The fact that documentaries are capable of exerting influence on those in power and that films depicting a slice of reality have gained greater traction in public debates is the subject of the latest book from Professor Ib Bondebjerg of the University of Copenhagen. Engaging with Reality: Documentary and Globalization, which focuses sharply on the interrelationships between digitalisation and globalisation and on how contemporary media culture works.
"The book is about what has happened in media culture since 2001, with particular emphasis on full-length documentary films. It argues that we live in a new culture, one in which media images of what we might call 'others' – other worlds, other countries, other cultures – have become a far bigger part of our everyday lives. The media of today give us more regular and direct access to places and events worldwide, almost immediately after something happens. This was not the case 10-15 years ago.
Ease of access to information, on the Internet and on TV, means that the way we perceive each other has changed on both psychological and sociological levels," the professor points out.
Documentaries challenge prejudices
"One of the most difficult things for human beings to understand is other people – especially alien cultures that appear so remote from our own. If we are constantly presented with images of, for example, Muslims with bombs in their hands or wearing suicide jackets, it suggests – depending on our viewpoint – a particular idea to us, and confirms or establishes prejudices."
Professor Bondebjerg believes that the documentary is capable of refining our perceptions.
"There are some universal features to how humans function in different contexts. I think that the documentary's particular strength lies in being able to convey human stories by getting under the surface. Take, for example, Eva Mulvad's film 'Enemies of Happiness' about the Afghan politician Malalai Joya, the first female candidate to stand for parliament in that male-dominated society. The documentary follows Malalai to election meetings, in her work as a consultant for particularly vulnerable people, etc. This allows us to enter into Afghan reality in a way that we can identify with. The film gets below the surface in a way that the daily news never really manages to," the professor says.
News lagging behind
Many of us follow world events via daily news broadcasts. According to Bondebjerg, this is fine so far as it goes. However, it leaves viewers with inadequate background knowledge.
"The news presents short reports, and the same pieces are often repeated endlessly – over and over, all day long. News agencies have neither the time nor the resources to completely cover the war in Afghanistan, for example," says Bondebjerg. He stresses that plenty of documentaries go much deeper into the realities of life in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"It is precisely because documentary films depict actual human stories about authentic people in their own parts of the world that they convey reality in a way the news media can't," Bondebjerg continues.
The war in Afghanistan is one of several themes used in the book to illustrate changes in media culture over the last decade. The professor also analyses the financial crisis, climate issues, migration and multiculturalism. Through these examples, Bondebjerg shows exactly what documentary films are, and what they are capable of achieving.
"My point is that the documentary film is very well suited to bringing global reality closer to us. It tells human stories about all sorts of aspects of reality, and by doing so, better equips us to understand the global reality in which we live."
Ib Bondebjerg's book Engaging with Reality: Documentary and Globalization is available from South Campus at the University of Copenhagen and from various Internet bookstores.
Professor Ib Bondebjerg
Department of Media, Cognition and Communication
Mobile: (+45) 60 24 11 64
Communications Officer Carsten Munk Hansen
Faculty of Humanities
Mobile: (+45) 28 75 80 23
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