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Gothumentary: The Gothic Unsettling of

Documentarys Rhetoric of Rationality


by Papagena Robbins and Kristopher Woofter

Abstract
In this paper we theorize gothumentary not as a subgenre, but as a critical
concept. Through this concept we analyze some of the ways documentary and the
Gothic have come together as discursive and rhetorical modes in cinema in order
to address similar questions: how the past manifests in the present, how a subject
can be represented and interpreted through documents, and how the limits of
knowledge are drawn in our representations. Recent cinematic texts such as
Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003), In the Realms of the Unreal
(Jessica Yu, 2004), Must Read After My Death (Morgan Dews, 2007), Cropsey
(Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, 2009), and Resurrect Dead (Jon Foy,
2011) show the potential of the Gothic to undermine longstanding notions that
positivistic strategies of representation are the key to what documentary has to
offer both audiences and scholars. We theorize that the Gothic traditions
engagement with the pleasures and torments of the text, along with its manifest
anxieties around representation, can provide a critical intervention in the current
crisis around documentary realism. In contrast to conventional documentary
modes, the films included in this study emphasize possibility over conclusiveness
to suggest that perhaps the most productive way of thinking about the mysteries
of our world is through speculation, interpretation, contemplation, and a certain
fearful wonderment.
While Gothic tropes have been present in documentary filmmaking since
early cinema, we are noticing an increase in the combination of the two
discourses in recent nonfiction films such as Wisconsin Death Trip (James
Marsh, 1999), Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003), In the
Realms of the Unreal (Jessica Yu, 2004), Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog,
2005), Must Read After My Death (Morgan Dews, 2007), Cropsey (Joshua
Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, 2009), Double Take (Johan Grimonprez,
2009), and Resurrect Dead (Jon Foy, 2011), to name only a few. Here,
Gothic and documentary discourses collide at the intersection of the dread
of knowledge (epistephobia) and the desire for knowledge (epistephilia).
Rather than presenting persuasive narratives that reach definitive
conclusions, the gothumentary combines the Gothic tradition of
unsettling our relationships with what we think we know with questions
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brought out in experimental and hybrid documentary to push the spectator
into more active modes of inquiry around how the historical world is
represented. In the gothumentary, knowledge is often elusive, even
monstrous in its resistance to the documentarians efforts. The
gothumentary subject or event may be too large or too small to be
represented satisfactorily by any means. The gothumentary conjures a
world that is uncanny in its resistance to our attempts to seek knowledge,
and its truths are often emotional, multiple, conflicting, partial or highly
personal. In juxtaposing the documentarys discourses of rationality and
sobriety with the Gothics focus on affect, excess and inscrutability, the
gothumentary creates a space for the reevaluation of the philosophical and
cultural relevance of both forms.
As the mechanical eye made the world more visually available in the
19
th
century, a dilemma around the purpose of looking became
increasingly apparent: should we look for knowledge or for pleasure?
(Cowie 1999: 26). Following the Enlightenment push to manage, contain
and understand the place of desire in all realms of experience, the use of
cinema as a prosthetic device could only be accepted by what
documentary scholar Bill Nichols calls the discourses of sobriety, if the
pleasures of cinema were renounced in its documentary uses. Early
experimentations in Continental Europe by avant-garde filmmakers like
Jean Vigo, Alberto Cavalcanti, Dziga Vertov, Joris Ivens and Jean
Epstein, attempted to acknowledge nonfiction cinemas poetic and
affective representational possibilities, asking viewers to think more
deeply about issues prior to the demands of state power, like subjectivity,
representation and perception (Nichols 2001: 583). The Griersonian
documentary, which was favored by state and corporate production in
service of reactionary goals, pushed aside the avant-garde documentary of
the 1920s as a potential source of lineage for the genre over the next half
century (Nichols 2001: 586). As a result, by the 1930s, the split along
these lines seemed to be finalized: the enjoyment of cinemas spectacle
belonged solely to the fiction spectator, while the documentary spectator
(supposedly) looked only to know. The result of this emphasis on seeing
for knowledge, not pleasure, was a mandate that the documentary produce
positivistic knowledge claims, whether or not there was enough evidence,
visual or otherwise, to support totalizing claims.
