The Gaze: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, and Representation

My primary interest in writing about cinematic theories of the Gaze is to establish how various forms of looking are manifesting in my own animated documentary practice. While traditionally this discourse is organised around spectatorship and not practice, I aim to relate the various theories of the cinematic gaze to the actions, decisions and assumptions required for filmmaking in order to influence spectators.

My research explores the representation of autistic participants in animated documentaries that I create. Despite not being autistic I am neurodivergent in various ways and have developed a strong allegiance to the neurodiversity paradigm of understanding psychological and neurological forms of difference. I intend to investigate how the theoretical Gaze may be useful for understanding how my position and ideology manifest in film, how audiences may be interpolated into these perspectives and to what extent I have control over this process.

I am equally interested in what Gaze theory means for animation; a medium in which the filmmaker utterly controls how the characters appear, behave and interact; a medium with no physical constraints on the way the filmmaker orchestrates and filters reality through mimesis, stylisation and invention. There is a limitless potential for how I could construct the mode of looking through mise-en-scène and through the interactions between characters that I perform as an animator. Through this frame by frame control of each aspect of the image, animation has the potential to be a powerful vehicle for propaganda as well as unconscious projection.  However, it is beyond the remit of this article to fully expound the intersection of animation, documentary, and psychoanalysis. First, I must explore how the Gaze has been used in film theory and evaluate its relevance to my animated documentary practice.


Within film theory, conceptions of the gaze were established in the 1970’s by psychoanalytic film theorists, Jean-Louis Baudry, Raymond Bellour, and Christian Metz, who related the experienced of cinema viewing to Lacan’s theorisation of the Mirror stage, an illusory encounter that starts when the child first sees themselves in the mirror and is deceived into feeling a sense of complete self-identity (McGowen 2007: 2). According to early Lacanian film theorists the cinematic spectator identifies with the events on the screen in the way the child develops the illusion of coherent self-identity through the encounter with one’s reflection (ibid.). Metz wrote ‘The spectator is absent from the screen as perceived, but also (the two things inevitably go together) present there and even ‘all-present’ as perceiver. At every moment I am in the film by my look’s caress’ (Metz 1982: 54). These Lacanian film theorists were able to connect the illusory qualities of film, specifically the spectator’s false identification with the film, to the process through which ideological interpellation takes place. i.e. the adoption of social behaviours and identities presented through films that correlate to hegemonic social structures and ideologies (McGowen 2007:1-2). Baudry ties these various threads together neatly: ‘The arrangement of the different elements—projector, darkened hall, screen—in addition to reproducing in a striking way the mise-en-scène of Plato’s cave . . . reconstructs the situation necessary to the release of the ‘mirror stage’ discovered by Lacan.’ (Baudry 1985: 539). This invocation of Plato’s cave firmly positions the film theorist at a vantage point from which they can reveal the illusions of cinema and their ideological power over a population.

From a Lacanian perspective these authors are arguing that the cinematic image resides in and perpetuates the Imaginary order, one of three organising realms with which humans grapple. The Imaginary order deals with the function of imagery and illusion, often working to mask the presence of the other two orders, the Symbolic and the Real. Whereas the Imaginary order is what we see, the Symbolic order is the collection of organising elements and forces within our world, in other words, language, social structures and ideology. At this early stage in Lacan’s research, he had yet to fully develop his theorisation of the Real, but at its essence it is that which exists beyond the possibilities of perception and symbolic organisation. It is the traumatic threat of what exists beyond what we can see, understand, or articulate. Its existence can be inferred through the inconsistencies and failures of ideology (McGowen 2007: 3).

These early Lacanian film theorists identified cinema with the Imaginary order, demonstrating that it was an illusory force which allowed spectators to enjoy narratives by inviting them to take part in temporary fantasies. However, with their critical distance the theorist task was to pull back the curtains of the Imaginary order to reveal the Symbolic order, the ideologies that orient these shared fantasies into predetermined modes for living one’s life or organising a society.

Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) developed a feminist stance based on this psychoanalytic perspective on spectatorship and the various forms of looking that take place within the cinematic experience. She argued that in classic Hollywood films there is an interplay between three sets of looks that align with the coordinates of phallocentric ideology, a synonym for patriarchy: [1] the look of the camera which is typically under the control of a male director, [2] the look of the male characters, who are typically active agents in the progression of the plot and [3] the look of the audience from the dark comfort of the cinema, enjoying the activity of the male actors and the sexualised presentation of the female actors (1975: 17). It is particularly telling how the camera often simulates the perspective of the male protagonists looking at female characters, who are themselves presented as passive and sexualised. These encounters with female characters often function as rest stops for the male protagonist as they journey through the plot. 

Mulvey observed that within the mechanisms of classic Hollywood cinema audiences were assumed to be, or prioritised as, male. Non-male viewers were left to either identify with the passivity of the female supporting roles or they could temporarily identify with the activity of the male character. In other words, women were given no other option but to be interpellated within the ideological system of patriarchy. Mulvey described the Male Gaze to be the phenomenon of expression and interpolation of patriarchal ideology, through this three-way matrix of cinematic looking. She relied on Lacan’s theory of the Mirror Stage to account for the diverse audience members misrecognising themselves within the cinematic experience (1975: 9-10).

What I find useful to take from Mulvey is the formulation of Gaze showing the filmmaker already interpolated within ideologies. These ideological beliefs will manifest in the Symbolic organisation of the film, masked by Imaginary field of the visual. Both cinematic aesthetics and character performances reflect these ideologies, along with the “ideal” audience the director is attempting to appeal to. As such the process of looking, from the position of spectator, interpolates each spectator into the Symbolic order of patriarchy, whether they are male or not. The Gaze is, according to Mulvey, the invisible Symbolic order, present within the Imaginary dominated field of vision which organises the way the filmmaker chooses to create or capture images and directs the actors, while also emerging in the finished film as a captivating force that organises the audience’s method of looking by predetermining visual pleasure.

If a feminist directs a film one would expect they would construct an artefact that reflects feminist ideologies. I have been told anecdotally that one does not need to be a woman to be a feminist, one simply needs to educate themselves to a sufficient extend that they raise their consciousness. Therefore, a man could theoretically execute the feminist Gaze if he had sufficiently internalised this ideology. I am intrigued firstly by the question of whether this level of ideological investment could be reached without lived experience of being a woman. Surely some aspects of this man’s unconscious activity will preserve internalised patriarchy. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if a man was able somehow to execute a feminist Gaze, would this be recognised as authentically feminist, i.e. how important is the alignment between identity (Ego) and ideology, to inspire authenticity?  I feel there is good justification for scepticism, as without lived experience of being a woman under patriarchy, a man would be left with a somewhat academic understanding of oppression, and their own status within this system of power may still leave them vulnerable to ideological blind spots. These questions will be explored at greater length in a future post on positionality. 

The essence of what Mulvey is doing in her essay is identifying the illusory power that cinema has over its spectators, no matter who they are. However, through the use of psychoanalytic tools she shows how the Imaginary order can be lifted to reveal a hidden ideological structure, the Symbolic order. In this formulation the film theorist is analyst, the spectator analysand, and the film dreamlike materials to be picked apart. Interestingly the analysis reveals insights, not into the spectator, nor does it say much about the director other than the expectation that both are fully interpolated within the symbolic order of patriarchy. 

