Cognitive Theory and Documentary Spectatorship

This is a forthcoming edited collection (Palgrave, 2018), edited by Catalin Brylla and Mette Kramer. It explores the intersection between cognitive and documentary film studies in light of the latest discoveries in the affective and cognitive sciences. Given that most Western societies are mass-mediated cultures in which “reality” is understood through factual media, documentary film has significantly informed the consolidation of the audience’s emotional and cognitive understanding of the world. This understanding is informed by the interplay between two dimensions inherent in the reception of documentary film texts: Firstly, the extra-textual dimension, where truth assertions establish a strong indexical link between representations and their real-life counterparts, and secondly, the intra-textual dimension, where narrative and aesthetic strategies are employed to achieve emotional and cognitive engagement. This interplay has arguably resulted in documentaries exhibiting a far greater potential than fiction films to impact on our attitudes towards, and interaction with, the world, but also on the construction of our own social, cultural, and individual identities.


There has been little convergence between cognitive film theory and documentary film studies. Cognitive film scholars have largely focused on the analysis of fiction film, whilst documentary scholars have deemed cognitive models too limited in that they address only the hardwired attributes of audience reception, thus hypothesizing a universal body of spectators and dismissing individual, social, cultural and historical contexts of authorship and spectatorship. However, a new wave of cognitive film theory has moved from neo-formalist and purely cognitive concerns towards the study of emotional and embodied film engagement, taking into account practical, social, cultural and individual aspects; these in turn can explore fundamental questions within documentary film theory and practice. Thus, cognitive and emotional models have the potential to examine not only narrative-driven and expository documentaries, but also more contemporary and experimental formats, such as essay films, participatory documentaries, docu-dramas, and docu-musicals. In our opinion, this enables an alternative and more scientifically rigorous pursuit of issues central to documentary film studies in areas as varied as ethics, performance, character engagement, mediation and realism.


The anthology explores a cognitive framework for understanding documentary film texts, production practices, institutions and spectatorship. It seeks an empirically grounded understanding of the reception of documentary films, as well as their production and exhibition, establishing the practitioner or institution as a socio-cultural entity driven by similar emotional and cognitive mechanisms that inform the audience before, during and after the viewing process.



Call for Chapters Proposals (ARCHIVED)


Cognitive Theory and Documentary Spectatorship

Editors: Catalin Brylla and Mette Kramer


There has been very little convergence between documentary film studies and cognitive film theory. Documentary scholars deem cognitive models too limited in that they only address the hardwired attributes of audience reception, thus hypothesising a universal body of spectators and dismissing social, cultural and historical contexts of authorship and spectatorship (Smaill 2010, p.8). However, the new wave of cognitive film theory has moved from purely cognitive concerns towards the study of emotional engagement, taking into account the social, the cultural and the individual (Barratt and Frome, 2006). Thus, cognitive models can explore not only narrative-driven and expository documentaries, but also “newer”, more personalised formats, such as autobiographical and participatory documentaries, as well as essay films. Furthermore, the flexible and grounded nature of cognitive theory has resulted in a progression from the original, neo-formalist, computational and narrative-constructivist models (as identified by Sweeney 1994, Groves 2006, Elsaesser and Hagener 2010) towards open-source approaches, adopting (and being adopted by) disciplines, such as perceptual psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, phenomenology and aesthetics. As a result, cognitive film theory has evolved to account for spectatorship and authorship on many different levels, the interaction of which is crucial for a documentary analysis that is less concerned with questions of realism and differences between fiction and non-fiction, but rather aims to examine 1) how narrative devices and textual indices can reveal the filmmaker’s assertiveness in (potentially) shaping the viewer’s point-of-view (e.g. Carroll 1996, Plantinga 1997) and 2) how the viewer experientially receives the documentary text through particular formal attributes (e.g. Eitzen 1995, Smith 2007).


Unfortunately, cognitive film scholars have largely focussed on the analysis of fiction film, which may have two causes: Firstly, cognitive film theory was established in the 1990s, arguably as an antithesis to the post-structuralist Marxist-psychoanalytic-semiological Screen tradition (see Bordwell and Carroll 1996, Tan 1996, Plantinga and Smith 1999). Given that the “Screen scholars” focussed mainly on fiction, it was a logical step for cognitivists to use fiction, too. Secondly, fiction films have been more popular with a mainstream audience, and since one of the cognitivists’ aims is to examine the popularity of mainstream media through the analysis of prototypical narratives in order to understand our most common movie experience (Shiamura 2013, p.4), the focus on documentary has not appeared to be a priority.


This volume aims to expand on the ideas of the few cognitive theorists who have delved into documentary film analysis, but also to offer new perspectives that are inter-disciplinary, cater for new documentary forms, and involve practice-led research. As the study of documentary provides a vehicle for the inclusion of different disciplines that may at first glance seem incongruent with cognitive paradigms, we invite contributors from ANY academic field working on the intersection of audio-visual documentary and cognitive theory.


The volume will have a foreword by Carl Plantinga, a substantive introduction, and approximately eighteen chapters of 5,000-7,000 words. Contributors who have already expressed interest include Torben Grodal, Ib Bondebjerg, John Corner and Karen Pearlman. Chapters may take the form of case studies, either to demonstrate the relative value of programmatic approaches or to contest the validity of a specific mode of cognitive analysis. The following topics are a guideline to potential chapter proposals and are not meant to exclude other interpretations of the book’s title Documentary and Cognitive Theory:


  • formulating general cognitive paradigms for the analysis of non-fiction film
  • traditional and non-traditional documentary forms (e.g. animated documentary)
  • narrative, character and emotion in drama docs or docudramas
  • content production, consumption and interaction through video-sharing websites (e.g. YouTube)
  • authorship and spectatorship of interactive narratives
  • intersections of cognitive theory with other disciplines, such as psychoanalysis, feminist theory, anthropology, phenomenology
  • social and cultural framing of documentary audiences
  • social cognition, representation and authorship
  • cognitive methods in non-fiction filmmaking or practice-led research
  • convergence between documentary and avant-garde films
  • ethics and cognition in documentary
  • issues of cross or single-platform commissioning, production, programming and distribution
  • cognition as embodied, enacted, mediated or situated in documentary practice or theory
  • cognitive theory and material culture in the production and/or reception of documentary
  • distributed cognition and intersubjective mediation
  • cognitive methods in the pedagogy of documentary practice and theory


If you are interested in contributing a chapter to this volume, please send a chapter title, a 500-word abstract, a bibliography and a short biography to Catalin Brylla ( and Dr. Mette Kramer ( by October 20th 2015. We look forward to receiving your chapter proposal, and should you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact us.