Throughout its history, but especially since observational cinemas
failure to convey satisfactorily an objective world by de-emphasizing the
filmmaking apparatus, documentary has experimented with reflexivity to
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address its problems around the roles of realism and representation. The
convergence of Gothic and documentary strategies in the gothumentary
film highlights the potential for reflexivity to produce critical relationships
between filmmaker, text and audience at the intersection of three
conceptual axes: hermeneutics, desire, and epistemology. Gothumentary
deploys the contemporary Gothics polyvocal and polysemic textuality, its
emphasis on endless interpretation by its narrators, and its evocation of a
reality that defies representation, in service of a mysterium
hermeneutics that challenges the exclusive reign of positivism which has
dominated much of the documentary tradition.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003) illustrates the gothumentarys
mingling of pleasure and dread in contemplating an event that resists
representation. The desired subjects of a disturbing case of alleged
pervasive child molestation are front-and-centre in the film, but their chill
reserve, and fragmented or unreliable access to memories of the events,
suggests that no combination of evidence, testimony and (re)framing will
lay open the real story, which is fraught with both terror and
melancholy. Additionally, the films uncanny proliferation of accounts by
its social actors causes viewers to shift allegiances throughout the film,
highlighting an irresolvable perspectivism. Jareckis film constructs a
sublime awareness of a world in flux, possibly unrepresentable in the
enormity of its traumas and truths.
In gothumentary, the pleasure is less in solving all of the mysteries of
the text than in acknowledging its limitations. Gothumentarys goal is not
one of disambiguation, as we find in positivistic discourse, but one of
sustained acts of hesitation that stress polysemy of meaning and plurality
of enunciation to hold open the possibility for interpretation. The
hermeneutics of gothumentary are negativistic: though interpretations are
building up, the void becomes the ultimate focus, the foregrounded
problem. The knowledge produced is of an absence or lack due to the
ever-widening circles of further questions that surround new knowledge.
In the gothumentary, decoding reality is seen as always already based
on a Nietzschean notion of infinite interpretation, an acknowledgement
that there are no complete texts. In reading the evidence presented in the
gothumentary, we seek not to close the circle to discover the
incontrovertible truth of the thing-in-itself, but rather to discover more
about the dimensions of the yawning chasm of mystery between ourselves
and what we seek to grasp some part of.
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Roger B. Salomon has argued that the ambiguous situation common
to the narratives of Gothic and horror represents precisely the paradigm
of truth in the contemporary worldits radically subjective, limited, or
otherwise objectively unratifiable dimension (Salomon 2002: 76). The
gothumentary, like the Gothic narrative, does not so much nihilistically
eliminate solutions in its emphasis on indeterminacy of meaning
(Salomon 2002: 87), but instead withholds solutions, to emphasize
documentary construction and reception as an extended act of
interpretation. The ambiguous situation is our postmodern reality, and
gothumentaries open up and address that reality by resisting easy
solutions and closure. As we find in films like Grizzly Man, Resurrect
Dead, and Must Read After My Death, the gothumentary often turns its
focus upon what Edgar Allan Poe called the text which does not permit
itself to be read ([1840] 1984: 388). Its central subjects (often deceased
or otherwise absent, always enigmatic) and objects (often ruins, cryptic
texts, or abandoned spaces) elude the grasp of the documentary camera,
which circles around them. The central figure of the gothumentary is
fragmented and reachable only through the documents they have left
behind. Though these documents are often not intended to be presented to
the public, they confront us nonetheless. They do not address us; in fact,
the texts are often addressed as if to their own creators as a form of
introspection or self-interrogation. We collude with the filmmakers in
trespassing upon these personal transmissions, hoping to become worthy
of deciphering their deeper significance. In the gothumentaries that focus
on the documents left behind by individuals who have been pushed to the
margins and who would otherwise have no voice, the airing of these
records holds redemptive possibilities. In Must Read After My Death
(2007), for example, protagonist, Allis, has left upon her death her audio
confessions and home movies to her family, who knew nothing of the pain
she experienced while living in a suburban patriarchal hell. As we
examine the images of the happy family, her voice intercedes to
confront the spectator with the knowledge that, while these images are not
faked or intentional deceptions, without the voice that conveys
experience, they can only tell the story we already think we know, which
is revealed to be an impoverished fabrication. In this case, a voice
desperately calls out from the past demanding redemption for an injustice
that the images are unable or unwilling to confirm, and thus unsettles the
conventionalized strategies we rely upon to feel that we know what has
happened in the past.
