Sawyer Seminars: Documentary Media and Historical Transformations


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SAWYER SEMINARS icon-01Sawyer Seminars: Documentary Media and Historical Transformations

Still image from the film Afrique, je te plumerai


Minor Utopias? Documentary and Alternatives To Neoliberalism Moved to Fall 2017. Full schedule to be provided.

During moments of major historical transformation, filmmakers, audiences, governments, and media institutions have consistently heightened their attention on documentary media. From World War II through the Civil Rights Movement to the Arab Spring, documentary’s capacity to indexically capture events and citizens’ responses to those events marks it as a historically valuable and emotionally affective form through which change can be communicated and publics fashioned. Documentary in this way registers the immediate past not just for contemporary audiences but also in recognition that it is doing historical work. It becomes material that can be mined to reveal major historical changes neither evident at first glance nor potentially knowable at that moment in time.

The Sawyer Seminars presented by Indiana University’s Center for Documentary Research and Practice are designed to bring filmmakers, historians, legal scholars, film and media scholars, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and journalists together. It consists of several two-day conferences, hosted by the Indiana University Cinema, and includes film screenings, lectures, panels, and roundtables. Each conference will address the relationship between documentary and major historical transformations—colonialism, human rights, neoliberalism—examining how documentaries both reveal and shape socio-political change.

Among others, we will explore the following questions: How do films made during historical transformations reveal a new understanding of the status of the nonfiction image? How do documentary filmmakers work with and for communities and do so not only during the initial release of the film but over the extended “life” of a film? How does accounting for the circulation of documentary films reveal the historical networks that shaped the reception of the films and the key players’ (individual, institutional, governmental) interests in the films? How are the dynamics between political urgency and ethical treatment often revealingly reconfigured in moments of historical transition? How have changes in media technologies related to documentary informed its role in shaping social imaginaries?

The Mellon Foundation’s Sawyer Seminars were established in 1994 to provide support for comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments. Foundation support aims to engage productive scholars in comparative inquiry that would, in ordinary university circumstances, be difficult to pursue, while at the same time avoiding the institutionalization of such work in new centers, departments, or programs. Sawyer Seminars are, in effect, temporary research centers.


Documentary and the Legacies of Colonialism: Images, Institutions, and Economies

Led by Joshua Malitsky and Marissa Moorman
September 15–16, 2016

This Sawyer Seminar will focus on the role imperial institutions played in nonfiction film history. As tools of colonial administration, this series and its speakers will illustrate how nonfiction films promoted state projects, public-health campaigns, and the idea of empire in an effort to fashion modern colonial subjects. In addition to studying and shaping its subjects through film, this series will also outline how the state established nonfiction film institutions and practices to maintain imperial order. Furthermore, it will examine how the documentary image, its institutional home, and its role in projecting and modeling national and other subjectivities emerged as critical areas of intervention both in the decolonization movement and after independence. This series is sponsored by Center for Documentary Research and Practice, The Media School, the Institute for Advanced Studies, the Mellon Foundation, and IU Cinema.

The complete seminar schedule for "Documentary and the Legacies of Colonialism: Images, Institutions, and Economies" can be accessed here.


Capturing the Imagination: Independence and the Claim to Rights

Led by Christiana Ochoa and Timothy Lovelace
October 20–21, 2016

Social unrest and claims to rights invoke the dual capacity of the documentary form to both “capture the moment” and to serve a role in advocacy and activism. These potentials have captured the imagination of nonfiction filmmakers as well as civil rights historians and activists in the United States. Similarly, the potential documentary images hold for shining light on abuses has been reflected in films and images from around the world that articulate with the rise of human rights law and politics. This workshop explores how and whether these possibilities have been realized, and their lasting significance and legacy for both rights claims and the nonfiction form. This conference continues the Sawyer Seminar series and will explore the state/activist/citizen triad and consider to what extent the transnational spread of the idea of civil rights, or human rights, has been captured, reflected, and advanced through documentary film. It brings scholars and filmmakers from the United States and abroad to discuss these questions. The series is sponsored by Center for Documentary Research and Practice, The Media School, the Institute for Advanced Studies, the Mellon Foundation, and IU Cinema.

The complete seminar schedule for "Capturing the Imagination: Independence and the Claim to Rights" can be accessed here.

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