Filling The Gaps


Author: Fernando Sobron
Format: Video 16:9
Duration: 30’ 51”
Published: April 2020

Supporting Research Statement

The film is part of a PhD thesis analysing creative input in the conception and production of documentary films. Filling the Gaps attempts to make evident the narrative and construction of the film to the spectator, making audiences aware of the creative leaps necessary to compile a documentary, as well as for its interpretation. Central to the film’s analysis is the concept of ‘creative constraints’; I explore their usefulness to encourage creativity, structuring creative processes, and their utility in creative analysis.

Research Questions
Filling the Gaps is a reflexive documentary, part of a thesis pursuing a re-evaluation of creativity in documentary film through practice and critical theory. The thesis argues for a more prominent consideration of creative input in the production of documentaries, complementing the institution’s indirect approaches to its study, which often involves looking at the evidence left on the resulting film and most frequently coded as form, style or authorship.[1] It employs creative practice as a mode of enquiry. Central to the proposed approach is the concept of creative constraints, together with cognitive concepts of creativity and idea generation. This enquiry probes the usefulness of creative constraints in the conception, development and creative analysis of a documentary film and exposes and explores influences in the reflection about creativity in my own practice.

A precedent and inspiration for the mode of enquiry (i.e. the use of creative constraints) can be seen in The Five Obstructions (2012), a documentary film directed and produced by Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier. In the film, to stimulate Leth’s creativity, von Trier imposes on Leth what he calls ‘obstructions’, impositions Leth must follow in the production of remakes of his film The Perfect Human (1967). Another example is when Jill Godmilow was famously impeded from returning to Poland to document the Solidarność movement. Godmilow accepted her estrangement as a challenge (we could consider it a creative constraint) to the production of Far from Poland (1984). Reflexivity evidences authors’ preoccupation and engagement with the particular creative challenges of the documentary mode and elicits dedicated creative responses to signal this engagement to audiences. This is made particularly evident by Stella Bruzzi in New Documentary and subsequent research on performativity. Recently practice as research or screen production research has seen a flourishing of papers on cognitive approaches to practice analysis by scholars like Kerrigan,[2] Batty,[3] Bell,[4] Brylla,[5] and Kramer,[6] of relevance to the proposed enquiry.

On a short note about my background and interests, aside from documentary film production I have extensive experience in the creation and production of institutional campaigns designed to create awareness or to challenge behaviour regarding health or social issues. Among these, particularly notable is my three-year collaboration creating TV messages, press and posters for the C.O.I. in the government’s national campaign for the prevention of the misuse of drugs, or my pro-bono creation and targeting of media messages for the prevention of the spread of Hepatitis C amongst the UK’s LGBT community. I have taught documentary and advertising at the University of Sussex

The film concept and its posterior analysis borrow form Literature Criticism, Cognitive psychology and Documentary and Film Criticism. Building on ideas proposed by John Elster[7] and Thomas Elsaesser[8], both the film production and its analysis were conceived by considering self-imposed ‘creative constraints’, a term coined by Elsaesser[9]. Creative constraints are intentionally chosen by filmmakers to structure their creativity via challenges, giving defining character to both authorial approach and formal results. We are all bound by constraints at all times and in all activities, yet in the course of making a film, practitioners choose to challenge particular constraints in particular ways for particular reasons. In contrast to the natural constraints bounding all activities, creative constraints are self-imposed and chosen by the author. This self-constraining method aims to counteracting or bypassing constraints’ influence with creative response and to avoid becoming overwhelmed by diversity of choice. Different combinations of constraints can give a different character to a production. The Dogme 95 vows of chastity,[10] for example, or American Direct Cinema’s ambitions for a new form of reporting and documenting,[11] can be thought of as sets of creative constraints, self-imposed by their authors in their search for creative development centered on authorship in response to or rejection of the contemporaneous mainstream. For a posterior creative analysis of the resulting film, identifying and following constraints can serve as analysis guidance and help reveal aspects of its authorship by establishing correspondences between the creative challenges faced to resulting film forms.