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Resurrect Deads (2011) narrative revolves around the quest of several
young men to crack the ubiquitous cryptic missives left embedded in the
streets of major cities by a reclusive visionary. The excessiveness of the
energy the creator of the Toynbee tiles puts out to communicate his
message is matched by his equally intense desire to remain hidden. He is a
traumatic ghostly figure who demands redemptive power through being
heard and not seen. The (dreadful) pleasure of watching the
documentarians quest to find this man lies in the anticipation that he will
be exposed, potentially disclosing his motives, and in the equally
disturbing possibility that he will not emerge to decode his
communication. In Resurrect Dead, we see that there may be more power
in probing the limits of the documentary subject-as-cipher than there is in
reaching conclusive statements about the real man at the films center.
Foys film is ultimately satisfied with its ability to open up a space for
interpretation around this enigmatic individuals motives and what the
documentarians desire to know about him says about the spectators own
experience of the world.
The Gothics reflexive tendency to hold considerations of the real in
sway, through limited perspective and an excessive play of codes, signs
and images (Botting 1996: 175), is key to its usefulness in such films as
Must Read and Resurrect Dead that wish to call attention to the pleasures,
torments and manipulative powers of representation, the strategies of
truth-telling, and the way knowledge is constructed. While Gothic
reflexivity can be effective in promoting critique through such ruptures,
there is a danger in elevating the Gothic to a place where it becomes an
infallible tool for critique in documentary. There are many clear instances
in which Gothic and documentary discourse combine in commercialized
and/or purely spectacular manners, such as in fantastical pseudo-
documentaries (FP-Ds) like Chariots of the Gods? (1970), and reality
television series like Discovery Channels A Haunting (2005-07) and
Syfys Ghost Hunters (2004-present). However, when Gothic stylization,
tropes, and narrative are combined with experimental and hybrid
documentary strategies of representation, the resulting textsthose we
call gothumentariesare capable of deeply unsettling the spectators
naturalized relationships with knowledge, reality, representation, memory,
history and the self.
As a critical concept, gothumentary is not meant merely to indicate
documentary explorations of traditionally Gothic subject matter, but
instead often suggests a mode of documentary concerned with the notion
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of knowledge itself as monstrous, especially when it is unattainable.
Additionally, the gothumentary subverts conventional documentary bids
for transparency, such as one finds in many made-for-TV documentaries,
by highlighting the process by which knowledge is constructed in
documentary. Monstrous subjects alone (serial killers, traumatic events,
the paranormal) cannot constitute the gothumentary; rather, gothumentary
focuses on the monstrosity of subject matter not typically conceived as
monstrous, such as a document, a timid individual, or a trusted institution.
This aspect of gothumentarys approach to the real is key in distinguishing
the mode from what we call F-PDs, which are teleologically oriented only
towards rendering the world strange through juxtaposing speculation with
strings of unanswered questions and evidence often extracted from
historical or cultural contexts.
For Gary D. Rhodes, in FP-Ds such as the television series In Search
of (1976-1982), and Unsolved Mysteries (1987-present), the question
becomes the answer (Rhodes 2005: 157). That is, the potentially
critically productive ambiguity inherent in an open, What If? ending, is
here a fulfillment of FP-D conventions; open endings in the FP-D serve
largely to fulfill a narrative drive to take events that are explicable within
the disciplines of archaeology, anthropology or geography, and tilt them
rhetorically towards the supernatural. The FP-D plays reflexively into the
genre expectations of an often rather savvy audience that expects it to turn
away from rational explanations to the fantasy of a possible world where
skeptics are fools and believers in the preternatural and supernatural see
their unconventional conclusions supported, if not by evidence, then by an
opening-outward that the FP-D emphasizes in its final Or is it?
moments. FP-Ds may flirt with questioning the positivistic conclusions of
rational (scientific) discourse, as Rhodes suggests, but, unlike
gothumentaries, they do not highlight themselves as acts of interpretation
that open up critical pathways. The ambiguities evoked by FP-Ds can be
read generically (and ironically) as rhetorical closure to the narrative.
