German media scholar Norbert Bolz writes: "There is no beyond the media. [...] In a world of simulation, the real becomes obsession" (Poerksen 439-441). He argues that the acceleration of technological development and the resulting omnipresence of media has led to a situation where there is no difference between media and the real anymore. While one symptom of this destabilization of concepts like the real and truth is the emergence of an age of truthiness and post-truth, another is the urge for the opposite, the authentic. This development certainly resulted in a crisis for the field of journalism, and one could expect a similar predicament for documentary film. Yet documentary film has never been more popular than it is right now. In Germany, the production of documentary films has quadrupled since 2000; the number of attendees of the documentary film festival DOK.fest in Munich tripled in the past five years. Documentary film promises to satisfy these urges for the real with just that.
The documentaries by Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger certainly fulfill this promise. His most well-known work is a documentary trilogy (Megacities (1998), Workingman's Death (2005), Whores' Glory (2011)) on globalization that ostensibly gives access to realities around the world. While the images he shows are brutal and merciless, like an open-air slaughterhouse in Nigeria or a dog fight, they are also undoubtedly beautiful. Glawogger has been criticized for just that – 'beautifying' the real. He responds to this accusation: "[Y]ou cannot make anything beautiful. Things either have beauty or they don’t. [...] The borderline between beauty and horror is where my filmmaking lives; I’m always looking for that" (MacDonald 42). I would argue that this tension is what makes his films so enticing: the simultaneous feeling of getting to somebody's gritty reality, and an aestheticized look that makes the depicted palatable. So we can sit on our couch, put on a documentary, and feel like we just learned something about the real world, congratulating ourselves for our unflinching willingness to trouble ourselves with the less fortunate. Glawogger's film Whores' Glory depicts instances of prostitution in three different cultures and religious contexts in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico. With prostitution being a universal phenomenon, the distance between the protagonists of the film and the privileged audience is even more stark. In this video essay, I use Whores' Glory as a point of departure to explore the way we consume documentaries in our current media situation and its ethical implications. I confront positions by Jean Baudrillard with Susan Sontag's, trying to answer the question what, if anything, documentary can still achieve.
MacDonald, Scott. "Knots in the Head: Interview with Michael Glawogger." Film Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 1 (Fall 2012), pp. 40-49.
Nicodemus, Katja. "DOK.fest München: Romane in Bildern." Die Zeit, 5 May 2016. Die Zeit, http://www.zeit.de/2016/18/dokfest-muenchen-daniel-sponsel.
Pörksen, Bernhard. "'In einer Welt der Simulation wird das Reale zur Obsession' Im Gespräch mit Norbert Bolz." Communicatio Socialis, vol. 35, no. 4, 2002, pp. 439– 458 [my translation].
Maria Hofmann is a Visiting Assistant Professor of German at Middlebury College. Her research interests include documentary film, narratology, Austrian studies and Holocaust and genocide studies. Her current project “Relinquishing the Real. New Strategies of Documentary Practice” focuses on documentary films from the past 15 years that respond to the media situation of the post-truth era.