To many “animated documentary” sounds like an oxymoron: the genre inherently refuses indexical understandings of “the real” as purported, and highly debated, within photographic documentary practices. Similarly, it is accepted that historical, archival, or found footage imagery may stand in for “the real,” and yet animation as a form resists readings of veracity given the highly constructed, orchestrated re-framings of these materials. From The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918, by Winsor McCay) to Waltz with Bashir (2008, by Ari Folman), animation has been used and celebrated as a medium to recreate and reenact events that where not recorded, archived, or indexically rendered.
Yet, the animated documentary is beholden to the same arguments that question the veracity of the documentary form in general. While the creation of representational imagery is divorced from the lens, it is still the narrative construction of the actual, the real, where most of the liberties in this genre occur.
A new direction emerging in animated documentary is that of using animation design to directly question the truth claims or perception of the subject matter portrayed in the film. Penny Lane’s Nuts! (2016) is an example of this kind of inquiry. Each section of the protagonist’s life is rendered through a particular and unique animated style, and as each new, fractured section of the “biography” is revealed, we realize the story we have been following is as constructed, shifting, and unsteady as the visuals we have been watching.
It is with this thought in mind that two artists, Tara Knight and Kelly Sears, who identify with more experimental animation and documentary practices, interviewed each other about the refusal of indexicality in how they explore unsteady subjects. In particular, here the focus will be on Kelly Sears’ animated re-constructions of “real” American visual histories, which move these questions into the realm more closely aligned with Speculative Design—using creative non-fiction collage as a strategy for critical investigation that deepens and expands the possibilities for documentation and representation. Sears’ three short films highlighted for this interview are The Drift, Voice on the Line, and Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise.
Tara Knight: Your films are composed of hundreds of re-animated archival images. How do you think these collage animations intersect with other non-fiction practices?
Kelly Sears: I’m interested in thinking about these historical documents as official, and what I do to them is challenging that sense of an official history. Working with found images—print images, moving image ephemera—and cutting into the frames, collaging them, reconfiguring them, is a way of challenging the official compositions and captions. My films are largely about legacies of imperialism in American history and politics. So the films are never about a specific event but more about ideology. These collaged images look like they exist in a diegetic space, but I know, and the audience knows, that they never declare they are a representation of the real. For example, The Drift uses images of the space race—pushing further, faster in the name of American greatness. I’m always looking at the darker side of that imperial gesture and forms of manifest destiny. I embrace creative reimagining as a way to open more ways to explore archival-based imagery.
TK: Many live-action American documentaries use animation as illustration or re-enactment. How do you think your approach expands non-fiction animation, or explores what animation can do for documentary as a practice?
KS: I would say my films function in the opposite impulse as re-enactment. For example, in Voice on the Line, I was addressing current day anxiety over the Patriot Act and the troubled relationship between communication companies and the government, but cast this story with McCarthy-era imagery of telephone operators and callers.
I work with metaphors that often take a turn into the realm of the fantastic. I’m not interested in illustrating an event, using supportive evidence, and forming a conclusion. The fantastic allows me to think of the organization of history and the meaning that is produced. I’m not interested in making a conclusion, but in creating speculative visuals and narrative arrangements that intersect with our experiences.
The stories I tell have a footprint in the history we understand, but veer off into a speculative or mythical space. A through-line through my work is the consequences of institutional power, and failures of those, like in Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise, the unnamed disaster was inspired by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. While this was made in 2011, it was created with images from the mid 1970s, a time when there was a flourishing of neoliberal and neoconservative policy.
But that’s a really heavy and dark subject matter, so I use humor a lot in my work. When Walter Benjamin speaks of Brecht’s epic theater he says revolt has a better chance when “one is shaken by laughter than when one’s mind is shaken and upset.”
When scavenging for images—print images, archival film—I think about archetypes in these images, and how these figures can be recast or re-scripted to speak of something else. In some sense you can think of images from the past as being closed off—that story is done. Instead of existing completely in the present, or exclusively in the past, I aim to explore a continuum of legacy, an echo, of how these narratives of power are still in play.
Kelly Sears is an awarding-winning animator, and the films discussed here have screened at Sundance, American Film Institute Festival, and in solo programs at Anthology Film Archives and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Sears is an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Tara Knight is a filmmaker, animator, and media designer for live performance. Her Mikumentary films have screened in excerpts at institutions ranging from pop culture to fine arts, among which New York Comic Con, South By Southwest Interactive Festival panel, and at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. Knight is an Associate Professor of Critical Media Practices at the University of Colorado, Boulder.