What does endangered life do for documentary? As practitioners, critics,
and spectators of documentary, we rarely ask this question. Instead, we com-
monly believe that documentary works on behalf of disenfranchised human
beings by “giving a voice to the voiceless.” This book argues the opposite. I
argue that endangered, dehumanized life not only sustains documentary, but
supplies its raison d’être. This is especially true, I propose, of participatory
documentary, whose guiding humanitarian ethic— giving the camera to the
other— invents the very disenfranchised humanity that it claims to redeem.
François Truffaut’s The Wild Child (L’Enfant Sauvage), a film set in
Enlightenment- era France, poignantly dramatizes the follies of this humani-
tarian ethic. The film’s protagonist, Dr. Jean- Marc Gaspard Itard, has rescued
a mute and seemingly feral young boy, hoping to educate him and thereby
reveal his latent humanity. The experiment is not going well. Itard’s attempts
to socialize and educate the “wild child” are met with hostility, violence, and
several escape attempts. More than once, the boy collapses during Itard’s un-
relenting language lessons, flailing in distress and bleeding from the nose.
Paradoxically, it is when the boy successfully demonstrates his humanization
(he has returned to Itard after a failed escape attempt, having lost his survival
instincts) that Itard experiences his deepest doubts. He longs to return the
boy to his “innocent and happy life.” Realizing that his rescue mission has
created a prison from which there is no escape, Itard steels himself in his task,
and resolves to redeem the boy’s lost innocence— his humanity— through
further education.
The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary
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