Sayad, C. (2019). Reality TV, Ghosts, and the Index. Screen:587-605.
This article examines the presumed documentation of supernatural phenomena in ghost hunting reality television shows. It asks how we relate to these intangible images in the context of a so-called ‘post-truth era’ which challenges mainstream sources of information while offering wide access to the production of texts and images.
One aspect of the discussion considers these reality programmes, which above all aim to entertain, as part of the horror genre, revisiting the place that reality occupies in horror scholarship. Supernatural narratives are traditionally discussed as symbolic representations of the real world—monsters stand for a feared ‘other,’ and stories metaphorically evoke personal or historical trauma. In horror criticism, supernatural tales are removed from reality, and can only address it indirectly. The reality shows in question, on the contrary, bring the occult and our life experiences closer together. Not only do they present ghosts and demons as real—in addition, these shows become a part of the individual lives of viewers, inviting participatory spectatorship. Fans interact with investigators of supernatural activity via text messages in live episodes and offer comments on internet discussion forums.
The second element of the discussion challenges notions about the ontology of the photographic and audiovisual images. It turns to nineteenth-century spirit photography as a point for comparison with digital technologies to question the presumably direct, indexical relationship between the image and material reality in light of our relationship to the photographic and audiovisual records of immaterial entities whose reality cannot be proved.
Sayad, C. (2016). Found-Footage Horror and the Frame’s Undoing. Cinema Journal [Online] 55. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2016.0003.
This essay finds in the found-footage horror cycle an alternative way of understanding the relationship between horror films and reality, which is usually discussed in terms of allegory. I propose the investigation of framing, understood both figuratively (framing the film as documentary) and stylistically (the framing in handheld cameras and in static long takes), as a device that playfully de-stabilizes the separation between the film and the surrounding world. The essay’s main case study is the Paranormal Activity franchise, but examples are drawn from a variety of films.
Sayad, C. (2016). Cameras and Ghosts. Cinema Journal [Online] 55. Available at: http://www.cmstudies.org/?page=CJ_after552_sayad.
Afterthought for "Found-Footage Horror and the Frame's Undoing", published in Cinema Journal 55.2. Text reflects on the article and indicates direction of research on the topic of horror films and reality.
Sayad, C. (2016). A Matter of (Informed) Taste. Film Criticism [Online] 40. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/fc.13761232.0040.129.
Short article in response to the question: What is the role of film criticism today—a time of accelerated change in production, distribution, and viewing experiences? The essays in this issue coincide with FC’s 40th year of continuous publication. They also mark a “reboot” for the journal as it transitioned to open access. A mix of established and emerging scholars wrote in response to the question.
Sayad, C. (2016). Variations on the Author. Film Quarterly [Online] 69:12-18. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/FQ.2016.69.3.12.
“Variations on the Author” discusses two of Eduardo Coutinho’s recent films (Um Dia na Vida, from 2010, and Últimas Conversas, posthumously released in 2015) and their contribution to the general question of documentary authorship. The director’s filmography is characterized by a consistent yet self-effacing form of authorial self-inscription: Coutinho often features as an interviewer that rather than express opinions propels discourses; an interviewer that is good at listening. This mode of self-inscription characterizes him as an author who is not expressive but who is nonetheless markedly present on the screen. In Um Dia na Vida, however, Coutinho is completely absent form the image, while Últimas Conversas, on the contrary, includes a confessional prologue that moves the director from the margins to the center of his films. This article examines the ways in which these works stand out in the filmography of a director who offers new insights into the notion of cinematic authorship.
Sayad, C. (2014). Eduardo Coutinho’s Films Were About Gaps and Creative Frictions. Mediático [Online]. Available at: http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2014/02/10/coutinho/.
Tribute piece in honour of Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho, who died on 2 February 2014.
Sayad, C. (2011). The Auteur as Fool: Bakhtin, Barthes, and the Screen Performances of Woody Allen and Jean-Luc Godard. Journal of Film and Video [Online] 63:21-34. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.5406/jfilmvideo.63.4.0021.