‘Creative’ and ‘creativity’ are terms often used imprecisely for a wide range of meanings related to the ideas of novelty and originality.[12] I set the creativity I consider within part of the scheme proposed by Mihaly Ciskszentmihalyi[13] and the categorisations proposed by Kaufman and Sternberg.[14] Because of the subjective nature of creativity in terms of the individual and unavoidable introduction of social or cultural criteria into its evaluation, Csikszentmihalyi relocated the creative process “outside the individual’s mind”. Csikszentmihalyi developed what he referred to as the DIFI system of creativity. DIFI stands for Domain, Individual, Field, Interaction framework.[15] Likewise, other authors, notably Margaret Boden, consider creativity in the social sphere. Boden maintains that creativity involves the mapping, exploration and transformation of conceptual spaces,[16] and like Csikszentmihalyi suggests the need for qualification and acceptance of works as creative. These must be recognised by a field of expertise in the subject, to be of relevance to a domain and altering or remapping its domain conceptual spaces.[17] Cognitive scientists have established differences in magnitudes of creativity, which are worth considering to better identify possible creative instances and their products. Kaufman and Sternberg differentiate categories of creative magnitude,[18] and common elements of influence on the creative process have been summarised by researchers as process, product, person, place persuasion and potential.[19] Gruber elaborated on the need for the accumulation of many small-magnitude creative instances to lead to instances of greater magnitude.[20]

Creative input relates to the individual’s effort to find original approaches and solutions to aspects of practice. In relation to Csikszentmihalyi’s DIFI the work concerned here is situated in the exchange of information between the cultural domain and the individual. In relation to Boden’s work it could be considered as exploration of the documentary domain. Creative input could be considered as the actions the practitioner takes to find and implement useful, surprising and or novel responses to constraining challenges that might result in creative products or findings and if successful, introducing modifications to the relevant conceptual space. The autoethnographic approach to the possible creativity achieved in my project during the process of production and analysis relates to and borrows from Kaufman and Sternberg’s concepts of process, person and potential. Neither this enquiry nor its approach intends on portraying or defending my film and the subsequent analysis as creative. To be considered creative, as Boden or Csikszentmihalyi propose, this enquiry’s creative achievements, if any, should be acknowledged by a field and have an impact of some magnitude — however small — in the cultural domain. I remain humble about the category of potential creativity achieved by the film in combination with the accompanying exegesis. Following the cited authors’ advice, I leave consideration of this to the field.

While my primary objective is a cognitive analysis of my own practice, having found creative constraints a very useful method to approach creative development and creative analysis, I can only hope that sharing my experience could be of benefit to other practitioners. With this intention, then is an exposition of the influences and reasons for my creative choices. It begins with examples of creative constraints to elaborate on their significance in the exploration of my own work. Then I succinctly comment on some of most significant influences and contribution from documentary studies and cognitive research ideas on creativity in the film’s production.

To illustrate the idea of creative constraints with a simpler example, and how they assist me in my practice, consider authorial choice between producing work in colour or in black and white. This is nothing new; many artists have chosen to render their work without colour. Sebastião Salgado’s photographic work makes masterful use of black and white images to give his social denouncements suitable character. Salgado’s choice can be interpreted as a creative constraint he uses to his work’s advantage. To further illustrate the potential of creative constraints following the choice of black and white example, consider producing a documentary about colour blindness or synaesthesia. Rather than describing and reviewing the problem of those affected by these syndromes, an interesting approach would be use only black and white film stock or video to try to convey to others (for instance) the colour blue. Choosing black and white for the purpose of portraying the colour blue, and in the process reflecting and encouraging reflection on what it is like to be colour blind because of the difficulties it makes evident, could be considered a creative constraint. This illustrates how creative constraints help my thinking discourse stepping away from obvious routes and focusing on finding original strategies to tackle subjects.

Some constraints are more evident or tangible than others. The constraints I applied in Mechanising the Catch (2015) an ‘obstructed’ film preceding Filling the Gaps, were certainly tangible: the challenge was to produce a documentary with Vines, the six-second, looped, square format videos proprietary of[21] Filling the Gaps’s constraints are less obvious. Some of the constraints imposed on Filling the Gaps, in common with all the films in the overall project, were: striving to cede the spectator as much agency as possible; ceding agency through narrative construction; striving to make the viewer aware of the construction of documentary; avoiding use of narration; restricted equipment and crew. Working through them backwards, restricting a film production to a one-man crew, what today is called being a self-shooter or director-producer, had the advantage of allowing me to control and record all input into the production’s development. It also had the disadvantages that making films — a social, collective activity — alone brings. I chose to make them on my own to note the creative challenges and their negotiation. Many documentaries are made by a single documentarian; their reasons for operating in this way may vary, e.g. the personal nature of the documentary or because of economics; each brings different consequences to the resulting films. By ceding agency, I intend to make the spectator more instrumental to the film if at all possible. This can be more easily exemplified on interactive documentaries.

