Theses on realism and film

Issue: 116

Mike Wayne

At the beginning of the film 28 Weeks Later Robert Carlyle’s character, Don, is holed up in a cottage with his wife and some other strangers, trying to survive as the Rage virus sweeps the UK, turning people into zombie-like flesh devouring crazies. As we expect, the hideaway is discovered and attacked by said zombies. Don and his wife are separated as they run through the house in the ensuing chaos. She is trying to protect a young boy (not their own). Then they are briefly rejoined on opposite sides of a room. He tells her to leave the boy. She doesn’t. Suddenly the zombies invade the room and he flees, leaving her to what seems like certain death. Outside the cottage he starts running and looks back. He sees his wife at the window, banging on the glass. He keeps running.

This opening to the film is shocking and, we might say, accords with an initial but hopefully uncontroversial definition of realism. Realism in film requires a plausible range of character action and interaction within the specific circumstances depicted.

From a materialist perspective all the key terms here flow from the “specific circumstances”—”range” (diversity), “character” (individuals with traits and motivation), “action” (agency) and “interaction” (how individuals relate to each other as the result of socialised behavioural norms). Thus the opening of 28 Weeks Later is “plausible” because we recognise that the solidarity of interpersonal love could simply shatter in a moment of barely imaginable terror.

To add to the plausibility we also witness, in this opening scene, the old man who owns the cottage sacrificing himself so that his wife can live. But she in turn dies because she is not willing to leave him quickly enough to escape. Thus we have a range of actions contrasted with each other as well as different outcomes. This range of actions raises the issue for the audience of judgement and evaluation, to which we will return.

But surely, some will say, the “specific circumstances” that drive the characters to act in such desperate ways, namely flesh eating crazies, is highly implausible. Doesn’t this compromise any claim the film might have to being “realistic”?

The initial definition of realism, given above, orients us towards what we might call the “referential” dimension of realism: how does this representation measure up to what we expect, or what a film might help us discover about the real world? But there is another dimension to the question of realism, inseparably tied up with the “referential” question. For the opening of the film is so shocking because the character who runs away, leaving his wife to certain death, is a film star, Robert Carlyle. He is the biggest star of this film, and the opening scenes set him up as “our” main character, surely the hero of the film. His action feels particularly realistic because it goes against our expectations of the “action” and “interaction” of the hero, expectations that have been shaped by mainstream, overwhelmingly Hollywood, cinema.

This introduces a very important second dimension to the realism debate. What we judge to be realistic is not just an assessment of how a film or scene relates to what we know of in the real world. Realism always involves an aesthetic judgement about how this vision of the real has been produced and how it relates to, or is in dialogue with, other representations. Realism is always in some sense an innovation, a break or some modification in the “audio-visual” toolkit of representation. It always stands in some relationship (which also includes borrowing and adapting) with other traditions and specific films, inviting acts of comparison.

But to return to the earlier question: can the generic framework of the horror film and the specific subset of the “zombie film” be described as “realistic” according to the definition of plausibility of “specific circumstances”?

The answer is “yes”. But the relationship between the real world and the “specific circumstances” depicted (zombies) becomes even more highly mediated than in the case of the specific action of Carlyle leaving his wife. Realism as a film genre provides a pool of conventions transcending the individual film, conventions that provide a kind of playground for the imagination. The figure of the zombie is certainly fertile territory for a Marxist analysis of capitalism. Like many monsters in the horror genre, the zombie is ambiguously placed between victim and aggressor. It is the complete Other and yet strangely familiar (like film itself vis-a-vis the real), and this ambiguity opens up the possibility of a critique of social norms.

But more specifically, the zombie figure is a combination of both the masses and the ultimate commodity, where complete “thinghood” reigns. To be the “living dead” is the perfect image of life under capitalism. At this level, the “specific circumstances” of a fictional world do not at all have to correspond with our everyday notions of “the realistic”. The most fantastical settings/scenarios can function, as Marxist cultural theorist Fredric Jameson has said, allegorically in relation to the real. Real world dynamics and processes are converted into stories and images that manageably deal with and represent them.1 What are often highly abstract concepts, such as reification, are given concrete form (here “zombiefication”).2

This second dimension to realism, the representational dimension, immediately begins to intertwine with another. Representation stimulates our aesthetic judgements and evaluations but these in turn inevitably invoke cognitive and moral judgements (as well as provoking a response from our “feelings”, which we have a much less developed language for analysing). We are provoked into a series of judgements (moral and cognitive) by the way the representation of the failure of love and solidarity in 28 Weeks Later differs from other representations.