Inspired by Barthes’s conception of the author as a “scriptor” who does not precede the writing, but exists in the present time of the enunciation, this essay explores the performative dimension of cinematic authorship. I propose that the discussion of authorship should move beyond the problem of self-expression, focusing instead on the sense of an authorial presence, manifested, for example, in depictions of the author’s body and his struggle to communicate. Reading the filmic appearances of Jean-Luc Godard and Woody Allen through the figures of the standup comedian and the fool (as discussed by Bakhtin), this study argues that these directors’ screen performances establish the author as “foreign” to the film, all the while placing the film and the extrafilmic in a relation of contiguity. It follows that the fool-like characters played by Godard and Allen restore indexicality to the auteur, connecting the director’s image on the screen with his real existence as one of the film’s creators.
Sayad, C. (2010). Flesh for the Author: Filmic Presence in the Documentaries of Eduardo Coutinho. Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media [Online] 51:134-150. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/frm.0.0061.
This essay examines the questions of authorship and national cinema through the concept of filmic presence. Drawing from Tom Gunning’s valorization of “instants” and “presentation” in the cinema of attractions and from Deleuze’s “cinema of bodies,” the essay studies self-inscription through the director’s photographic image. Key to this analysis is Barthes’s idea of authorial figuration, which privileges physical presence over self-expression.
The object of this investigation is the work of Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho, who in the past decade has revised the role of sociologist that once defined Latin American filmmakers by shunning interpretation and analysis. Coutinho stresses the encounter between camera and subject, structuring his documentaries as talking heads. In this scenario, the author functions as a catalyst inspiring specific “performances” and narratives. By the same token, Coutinho’s documentaries emphasise the subjects’ body language, syntax and accent. Narrative and self-expression are thus replaced by process and presence.
Sayad, C. (2006). Authorship in the Interstices of History, Biography, Reality and Memory: Histoire(s) du cinéma and Cabra Marcado para Morrer. Significação: Revista Brasileira de Semiótica:139-172.
Sayad, C. (2019). Autoria como Performance. In: Autoria No Cinema.
This talk explores the notion of performing authorship proposed in the homonymous book and investigates the ways in which Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho contributes to this new approach to cinematic authors. The talk opened a series of screenings related to the topic at the University of Coimbra.
Sayad, C. (2018). Parapsychology and Ghost Hunting on TV. In: Sci/Film Series. Available at: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/events/remote_event_view?id=686.
Panel discussion with Chris French (Goldsmiths) and Tim Smith (Birkbeck)
Sayad, C. (2017). Reality Ghosts: Digital Images and the Material World. In: 2018 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference. Available at: https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.cmstudies.org/resource/resmgr/2018_conference/SCMS2018Iprogram-no_rooms.pdf.
Sayad, C. (2017). Beyond Film: A New Place for Reality in Horror. In: The Moving Form of Film Conference.
Sayad, C. (2017). The Ghosts and the Machines. In: At Home With Horror?.
Sayad, C. (2017). Ghost Images: Horror, documentary and the supernatural. In: School of Media, Film and Music Research Seminar, University of Sussex.
Sayad, C. (2017). Digital Ghosts: Rethinking the relationship between horror and reality. In: British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies Conference.
Sayad, C. (2016). Documenting Ghosts in the Post-Truth Era. In: University of Warwick Research Seminar Series. Available at: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/news/events/?calendarItem=8a17841a5fd9d400015fda6091651653.
Sayad, C. (2016). Millennial Ghosts: Factual Representations of the Supernatural. In: Religious Studies Research Seminar Series.
Twenty first century cultural production increasingly presents supernatural themes as factual: from faux found-footage horror films to ghost hunting reality shows and websites compiling documentary footage of supposedly paranormal phenomena. This talk proposes that the seeming factual presentation of the supernatural requires that we redefine the ways in which the horror genre addresses real events and, by extension, our relationship with images.
Sayad, C. (2015). Monsters and Everyday Life. In: Screen Studies Conference.