Oppositional Gaze

Despite Mulvey’s success and good intentions, a wave of criticism developed around her conception of the Gaze, an example of which is Bell Hooks essay “The Oppositional Gaze” (2014). According to Hooks, Mulvey overlooked her own positioning within racist hierarchies when formulating a theory of spectatorship. Hooks contests that ‘many feminist film critics continue to structure their discourse as though it speaks about “women” when in actuality it speaks only about white women.’ (2014: 123). Hooks goes on to argue that Black men are interpolated within white notions of Male Gaze successfully as it gave them an opportunity to look at white women within the safety of the dark cinema space, an act that would have otherwise gone punished throughout American history (Ibid. 118). Where as ‘black female spectators have had to develop looking relations within a cinematic context that constructs our presence as absence, that denies the “body” of the black female so as to perpetuate white supremacy and with it a phallocentric spectatorship where the woman to be looked at and desired is “white.”’(Ibid.). Hooks calls this specific looking relation the Oppositional Gaze, a way of looking defined by involuntary critical distance. A certain enjoyment that comes from unpicking the racist and sexist ideology’s manifest in a film. ‘Watching movies from a feminist perspective, Mulvey arrived at that location of disaffection that is the starting point for many black women approaching cinema within the lived harsh reality of racism’ (2014: 125). In Lacanian terms, Hooks is arguing that Mulvey and her predecessors have over emphasised the all-encompassing and uniformed illusory force of the cinema over spectators. These White theorists did not see beyond their own positions within the Symbolic order when applying these psychoanalytic tools, rendering their own subject positions as universal, and female Blackness as unaccounted for or invisible. Hooks expands the theorization of spectatorship by highlighting the plurality of experiences among spectators.  She illuminates how people in privileged positions may be unintentionally tying into systems of oppression by omitting any acknowledgement of how the topic at hand, e.g. feminism, intersects with other powers structures, such as race.

Hook’s Oppositional Gaze makes me mindful about how class, race, gender, sexuality, etc. [1] may intersect with my future participants’ experience of autism, [2] may inform the way in which I represent my participants and [3] will inform a plurality of interpretive positions held by the various spectators of my work. 

Hook’s work has made me think about how likely I am, as a practitioner, to produce films that are complicit with hegemonic ideologies which I theoretically oppose, but do little to address, because they either benefit me or do not negatively impact me. For example, I identify as middle class, and I live in Britain, a country with sharp class divisions. If in the process of making a short film about autism, I was to choose to edit out dialogue that relates to access to education, housing and jobs, because I felt that it deviated too far from the theme of autism, I would be glossing over an important intersectional issue. This in-itself is an act of complicity with a Symbolic order that suppresses class struggle. Either consciously or unconsciously, I would be averting my spectator’s look from financial, educational, and employment inequalities which might shape the lived experience of autism. Looking back at my practice so far in this PhD, I have made one film that features a single autistic participant collaborator who is cis-gendered white male with a similar level of education to myself. It is my ambition to develop a film with multiple autistic participants. I believe it would be problematic if each participant occupied the same subject position within society.  

From a Lacanian perspective, Hooks is arguing that Mulvey’s totalising conception of the Imaginary order, having the power to interpolate each and every spectator in to the Symbolic order hidden behind the Gaze, falls short of accounting for intersectional issues that position individuals differently in relation to the Symbolic order. Mulvey’s reading of psychoanalysis is unable to account for the distinct experience of the individual spectator.

The Transgender Gaze

Returning to the conception of cinema aesthetics manifesting ideology, Judith Halberstam, analyses the film Boys Don’t Cry (1999)in her article on the Transgender Gaze (2001). In this film, the fictional adaptation of a true story in which, a teenage trans man, Brandon, engages in a romantic relationship with a cis woman, Lana, before being brutally outed, raped and murdered by two cis men, Tom and John.

Halberstam provided an example where multiple modes of looking – male, female and transgender –were each able to manifest in a single cinematic scene, demonstrating that cinematic Gaze can be a fluid construction and is not necessarily anchored by the identity of the director, in this instance Kimberly Peirce, who identifies as queergender (Dry 2019). Halberstam points out how the looking of each character is manifest in a scene where John and Tom force Brandon to expose his genitalia, while failing to make Lana look. ‘The brutality of their action here is clearly identified as a violent mode of looking, and the film identifies the male gaze with that form of knowledge which resides in the literal’ (2001: 295). In addition to the persecutory male look, the supportive female look of the lover is manifest as a point of view shot of her looking away. Finally, Brandon’s mode of looking is manifest as an exchange of looks between the protagonist’s naked sexed body, and the male gendered third person perspective of the same character. ‘In this shot/reverse-shot sequence between the castrated and the transgender Brandons, the transgender gaze is constituted as a look divided within itself, a point of view that comes from (at least) two places at the once one clothed and one naked.’ (Ibid.)