If it had been any other character than the one played by the star, Robert Carlyle, then the force and persistence of our judgement of his actions would not have been so strong in subsequent scenes, when he is re-united with his children. Typically a character who does what this character does is marked within the narrative as simply “a coward” or “a baddy”. This simplifies our moral judgements because it abstracts the action from the “specific circumstances” (the grounds for a proper materialist understanding) and instead imputes a fixed quality intrinsic to the individual. The concrete experience which this film offers us, the viewer, and the process of reflection on this experience constitute the third dimension of realism.

It is crucially important to hold these three dimensions together in some sort of relationship: how this film relates to the real (the referential); how this film relates, as a mode of representation itself, to other representations (the representational); and how the viewer relates to this film, to the questions and problems it poses (the reflexive). These are the three “Rs” of realism.

Realism and Film

The question of “realism” has had a complicated relationship to the concept of naturalism within film theory and, to varying degrees, film practice. The concept of naturalism predates the emergence of cinema and, as an aesthetic term, was associated with mid-19th century literature and drama
(eg Zola and Strindberg). It has a complicated relationship with the concept of realism not least because, like realism, “character and action were seen as affected or determined by environment, which especially in a social and social-physical sense had then to be accurately described as an essential element of any account of life”.3

From a Marxist perspective, however, “environment” is multi-levelled, and not all forces at work within an environment are necessarily immediately apparent. People’s actions cannot be understood as simply conditioned by their immediate circumstances. Yet the main basis for film’s claim on the real was often felt to be the camera’s capacity to provide a record of phenomena within their immediate environment. It was a record compellingly similar to the phenomenon it recorded and one which appeared to owe a lot to a mechanical automaticity that diminished the “distortions” of human subjectivity, so fitting in with the dominant, positivist, model of scientific enquiry. And as a record it could observe with a scientific accuracy that transcended the limits of the human eye, as in Eadweard Muybridge’s famous “horse in motion” photos.

All this meant early debates about film inherited those that had accumulated around naturalism, but, confusingly, the term realism was universally applied because of film’s mimetic (imitative) power. Added to this, an often social democratic mode of detailed cinematic observation was extended to the working class in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, which gave the “realist” form of the photographic image a real social content (from the New Objectivity movement in the Germany of the Weimar Republic to the Griersonian documentary and Mass Observation movements in the UK in the 1930s and 1940s).

One Marxist theorist, associated mainly with literature, who tried to maintain a distinction between naturalism and realism was Georg Lukács. He charged naturalism with naturalising the status quo—treating it as a fact of nature—and missing the deeper (mediated) dynamics of social change going on under the surface of life. Obsessing with small mundane details drained of broader social significance, naturalism failed to select and arrange actively from all of life’s vast canvas the socially significant events and actions that could make sense of the world. Lukács even metaphorically associated these failings of literary naturalism with a particular “mechanical” medium: the “photographic reproduction of the immediately perceptible superfice of the external world”.4

The film theorist who most eloquently articulated widespread cultural assumptions about the “realism” of the cinematographic and photographic image (Lukács’s perceptible external world) was Andre Bazin.5 He championed film-makers who put their faith in the capacity of the image to unfold the temporal and spatial relations of a scene without obtrusive editing or expressionistic “distortions” of the mise en scène (the staging of the action through sets, lighting, figure movement and so forth).6

The convergence and divergence of naturalism and realism can be best seen in the work of Ken Loach, whose films often crisscross over the borderline between these traditions. Where Loach’s stories are set in the context of revolutionary change, as in Land and Freedom (1995) and The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2005), his films seem to combine a naturalistic attention to ordinary details, using Bazin’s favoured photographic style, with a brand of narrative realism closer to Lukácsian realism.

Bazin’s tendency to equate naturalism and realism in film through the downplaying of authorial agency and subjectivity was criticised by others, who said it blocked film off from becoming an art form. The American avant-garde film-maker Maya Deren (who had a background in Trotskyist politics) dissected the many contradictions of this dominant naturalist/realist position in her 1946 essay, “Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film”.