Accordingly, the FP-D is retrograde in its aesthetics, following an
expository formula in which, according to Rhodes [i]magery and
utterance combine to lead the audience to a monolithic conclusion to their
esoteric questions: the exalted truth, rendered impersonally and without
apparent bias (Rhodes 2005: 159).
Contrary to the FP-Ds rhetorical and narrative play, gothumentary is a
more critically productive reflexive modea form of both meta-
documentary and meta-horror. It reenacts Gothic and horror genre
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conventions with the purpose of revealing monstrous ruptures in the real
that genre conventions typically convey through patently fictional events
and recognizable (because often formulaic) iconographic and narrative
constructs. Framing the world as though teetering on the brink of the
inscrutable and the irrational, the gothumentary points to and disrupts our
vague or illusory sense of the real by rendering it through the conventions
of the darkly fantastic, while still maintaining a link to the historical
world, so crucial within the documentary tradition.
Because the gothumentary filmmaker has recognized the inability of
one explanation to satisfy the central mystery of the text (that is, s/he has
embraced the Nietzschean notion of infinite interpretation), the focus
becomes an examination of the text and texture of evidence in which the
available documents insufficiencies, contradictions and over-determined
meanings become vulnerable to multiple probings. As documentary
theorist Stella Bruzzi observes in her analysis of the Zapruder tapea
compulsively viewed 22-second, 8mm home movie that shows the
clearest view of the Kennedy assassinationno matter what degree of
purity, clarity or value a piece of footage possesses, there will always be
essential questions that no amount of viewing will be able to answer
(Bruzzi 2000: 13-21). In the case of the Kennedy assassination, neither the
killer nor the motive could be proven through the photographic evidence
available. But because vision has long been linked to knowledge, the
Zapruder tape has been viewed and reviewed ad nauseum, in the hopes of
finding some previously unrecognized evidence. Bruzzi calls this
expectation that visible evidence will give up the secrets of what it
represents, the Zapruder paradox, attributing the problem to a confusion
over the explanatory capabilities of the re-presentation (Bruzzi 2000: 16).
Gothumentary openly speaks to the ever widening whys? around the
failure of evidence, visible or otherwise, to tell us what we really want to
know about the past and about how the past persists in the present,
informing us in almost imperceptible ways about aspects of ourselves
nearly successfully repressed, and just about forgotten. For instance, in
films like Cropsey, Resurrect Dead, Capturing the Friedmans, In the
Realms of the Unreal and Must Read After My Death, the filmmakers
present a wealth of evidence that circles endlessly around mysteries that
will never be solved. Unlike the way evidence is collected, analyzed and
deployed by the press, the justice system, and academic institutions, these
films allow for and preserve interpretive openings that these institutions
are neither equipped, nor mandated to pursue. Gothumentary films thus
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turn their focus on the general problems around documentarys reliance
on readable evidence. In Cropsey (2009), for example, one interviewee
discusses the less-than-incontrovertible nature of a photograph used to
indict Staten Island resident Andre Rand as a child murderer, pointing out
the multiple readings about Rands character that could be imposed upon
the photo, which shows Rand in an ostensibly abject posture, head-down
and hunched over, eyes rolled upwards. The film presents a sort of
Kuleshov test, the interviewees voice heard over the photograph as he
offers different interpretations of the image as representing either a heroic
humanitarian or a brutal murderer, to suggest the tenuous claim the photo
has to representing the real Rand. The film also holds itself up to
scrutiny in this manner, featuring Rands open criticism of the filmmakers
in a letter in which he remarks on the futility of their documentary to ever
intervene as evidence in his case. Cropsey filmmakers Joshua Zeman and
Barbara Brancaccio also appear as investigative social actors in their own
film, voicing their doubts, frustrations and suspicions about the evidence
they have collected, and filming themselves probing Rands supposed
former haunts, being denied an interview with him, and opening and
reading aloud his letters to them. Questions regarding whether Rands
letters are his attempts to manipulate the documentarians further serve to
render evidence in the film as increasingly suspect, even unreadable.