Halberstam, compared to Mulvey and Hooks, places little emphasis on spectatorship in this short article. Unlike the patriarchal films analysed in Mulvey’s essay, Boys Don’t Cry undermines the pervasive and potent role of heteronormative ideology. Halberstam sees this film as a radical departure from the hegemonic Symbolic organisation of gender and sexuality. Instead, the filmmaker aestheticizes queer ideology, manifest through the performative modes of looking in the film, each presenting contrasting perspectives on gender and sexuality.

In my most recent animated documentary, Drawing on Autism (2021), I worked collaboratively with an autistic participant. In the film we meet on screen and, while I execute labour involved in animation, the representations of the participant are informed by their appearance and words. These representations are either authorised by them or subject to their scrutiny later in the film. What I am unclear about is whether this mode of collaboration is precise enough to allow me to ethically manifest my own and my participant’s modes of looking. Despite a collaborative ethos, am I totally in control of the modes of looking present in this film, and my participant happens to be fine with how I represent him.

My current insights tell me that Drawing on Autism does show my participant looking, and being looked at by me, but as I am utterly in control of his animated character’s actions and context, the film is unmistakably a product of my own process of looking. However, I have been researching autism in the context of the social model of disability. This ideological stance is best summarised by the goals of the neurodiversity movement, and I can feel over the past 18 months how this ideology has shaped how I see autism, in addition to my own neurodivergent status. So, while it may be unreasonable to suggest that this film presents the Autistic Gaze, no matter how collaborative the film is, it is possible to suggest the film is a manifestation of the neurodiversity ideology and thus the Neurodivergent Gaze. It is still unclear to me if I would have been able to reach this ideological position without myself being neurodivergent.

The Neurotypical Gaze

Drawing on Autism was developed in opposition to what John-James Laidlow calls the “Neurotypical Gaze” (2020). Laidlow presents the perspectives of Mulvey, Hooks and Halberstam before exploring issues relating to the representation of autism. Specifically Laidlow addresses the association autism in the media has with young, white, maleness; the idea that trapped inside the autistic body is a neurotypical true self;  the romantic conflation of autistic difference and childlike innocence; the over representation of autistic savants, a autistic person who in the eyes of neurotypicals makes up for their difference through compensatory talents; and the tactic of not ever naming a character who is coded as autistic as actually autistic. These tropes, while not explicitly connected to the mechanism of looking by the camera or the other characters, do appeal to an assumed neurotypical audience and reflect the medical ideology that positions autism as a developmental disorder, a deviation from an idealised norm (2020).

Laidlow discusses what would be called evocation within animated documentary discourse (Hones Roe 2011: 227), simulations of subjective experiences of autism, specifically moments of sensory overload, rendered through point of view footage combined with distorting visual effects. Laidlow states: ‘Even with the relatively few autistic characters we are shown, neurotypical people try to control the way we see and look at the world.’ Laidlow describes the misguided futility of these evocations as ‘attempt[s] at disability simulation to raise awareness, rather than just listening to the experiences of autistic people and trying to empathise with them’ (2020).

My own research into animated documentary practice has shown me that the majority of evocative animated documentary’s that attempt to represent cognitive difference are unethical as they mislead the audience into trusting what they are seeing is based on authentic insights into the participants subjectivity, when more often than not it is the filmmakers’ othering look, masquerading as the look of the participant. The exception to this is Samantha Moore’s collaborative feedback cycle which allows the neurodivergent participants to verify the veracity of animated representations of their subjective brain-state phenomena (Moore 2015).

Laidlow’s video essay is the logical extension of the work started by the early psychoanalytic film theorists. Mulvey in particular set out an approach that connects the various acts of looking that take place in the production and reception of a film to the ideological structures that inform it. Laidlow also builds upon a more fluid conception of Gaze presented by Halberstam, as a mode of simulated looking, evocation or affective performance, each of which relates to ideology masked behind an Imaginary illusion. However, with each stage in this progression, the topics presented have more to do with matters of identity politics and representation than psychoanalysis.