Here Deren attacked the “current tendency to exalt the documentary as the supreme achievement of film”, pointing out the contradictory impulses behind this exaltation. On the one hand there is the claim of objectivity, but on the other there is the positive evaluation given to documentary films which display “lyricism or a use of dramatic devices”. Deren, quoting a documentary film-maker who admits to the various levels of selection and choices required to produce a documentary, concludes that only a cinematic form that openly admits that cultural heights require the “conscious manipulation of its material from an intensely motivated point of view” makes sense.7

Deren also brilliantly attacked the positivist model of the natural and social sciences—a model that saw them as passively reflecting reality—which many naturalist/realist film practices tended to ground themselves in. As she put it:

Even in science—or rather, above all in science—the pivotal characteristic of man’s method is a violation of natural integrity. He has dedicated himself to the effort to intervene upon it, to dissemble the ostensibly inviolate whole, to emancipate the element from the context in which it “naturally” occurs, and to manipulate it in the creation of a new contextual whole—a new, original state of matter and reality—which is specifically the product of his intervention… The task of creating forms as dynamic as the relationships in natural phenomena is the central problem of both the scientist and the artist.8

Of course it was precisely the image of the objective scientist, observing without violating the “natural integrity” of the object under investigation, that underpinned both positivist science and Bazin’s model of the ideal film-maker as someone who preserved the temporal and spatial integrity of the scene with long shots and deep focus photography.

Curiously, given the materialism of her approach (evident in the passage quoted above), Deren sharply divided film off from having any of the cognitive possibilities of science. Instead, laying the basis for the later avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, she saw the role of film as constructing a ritualistic experience intoxicated with a playful manipulation and disruption of cinematic conventions (match on action, point of view shot, temporal continuity and so forth). Her influence can be detected in a film like David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997).

Deren’s turn away from the real in the 1940s came after a period of avant-garde experimentation across the arts between the First and Second World Wars. Practitioners had often posed their play with artistic form as a search for modes of expression suitable to a modern world of urban living, mass culture, technologies of communication and social convulsions. In film the theory and practice of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov blazed a trail for developing film forms that could deal with the collective dynamics of social life.9 Here the emphasis was placed on montage editing (editing which brings different images into collision with each other, rather than continuity editing which establishes temporal and spatial continuity from one shot to the next).

But despite this referential orientation within what is sometimes called political modernism, no theoretical synthesis emerged in this period which could do three things simultaneously: (1) articulate a theory of realism from a position that was more than the advocacy of a particular approach or method (surrealism, constructivism, montage, etc); (2) provide a substantive account of the nature of the real (against which any example of realism must be judged); and (3) identify the problems involved in producing realist art in the age of advanced capitalism.

Bertolt Brecht came closest to producing such a theory of realism in a series of short essays designed to critique Lukács. The latter had not only produced a very comprehensive critique of naturalism in literature, but he was also hostile to the sort of modernist currents that provided Brecht with much of his inspiration. Yet Brecht’s extremely effective riposte, which declared that a concept of realism “must be wide and political, sovereign over all conventions”, was not published until the late 1960s.10

Within film studies the 1970s saw a sharp turn away from the concept of realism. Any distinctions between realism and naturalism were collapsed, and any sense of realism itself as a complex and differentiated tradition was erased. The sort of avant-garde critique of realism made by Maya Deren returned with a vengeance, now underpinned by a heady brew of structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis and sometimes Althusserian Marxism.

Realist aesthetics, it was argued, encouraged a naive belief in the ability of the camera and of film to present an unmediated access to the real and, with this, uncritical modes of identification with characters (whether fictional or real social actors in documentary). In masking the production of meaning a certain naturalness was accorded to the “content” of the film rather than seeing the content as a construct (the outcome of choices and decisions which have often been made as the result of ideological assumptions).

This critique was certainly a strand of thought in the political modernism of the 1920s and 1930s. But what theorists like Brecht and Walter Benjamin never forgot was that questions of “form” always had their roots in a broader social content that was dynamic and contradictory. By contrast the avant-garde approach of the 1970s separated the question of form off from its broader social context.

This sweeping dismissal of anything that might remotely be termed “realism” produced an extremely reductive account of mainstream cinema.