This paper addresses the topic of ‘Screening Animals and the Inhuman’ through a discussion of the coexistence between supernatural phenomena and the documentary mode both in mock found-footage horror films and in reality television shows. Here the ‘inhuman’ relates to demonic figures, even though this investigation also includes the more arguably ‘human’ ghost. I draw from studies about the relationship between media and the spiritual world by Tom Gunning (‘Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations’), Jeffrey Sconce (Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from the Telegraph to Television) and Annette Hill (Paranormal Media) in order to investigate, within the boundaries of genre studies, new articulations of the relationship between horror and the documentation of reality, and more broadly, the ways in which the connection between supernatural themes and documentary modalities change our relationship to film. I argue that the confusion between fiction and fact within both found-footage horror and reality TV blurs the boundaries between the films and the surrounding world, removing horror narratives from the exclusive domains of the symbolic, the unconscious, and the escapist, embedding the ‘monster’ in everyday experiences. The paper’s filmography includes the Paranormal Activity and [•REC] films, as well as the Paranormal State and Ghost Hunters shows.
Sayad, C. (2015). Playing and the Loose Boundaries Between Inner and Outer Selves. In: World Cinema and the Essay Film.
This paper discusses Eduardo Coutinho’s unique mode of stressing authorial presence rather than expression, and explores the essayistic Jogo the Cena (Playing, 2009) as the culmination of a separation between the author’s inner and outer selves that has been underlying the Brazilian director’s career since Santo Forte (The Mighty Spirit, 1999).
If the essayistic mode usually reflects on the enunciator’s position in the world it comments upon (the conception of the literary essay by Michel de Montaigne, as Colin MacCabe reminds us, involves precisely ‘a personal perspective’ over ‘general topics’) , Coutinho records the filmed world’s response to his presence. His essayistic documentaries have always highlighted the subjects’ reactions to the director’s interest in their lives; Coutinho’s presence in the image presents him not as a self-expressing figure, but as a catalyst for the subject’s ‘performance’ to the camera. It is furthermore not what Coutinho says that characterises his authorial persona—the director’s São Paulo accent and raspy, cigarette-smoker’s voice are arguably more distinguishable than the questions he actually asks, which are very simple and quite repetitive (enquiring about the subject’s work and family). Coutinho’s mode of self-inscription unintentionally stresses the materiality of his body and voice—which allows for a corporeal, rather than abstract, sense of an authorial presence. Combined with the director’s refusal to openly interpret and analyse (discussed by Consuelo Lins and Ismail Xavier, among others), the transformative effect of the director’s presence on the filmed reality transfers his authorial identity from the inner to the outer self. Coutinho is a perfect example of what I have termed ‘performing authorship’, a reassessment of the film author that privileges masquerade over exposure, physical presence over inner expression, process over product, repetition over uniqueness.
The focus on the director’s outer self invokes the structuralist (and in some cases poststructuralist) dissociation between subject and expressive discourse that is perfectly dramatized in Jogo de Cena. The film features actresses (some of them unknown) re-staging interviews Coutinho carried with women who responded to an advert inviting people ‘with stories to tell’ to audition for a documentary. It is never clear whether the relayed story belongs to the person who narrates it to the camera or to another who may in turn be temporarily, when not permanently, off-screen. Like Jogo de Cena’s actresses, Coutinho appropriates himself of the experiences and discourses of others; it is thus that he finds his expression—in the narratives prompted by his physical presence. Rather than the author’s world, Coutinho’s films reveal the author in the world.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York and London : Routledge, 2008.
Corrigan, Timothy. The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.
Lins, Consuelo. O Documentário de Eduardo Coutinho. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2004.
MacCabe, Colin. Godard: a Portrait of the Artist at Seventy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
Rascaroli, Laura. The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film. London: Wallflower, 2009.
Sayad, Cecilia. Performing Authorship: Self-Inscription and Corporeality in the Cinema. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013.
Xavier, Ismail. ‘Indagações em torno de Eduardo Coutinho e seu diálogo com a tradição moderna.’ Eduardo Coutinho: Cinema do Encontro, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, 51–9. Rio de Janeiro: Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, 2003.
