Grieg Research School in Interdisciplinary Music Studies
Invited Speaker

Ilona Hongisto

Sound-objects: The material persistence of ambient sound in documentary cinema

Main content

This paper calls for a reconceptualization of ambient sound in documentary cinema. Locating itself to debates concerning the digital turn in filmmaking, the paper argues that ambient sound has risen to prominence in ways that require reworking the premises and parameters of documentary sound. The paper sets out to fulfil this task by focusing on the materiality of digital sound, the sonic transitions between onscreen and offscreen spaces as well as the motivations behind aural close-ups. With an analysis of the digital aesthetics of documentary sound, the paper offers the term ‘sound-object’ as a way to come to terms with the contemporary transformation of documentary soundscapes.

Key Questions

  • The digital turn in documentary sound design.
  • The impact of this new audiovisual regime on the paradigm of authenticity. 
  • The material persistence of ambient sound as documentary (im)mediation.

Recommended Reading

  • Ruoff, Jeffrey (1992) “Conventions of Sound in Documentary” in Rick Altman (ed.) Sound Theory/ Sound Practice. NY: Routledge, pp. 217–234.

  • Shaeffer, Pierre (2004/1966) "Acousmatics" in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, 76–81. London: Continuum.

  • Strachan, Robert and Marion Leonard (2014) “More Than Background. Ambience and Sound-Design in Contemporary Art Documentary Film” in Holly Rogers (ed.) Music and Sound in Documentary Film. New York, Routledge, pp. 166–179 (chapter 10).


Ilona Hongisto is an Associate Professor in Film Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU, Trondheim). She is also an Honorary Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia; Adjunct Professor (Docent) in Media Theory and Aesthetics at the University of Turku, Finland; and Adjunct Professor (Docent) in Documentary Film at Aalto University, Finland. Hongisto works across Film and Media Studies, specializing in documentary cinema and its threshold with the fictitious. Focusing on questions of speculation, imagination and fabulation, she works towards redefining the work of documentary media in the contemporary world. Her most recent research focuses on the functions of fabulation in post-1989 Eastern European documentary cinema. Hongisto’s publications include the monograph "Soul of the Documentary: Framing, Expression, Ethics" (Amsterdam University Press, 2015) and peer-reviewed articles in such journals as Necsus – European Journal of Media Studies, Studies in Documentary Film, Journal of Scandinavian Cinema, Cultural Studies Review, and Transformations.