Where do we go when we go off-the-grid?

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Film and Media Studies

First Advisor

Casetti, Francesco


This dissertation examines how the idea of going off-the-grid has affected the epistemology of documentary film, particularly three of its variants: romantic ethnography, observational cinema, and the essay film. The grid is understood to be a graphic design that is fundamental to modern cultural techniques, especially those involving the organization of objects and data, administration and governance. The grid as an organizational principle has been a definitive feature of modernity, particularly in so-called “disciplinary societies,” where its use intensified as a system of social control during industrialization and increasing urbanization. The expansion of the grid has resulted in a certain anxiety about individual freedoms, including the freedom of thought, and a romanticization of life beyond the grid. Within the practices of documentary film, attempts to capture authentic human experiences have resulted in several conceptually distinctive approaches to going off-the-grid, where these authentic experiences are presumed to be found. Romantic ethnographies driven by the notion of “noble savages” looked for subject matter beyond what they perceived as their civilizational boundaries. The most famous exponents of this mode were Robert and Frances Flaherty, whose Nanook of the North is often cited as the first ever documentary. Observational cinema, which includes cinema vérité and direct cinema, experimented with urban subject matter, employing fly-on-the-wall cinematography to capture the informal experiences of residents of the grid. The essay film abandons the “objective” pursuits of observation and romantic ethnography, looking instead at off-grid spaces as mental constructs, and exploring the subjective and ideological conditions that render a place on- or off-the-grid.

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