Cropsey suggests that we can still learn from evidence of this sort, but the
lessons will be different; we may not get the answer, but will learn about
the problem of looking at and understanding evidence.
Similar to the mockumentarys highlighting of the power of
documentary form to create convincing manipulations of the real in
service of hoax, gothumentaries often self-consciously exploit the
possibilities of fiction in service of complicating the reality they construct.
The visual record as presented by gothumentary can be characterized by a
number of strategies derived from fictionand especially genre
filmmaking. Via impressionistic imagery, such films as The Sound of
Insects: Record of a Mummy (2009) and In the Realms of the Unreal: The
Mystery of Henry Darger (2004) convey a sense of their absent subjects
(similar to Resurrect Dead and Must Read After My Death), constructing
them via juxtapositions of their own artistic or introspective output via
journal writing and/or illustrations. Both films have limited to no access to
visual records of the subjects they trace: in Sound, the mummys
journala daily account of his suicide by starvation in the forestis the
only record of his existence; and in Realms, three photographs of Darger;
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hundreds of Dargers paintings, collages and sketches; and Dargers
1,500-page work of fantasy, provide the primary access to his existence.
Accordingly, both films rely heavily upon images that attempt to evoke
their subjects, as well as to render the world they (and we) live in as
unsettling.
While Gothic narrative strategies have long acknowledged the power
of the document in the service of heightened realism, documentary film
has drawn on the power of the sublime and the visual lure (spectacle) to
engage its viewers affectively in its narrative quest for knowledge, even as
the genre has ostensibly positioned itself against this practice. The desire
to know and to seeand even to take pleasure through seeinghas
always been present in nonfiction photographic media, and it has been
theorized that documentary itself has developed according to different
limitations regarding the styles, techniques and narratives that expose us
to people, events, places and ideas. Nichols has shown (1991, 1994, 2001)
that documentary has moved towards an increasing emphasis on
mediation in order to convey a higher degree of realism, which has its
parallels in 20
th
and 21
st
century Gothics formal and thematic
extrapolation of earlier Gothics focus on proliferations of (often
inscrutable, fragmented or illegible) documents and the fear and desire
generated in contemplating them. It has been only recently, however, that
documentary theory and public discourse have begun to acknowledge a
place for desire, affect and the (Lacanian) real within the documentary
frame due to an unfortunate division that was made in the early days of
cinema and reasserted in the interwar period. Michael Renov (2004) and
Elizabeth Cowie (1999, 2011) have both urged contemporary
documentary film theory to take into account the spectators desire for
knowledge and spectacle, factuality and affect. An ever-growing body of
gothumentary films have combined the subjective, emotional, visual (and
aural) pleasures of the non-fiction filmic experience, still largely
disavowed by todays mainstream documentary, with Gothic reflexive
strategies to challenge the very foundations of documentarys use of
visible evidence to construct reality and knowledge as comprehensible,
objective and accessible.
Nichols sees films that combine an avant-garde impulse with a
documentary orientation as particularly well suited to the task of
disabus[ing] their viewers of any commonsense reality (Nichols 2001:
592). Such uses of documentary discourse to engage spectators with their
own powers of interpretation and critical engagement with perception is a
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crucial step towards rescuing documentary from its Griersonian alignment
with state and corporate propaganda. Gothumentary signals a new strategy
for bringing desire, dread, pleasure and active viewership back into
documentary as a way of undermining the discourses of sobriety,
ultimately presenting a real challenge to how they have co-opted our
visions of what reality is. By creating a spectatorship that is actively
involved in the construction of the text, gothumentary constitutes a return-
of-the-repressed of avant-garde possibilities in documentary, reintegrating
the pleasures of textuality not as a simple erotics, but as an integral part of
a meaning-making process that encourages a critical understanding of the
historical world through being moved by it.
