Film and Media Arts

Documentary Theory/Practice Symposium

The Department of Film and Media Arts at Temple University presents


The Second Annual Documentary Theory/Practice Symposium

Friday, October 14, 2016 at Temple Performing Arts Center

Topic: Structural Documentary

Keynote Speakers:

Catherine Russell, Concordia University, author of Experimental Ethnography

Pacho Velez, Princeton University, co-director of Manakamana

Special screening: Toponymy (2015, Argentina), by Jonathan Perel

One of the most striking trends in nonfiction film over the last decade has been the intersection between documentary and what has been called “structural filmmaking,” an approach to experimental cinema with a lineage back to the 1960s. Whether in the art gallery context or in feature documentaries geared toward theatrical or film festival release, documentarians have experimented with appropriating elements of structural film: repeated structures, arbitrary conceits, and an overall play with the elements of time and framing.

This one-day symposium will bring together filmmakers and scholars to examine the aesthetics of structural documentary, past and present. The event will interrogate the label of “structural documentary” itself, posing a debate between broadly (inclusive) and narrow (exclusive) definitions, and assessing the relationship between structural documentary and other experimental documentary approaches.

Sponsored by Temple University’s Film and Media Arts department, with the support of the Center for the Performing and Cinematic Arts, and Tyler School of Art’s Department of Photography.


About the Speakers

Catherine Russell Headshot

Catherine Russell is Professor of Film Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. She is the author of a number of books, including Narrative Mortality: Death, Closure and New Wave Cinemas (Univ. of Minnesota Press), Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Duke Univ. Press), and The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity (Duke Univ. Press). She is currently completing a book on Walter Benjamin and archival film practices.



Pacho Velez works at the intersection of ethnography, contemporary art, and political documentary. His current project, The Reagan Years, explores a prolific actor’s defining role: Leader of the Free World. Told entirely through a largely-unseen trove of archival footage, the film captures the pageantry, pathos, and charisma that followed the 40th President from Hollywood to the nation’s capital.

His last film, Manakamana (co-directed with Stephanie Spray) won a Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival. It played around the world, including at the Whitney Biennial and the Toronto International Film Festival.  His earlier film and theater work have been presented at venues such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, and on Japanese National Television.

In 2010, Pacho completed his MFA at California Institute of the Arts. He has taught at Harvard University, Bard College, Parsons School of Design, and Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In 2015, he was awarded a Princeton Arts Fellowship.


About the Film

Toponymy (Toponimia)
dir: Jonathan Perel
2015, Argentina
82 minutes

Toponymy is the discipline that studies the etymological origin of place names. What Perel chooses to analyze visually in his film is a series of towns located in the western portion of the province of Tucumán, which were founded by the military government during the mid-70s within the framework of the Operativo Independencia (Operation Independence), a project whose aim was to eliminate the guerrilla groups (mainly the ERP) that operated in that area. In fact, the names chosen for those towns came from members of the military of different ranks who had died during confrontations with guerilla groups. With some minimum historical presentation limited to reviewing official documents, Perel focuses on capturing the towns’ present and resorts to an aesthetic as austere as it is rigorous: fifteen-seconds-long fixed shots. This way, he shows how time has eroded that attempt to impose historical semantics and nature and oblivion still wipe out the traces of the utopia that was attempted there once.

Jonathan Perel, born in 1976, lives and works in Buenos Aires. He attended a degree in Arts at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters (University of Buenos Aires). He directed the feature films Toponimia (2015), Tabula Rasa (2013), 17 Monumentos (2012) and El Predio (2010), and the short films Las Aguas del Olvido (2013), Los Murales (2011) and 5 (cinco) (2008).



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