Cultural Influence through Critical Writing on Documentary
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Kent
Unit of AssessmentMusic, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Creative Arts and Writing: Film, Television and Digital Media
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
Summary of the impact
Elizabeth Cowie's scholarship centres on the intersections of art, politics and the cinema. The
impact of her research lies in the challenges she makes to existing paradigms, challenges that
resonate within and beyond the academy. Widely taught in Higher Education (HE) across Europe,
North America, and Australia, her research on documentary is also particularly significant for its
influence on artist filmmakers. Insights gained from her arguments on aesthetics, spectatorship,
and political engagement have been taken up by artists whose own work seeks to explore complex
ideas about art, politics, trauma and memory.
Central to Cowie's substantial body of research is her investigation of the duality at the heart of
documentary film: its status as both entertaining spectacle and source of knowledge. Her
monograph Recording Reality, Desiring the Real (2011) is a summation of her engagement with
documentary filmmaking through theoretical writing and dialogue with filmmakers undertaken over
15 years at Kent . The early stages of Cowie's research were supported by an AHRB Research
Addressing the documentary form's history and its contemporary status, Cowie demonstrates the
many ways in which filmmakers acknowledge past and current realities understood not only in
narrowly factual terms, but as the objects of artistic representation, storytelling, and political
debate. Her work explores and develops three issues in particular.
(a) The multiplicity of ways in which documentary is understood as a factual account of the world.
Cowie's research demonstrates that recorded images and sounds are never simply `knowable.'
Documentary is often referred to as non-fiction, but the act of representing events — through
camerawork, editing, voice-over and other aspects of film technique — interprets and shapes our
understanding of those events, even as it identifies facts about the world. Consequently anxiety
may arise about how real, how truthful, documentary can be, leading to a desire for the real that is
always failed by the representation [1, 4, 5].
(b) The psychological relationship of the spectator — and filmmaker — to recorded sounds and
images. The spectacle of recorded actuality was a key attraction of early silent films, and Cowie's
research shows that this continues to be central to cinematic pleasure. Documentary film engages
the spectator in the everyday and the extraordinary, producing a desire to know, a curiosity about
the world. As the spectator is addressed by documentary characters, the spectator learns about
them and with them, empathizing and identifying with them. Cowie produces new insights into how
investigative documentaries as well as `reality tv' shows engage viewers emotionally [1, 2, 4].
(c) Actuality as art. John Grierson argued that documentary is the `creative treatment of actuality,'
an aesthetic project in which showing and talking about reality engage us in a process of `coming
to know' about it. Cowie complicates this perspective on documentary film. She argues that film's
ability to elide times and spaces transforms the documentary event into an `uncanny' experience —
something at once familiar and strange, knowable and yet elusive. `Coming to know' thus does not
only involve a simple comprehension of what is shown and heard, but a recognition of what is
unseen and unheard as well. Cowie shows how documentary filmmaking evokes the uncanny,
creating 'spectres of the real.' In the gallery and on film, and in the documentary project within
surrealism in particular, the uncanny is apprehended in the blank spaces and silences of history
and subjectivity [1, 3, 5].
Cowie questions how documentary reality emerges, and how we are engaged by it. She reaffirms
documentary film's central place in cinema, challenging received ideas about its form while
developing a new understanding of the spectator's relationship to the realities that documentary
films seek to represent.
The research was undertaken at Kent by Elizabeth Cowie: Lecturer (1981-1992), Senior Lecturer
(1992-1998), Reader (1998-2005), Professor (2005-Present).
References to the research
1. Elizabeth Cowie, Recording Reality, Desiring the Real (Minneapolis: Minnesota University
Press, 2011). (REF Output No. 3)
2. Elizabeth Cowie, `Thinking Differently,' Differences, vol. 21, no 2, (2010). (REF Output No. 2)
3. Elizabeth Cowie, `On Documentary Sounds and Images in the Gallery,' Screen vol. 50, (2009).
(REF Output No. 1)
4. Elizabeth Cowie, `Seeing and hearing for ourselves: the spectacle of reality in the Holocaust
Documentary,' in The Holocaust and the Moving Image: Film and Television Representations
Since 1933, eds Toby Haggith and Joanna Newman, (London: Wallflower Press, 2005).
