ApproximationDocumentary, History and Staging Reality


This project has been with me a long time and will be one I return to frequently and persistently in the future. Most adults can recall where they were when they first became aware of the terrorist attacks on the US of 11 September 2001. ‘Approximation’ comes out of my thinking about the repercussions of that day – not so much on our lives and histories, but on images and mediarisation, especially around factual events. It swiftly became clear that ‘9/11’ on its own didn’t alter the status and/or creation of nonfiction images, but in conjunction with the hugely important democratisation of media via the proliferation of digital technology it helped to change everything. My research is an exploration of some of these changes.

≈ Approximations ≈

As represented by this mathematical symbol, approximations are values or quantities that are similar, almost equivalent, but never exactly the same.

Approximation encapsulate the belief that truth results from non-linear thinking and logic, that it is arrived at creatively; that such reassessment and continued dialogue can be a political as well as a creative act, so that events, texts, actions or individuals can be studied anew – and judgements of them potentially radically altered.

≈ Filmic Approximation ≈

I have borrowed the term approximation as the basis for my thinking about how certain texts construct a changeable, fluid truth resulting from collisions, exchange and dialectical argument. This project focuses on texts that are layered, and whose formal layerings mirror or augment a layered, multifaceted argument. The texts I am examining are not bound by notions of closure and are suspicious of the idea of completeness - that an event or action can be finished, fixed and not open to reassessment. Films, programmes and media texts become approximations when they enact this suspicion in their structures;so frequently the dialectical arguments they pursue find echoes in the texts’ structures, layers of archive and other materials.

And at the heart of this symbiosis is a view of history, of the past as accessible and fluid – inevitably changing in relation to what comes after. Like a series of tectonic plates, the elements that comprise approximations shift, overlap, collide and form different relationships with each other.

≈ 9/11 ≈

What approximation as a grounding concept offers, in the context of this project, is the mise-en-scene or staging of fact and history: a place where what is known about a historical event, a factual occurrence, a real person is inserted into a film or narrative, not in order to be collapsed into fiction, but to co-exist in collision with it. Approximations are fact-based fantasies, stagings of evidence and fact, the re-enactments of the pooled resources of filmmakers, spectators, historians and other collators of evidence.

My chronological starting point is 11 September 2001, as the events and multiple traumas of the 9/11 terrorist attacks radically changed the dialogue and relationship between past, present and future. These events soon proved the catalyst for a proliferation of media texts that accepted, even flaunted, history’s inherent fluidity - in part as a result of the a confluence with advances in digital technology that affords opportunities to play around with, intercut images, sounds and ideas with greater alacrity.


still photograph from 1974, used in Man on Wire, James Marsh 2008

Dialectical exchanges

Approximations are inherently dialectical; new meanings are arrived at through the drawing together of conflicting, colliding elements. Unlike in a jigsaw, where individual bits are essentially meaningless abstractions until interlocked successfully with adjacent segments, the elements or strata of complex approximations are intelligible on their own, they don’t need each other to become logical. The Approximations I’ve written about also resemble meandering journeys; their purpose or endpoint is not necessarily the one I set out to find. For example, working on Mad Men and specifically the penultimate episode of Season Three when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination breaks, led me to consider the many absent or invisible artefacts from the news coverage of that day, such as Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm home movie of the shooting and the pink suit Jackie Kennedy was wearing to accompany her husband to Dallas.