The film intends encouraging spectators to reflect on aspects of documentary construction. It aims at inciting connections between two narrative threads. This is a deliberate construction, aiming to stimulate what Mednick calls associative ideation[22]. Reflexive documentaries often point the viewer to the film’s construction; significantly performative documentaries are described and analysed by Stella Bruzzi in her book New Documentary.[23] Filling the Gaps is an attempt at performativity by means other than enacting the documentary act on camera as Bruzzi observes on films by Nick Broomfield or Molly Dineen. It intends relocating performativity to the viewer, who is given two narratives, where the intention or idea is not explicitly declared or voiced. While there is a degree of this cession in all communication, the difference here is its intentionality and underlining, in order to allow the spectator to engage via what Howard Gruber calls “cognitive gap filling”[24] or Lucia Nagib calls “the narrative gaps”,[25] exploring their own thinking paths, forming their own ideas associations and conclusions. The feedback received by peers, and commentary at festivals positively signal spectator engagement with the subject and evidences reflection in the association of the two narratives and the nature of documentary, creativity and imagination. A dedicated study following responses to the film would be necessary to definitively establish if the viewer feels differently involved or empowered on its interpretation. The ambition to share authorship and cede degrees of agency to the viewer or spectator becomes evident in interactive documentaries. Notable examples are Mandy Rose’s co-creation,[26] or Aston and Gaudency’s interpretation of documentary as a recreation of a reality in collaboration with the spectator, rather than a straightforward representation.[27]

Perhaps the most obvious of the film’s constraints was the choice of collaborators. Interviewees commenting about Morocco were restrictively selected: none of the collaborators had at the time been to Morocco. This was a helpful constraint to illustrate how we form images and ideate concepts out of available information. The narrative developed around these interviews mirrors the constraint Albrecht Dürer had to overcome to produce his engraving of a Rhinoceros, which he had never seen; Dürer produced the engraving via the scarce information available to him at the time. Recording their interviews, not filming them, attempted to avoid passing judgement on their knowledge and to help in obtaining candid accounts of how they would portray a country they had never visited.

The film production was self-funded. The film was screened at the University of Sussex to collaborators and peers to aid in its development. Encouragingly, it was very well received. Filling the Gaps publicly premiered at the DOCfeed 2020 festival in Eindhoven, where I presented and intervene in the film’s discussion. So far it has also been selected for screening and competition at the Film Sessions London and the Lift Off Sessions festivals.

The original study mission statement of the original study was to approach documentary criticism and analysis attending to the creativity invest on the production of a documentary film. Documentary’s foundation on the real might lead to a false impression, that of a class between the creative and fundamentally not subject to convention and the factual. Worst, it might invite to consider documentary as a lesser creative form than, for instance, fiction film. This is far from true. Documentary is fundamentally creative in all its aspects, from original approaches to themes to exploration of innovative forms. Creativity on the other hand has represented a challenge to define even for those who dedicate to its study. It is perhaps the lack of simple creativity definitions that have prevented more documentary scholars to address its intervention within a frame directly related to creativity as the thesis, paper and film collaborate in attempting. The preceding paper reviews an approximation to creativity as a concept in relationship to the film’s production and, as the thesis that preceded it, encourages exploration of creative input’s participation in the production of documentaries.

Perhaps the closer to evidence and nature of the research’s impact is indicated in viewers’ comments noted after screenings on campus or at festival discussions. Comments highlight two main aspects about Filling the Gaps’ possible influence. One, its suitability to invite to a reflection about filmmakers’ own practice, and second, its suitability to open discussions on scholarly documentary preoccupations and possible usefulness as teaching aid in the subject. Another recurrent comment could be resumed as the self-consciousness experienced by audiences in their participation in the film’s interpretation. The first and last of these comments seem to fulfill some of the research and film’s aims.

Encouraged by the film’s reception and results, I would like to be able to continue exploring the intervention of creative input in more discreet aspects of production, like originality in the approach of universal, recurrent subject matters and confronting audiences with explorations through perception versus reality.

[1] Kerrigan, S., and McIntyre, P. (2010) ‘The “creative treatment of actuality”: Rationalizing and reconceptualizing the notion of creativity for documentary practice’, Journal of Media Practice, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 111-130.

[2] Kerrigan, S., Berkeley, L., Maher, S., Sergi, M., and Wotherspoon, A. (2015) ‘Screen production enquiry: A study of five Australian doctorates’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp. 24-25; Kerrigan and McIntyre, ‘The “creative treatment of actuality”’.