For example, even in 28 Weeks Later there are modifications and subversions of conventions and audience expectations that might be the occasion for a critical awareness of the mediated nature of representation in general. After the initial opening, where we see Don leaving his wife, the audience expects some sort of narrative arc of redemption for this character. But that is rather brutally put paid to a little later on. This refusal to follow through on the expected story structure is similar to the kind of playful unravelling of narrative conventions in a Godard film of the 1960s. Indeed 28 Weeks Later is not a million miles away from the nihilism of Godard’s Weekend (1967).

By the 1980s the rejection of realist aesthetics had become a rejection of realism as a philosophical proposition with the rise of postmodernism. Postmodern theory (if not always postmodern art) abolished the referential dimension of realism and moved away from the avant-garde’s vision of the work of art as autonomous and having universal codes of representation. Instead postmodernism grounded the representational dimension entirely in the linguistic or discursive “community” of different identities and groups, each with its own aesthetic, moral and cognitive schemas. Within such a worldview any notion of shared interests, a shared world, or grounds for a meaningful dialogue between identities became difficult to sustain. This is why the three “Rs” of realism must be thought of as inseparable.

Despite the decline of postmodernism, the concept of realism has yet to recover from the intellectual assault it sustained. This should not be an acceptable situation for Marxists, however, for whom the concept of realism remains central as a philosophical principle. On aesthetic matters, realism does not hold quite the same universal applicability. It may, for example, be less relevant to a lot of music or poetry. But in film (and in the novel), where storytelling of an extremely diverse sort predominates, realism deserves the priority which Marxists have traditionally accorded it. And so what follow are 11 theses on realism and then some elaborations in an attempt to provide some ammunition for the left on the question of realism.

11 Theses on Realism


Realism is the exploration of aspects of the conflict-ridden
and contradictory nature of social relationships.


The contribution which realism makes to the development of our thinking and feeling (identification/empathy) is also a contribution to the development of our consciousness of the social conditions that shape our thinking and feeling.


Realism must overcome the socially determined limitations on cognition and feeling that inevitably impact on its own form and content.


Form is the conversion into aesthetics of what are socially and historically conditioned ways of seeing.


The common mistake of discussions around cinematic realism in the West is to fixate on a particular form of representation as “realistic”, based on superficial appraisals of “life-likeness”.


The history of forms expands the repertoire available for potential realist culture, but no form offers any guarantees of realist work.


Critiques and affirmations of particular forms may be more or less valid in particular instances and contexts, but no analysis of such forms can be assumed to be universally and timelessly appropriate; but neither can it be assumed that the reproduction of forms, with or without modification, in any new context, automatically repudiates earlier critiques or confirms earlier affirmations.


The content of realism may stretch from the personal and the intimate all the way to the epochal, historical and global.


Realism interrogates the dogmas of the day as they are propagated, honed and defended by dominant social interests in every sphere of life. Realism expands the critical faculties of the public sphere and any instance of it is ultimately part of a broader collective praxis.


The economically induced impediments to adequate thought, feeling and ultimately practice include: the false universality of the commodity form (all men are equal in exchange and in the eyes of the law); and the false concreteness of the commodity form, where physical materiality (this person, this object, this place) is shorn of the web of social interconnections/relations that are its conditions of existence.


Realism requires developing the mediations (interlinkages) between social agents (intersubjectivity) and between social agents and the circumstances they find themselves in (their object world). The mediations of capital are fundamentally dissymmetrical, dislocated and antithetical to an association “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx).

Some elaborations

Thesis I. This defines realism in relation to an aim—the exploration, with some degree of complexity, of social relations—and immediately insists that the central feature of social relations that ought to occupy realism is their conflict-ridden and contradictory nature. The absence of conflict and the erasure of contradiction must be viewed, from the realist position, as problematic. Thus realism is to some extent thrown into conflict both with the classical aesthetic principles based around harmony and unity and with the contemporary injunctions of the mass media to “entertain”.

Conflict and contradiction are distinct if interlinked terms: the former refers to frictions between social agents (individuals and groups) while the latter refers to the way social practices and the conflicts they generate between agents become internalised within those agents, thus dividing them against themselves as well as others (this in particular is where the richness of drama is often to be found). The social relations in question here—and the ones out of which and in response to which realism in the modern epoch emerges (at first in literature)—are of course capitalist.