Gothumentary legitimates the scrutinizing gaze of the spectator,
encouraging productive pleasurable looking. Cowie argues that
documentary imagery responds to two types of desire: there is, first, the
desire for reality held and reviewable for analysis as [] a world of
evidence confirmed through observation and logical interpretation, and,
second, the desire for the real not as knowledge but as image, as
spectacle (Cowie 1999: 19). Gothumentary films highlight the tension
between these two desires, questioning the first by exploring the
possibilities of the latterthat is, by constructing a pleasurable gaze that
seeks to scrutinize, however successfully that scrutiny produces
conventional proofs. The gothumentary gaze seeks a different kind of
knowledge, one gained through the contemplation of affect rather than
through teleological structures.
The degree to which the gothumentary deploys visual technology to
bring viewers into an affective relationship to their world parallels popular
mockumentary horror films, such as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and
the Paranormal Activity series (2009, 2010, 2011). In these films, the
visual record is rendered suspect in that it often fails to capture the
(usually monstrous) object the amateur filmmakers have set their sights
on. The camera in mockumentary horror falls into the hands of obsessive
recorders with the urge to chronicle every moment of lived experience,
and yet still fails to capture anything meaningful. In the Paranormal
Activity films, the technology used in service of self-surveillance by the
films haunted families is at least as monstrous in its pervasiveness in the
home as the presence of demons. And the failure of the documentary
project in Blair Witch prompts Brigid Cherry to remark that the film is
about the way technology gets in the way of seeing (Cherry 2009: 188).
James Keller extends this point, arguing that in many ways the subject of
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Blair Witch is the progressive loss of control of the cinema process
(Keller 2004: 60). As one Blair Witch character admits, the visual record
offers only a filtered reality, one that deflects attention from a traumatic
and ultimately unreachable real. Not unlike these and other
mockumentary horror films, gothumentary films are a site where fiction
and nonfiction strategies converge to create ruptures in the way we frame
the world in our visual representations.
Gothumentary unsettles, destabilizes and defamiliarizes those
constructs we conjure to (re)present reality. It functions not merely
through an evocation of terror, but through a deployment of Gothic tropes
and affect to disrupt the conventional documentarys positivist drive,
creating a critical distance between text and spectator in service of
questioning both reality and its representation. The gothumentary is the
result of specific historical convergences and epistemological impasses
that require a mysterium hermeneutics to emphasize more interpretive
modes of reception. Stemming from the three axes upon which
documentary and the Gothic join to form a critical concept
hermeneutics, epistemology and desirewe can identify several major
strategies of representation found in recent gothumentary films, including,
but not limited to: an undermining of the visual record; an emphasis on
the failure of evidence to satisfy our epistephilic desires; a reflexive focus
on, or evocation of, unreadable objects, subjects or texts; a reconfiguration
of the pleasurable gaze of the spectator as both active and productive; and
an over-determination of meaning that acts as a counterpoint to
conventional documentary representations and strategies. The intervention
of the Gothic into documentary foregrounds a trend that has been
unfolding in documentary for several decades towards eschewing
positivistic, conclusive containments of subjects, objects and events, to
emphasize a new basis for documentary realism. In these films, failures of
interpretation can be seen to produce an opening up of a field on which to
explore our anxieties around how we form and communicate our
relationships to reality. In this way, it could be said that the gothumentary
moves its viewers closer to a sense of the real by acknowledging where we
cant go in service of seeking truths. Gothumentary is about revealing
ruptures in rational discourses; it is about asking different questions of
reality and knowledge, about stressing absences and negatives rather than
the revelations and truths required by positivism.


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Bios

Kristopher Woofter and Papagena Robbins are PhD candidates in Film
Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. Kristopher teaches horror film
and the American Gothic at Dawson College, Montreal. Papagena has
taught courses in nonfiction film at Concordia University, and has
presented frequently on experimental documentary.

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