Sayad, C. (2015). Reality TV, Mock Found-Footage, and Horror’s Changing Relationship to Reality. In: King’s College Research Seminar.
What happens to our relationship to the horror film when manifestations of the supernatural are presented as reality?
There is a long and persistent tradition of approaching horror films as allegorical articulations of personal and social anxieties. These approaches establish an indirect relationship between the horror genre and a socio-historical reality—in Robin Wood’s famous analogy between the popular genre and Freud’s theory of the subconscious, horror becomes the space for the return of the repressed in the form of a monster that stands for something real, but is rendered in symbolic form. Though addressing a concrete reality, the horror film thus perceived is detached from it.
This paper argues that the ghost hunting reality TV show and the mock found-footage horror movie challenge traditional approaches to the relationship between fact and fiction in the horror genre. These works’ focus on modern technology’s ability to at once register what the naked eye cannot see and produce astonishing effects weakens the boundaries separating the image from the surrounding world: the tension between fact and artifice extends to the tension between the apparatus’s ability to at once reveal and fabricate a purported ‘real.’ Drawing from studies of spirit photography and ‘haunted’ electronic media by Tom Gunning and Jeffrey Sconce, respectively, this paper examines paranormal reality shows and the mock found-footage horror in light of associations between new technologies and spectral entities dating back to the 19th century. Notions of televisual temporality are also employed to examine a sense of confusion between representation and reality in these works. I propose that the convergence of science and magic characteristic of earlier practices, as well as the illusion of simultaneity and liveness granted by the contemporary works’ aesthetics of reportage, offer a new way of understanding the horror genre’s relationship to factual reality, and by extension its place in both popular culture and everyday life.
Sayad, C. (2014). Framing the Found Footage Horror Film. In: Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference 2014.
The filming of strange phenomena in “Paranormal Activity” is often followed by the characters’ analysis of the recorded material, suggesting that the image can contain the evil force disturbing the female protagonist’s sleep. It is as if by containing the supernatural inside the borders of a screen Micah and Katie could better understand, measure, and even control it. Ironically, the act of filming backfires, and instead invites the “monster” into the characters’ lives. This paper explores the found-footage horror film’s approach to this tension between containing and the uncontainable, which has pervaded theories of framing. Indeed, the frame becomes the element through which I investigate the implications of the found-footage horror’s documentary claim and style on our perception of the film’s connection with the surrounding real.
While considerations about the real in the study of horror usually address the possibility of a causal link between a general mood and the tone of the films produced at a certain point in history, this paper proposes a different approach—one that reflects on the increasingly tenuous boundaries separating representation from real life: the popularity of reality TV being this phenomenon’s clearest illustration. It is hence that I propose that we look at what the horror film’s relationship to the real says about the movies’ desire to at once erect and erode the boundaries separating the fictional diegesis from the world that surrounds it.
“Paranormal Activity” blurs the distinction between film and reality at three levels: the presentation of the story as real (collapsing fact and fiction), the diegetic status of the cameras (merging the filmic with the extrafilmic), and the style of framing (playing on the separation between on- and off-screen spaces, visually dramatizing the sense that the film and the extrafilmic are separated by a thin membrane). Though these elements overlap I will gradually move from a macro to a micro level—from the existential status of the represented events as fictional or documentary to the spatial separation between film and the extrafilmic, and finally to framing’s contribution to the resulting sense of instability at the other two levels.
Sayad, C. (2014). Discussion of Performing Authorship. In: The Self-Portrait in the Moving Image.
Discussion of book Performing Authorship: Self-Inscription and Corporeality in the Cinema
Sayad, C. (2014). Do Critics Need Authors?. In: Critica 2.0.
The history of film criticism has been partly informed by considerations about cinematic authorship. The current crisis in criticism may result from the proliferation of new forms of critical writing and venues for movie reviews, but the challenges posed by the transformations that came with the digital era do nothing but recontextualize a “crisis” we can trace back to the early to mid-20th century. Concerns about the effects of a presumed democratization of film criticism raise the same issues about the critic’s authority, reach and function that the category confronted when debating the figure of the film author.