Art, wrote the Bolshevik writer Aleksandr Voronsky, “is the cognition of life in the form of sensual, imaginative contemplation”.11 Film, as with all forms of art, has its own peculiar laws of cognition, its own modes of production and consumption, so this “contemplation” is not in any way a passive process. Developing a theme that has run through much Marxist cultural theory in the 20th century, Voronsky argues that art has the potential of retuning our perceptions of life that have become dulled by the routines and habits of an alienated world. This disjuncture between everyday modes of seeing (often saturated with ideological reflexes) and more adequate cognition was central to Marx’s scientific project in Capital. It is also central to artistic realism.

Thesis II. Realism explores the relationship between consciousness (thinking and, as consciousness is embodied, feeling) and consciousness of the social conditions (our social being, as Marx put it) shaping our consciousness. Realism is an inherently reflexive project because it develops consciousness’s awareness of its own material basis.

It is worth underscoring that affect is as important as cognition, since to separate the one from the other is to collapse once more into a disembodied consciousness, whereas the whole point of realism is to reconnect mind and body, the latter being the first material condition of existence for consciousness, even as it is entwined with the wider material conditions of social relations.

Identification with other represented social agents is a particularly powerful feature of cinema because of its combination of movement (which replicates agency) and iconic resemblance of photographed people, whether fictional characters or real “social actors”. The alignment between spectator and spectacle, which the process of identification seeks to effect in dominant cinema, is often primarily affective, routed through our socially sedimented “heart” or “guts” via narrative and editing techniques. Yet the trace of some cognitive caveats that the standard Hollywood film has to negotiate is evident in the fact that our primary figures of identification (the cop, the teacher, the soldier) are usually distanced from the institutions and bureaucracies they are located in. While fantastically inflating the individual at one level, at another level it implies that these social structures are not really “working”, making for a fissured and contradictory process of identification. A more realistic representation would look for a rebalancing of the relation between cognition and feeling, liberating the latter from sentimentalism, but certainly not eradicating feeling.

Thesis III. If realism is grounded in an exploration of the conflict-ridden and contradictory nature of social relations, and if it explores the relationship between consciousness and those relations, then it must also overcome the limitations which social being has imparted to culture itself. This overcoming is to be found at both the level of content (and here the extension of representation to new, hitherto invisible or forgotten, marginalised or culturally disempowered social agents has been a significant feature of realism and naturalism) and form.

Thesis IV. This defines cultural forms as modes of “seeing”. In the cinema this means literally sensuous visuality as well as “seeing” as a metaphor for comprehension and understanding. Such ways of seeing are the conversion into a particular medium of ways of seeing that are grounded in technology (including the technology of the medium itself), social relations, political conjunctures and philosophy. There’s a wonderful image in Errol Morris’s documentary, The Fog of War (2004)—a critical account of the life of former US defence secretary Robert McNamara. During the Second World War he was a statistician for General Curtis LeMay’s bombing raids over Japan. In one scene we see the bomb bay doors open over Japan, but instead of bombs falling out numbers are superimposed, dropping through the sky to the land below. This is what Walter Benjamin would call a “dialectical image”—crystallising in a flash a whole philosophical argument about how rational scientific knowledge has become yoked, under capitalism, to the most barbaric and irrational actions. This is an example of a way of seeing that is critical of how others (McNamara and the war machine) see.

But the previous theses tell us that ways of seeing may convert precisely those structured impediments to understanding that are part and parcel of ways of being. The star system and its buttressing of “the hero” would be a case in point. But every form, including the star system, is always potentially a site of struggle, as the example of 28 Weeks Later suggests.

Every cut in a film makes a choice not only about what to see, but how to see (comprehend) what we have just seen (and will see). Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Mondovino (2004) charts the global battle in the wine business between small-scale producers using artisanal working practices, for whom wine-making is an art and above all a use-value, and large_scale producers operating globally with mass production methods, for whom the commercial value of wine ultimately trumps its use-value. In an interview with one large-scale US wine producer and his wife next to his swimming pool, we hear how they designed their garden and bought their trees, shrubs and bushes from Italy. This, we are told is a statement, a “showcase for our wines, our lifestyles, our commitments to charity”. On the word “charity” the film cuts to an automatic machine swimming around the pool, evidently cleaning it. This cut hints at a level of luxury and commodity fetishism that works to counterpoint the philanthropic image being projected by the interviewee and his wife, and presupposes the realist proposition of a relationship between consciousness and social environment (being) which it is important to take account of when making judgements about the interviewee’s discourse.

