Call: Documentaries and the Fiction/Nonfiction Divide conference

Call for Paper and Panel Proposals

Documentaries and the Fiction/Nonfiction Divide
November 15-16, 2019
Queen Mary University of London

Submission deadline: July 29, 2019.

The project has received funding from the British Society for Aesthetics.

Confirmed keynotes:
Professor Brian Winston, Lincoln Chair, Lincoln School of Film and Media, University of Lincoln.
Dr Stacie Friend, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London.

The fiction/nonfiction divide is a much discussed topic in contemporary analytic aesthetics. According to classic works like Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990) and Currie’s The Nature of Fiction (1990), fiction essentially involves imagining whereas nonfiction essentially involves believing. However, more recent works like Friend’s “Fiction as a Genre” (2012) and Matravers’ Fiction and Narrative (2014) have put under pressure this conception of the fiction/nonfiction divide. Surprisingly, documentaries are seldom mentioned in this debate, which has so far mainly focused on literary narratives. Yet, documentaries are paradigmatic cases of nonfiction and arguably an investigation of them might shed some light on the fiction/nonfiction divide, which in turn might improve our understanding of the documentary film. In fact, the main philosophical conceptions of the documentary remain those developed some twenty years ago by Currie (1999), Carroll (1997), Ponech (1997), and Plantinga (2005). Despite their differences, all these accounts rely on the standard conception of the fiction/nonfiction divide in terms of an imagination/belief distinction. Yet, if Friend and Matravers are right in questioning this standard conception, then the philosophy of documentary is to be reconsidered as well.

Film studies have a longer tradition of doubting the neat division of fiction/nonfiction when it comes to documentary. Classic theories and histories of documentary film starting with Barnouw’s Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (1974) and Nichol’s Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (1992) and extending to more recent contributions such as Winston’s The Documentary Film Book (2013) and Nichol’s Introduction to Documentary: 3rd Edition (2017) have also treated documentary film as essentially assertions about reality. But they were far more willing to concede that documentary oftentimes slips into fiction than their philosopher peers.

That being the case, the conference “Documentaries and the Fiction/Nonfiction Divide” aims to revive the philosophical research on documentaries by encouraging a dialogue on this issue with film critics and theorists, as well as with historians and practitioners. The goal is to explore how film scholars can contribute to philosophical issues such as the fiction/nonfiction divide as much as philosophy can contribute to our appreciation of documentaries.

Topics for papers and pre-constituted panels may include but are not limited to:

  • Definitions of documentary.
  • Is documentary pure nonfiction or can it be a hybrid form between fiction and nonfiction?
  • Does the practice of reenactment in documentaries challenge the fiction/nonfiction divide?
  • Analyses of documentaries that question the fiction/nonfiction divide.
  • What can the history of film teach us about the nature of the documentary?
  • The relationship between early cinema forms such as actualities and documentary.
  • The specificity of documentaries with respect to other nonfiction images (CCTV images, TV shows…).
  • The relationship between the documentary and the indexicality or transparency of the photographic images.
  • Have digital technologies changed the documentary? If yes, in what way?
  • The periphery of the documentary (e.g. docudramas, docufiction, mockumentaries).
  • Is the documentary specific to the medium of film or can we find it also in other media?
  • Is the documentary specific to the film as a form of art, or can we find it also in other forms of art, for instance in theatre or in video art?
  • Are there essential differences between the experience of a documentary and that of a fiction film?
  • Taxonomies of the documentary: the expository/observational dichotomy and other subcategories.
  • Animated documentaries.
  • Is the documentary a kind of storytelling? What are the analogies and the difference between storytelling in documentaries and storytelling in fiction films?
  • How can a documentary be beautiful? Is there an aesthetic specificity of the documentary?
  • The evaluation of documentaries: should we use the same criteria we use for fiction films or are there specific criteria?
  • Can documentary be objective?
  • The relationship between ethics and documentary.
  • The intertwining of aesthetics and ethics in the documentary
  • The cognitive value of documentaries: what can we learn from documentaries? Can documentaries actually contribute to history, philosophy, science or do they just illustrate them?

Conference organizers and speakers: Dr Mario Slugan (Ghent University) and Dr Enrico Terrone (Universitat de Barcelona).

Please send proposals to: The deadline for receipt is Monday July 29, 2019. Speakers will be notified of decisions by Monday August 19. There will be no conference fees.

The conference is open to both individual papers and pre-constituted panels (with 3 speakers each and a chair).

In the case of individual papers, please submit abstracts between 500 and 1000 words (references included) together with a title and 5 keywords. The abstracts should be prepared for blind review (with name, institutional affiliation, contact details, and the title of the proposal in a separate file).

In the case of pre-constituted panels, the conveners are asked to submit a panel proposal including the title, a 300- to 500-word justification for the panel and 300- to 500-word abstracts (references included) for each of the three presentations making up the panel accompanied by a title and 5 keywords. Also included should be names and institutional affiliation for the three presenters and the name, institutional affiliation, contact details, and institutional affiliation for the chair. Panel conveners will be also requested to conform to the Good Practice Policy making sure that at least two of the panellists (including the convener/chair) are female.

In line with the Good Practice Policy of the British Philosophical Association and the Society for Women in Philosophy, the conference organizers have already ensured gender parity among keynotes and will do their best to do so for the other conference delegates. To offset unconscious biases against accepting female work demonstrated in different fields in recent studies, the papers will be blind-reviewed.

We hope for an edited volume to result from the conference. In case of publication the organizers as editors will also ensure that women are well represented.


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