Each year the MDOCS Storytellers’ Institute and MDOCS Forum convene non-fiction makers working in any medium around a central theme. These themes generate productive exchanges around the subjects taken on by non-fiction makers, as well as self-reflexive questioning of documentary practices. In 2015, the inaugural Institute explored FAMILY; subsequent themes have addressed what constitutes non-fiction with WALKING THE LINE BETWEEN FACT AND FICTION, delved into placemaking and de-colonization in documentary with SPACE AND PLACE, and interrogated the shared and divergent practices between documentary and surveillance in SURVEIL/SURVEILLED. Our fifth Institute, HUMOR: LAUGHING WITH REALITY, playfully subverts the association of documentary with the tragedy.

Humor: Laughing With Reality

“Any attempt to explain humor is either grossly reductionist or so broad it is meaningless.” – Susan Sontag


Documentary has long been affiliated with what Bill Nichols terms “discourses of sobriety,” a somber relationship to the real that is “direct, immediate and transparent.” Pooja Rangan critiques the equivalency documentarist draw between marginalized people or places and the serious, while reserving the domain of humor for others: “the ethos of sobriety calls on the documentarist to ‘give up’ the solipsistic pleasures of artistic abstraction, ambiguity, evocation, complexity, and play in order to evolve a sober aesthetic of immediacy, spontaneity, denotation, actuality, transparency, and instrumentality.” Jill Godmillow challenges us to consider the political, as well as aesthetic, stakes involved in this ethos. “Though the liberal documentary takes the stance of a sober, non-fiction vehicle for edification about the real world, it is trapped in the same matrix of obligations as the fiction film — to entertain its audience; to produce fascination with its materials; to achieve closure; to satisfy. Certainly, it is a vehicle for compassion. My question is: is that of any political use? Further, is not the production of compassion, perhaps, subversive of progressive political change?” With this year’s theme, we explore humor’s role in facilitating or hindering compassion and social change. 

In a world continually on the brink of apocalypse, in which absurdity is a daily occurrence, how can we not laugh at reality if we want to survive it? This year’s theme honors the long tradition of non-fiction makers who, through satire and silliness, have employed humor as means to transgress social norms, toy with the taboo, and empower us through laughter.

As seen in the works of filmmakers like Agnes Varda, Frances Bodomo, Laila Pakalnina and Miguel Gomes, the playful is political and the camera has its own sense of timing and delivery. Agit Prop artists The Yes Men worked with the absurd as instigation when they crashed a WTO conference in gold lamé suits to call attention to modern-day slavery. Non-fiction graphic novelists like Marjane Satrapi and Roz Chast use humor to invite the reader to relate to their intimate family tragedies. In a very different vein, the stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby highlights humor’s “abusive relationship” between performer and audience by deconstructing her own vulnerability on stage. She challenges audiences to consider their role in the spectacle of comedy with the provocation, “laughter is not our medicine, stories hold our cure.” At its worst, humor can create unproductive distance between maker, audience, and subject. It can reproduce stereotypes and invite the audience to gape at the freakish Other. With this theme we ask, where do the ethics of comedy and the ethics of documentary converge. Where do they diverge?

The John B. Moore Documentary Collaborative invites national and international documentary and non-fiction makers working in any medium to apply for the MDOCS Storytellers’ Institute and MDOCS Forum. This summer, we will consider how humor can be used in non-fiction forms as a release from oppressive realities and how it can disrupt the status quo, but also how it can reproduce inequities and deepen cultural divides. Join us for an experience of deep intellectual inquiry, creative inspiration and shared laughter. 

Application details for the Storytellers’ Institute.

Application details for the MDOCS Forum.


“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” – Karl Marx.