“I’m ready for my close-up” The face and the documentary


Ilona Hongisto

The article elaborates on the functions of the face in documentary cinema. The theme of the face is traced to a physiognomic postulate of the 19th century, according to which the face functions primarily as a pathway to a personality or a feeling. The aim of the article is to loosen the attachment of the face to physiognomic thinking and identificatory practices, and show how the face, in effect, also works on a level of intensive expression. The intensive expression differentiates from expression that fastens to identifiable groups, character, existing events and emotions marking the face. It is the argument of the article that the intensive level of documentary expression can be conceptualized as documentary affectivity.

The discussion is mapped to the decades after the 1970’s – a time period the article presents as a period of transition in the organization of the face in the documentary. With three specific cases, the article draws alternative functions and argues for a more dynamic understanding of the face in documentary. The examples the article works with are Grey Gardens (1975) by Albert and David Maysles, Shoah by Claude Lanzmann (1985) and everything and nothing by Jayce Salloum (2001).