While the politique des auteurs used the idea of filmmakers as self-expressing artists to legitimize the aesthetic value of film, by extension validating the cultural status of the critic, the general skepticism about authorship impacted the critic in two ways. On the one hand, it gave him or her more authority, taking the attribution of meaning away from the author and assigning it to the critic. In that sense, the transition to auteur structuralism in the late sixties and the subsequent poststructuralist approaches replaced the authority of the director with that of the critic, who had in any case always been responsible for discovering, electing or constructing the author. In other words, where before the critic was supposed to bring to the surface a creator who preceded the text, subsequent movements turned the author into a critical construct. On the other hand, the philosophical disavowing of authorship applies as much to the author as to the critic: both parties are equally affected by the skepticism about agency, language’s ability to express a worldview, the control over the meaning and the final version of an authored work.
The persistence of both the critic and the author in the contemporary experience of film calls for an examination of how these two figures have informed each other in the past decades. The current rhetoric of crisis in criticism posits not the director, but the non-specialized critic as threat. Yet the filmmaker’s discourse is also a competing voice, now that it is made more easily available through Twitter, DVD commentary, and films’ dedicated webpages. This paper considers the extent to which critic and author at once validate and challenge each other.
Sayad, C. (2013). Shifting Approaches. In: Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference 2013.
The general idea of the author relies on a set of conditions that prove unrealizable in practice. In its so-called romantic form, authorship refers to the effective communication of an individual’s inner state; an individual that is moreover perceived as unique and capable of speaking its mind and relaying its life experiences. This presumably traditional conception of the author presupposes control, authority, originality and self-expression. Needless to say, such an understanding presupposes also the “metaphysics of substance” discussed by Judith Butler—the idea of a subject bearing an essence that predates its insertion in society. This essentializable authorial subject has been criticized by both structuralists, who see the author as determined by a set of structures, and poststructuralists, for whom binaries such as nature and culture are linguistic constructs. For the latter, the idea of a subject’s stifled or culturally domesticated essence would be nothing but a fantasy, and the said author a myth that could never come true.
But what if the author would instead be defined by its struggle to achieve the aforementioned attributes? What if we see it as ephemeral, as constantly quoting, as at once evading and seeking self-exposure? This paper explores the ways in which performance theory’s emphasis on process and the fluidity of identity formation allows for an understanding of authorship that privileges the drama of artistic and communicative processes rather than the achievement of control, originality and self-expression. Where poststructuralist thought saw the author as absent, my proposed concept of performing authorship stresses the textual traces of its physical presence. Studies by Timothy Corrigan (A Cinema Without Walls), Rosanna Maule (Beyond Auteurism) and Dudley Andrew (“The Unauthorized Auteur Today”), among others, have sought to bring the auteur back to the picture through considerations about the contexts that shape their practices. But through the notion of performing authorship I shift the focus from the extrafilmic (the realm of the production, promotion and commercialization of films) to the filmic (authorial self-inscription). It is of course not just the inscription but also the nature of the represented processes that shows what the discussion of authorship has to gain from notions of ephemerality, imitation, exteriority, and masking.
Sayad, C. (2011). The Persistence of Auteurism in Brazilian Cinema. In: Issues of Auteurism in Latin American Cinema - SCMS.
The emphasis on individual genius to the detriment of historical context that defined the politique des auteurs in 1950s France has traditionally emphasized the universal, transcendental qualities of film authorship. Nonetheless, auteurs have often stood for specific national cinemas along with their topical and political questions, especially in countries where a solid film industry is absent. Such has been the case for Brazil from the sixties to the present. Lacking a continuous and long-lasting generic tradition, the cinematic production of that country has largely been defined by auteur cinema.
