Susanna Helke

& Alejandro Pedregal:

Testifying for the Invisible–Documentary Poetics of Estrangement

Susanna Helke (dir.): Carers (Armotonta Menoa) – A Documentary Film Couplet on the Privatization of Elderly People's Care in Finland. (Work in progress). 90 mins. Production Roadmovies LTD. Image: Retirees singing a song entitled: “We are the sustainability gap”.



In this exposition, we discuss the strategies of estrangement – particularly in social documentary film conventions, but also in relation to broader questions of emancipatory pursuits in political filmmaking. The question of estrangement – or defamiliarizing – has emerged as a counter-tactic in cinema, theatre and literature; a way to activate spectators and to create interruptions in the emotional involvement with fluent and transparent narratives. For example, the dominant narrative strategy in the mainstream film industry – i.e. psychological realism aiming at character identification – has been challenged by various tactics of rupture. Estrangement is quintessentially an emancipatory strategy; the struggle to emancipate spectators from their passive role as consumers has been a central concern of the critical artistic praxis of various counter-cinema movements. The reoccurring themes reflect many elements and dilemmas familiar from the dramaturgical and literary scenes of the early 20th century, particularly those connected to discussions between thinkers and artists such as Georg Lukács, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno.


The exposition is presented in a semi-dialogical form, consisting of two essays with case studies by two authors. The essays can be read separately or as complementary and related. The essays’ shared point of departure is a set of questions that informed our discussion. What is the significance of the debates mentioned above for contemporary filmmakers when it comes to questions of estrangement as a technique on one hand and the relation to emancipatory aims on the other? Are the strategies of estrangement valid in the current era of saturated media exposure? How can we move beyond mere nostalgic recycling of the methods of the past? How is the relation between spectatorship and authorship understood?


Susanna Helke's work in progress, a feature-length documentary film entitled Carers, is presented in a few clips taken from demo material for the project, and provides an artistic contribution to the dialogue. Alejandro Pedregal discusses his work Evelia: Testimony from Guerrero, which draws inspiration from the heritage of the Latin American literary genre testimonio and Third Cinema. Attempting to capture experienced reality in two different societal and historical contexts, these two artistic processes propose two different approaches, addressing the challenges of giving artistic form to something as abstract and “formless” as the effects of the global neoliberal paradigm.


The translation of the lyrics (watch the video clip):


We are the sustainability gap/ We are the sustainability gap/

We are the too-wide top of the triangle flipped on its tip/

We are the sustainability gap/ We are the sustainability gap/

there are too many of us/ and we have too many ailments.

We are the public sector/ We are the public sector/

over its carrying capacity swollen vector, lost its sense of direction.

PART II Alejandro Pedregal: Testimony as Resistance

PART I Susanna Helke: Estrangement and Gestures of Emancipation