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The Autobiographical Turn | A New Book Co-editted by CSI’s Angelica Fenner

Autobiographical Turns and the Medial Self

By Angelica Fenner, Associate Professor of German and Cinema Studies

angelica_fennerIncreasingly, digital technologies shape our interpersonal relationships as much as they do our sense of a coherent self. While creating provisional community across time and space, they also render us mediated subjects of a wider screen culture that is hemorrhaging conventional divisions between personal and public spheres. By interfacing so closely with our everyday habits and patterns of perception, these technologies have also led to a heightened subjectivity in contemporary filmmaking practices, particularly in the genre of personal documentary. Yet that trend is emerging at an uneven pace within different national cultures, reflective of varying levels of receptivity towards the intimacy, even narcissism, often attributed this format.


The essay collection The Autobiographical Turn in Germanophone Documentary and Experimental Film (Camden House Press, 2014), co-edited by Robin Curtis and Angelica Fenner, addresses these developments with attention to the specificities of medium, culture, and national history. Although the impulse toward self-documentation was already discernible in the 1960s in the experimental film movement that coalesced around Birgit and Wilhelm Hein, ensuing directors of the New German Cinema, such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, and Helke Sander, also often interwove the roles of author, narrator, and film protagonist in their self-reflexive interrogations of post-Holocaust society. In the 21st century, by contrast, adult children and grandchildren both of Nazi perpetrators and survivors alike broach the documentary camera as an empathetic psychoanalytical stimulant, one coaxing forth repressed memories and capturing fragments of testimony for posterity. Another strand of ‘family films,’ those by second-generation filmmakers of immigrant descent such as Fatih Akin, produce counter-memories that reframe German national history as also encompassing a history of immigration. In turn, recent essayistic films by Sylvia Schedelbauer, Kate Hers, and Hito Steyerl, ponder the extent to which nation-states and culture industries alike collude in promoting mythologies of a unified national subject; they critically reflect upon the terms of participation in monolingual communities grounded in the illusion of cultural homogeneity and unified historical memory.


Curtis-Fenner_CoverThe conceptual introduction to this scholarly volume approaches the autobiographical as a mode recognized, indeed, produced at the site of its reception; across different epochs, consensus regarding the parameters of the textual self has evolved considerably amidst changing media.  The confessional religious writing of St. Augustine, for example, was only retrospectively recognized as autobiographical, as were women’s epistolary writings of the 18th and 19th centuries and the East German prose of Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster. Today, we also find this trait in contemporary performative documentaries whose makers occupy the film frame or audio track and assume a subjective stance towards events unfolding before the camera. Even films not demarcated by their authors or by critics as autobiographical may betray moments of self-inscription and glimpses into quotidian personal realities and collective memories rich in cultural and historical significance.


As a publication, The Autobiographical Turn first gained impetus several years ago from a gathering of local and international scholars recruited to campus for the first edition of the U of T German Studies Symposium. Hosted annually in April by the German Department with additional funding from the Faculty of Arts & Science and related units and centres, the 2015 symposium will explore the topic “Global Yiddish Culture 1938 to 1948” under the coordination of Professors Anna Shternshis (Yiddish and Diaspora Studies), Doris Bergen (Holocaust Studies) and Jeffrey Kopstein (Political Science and Jewish Studies).


Click here to read Professor Fenner’s profile on the Cinema Studies Institute website.

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