Documenting International Relations: Documentary Film and the Creative Arrangement of Perceptibility


  • An earlier version of this article was presented at the seminar “Visuality, Security, and Documentaries,” Centre for Advanced Security Theory, University of Copenhagen, February 2012, and at the International BISA-ISA Conference, Edinburgh, June 20–22, 2012. We would like to thank the participants at the workshop “Documenting World Politics,” Copenhagen, May 10–11, 2013, as well as the editors and anonymous reviewers of ISP for valuable comments. The research for the article has been supported by The Danish Council for Independent Research as part of a larger project on Globality and Planetary Security (GAPS).
  • [Corrections added 5 February 2015, after original online publication: grammatical changes have been made to this article to improve clarity.]


International Relations (IR) is taking a stronger interest in visual practices and representations both as popular imaginaries that shape how we understand and act in the world and as vehicles for teaching empirical events and abstract concepts. The genre of documentary film has, however, received virtually no attention, which is striking given the last decade's explosion of widely circulated documentaries revolving around questions of central importance to IR. In this article we argue that IR needs to take documentary film-making seriously as a separate and significant medium of representation that—moving smoothly between fact and fiction, education and entertainment—directly intervenes in international politics by laying claim to (parts of) truth and reality. To this end, we introduce an analytical framework based on the idea of arrangements of perceptibility, a term that refers to the creative arrangement of sensorial perceptions (saying and showing) in documentary film. We distinguish between three such arrangements, each characterized by a specific theoretical modality (reality, truth, doubt), educational model (instruction, facilitation, problematization), and political efficacy (exposition, disclosure, destabilization). This framework enables a critical analysis of the politics of documentary film, which we demonstrate through a reading of recent documentary films about global politics.