6. AHRB Research Award (AN9356/APN14771); The documentary project: audio-visual evidence
and reality as entertainment; 2003; £9,026.
Details of the impact
Cowie's research into documentary has created an intellectual framework that invigorates debate
on the relations between documentary, art and politics. Widely-used nationally and internationally
within HE curricula, and influencing the work of curators and filmmakers, her work on documentary
enhances teaching, research and creative output in film, digital media, and the gallery.
International HE curricula
Cowie's substantial body of research has notable reach and significance within the academy.
Central to the study of documentary, her scholarship has enriched the design and delivery of HE
curricula in relation to the history of documentary, debates about fiction and non-fiction, as well as
theories of spectacle and spectatorship. Her work is also influential in Holocaust Studies and
Moving Image Art practices. The significance of Cowie's research for curriculum design
internationally is evident in courses from Brown University, Massachusetts College of Art and
Design, New York University, Temple University, and the University of Texas (USA); York
University (Canada); the University of Bilkent (Turkey); and Monash University (Australia) .
Recording Reality is currently being translated into Chinese.
The reach of Cowie's research is further evident in the diverse ways that curators have used
Cowie's ideas to inform their understanding of documentary. Hitomi Hasegawa, a curator for the
on-line project space Frame, draws on Cowie's work on documentary and spectacle to explore the
computer as peep show . Rattanamol Singh Johal places his discussion of his curatorial practice
in the context of Cowie's argument that `Documentary as installation in the gallery disturbs the
categories of both "art" and "documentary"' .
Artists' film and video
The cultural significance of Cowie's impact is visible in her creative dialogues with a number of
international filmmakers and multi-media artists. Through these exchanges, Cowie's research has
enabled these artists to gain new understanding about documentary art, enriching and modifying
their aesthetic and political strategies.
A key theme of Cowie's work is a concern with documenting the experience of trauma and
violence. Cowie has a long-established dialogue around these themes with Serbian artist Milica
Tomić, who has exhibited in (among other places) New York, Sydney, London, Venice, Vienna,
and Moscow. Their dialogue brings to public attention debates related to political violence, memory
and trauma. Tomić states: `Elizabeth's work as a film theorist, intellectual and educator has had the
most formative influence on my work. Elizabeth's work...not only break[s] new ground in my
understanding of film and art, but...our intensive and continuing discussion [has] helped me to
understand and revisit the complex relation[s] between art, psychoanalysis, politics, and media.'
Tomić further comments that Cowie `is a kind of intellectual who has no fear to go far beyond
academic understanding in relation to art practice and the role of the artist;' she also notes the
significance of Cowie's work in `stimulating...my wider artistic and intellectual community.' Tomić
has discussed in particular the `direct influence' of Cowie's theories on her 2012 piece, Four Faces
of Omarska .
Violence and memory is also taken up in Cowie's dialogue with Spanish artist Juan delGardo.
This conversation developed from her early engagement with delGardo's photographic project `The
Wounded Image,' and her later DVD commentary for delGardo's Who Are You Entertaining To?
presented at his exhibition in Colombia (2009). delGardo writes: `I came to a deeper
understanding of my photographic and film practice through Elizabeth's subtle articulation of what
was present as performance in my work. Our discussions have enriched my work, and her
recognition of what I have been seeking to achieve in my art in relation to trauma and disability, as
well as to space and place, has been especially encouraging, and continues to resonate in my
work' . delGardo notes the continuing influence of Cowie's ideas on his works Fluctuations in
Time (2011) and Sailing Out of Grain (2013).