Contemporary theorisation of Lacan and the Gaze

Mulvey and her predecessors’ conception of the Gaze argues for the spectator’s visual experience of cinema being dominated by a deceptive encounter with the Imaginary order, one of illusory identification, functioning to hide the Symbolic order, the architecture of ideology. The logical conclusion that Mulvey reached was to either maintain conscious distance when watching a film or make films that promote consciousness through Brechtian distancing devises or reflexivity, as demonstrated by Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s film, Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), (McGowen 2007:15). According to Todd McGowen, these approaches represent an abandonment of the psychoanalytic project: one must remain conscious and fortify the ego, while attempting to supress unconscious enjoyment. It strips psychoanalysis of its power to develop insight through examining unconscious activity (ibid.) and is another way for the ego to ‘avoid the Real of the Gaze’ (2007:14).

McGowen explains this phenomenon by pointing out that early Lacanian film theorists had limited access to Lacan’s work beyond his Mirror Stage essay (2007: 4). Through research into Lacan’s full body of work McGowen illuminates that this conception of the Gaze is incomplete. It was developed by Lacan in a way that associates the Gaze closely with encroachments of the order of the Real, that which exists beyond symbolisation. ‘As a manifestation of the real rather than of the imaginary, the gaze marks a disturbance in the functioning of ideology rather than its expression’ (2007: 7).

McGowen reorients the cinematic Gaze as the invisible but proactive distortion of the visible realm during the process of spectatorship.

‘The gaze exists in the way that the spectator’s perspective distorts the field of the visible, thereby indicating the spectator’s involvement in a scene from which the spectator seems excluded. It makes clear the effect of subjective activity on what the subject sees in the picture, revealing that the picture is not simply there to be seen and that seeing is not a neutral activity.’ (2007:7).

From this contemporary reading of Lacan, the Gaze is a manifestation of the spectator’s loss of mastery over the image, however, rather than this relating to an Imaginary masking of the Symbolic, this lack of mastery is unconsciously connected to our own death and our inability to comprehend or control it, i.e. the Real (ibid.). Referring to Lacan’s expounding of the Gaze through Hans Holbein’s portrait The Ambassadors (1533), McGowen explains the Gaze as the distorted image of a skull within the painting. ‘Even when a manifestation of the gaze does not make death evident directly like this, it nonetheless carries the association insofar as the gaze itself marks the point in the image at which the subject is completely subjected to it. The gaze is the point at which the subject loses its subjective privilege and becomes wholly embodied in the object’ (2007:7).

McGowen uses the subjective encounter with the image to show how this conception of the Gaze can account for the problems of different experiences of spectatorship and group identity raised by Hooks (ibid). The Gaze is the mechanism with which each image is perceived uniquely by each viewer, as this shows how the spectators’ unconscious desire is incorporated into how they look at and absorbed the film. 

The Gaze functions as the object cause of desire, (object petit a), i.e. the Gaze is the hidden object within our vision that ignites our desire, propelling us along the trajectory of the scopic drive, in search of this unattainable partial object.  Attempting to capture and contain this invisible blot in the screen’s content is a futile task but through its pursuit we may come close to experiencing the nature of our unconscious desires. Experiencing the tension between what we unconsciously desire and what we thought we wanted can erupt in a kind of traumatic enjoyment (Jouissance) (2007:15).

The Gaze and our unconscious desire, by definition, elude our conscious comprehension, however, the experience of Jouissance is a visceral conscious phenomenon. As cinematic spectators, we can use moments of Jouissance to work back to detect the presence of the Gaze and it’s adjacent position to the Real. Through these traumatic glimpses, we can hypothesise structural inconsistencies within the Symbolic order where the Real is erupting, i.e. ideological weaknesses (ibid.).

McGowen argues that in order to analyse these moments of jouissance present in the experience of cinematic identification, we must first fully invest in the phantasmatic experience of cinema. Only through uncritical identification with the film universe will we be offered glimpses of the Real and the insights they provide into the fragile nature of the Symbolic order. McGowen exceeds the ambitions of early Lacanian film theorist by suggesting that psychoanalytic tools can not only illuminate hegemonic ideological domination but provide insights into how films can be used to erode it (2007: 15).