[3] Batty, C., and Kerrigan, S., eds (2018) Screen Production Research: Creative Practice as a Mode of Enquiry (London: Palgrave Macmillan).

[4] Bell, D. (2006) ‘Creative film and media practice as research: In pursuit of that obscure object of knowledge’, Journal of Media Practice, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 85-100.

[5] Brylla, C., and Kramer, M. (2018) Cognitive Film Studies and Documentary (London: Palgrave Macmillan).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Elster, J. (2000) Ulysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment and Constraints (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press).

[8] Elsaesser, T. ‘The global auteur’. (2016) in Seun-hoon, J., and Szaniavwski, J., eds, The Politics of Authorship in 21st Century Cinema (New York: Bloomsbury), p. 22.

[9] Idem

[10] Hiørt, M. (2003) Purity and Provocation: Dogma 95 (London: BFI).

[11] As expressed by in Peter Wintonick’s film Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment (1999).

[12] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013) Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (London: Harper Perennial).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kaufman, J., and Sternberg, R., eds (2012) The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (New York: Cambridge University Press).

[15] Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity, p. 406.

[16] Boden, M. (1996) What is Creativity? (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), p. 32.

[17] Boden, M. (1994) Dimensions of Creativity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), p. 151, and Boden, M. (1992) The Creative Mind, Myths and Mechanisms (London: Abacus).

[18] Kaufman and Sternberg, The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity, p. 23. And Ahmed, M. Paek, S.H. Cramond, B. Runko. (2018) “Problem Finding and Creativity: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts (2018): Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Web.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Gruber, H. (1996) ‘Insight and affect in the history of science’ in R. Sternberg, The Nature of Insight (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), pp. 427-428.

[21] After ceased business, the Vines that comprised the project can still be seen at:

[22] Mednick, A. (1962) ‘The associative basis of the creative process’, Psychological Review, Vol. 69, No. 3, pp. 220-232.

[23] Bruzzi, S. (2006) New Documentary, Second Edition (London: Routledge).

[24] Gruber, ‘Insight and affect’, p. 401.

[25] Nagib, L. (2011) World Cinema and the Ethics of Realism (London: Continuum), p. 158.

[26] Rose, M. (2017) ‘Not media about, but media with: Co-creation for activism. And documentary as co-creative practice’ in Aston, J., Gaudency, S., and Rose, M., eds (2017) I-Docs: The Evolving Practices of Interactive Documentary (New York and London: Columbia University Press and Wallflower Press).

[27] Aston, Gaudenzi, and Rose, I-Docs.


Peer Reviews

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:

Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
This documentary film based research project aims to open the door on the normally hidden world of the creative processes , and the role of creative limitations, that underpin documentary filmmaking.

The screenwork itself is cleverly structured around two parallel engagements with discussions on creative limitations, and in doing so engages an audience with tangential themes including creation of collective imagination, as well as the fostering, and fabrication of stereo typing through representational decisions. The first of the two strands in the film involves the close analysis of the processes of creation and reception of the 16th century print ‘Dürer’s Rhinocero’ via a single close analysis from a British Museum worker. The second strand of the film involves the filmmaker engaging a various participants, largely through audio interviews matched to archive moving and still images, on their own thoughts and perceptions on Morrocco, despite none of them having ever been.

These two strands are cleverly edited together to create a sense of dialogue between these two otherwise contrasting pieces of filmmaking. The result is an original, and intelligent piece of work that illuminates a number of contemporary links to creative screen practice. The piece asks an audience to question the impact and role of the inherent limitations that exist within the creation of any moving or still image set within the real, as well as their impact on issues surrounding the representation and wider collective imagination of the subject. While for many screen practitioners the use, role and nature of limitations in the creative process are often an internalised, and inherent part of the creative process, this works cleverly brings these to the foreground for an audience that otherwise may not have drawn these links. The discussion the film potentially is able to open up is an important one, that engages with issues of media literacy and the politics of representation in documentary film. However, the ability of the film to speak as easily to a non-film professional, or non-academic audience may potentially be limited without further context as a result of the indirect and subtle nature of its primary argument. Furthermore, while the concept and construction of the film is well crafted and articulate, the final duration of 42 minutes may be something that the filmmaker wants to relook at for any wider audience, as at times the film struggles to justify this length.