Greek filmmaker Giorgos Kravaritis verifies the influence of Cowie's thought on aesthetics and
political documentary in his experimental documentary `essay' Dokime (2013), which invites
viewers to reflect on the veracity of documentary films. Kravaritis' approach to the reliability and
truthfulness of documentary filmmaking is directly inspired by Cowie's book Recording Reality, and
was further shaped through detailed feedback from Cowie during the editing process. He writes
that `a big part of my thinking on documentary owes much to [Cowie's] research. [Her] work was
very influential for the film's chapter "on ideology"' .
Cowie's long-standing research into spectatorship and political engagement informed her
exchanges with the internationally-exhibited multi-media artist Adam Chodzko during his AHRC
Creative Arts Fellowship at Kent. Cowie's research provides an important part of the intellectual
underpinning to Chodzko's artworks. Chodzko writes that Cowie's understanding of art practice
and her enthusiasm for his project, mixed with her critical challenges, was `very important to [him]
during [the] Fellowship' in helping to develop his practice and in deepening his understanding of
identification and fantasy, concepts especially relevant to Chodzko's The Pickers (2009). More
generally Chodzko notes the continuing influence on his work of Cowie's research on `art
documentary's engagement with the social and the political' .
Of her productive dialogue with Cowie, award-winning filmmaker Clio Barnard writes that `Her
ideas [about Dark Mirror and Road Race] were an inspiration, encouraging me to develop further
my formal interests in performance and in pushing the boundaries of documentary, as well as my
personal interest in the idea of the displaced voice through re-enactment' . Addressing how
Cowie enriched her filmmaking, Barnard continues: `The Arbor benefited directly from [Cowie's]
intellectual rigour and...generosity in imparting...theoretical ideas about documentary...guiding the
practice as research...To discuss with and learn from someone with such a range of understanding
about documentary was very supportive and stimulating' . Dark Mirror and Road Race were
formative in the development of The Arbor (2010), an innovative film that explored re-enactments
of the displaced voice [see case study c: Making Films and Changing Lives].
In summary, Cowie's considerable cultural influence is built on a substantial body of research
central to the study of documentary internationally. Its impact is evident in HE curricula on
documentary, fiction and non-fiction, Holocaust Studies, and moving image art practice, and in the
practice of curators, artists and filmmakers.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Examples of Cowie's research having national and international significance in higher education
The history of documentary and the debates about fiction and non-fiction in documentary
Massachusetts College of Art and Design, USA
New York University, USA
Temple University, USA
University of Texas, USA
Brown University USA
University of Bilkent, Turkey
Moving image art practices
University of Creative Arts (UCA), UK
Monash University, Australia,
York University, Canada
Evidence of Cowie's impact in the field of curation
Hitomi Hasegawa in `Peep Show: Has the Computer Become the Contemporary Peep Box,'
Hasegawa uses Cowie's writing to give context to her choice of exhibits: http://www.no-w-here.org.uk/frame/index.php?m=pdetail&id=1&pg=2&focus=statement&l=
Rattanamol Singh Johal, in `Displacing the Objective Interlocutor, Infiltrating the Gallery: Notes
on Art & Documentary,' Augmenting Practices, Experiments from the IFA-KHO-J Curatorial
Residency 2011. Johal cites Cowie as an important influence on his understanding of curational
Testimonies and evidence of dialogue with artists and filmmakers
Milica Tomić can attest to collaboration with Cowie and her influence on Tomić's work as an
artist and documentary filmmaker.
Juan delGardo can corroborate Cowie's impact on his photographic and film practice.
Giorgos Kravaritis: email dialogue between Cowie and Kravaritis affirms that Cowie has
enhanced his understanding of the documentary form.
Adam Chodzko can confirm the extent to which Cowie's research provided an intellectual
underpinning for his multimedia artworks.
Clio Barnard can attest to the influence of Cowie's writings on her work as a film director.