The Gaze and Animated Documentary Practice

What does a developed understanding of Lacan’s theory of the Gaze mean for me as a practitioner using animated documentary to represent autism? I see three possibilities:

[1] I could continue to follow Mulvey’s example by employing Brechtian distancing devices to activate spectators of my film into thinking critically about the ideological dialectic between the Neurodiversity paradigm and the medical model of autism, both of which will contribute to the Symbolic organisation of the film. This could be a productive means of steering the audience away from the traumatic Real which would threaten the stability of the Neurodiversity ideology. This consciousness raising approach to structuring a film reflects the identity focused organisation of the Neurodiversity movement, one that leaves little room for universal theories of the unconscious and resists psychoanalysis following a century of problematic therapeutic interventions with autistics and their families (Robert 2011).

[2] I could place more emphasis on the likelihood that I will through the film express internalised neuro-ableist biases. Even as someone who does occupy a neurodivergent position, my ignorance of the affective reality of autistic experience may align me closer to “neurotypical” hegemony than the neurodiversity paradigm. If this is true, then I could diminish my own power within the film production by seeking to involve my autistic participants as much as possible in every aspect of creation when it comes to the development and production of these animated documentaries. Through cocreation, there is a greater chance that any problematic representations that I create as expressions of my own unconscious bias, will be flagged by my participants who are likely to be more highly tuned to these issues. Furthermore, the final animated documentary will be a sublimation of multiple subjects’ conscious and unconscious activity. As a collaboration this film would present an aggregation of the ideological forces at play within myself and my autistic participant collaborators.

[3] I could acknowledge that a pro-neurodiversity film will to an extend result in Imaginary identification on the part of the spectator. At face value, this is a powerful way to interpolate the audience into seeing disability through the social model i.e. documentary as propaganda. However, I must anticipate the risk that some spectators may experience Jouissance when watching this film, and thus have revealed to them possible weaknesses in this ideology. A film about neurodiversity must on some level offer a critique of the medical model of autism. It may be worthwhile experimenting with methods for curating within a single film both circumstances in which traumatic Jouissance may flourish and where it may be diffused. If this is successfully identified, Jouissance can be encouraged when portraying the medical model, followed by a swich in mode discouraging its emergence when addressing the neurodiversity paradigm, that way jouissance is directed like an ideological weapon. A starting point for experimentation would be to employ Brechtian distancing devices while arguing for neurodiversity, this would result in the fortification of the ego and the defence of said ideology within the Symbolic order, before switching to a more fanciful excessive and traumatic poeticism while critiquing the medical model of autism, that would hopefully promote Jouissance and allow for insights in to the ideological weakness of seeing Autism as a disorder. What would evidently be lost is the illusion of balance and ‘discourse of sobriety’ that characterises the documentary canon (Nichols 1991: 50).    

I believe animated documentary is dynamic enough as a medium to explore all three of these methods within the same film. The very fact that the participants are drawn helps stimulate illusory identification (McCloud 1993, 31), while total control of the image and the slow pace of production gives time to reflect on the nature of the medium, stimulating the inclusion of reflexive devices. Furthermore, the iterative process of constructing the audio edit, style frames and animatic before entering production provides ample room for consultation and collaboration with participants. 

I have come to see Mulvey’s use of psychoanalytic tools as limited and perhaps even misleading, but non-the-less useful. They were a means to an end. And end that was thoroughly productive and emancipatory in its far-reaching influence. However, the concept of the Gaze has evolved in popular discourse far enough away from Lacan’s intentions, that it could be better replaced by the rhetoric of representation. That said, I am interested in continuing my theoretical engagement with Lacan. His insights will; [1] help me to analyse my own unconscious activity as a filmmaker, [2] help me predict how spectators will respond to my work and [3] provide the basic model for understanding discourse with another. Drawing influence from Piotrowska (2013), I believe there are great similarities and problematic differences between the therapeutic and the documentary relationships. A fuller understanding of this is essential for what is ethically at stake in my practice.


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