While the screenwork presents a coherent and interesting contribution as a piece, the research statement that supports this could benefit from further development, and more clarity and elaboration around the research focus and questions that underpin the project. While the author states that it is part of a wider PhD project, it seems that there is scope
for a more detailed presentation of the argument that the author wishes to make with this journal submission, as well as a more direct discussion of the impact goals of the project itself.

It seems there has been a reliance placed on the screen work itself to present the research, however there appears to be opportunities for further elaboration of themes and issues the film raises that would help the work more clearly be academically positioned, and to more successfully highlight and reach the stated goal to have the project reemphasise the consideration of the creative processes of documentary films alongside other approaches to its filmic study.

Review2: Invite resubmission with re-edit of work and/or statement.
The audio-visual artefact is very strong with regards to the concepts of imagination and restrictions/constraints, which are efficiently explored at the level of film topic, participants and authorship. The resulting coherence between the thematic, narrative and aesthetic layers render this piece a potentially excellent case study on practice-led research.

However, the written statement is rather vague and needs significant revisions to demonstrate the generation of new knowledge (originality), rigour (the effective, cross-disciplinary synthesis of concepts and models) and significance (relevance to academic and non-academic fields). From this perspective, the film itself remains rather indicative, although it hints at the scope to advance discourses located in several academic fields, such as narratology, visual aesthetics, ethnography and documentary film studies.

On the whole, the statement and methodology need to be closer aligned to the film as a case study for the author’s own creative process. Also, the central concept of ‘imagination’ needs more theoretical contextualisation in order to draw boundaries around such an elusive term. The same applies to the term ‘constraint’, which also requires a clearer connection to the former term. Very fewscholarly references are provided in relation to these two concepts, which precludes the opportunity to highlight gaps and develop existing ideas towards new methodologies.

Several statements and related conceptual methods are too tentative and need further elaboration. These include “problematisation of the film mode”, “conceptual shift”, “creative input analysis”, “cede the spectator as much agency as possible”, “creative instance”, etc. At the moment, it appears as if these concepts have been plucked out of (or summarised from) a wider and more coherent discourse elsewhere.

In the first paragraph, it is not clear how the author conceives the taxonomy of “forms, styles and authorship”. Also, why is the author’s declared approach different to ‘authorship’ and the ‘institution’ (which I assume denotes the ‘academy’)? The ‘institution’ has produced a range of knowledge beyond just “form, styles and authorship” (see cognitive film theory, film phenomenology, audience research, affect theory, apparatus theory, post-colonial film theory, transnational film theory, etc.). Similarly, what does “focus creative input” mean? Is this in relation to story, production practices, reception or authorship?

It also remains unclear how exactly self-imposed constraints benefit the film practice. Here, “The Five Obstructions” is an excellent example, but more elaboration is needed about how the author’s film draws on and differs from von Trier’s film. Furthermore, the author asserts that “Considering obstructions or constraints is a way to focus on creative tasks acknowledging limiting factors in order to find original ways to overcome or bypass them”. This statement does not explain why the constraints have to be self-imposed, and why the abundance of ‘natural’ constraints typical to filmmaking endeavours (e.g. lack of access to characters/locations, insufficient funding, insufficient time, deadlines, institutional restrictions) are not conducive to foster imagination.

Hence, the outlined constraints in the “methods” section appear arbitrary, and they also do not represent novel approaches in film practice. For instance, observational documentaries usually avoid narration, and many first-person documentaries use a “one-person crew”. Also, the statement of “strive to make the viewer aware of documentary’s construction” may well be applied to the common rhetoric in reflexive documentaries.

There are also a few factual errors. For example, the author indicates that the work of Jon Elster and Thomas Elsaesser are located in cognitive semiotics, which is not accurate.

In terms of intended outcomes it needs to be clearer what the generated praxical knowledge constitutes in, and how it may impact on documentary film practice (and indeed research-led practice) in general. The hypothetical impact idea regarding people with Alzheimer’s sounds intriguing but is currently too embryonic and requires more empirical data for its preparation. For instance, it is not apparent how the film’s deployment for impact would differ to existing films, and who the actual beneficiary would be (patients with Alzheimer’s? Clinicians? Filmmakers who represent people with Alzheimer’s? The public’s awareness of Alzheimer’s?).

In conclusion, this project has the potential to provide a novel contribution to research-led documentary film practice, but its present assertion of originality is premature and only evident in the film, not the written component, which calls for significant revisions to establish a more synergetic link between the two components.

All reviews refer to original research statement which has been edited in response.

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