The new generation of Brazilian filmmakers that followed the 1990s retomada (or rebirth) may shun the auteur label, especially when it evokes the diagnosing of a state of affairs—something that characterized the political cinema of the sixties. Yet the so-called new Brazilian cinema is still haunted by the risk of discontinuity that has long threatened their industry. This lack of stability attaches an element of uniqueness to each of the films that survive the winding road going from pre- to post-production—together with their directors, films are individuated as survivors, as heroes carrying the burden of keeping alive a cultural patrimony on the verge of extinction.
I argue that even though some of the attributes of auteurism (such as originality, self-expression, timelessness, authority and control) have been deemed outmoded, the bulk of Brazilian production is closer to an auteurist than to an industrial model. Even when sharing traits with genres such as the action film (as José Padilha’s Bus 174 and Elite Squad), movies are still seen as the embodiment of the worldviews of specific individuals, as attests the incessant questioning of Padilha’s politics in Elite Squad. Brazilian films are perceived as products of artistic genius, not of a faceless “system.” If the boom of new films includes an increasing number of popular comedies starred and directed by TV professionals, these genre movies are hardly mass-produced. It follows that, far from being banished from the Brazilian scenario, the auteur still holds a central position, notwithstanding the updating of its defining qualities and functions.
Sayad, C. (2010). Documenting Presence: the author, the body and the nation in the films of Eduardo Coutinho. In: Society for Cinema and Media Studies 2010.
This paper explores the question of documentary authorship and representation through the idea of cinematic presence. The work of Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho serves as case study for both an investigation of authorial self-inscription and a redefinition of the practice of documenting “the nation”. Though belonging to the 1960s cinema novo generation, Coutinho has been at his most prolific in the 1990s and 2000s, when he has famously revised the role of sociologist that used to define the politically engaged Latin American filmmaker by shunning interpretation and analysis. Instead, the director stresses the encounter between camera and subject. As he consistently avoids ‘illustrative’ and ‘representational’ images, Coutinho has structured his documentaries as talking heads, with scenes depicting the film crew setting up the stage for the interview, or arriving at specific locations—much in the style of cinéma-vérité. The director believes that the only reality the camera can capture is the reality of the shoot. What his films document is the encounter between filmmaker and subject—or the product of what Ismail Xavier has called the ‘camera-effect.’ By generating (rather than simply capturing) reality (to use Michael Renov’s expression), the filmmaker becomes a central actor in the documentary—his physical presence shapes the interviewees’ behaviours and speeches. Coutinho’s on-screen presence is thus a structuring element, and his recurring and unmistakable image has become a trademark—indeed, his authorial ‘signature.’ Finally, the director is interested not in the accuracy of the discourses uttered to the camera (and to himself), but in how director and apparatus lead the subjects to ‘perform.’ Rather than the content of speeches, Coutinho privileges the materiality of the voice—the accents, syntax, or, to invoke Barthes, the voice’s ‘texture’ and ‘grain.’ Drawing from Deleuze’s Time-Image, I define Coutinho’s films as constituting a cinema of bodies, where the materiality of the body weary of, or marked by previous experiences is privileged over the narrative of such experiences. Finally, no summary would ever do justice to the essence of Coutinho’s films, for they constitute not cinematic representation, but a cinema of presence.
Sayad, C. (2009). Border crossing, corporality and performance: a study of authorial self-inscription in the cinema. In: Centre for World Cinemas – WUN Series.
Sayad, C. (2009). The Auteur as Fool. In: Screen Studies Conference: 50th Anniversary.
Sayad, C. (2009). Godard and the frame: the author as trespasser. In: Film Research Seminar.
Sayad, C. (2009). A Cinema of Presence: the author and the body in the documentaries of Eduardo Coutinho. In: Performing Presence.
Sayad, C. (2007). With a Little Help from Fiction: Performing for Life in Bus 174. In: Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference 2007 (Chicago).
Sayad, C. (2007). Um cinema desenquadrado: a política da linguagem e a linguagem da política em Duas ou três coisas que eu sei dela. In: XI Encontro Internacional Socine: Sociedade Brasileira De Estudos De Cinema E Audiovisual.
Sayad, C. (2006). Performance as shortcut: truth’s paths in Santo Forte and Bus 174. In: XIII Visible Evidence Conference.