Eileen Culloty

Remediating Reality: The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Political Documentaries

Year: 2014

Keywords: , , ,


Dublin City University
(at time of presentation)

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I am currently finishing my PhD on Iraq War documentaries titled ‘Embedded Online: Iraq War Documentaries in the Online Public Sphere’. I have published articles on this subject and am currently working on a book chapter on ‘New Uses of Bourdieu in Film and Media’ which will be published next September by Berghahn. My research interests are in the areas of audience studies and war media - in particular viewer responses to war films and documentaries.

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The uncertainty of the post-9/11 period coupled with the advent of digital technologies has led to a proliferation of political documentaries by professional and amateur filmmakers. Much of this content is conspiratorial in its narrative and stylistic rhetoric. While conspiracy films previously remained on the fringes of news media, in what Daniel Hallin (1986) calls the ‘sphere of deviance’, it is now a predominate mode of political filmmaking.

Much like the conspiracy theorists, high-profile filmmakers like Adam Curtis and Charles Ferguson play heavily into the paranoid-surveillance aesthetics of political thrillers. In addition, they draw extensively on remediated news images to fashion apparently obvious political narratives. Although the ironic repurposing of archive footage is not a new phenomenon, the sheer volume of remediated imagery, and the diverging ends for which it is used, greatly complicates notions of documentary reality. Furthermore, documentary filmmakers seeking to articulate ‘film truth’ (Musser 2007) often undermine their own claims to authority and credibility by relying on the same dramatic techniques as conspiracy filmmakers.

These problems are evident in the explosion of TV and online documentaries relating to the ‘war on terror’ and the on-going conflict in Syria: unverified images are recycled for various narrative ends, loose connections are drawn between disparate events and viewers are urged to recognise and fight against the hidden work of elite power. Consequently, contemporary political documentaries give rise to a complex entanglement of verified truth-claims, misinformation, and ideologically-driven vested interests.