Thesis V. Discussions of form that separate it from content and from the historical context constitute a fetishisation of form that short circuits our critical faculties rather than fostering them. Within the West conventions that have reproduced certain spatio-temporal understandings, causal linkages and often fairly thin and conventionalised character motivations have laid undisputed claim to the mantle of realist art. Within cinema Hollywood is often the yardstick against which realism is defined. But forms, whether institutionalised by Hollywood or developed elsewhere, cannot be realist in and of themselves; nor should any form or genre (no matter how apparently “fantastic”) be seen as inherently unusable from a realist perspective.

But what has tended to happen is that the use of a particular style, such as grainy film stock, hand held cameras, and zoom lens, has often been enough to convince critics that this or that film (fiction or documentary) has grasped the social and historical dynamics it deals with. And yet, great film though it is in many ways, The Battle Of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965) today largely escapes critical scrutiny because it conforms to a popular and, within the West, still widely held notion of “realism”.

Similarly, the Dogme 95 manifesto famously identified a ten-point set of rules that were intended to be antithetical to the overly elaborate big budget studio production. These rules were to be adhered to with an ironic determination every bit as rigidly as Hollywood sticks to its rules and conventions. But the cognitive and emotional power of the Dogme film Festen (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) derives from the articulation of a form designed to strip away cinematic over-elaboration and “artifice” with a story content that strips away the layers of social artifice that conceal the corruption of a bourgeois family. The form allows the film to attack its subject matter with a ferocity appropriate to the content, reinventing the country house genre along the way.

Thesis VI. Once life-likeness, however variably defined in accord with prevailing cinematic fashions, has ceased to be a reliable criterion for realism, then the vast and diverse and unfolding history of forms becomes available to realism. One day perhaps the game aesthetics of Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998), with its repetition-with-slight-difference narrative structure and Polaroid snapshots of the future trajectories of marginal characters Lola makes contact with on her running mission, will be harnessed to a story about the random and arbitrary outcomes of a market economy out of control. Certainly the film hints tantalisingly at how its formal strategies are bursting out of the straitjacket of the irreversible linear narrative structure. But as it is, Run Lola Run can hardly be credited with much in the way of cognitive reach.

Similarly, Steven Soderberg’s Traffic (2000) suggests the unrealised potential of numerous narrative strands that barely connect the characters but do revolve around drugs. But the potential to expand economic and social dynamics geographically and culturally while also decentring the causal agency of the individual character is badly undermined by a predominant focalisation on how rich white elites are affected by drugs, by stereotypical character development and by the failure to ground the drugs trade in anything other than “bad people”.

But with Syriana (2006), directed by Steven Gaghan, the screenwriter of Traffic, and produced by Steven Soderberg, a modified version of these formal strategies achieves considerably more as an example of realist cinema. Here the multiple strands are more strongly connected, not necessarily in terms of characters meeting each other but in terms of the consequences of their actions. Those actions are in turn grounded not in their personal moralities (good or bad) but in their location within the institutions, organisations and structures of global capitalism. Finally, whereas Traffic was overly focused on the white American elites, this film traverses the spectrum of class and geography, charting the narrative trajectory of a young man from Pakistan working in the Middle East, getting shafted by a Western oil company, beaten up by the police of a generic Middle Eastern dictatorship, and becoming gradually seduced into an act of terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists.

For all these reasons Syriana is also a substantially better investigation of state and corporate capital links and conflicts than not only Traffic but also the overly praised British film The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005), which tries but largely fails to interrogate the pharmaceutical industry’s activities in Africa. The Constant Gardener, for example, utterly fails to disprove the long established critique of the classical narrative’s simplistic problem-solution structure, with its preposterous ending whereby public exposure brings down the bad individual civil servant who wants to cover up unethical practices. For this film it appears to be bad apples that are the problem, whereas for Syriana, it is the barrel itself.

Thesis VII. There is a long history of debates about realism. There is the critique of naturalism (which itself has been open to a wide range of definitions), the critique of illusionism, the critique of the classical narrative, the Brechtian critique, surrealism (as a critique and critiques of its critique), Third Cinema and so forth. Such debates provide important resources for us today. A constant balancing act has to be attempted between a radical historicism, which would say that these forms and their critiques are only valid within their particular contexts, and the temptation to mechanically apply a given critique of forms to new contexts and practices.

