In this doctoral study, I examine the possibilities and limits of the documentary film essay as a counter-hegemonic form of historiography. The core of the research identifies and problematises the tension between the construction of history and the construction of films that seek to represent this history. My documentary cinema is a cinema of the palimpsest, of amendments, shifting perspectives. Starting from the tradition of the film essay, I am looking for a film form that interrogates hegemonic forms of historiography. How can documentary cinema relate to the teleological violence of 'History'?

The films I make during this research focus on the Belgian colonial past. 

‘Un pays plus beau qu’avant’ (2019) is a documentary film about a Congolese businessman in Brussels. The wanderings of Jean-Simon reveal a microcosm of informal commerce within the Congolese community. The everyday economic urgency of this ‘humble salesman’ is tied to the political and humanitarian urgency that animates the diaspora faced with the situation in Congo today and colonial history. The film orbits around these two imperatives, in a negotiation between here and elsewhere, the past and the present. 

‘Broken View’ (2023) is a poetic essay film on the colonial gaze and the magic lantern. This early type of image projector was used in Belgian colonial propaganda, showcasing the good works of the Church, State and industry. Lantern projections were an effective way of selling the colonial project to a somewhat reluctant Belgian public. However fragile images made of glass may be, many thousands survived. Often lavishly hand colored, these tainted, horribly beautiful images helped shape the ways in which Europeans viewed, thought of, spoke about, and treated the colonial other. This tension between aesthetic experience and the reverberations of colonial ideology is central to the film. In composing an associative fabric of assemblages and collages, the film attempts to map the colonial gaze from a broken view, how it persists across time and shapes the way we view, think of, and speak about the past.

The written part of my thesis will consist of a series of essays on both my own work and that of others, reflections about the essay form in the essay form. Some of the essays have been published on the cinephile platform (of which I am also a founding but currently mostly inactive member). A longer essay on the working process of 'Broken View' is to be published in Forum+.

Hegemonie en historiografie

Het documentaire film-essay als palimpsest
project team
Hannes Verhoustraete
01.10.2017 – 30.03.2024
essay, cinema, history, historiography, colonialism, archive, montage