author:Maasdorp, Liani
Publication:South African Theatre Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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