University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


HGMV Talk by Maria Hofmann (GSD) "Recent Genocide Documentaries between Return and Respite of Trauma"

HGMV Talk by Maria Hofmann (GSD) "Recent Genocide Documentaries between Return and Respite of Trauma"

Wednesday, December 9, 4:00 PM 710 Social Sciences
MARIA HOFMANN, German, Scandinavian & Dutch (UMN)
"Recent Genocide Documentaries between Return and Respite of Trauma"

Recent Genoc ide Documentar ies between Return and Respite of Trauma Documentary film has undergone a development in the past 15 years that complicates the notions of fact and fiction in this genre. These ostensibly binary opposites have been discussed extensively in the 1970s and 80s. The scholarly work of historian Hayden White and the contributions of Eva Hohenberger and others in regard to documentary film have revealed that any kind of narrativization of events (including in historiography and other non-fictional genres) is a form of mediation that employs similar strategies as fiction. This exposed the claim of an objective or true history as an unattainable ideal and an unmediated representation of reality as impossible. Despite these academic realizations, documentary filmmakers continue to treat their films as purely non-fictional, clearly delineating themselves and their work from fiction. One reason for this continuous adherence to a more traditional definition is the danger of relativization, of ultimately undermining any truth claim when the difference between fact and fiction is completely dismissed. 

Recent documentary films, however, have started to embrace and welcome the similarities to fiction instead of forcefully denying their proximity. These films employ fictionalizations as their core strategy in order to address and reflect upon a media situation in which the medium itself has become precarious, and images have lost their immediate "evidentiary power" (Nichols). 

This development shows itself most clearly in films that engage with the topic of genocide. In the case of the Holocaust for example, viewers are constantly exposed to an overabundance of images of Nazi atrocities. The initial shocking impact soon deteriorates to numbness and defensiveness. Susan Sontag warns of the effects of this excessive exposure and points out that, instead of helping us understand, these photographs haunt us: "The problem is not that people remember through photographs but that they remember only the photographs." (113) We have become Maria Hofmann used to these iconic pictures to a degree that strips them of their critical potential and prevents any further engagement. The overpowering effect of these images paradoxically leads to a detachment from historical facts. An illustrative example is the photograph of a young girl on the day of her deportation) that was shown and reproduced in books, news clips, documentaries, and other films, until her face became the embodiment of the genocide of the Jews. 

Only in 1994 was her true identity as a Sinti girl, Settela Steinbach, discovered. Additionally, this case makes the documentary image even more problematic when we remember that that the only available footage comes from the perpetrators and can be staged or falsified. Filmmaker Harun Farocki addresses these issues in his documentary Respite. He uses only original footage from the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands and mediates it to a high degree. Instead of simply informing the viewer of the history Maria Hofmann surrounding Settela Steinbach's photograph, as a traditional documentary would, Respite tells us many possible stories, ultimately employing a counterstrategy consisting of a close reiterative reading of the material that simultaneously reveals the layers of mediated pictures connected to the images. This film, along with The Act of Killing (about the Indonesian killings of 1965-66 ) and The Missing Picture (focusing on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) will be the main subjects of my inquiry as they represent prime examples for this new development in documentary film that contravenes non-fictional conventions and requires a framework beyond traditional dichotomies. The Act of Killing, as just one example, has been strongly criticized for making the perpetrators, who are still in power and have never been prosecuted for their crimes, the protagonists, letting them reenact important events. This political and moral controversy is based on a supposed access to an objective truth, and ultimately on a belief in the reductive and oversimplifying binary of fact and fiction. 

This is why it is important to find an approach that can help avoid the impasse of this perspective and elevates the discussion by shifting the focus towards a concept of fictionalization as a strategy that aims to convey the cultural complexity of these events. 

Hofmann received her MA in Comparative Literature from the University in Munich in 2013. Her MA thesis focused on the narratological concept of possible world theory and its application to film studies. She has been a PhD student in the Department for German, Scandinavian & Dutch since 2013. Research interests include narratology, theories of fictionality, documentary film and genocide studies. Her dissertation discusses a new development in documentary films about genocide, and explores how narratological methods can be applied to a this new development which intentionally blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction.