Cineaste on The Right to Play Oneself

By Susan Ryan

waugh_right coverThomas Waugh’s collection of essays, The Right To Play Oneself: Looking Back at Documentary Film, is perhaps the most enjoyable of the three books under discussion due to its engaging and provocative analysis of both well-known and obscure films. The ten essays collected in the volume were written over three decades, with most previously published in some form. The essays show Waugh’s deep commitment to documentary as both a mode of expression and means for political activism. Ever since his first book, Show Us Life: A History and Theory of the Committed Documentary, first published in 1984, Waugh has remained an astute observer of and advocate for politically engaged documentaries. As he writes in the revised version of the introduction to that collection reprinted here, “If films are to be instrumental in the process of change, they must be made not only about people directly implicated in change but with and for those people as well.” The limits and contradictions of the political documentary are as interesting to Waugh as their successes. As he puts it, “it is only by exploring how committed artists of the past have come to grips with—or failed to come to grips with—their historical contexts that we can learn how to act within our own.”

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