Those who say Brechtianism constitutes an answer and those who say that Brecht’s time has passed seem equally unhelpful. Peter Watkins’ epic La Commune (1999) would certainly suggest that there is life in the Brechtian dog yet.12 At the same time some of the categories which have been used to dismiss less obviously reflexive and “experimental” forms of documentary as naively realist, and therefore not really realist, might well have underestimated the complexity and combination of formal strategies at a micro level at work beneath the catch-all critique of “realism”. In short our overarching theoretical categories must be enriched (rather than simply confirmed) by proceeding on a case by case basis.

Thesis VIII. The personal is political, as the feminist slogan has it, but only if the personal is understood in relation to the broader social conditions impinging on the person. Surrealism has been one form in which this has been explored, focusing in particular on the fantasies, associations and investments that people make and have in the social world around them. Surrealism excavates these dynamics by disrupting the commonsensical patterns of order, sequence, logic and relationships that repress our awareness of them.

Although “anti-realist” in style, it is eminently realist in terms of the criteria mapped out above, especially in its concern to reveal the link between psychology (consciousness/unconsciousness) and material things, themselves embodiments of material relationships. Simon Aeppli’s surrealist documentary short Eden (2004), focusing on a small Protestant town in Northern Ireland, gently but politically captures a community and identity in decline, living out a fantastic, bizarre and dislocated relation to its real material conditions.

Thesis IX. The measure of realism is the depth of its critical and cognitive power. This inevitably brings it into conflict with, and requires interrogation of, the intersection between belief systems and dominant social interests (ideology). The recent emergence of feature film documentary as a prominent player within the sphere of public opinion formation has evidently crystallised around the great assault on corporate capitalism, consumerism and globalisation of market relations that has been such a welcome feature of the recent political landscape. Implicit in this, and sometimes explicit as in Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch$7_$_s War on Journalism, is a critique of the inadequacies of the mainstream news media agenda. In many ways media criticism has gone mainstream (see also Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine, which features an extensive critique of news media).

The economic underpinnings of the news media, their closeness to the state, the limits to their repertoire of conventions, all this is in uneven, doubtless partial, but indisputably general, popular circulation. We can detect the effect of this in the use of archival news footage, whose recontextualisation in many contemporary documentaries hints at a reflexive dissatisfaction with the agencies that originally produced the footage.

For example, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) opens with unbroadcast footage of the principal protagonists’ or rogues’ gallery involved in propagating the war in Iraq. Here they are: Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Wolfowitz, all being prepared on separate occasions for the television cameras prior to broadcast; microphones are being clipped on, make-up applied, hair brushed and so forth. It’s a series of shots over the credit sequence (including Bush making childish faces to the camera) that nicely makes the point about image displacing reality and the lack of critical interrogation of the pro-war case by the television networks.

Later on in the film, in the context of an exploration into who is fighting in Iraq (soldiers from poor backgrounds in the main) and who is dying in Iraq (ordinary Iraqis in the main), we see a clip of a Bush speech. Bush is dressed in a tuxedo and is speaking to the rich and powerful. We know this because he tells us. They are, he suggests, an “impressive crowd: the haves and the have-mores” (cue contented laughter from the audience); and then this: “Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.”

That Bush can so openly make such a joke without fear of repercussion or embarrassment, without fear that it would be picked up “as news” and shown, tells us an awful lot about the agendas of the corporate media and their complicity with power. For this “joke” ought really to be (it has come from his own mouth after all) the last word on what Bush represents. The fact that it wasn’t and that the film, despite being the biggest box office hit for a documentary in US history, failed in its self-appointed task to mortally wound Bush’s re-election campaign, is a testimony to the fact that, while it was an important intervention into the sphere of public debate, that clip and the film as a whole circulate in a context where other representations and discourses overwhelmingly predominate: eg the president as an embodiment of the national interest, the nation as a unified people, the market as a generator of wealth, business elites as “job creators”, riches well earned and so forth. Yet the fact that the film was made at all, that it was as critical as it was and that it was seen by so many people, reminds us again of the relationship between consciousness and its conditions of existence—and that realism is never an isolated property “belonging” to a film but is a product of the relations between theory (eg the critique of imperialism) and practice (the worldwide anti-war movement), their fusion being praxis.

