From documenting subcultures to academic video essay: a critical examination of historical and contemporary documentary debates

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The vigorous growth of documentary studies is grounded by historical, theoretical underpinning in film studies and through an innovative relationship with emerging technologies. Unlike the broad range of fiction film studies, the theoretical orientations of non-fiction are indexically linked to concepts of reality and the assumed truth-telling capacity of the form. These conventions of documentary practice are positioned within a framework of objectivity and impartiality which generally ignores the inherent bias existing in selected sets of documentary productions relationships. This ‘dilemma’ seeks to reveal truth through a host of potential documentary approaches, subjects and story-telling methods and this PhD project examines aspects of these relationships through a practice-based approach which interrogates key relationships between contemporary theory and emergent forms of documentary practice. The thesis examines the historical and contemporary power relationships that documentary practice has assumed through its various modes and modalities of audio/video construction. I achieve this ambition by examining three previously self-produced DIY documentary works, focusing on a comparative analysis of anarcho-punk subculture in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Belgium.

I argue that the concept of intention is the primary definer of the enounced (fixed audio/visual information) documentary text which is shaped, in my case, by conventions of DIY practice and resource availability constraints. However, the research project evidences a shift in documentary form’s discursive dominance in contemporary documentary studies, despite the emergence of new outlets and audiences. I argue that the video essay approach now helps facilitate a counter-strategy to traditionally dominant documentary forms and the conventional methods used to construct the internal logic of their narrative. I examine key concepts in documentary debates, and their realist approach to the internal logic of articulation, which I argue helps reinforce social relations, masks the philosophical dilemma around objectivity and subordinates the form to institutionally dominant power relationships through hegemonic structures of production. New challenges to established theories around documentary suggest that documentary representation should be acknowledged more widely as helping to re-define power relationships which call into question the legitimacy and truth-telling capacity of the dominant traditional documentary discourse. A fundamental problem for contemporary documentary practice is how to address the onslaught from the global political pressure, regarding the previously accepted forms of realist disclosure as being distinct and separate from political and ideological construction. A realisation that led to research around and production of an academic video essay which addresses the research question; what is an academic video essay?

I conclude, that it is necessary for documentary studies to re-orientate and capture the potential of a re-energised engagement through public history. In particular, how the video essay can make a positive impact on academic and public understanding of documentary’s role in helping create and shape history due to recent legal changes in copyright law in various global territories and the ability to now mine academic research data from an internet connected laptop. In this practice-based thesis containing written analysis and practice work, I move from a critique of documentary onto new academic terrain to define how the academic video essay can help re-orientate the pedagogical and political articulation of definitions of power relationships to a potential global audience using internet focused technologies.
Date of Award2019
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorAndrew Hewitt (Supervisor) & Matthew McCormack (Supervisor)


  • Punk
  • documentary
  • video essay

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