Beyond the Screen #nofilter

Creator's Statement

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,

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.

Maria Hofmann’s videographic essay, Beyond the Screen #no filter, is structured as a series of provocations, designed to elicit our critical spectatorship, to test our response to the images and sounds that appear on screen. In some cases, the provocations take the form of a literal and direct question to the audience: “Is this woman suffering?,” the narrator asks, directing us to consider the image of a woman twirling around, holding up her shirt, her skirt pulled tight across her knees, exposing her naked torso, dancing and meeting the camera’s gaze with each bodily rotation. The ethically charged and thick ambiguity of this scene, and the video’s de-contextualized framing of it, allows Hoffman to performatively articulate the video’s central driving inquiry: what is the status of the documentary image in the ‘digital age’? Using a selection of quotes from Jean Baudrillard, Susan Sontag, and Torsten Körner, and sampled imagery from Michael Glawogger’s documentary feature, Whores’ Glory (2011), Beyond the Screen #no filter analyzes our seemingly endless desire for authenticity in a world where the rapid proliferation and distribution of images, through global networks, has troubled our standards for assessing the epistemological adequacy of sign to object.

Hofmann’s focus on the relationship between reality and aesthetic form, in the wake of postmodernism’s critique, is timely, and her use of the visual essay format effectively connects her analysis to visual and aural experience. What do you see and how do you see?, the video repeatedly prompts in the form of encounter – an encounter between the voice over, text, and onscreen image; between Hofmann’s spectatorship and our own. I found this feature of the video, its dialogic, speculative and philosophical style, to be bold and compelling. But like the example of the dancing woman, it raises more questions more than it answers.

The relationship between the voice over and the imagery produced the most frisson and conflict. On the one hand, the voice over moves us quickly through a series of dense concepts: simulation, the real, truth, power and the ethics of spectatorship — abstractions whose tentacular and energetic complexity threaten to exceed the more discreet logic of Hofmann’s exploration. On the other hand, the imagery stays singularly focused on images of Thai, Indian, and Mexican sex workers, locating us in the specificity of Glawogger’s film and orienting us towards the specificity of gendered labor in the global south. And so, as I viewed Hoffman’s video, this question kept arising for me: what is the distinction between the documentary image, a concept upon which the voice over ruminates, and this documentary image – these very specific images, created by Michael Glawogger. Hofmann, of course, sets up my question through her choice to singularly sample Whores’ Glory, and to tether her analysis and spectatorship to its imagery. And yet the voice over barely mentions the film, does not provide any information or broader context, rather situates voice over and image on parallel tracks that intersect in discrete moments, but maintains some amount of independence (although Hofmann has, obviously, edited the images). In this way, Hoffman’s video seems to elevate yet minimize the specificity of Glawogger’s practice – both his methods of documentary making (his, arguably, touristic mode of production) and the specific text that it produces (observational but also spectacularized depictions). Which is why the ending of Hoffman’s film raised even more questions for me. Is there something specific about Glawogger’s approach that offers refutation to postmodernism’s charge that reality is the effect of images, rather than their cause? Or is Hoffman’s spectatorial catharsis – “a connection, a reconciliation, where image and meaning coincide again” – located more generally in the enduring power of the photographic medium? In its capacity to give us something more than the appearance of the world, the “cruel radiance of what it is,” Beyond the Screen #no filter may raise more questions about documentary spectatorship than it answers, but it does in so ways that engage and intrigue.

I must admit to being thrown by the opening of the essay with the voice-over from the introduction to the interview with Glawogger commenting on what the radio jocks see as the current state of documentary on Netflix, about how films such as Robert Kenner’s Food. Inc. (2008) and Whore’s Glory (2011) “jumped out at me,” accompanying the two portrait images of sex workers from Glawogger’s Whore’s Glory. This insistence on a contemporary state of documentary is leavened by the closing words from the narrator -- “where image and meaning coincide again, a connection beyond the screen,” accompanying the image of the sex worker in the City of Joy looking into the camera -- which sets up a dialectic that generates the essay. This closing also recalls the famous scene from Chris Marker’s San Soleil ([Sunless] 1983), a film that recalls the cinéma vérité debates about reality and its representation from the 1960s, where a woman stares into the camera on the pier in Fogo, Cape Verde, as the narrator remarks, “Frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?”.

Without relying too much on an auterist approach, it is useful to consider Glawogger’s own words here. He claims in the interview with Scott MacDonald that, on the one hand, "[Y]ou cannot make anything beautiful. Things either have beauty or they don’t” (as cited Hofmann's supporting statement), and his admission later in the same interview that, “In the end what you see in film is always an aberration of ‘‘reality." [...] There is no objective reality out there that you can capture and put on the screen—that’s bullshit. The reality that is ‘’out there’ is reality as you see it, and as you bring it to people” (43). The gap between these words, in another dialectical sense, reminds me of Bill Nichols’ distinction between reproduction and representation in his Introduction to Documentary (2001): a reproduction asks us to question the fidelity of the original -- how original, how much is it like the original -- while representation leads us to a judgement about the value of the insight or knowledge into the world we know already (20), Nichols' seminal definition that documentary is an argument about the historical world. The videographic essay’s refusal to wholeheartedly adopt a Baudrillardian nihilism and to instead utilize that approach to play off the function of documentary and Glawogger’s own stylized rendering of banal images of work results in a thoughtful and absorbing work.