Thesis X. The commodity, as Marx noted, is “a very queer thing”. Its universal drive to penetrate every aspect of our lives is built into its indifference to particularity, culture, value-systems, geography, difference and use-value. In the eyes of the commodity, everyone and everything is levelled in an act of practical abstraction. Any consciousness and practice that do not grasp the real differences between what are necessarily antagonistic interests exist within the parameters of a commoditised universe. Where, for example, the media cultivates a “vertical” identification (as with the formation of national identity) across hierarchically arranged differences, there the pseudo universality of the commodity form holds sway.

Because this universality is false, it cannot be the grounds for hoping that the cosmopolitanism of the commodity form will unite the world. Resources that are made scarce for the majority because they are monopolised by the minority can be shorn up by fostering difference and division and misunderstanding where real solidarities and alignments could and should exist. Again the media’s blockage of the possibilities for such “horizontal” identifications (in news and fictional forms) constitutes a fundamental impediment to developing a realist culture. Where the commodity form appears to be most “concrete” and particular it is again concealing its abstraction. The concrete is not to be confused with the physicality of person, place or thing. Taken out of their context, their conditions of existence, people, places and things are empirical ciphers of unacknowledged forces.

Thesis XI. If the social totality is an unsymbolisable limit point to our consciousness and representations, then realism is an open ended and unfinishable project, a spur to renewed efforts rather than a closed and fixed answer to problems. While unfinished and approximate (the hallmark of dialectical knowledge, as Lukács reminds us in a late work) realism remains an indispensable part of our social being and our cultural resources: we can work against the grain of bourgeois economics and the institutions of class society to piece together the conditions of existence that are repressed and disavowed within the reified public sphere.

Developing the mediations between social agents means developing their rational critical faculties and that in turn means developing their communicative and decoding abilities—all important aspects of a progressive, realist film culture. In Supersize Me (2004) the director Morgan Spurlock famously vomits up a McDonald’s meal early on in his month-long McDonald’s-only diet. But this is more than a particular incident or an example of bad luck. This vomit is no empirical cipher. He is vomiting up the real relationship between his body and capitalism, a relationship that becomes repressed (kept down) as his body adapts and acclimatises itself to the new diet. The film, through a variety of strategies, builds up the mediations which reveal how corporate junk food penetrates the body and makes an increasing number of people sick in a more long-term and potentially fatal sense.

Realism must inevitably be reflexive, not in a narrow stylistic sense, but in the sense that it explores the relation between consciousness and its material ground. When social being is conflictual and contradictory, when what we do (eg harm ourselves with the food we eat) and what we aim at (eg stay alive by taking daily intakes of nourishment) part company so systematically, then consciousness and social being also become estranged. The goal of a critical, dynamic realism is to spin some connecting webs that pull consciousness and social being closer together.


1: Jameson, 1992.

2: “Reification”-literally “turning into a thing”-was the term used by the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács to describe the way capitalism makes human relations seem like objects that dominate people’s lives.

3: Williams, 1988, p217.

4: Lukács, 1978, p75.

5: André Bazin (1918-58), editor of Cahier du Cinema and friend of directors François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

6: Bazin, 1967.

7: Deren, 2001, p33.

8: Deren, 2001, p12.

9: Dziga Vertov (1896-1954), agit-prop documentary maker in early years after the Russian revolution, maker of Man with a Movie Camera.

10: Brecht, 1988, p82.

11: Voronsky, 1998, p100.

12: See Wayne, 2002.


Bazin, Andre, 1967, What Is Cinema Volume 1 (University of California).

Brecht, Bertolt, 1988, “On the Formalistic Character of the Theory of Realism”, in Aesthetics and Politics (Verso).

Deren, Maya, 2001, “Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film”, in Bill Nichols (ed), Maya Deren and the American Avantgarde (University of California).

Jameson, Fredric, 1992, “Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film”, in Signatures of the Visible (Routledge).

Lukács, Georg, 1978, Writer and Critic and Other Essays (Merlin).

Williams, Raymond, 1998, Keywords (Fontana).

Voronsky, Aleksandr, 1998, Art as the Cognition of Life (Mehring).

Wayne, Mike, 2002, “The Tragedy of History: Peter Watkins’s La Commune”, Third Text, volume 16, number 58.