Archives For documentary

“Ones communities are nothing more – or less – than those networks of allegiance with which one identifies existentially, traditionally, emotionally or spontaneously, seemingly beyond and above any calculated assessment of self interest.”

Food Not Bombs has been feeding the homeless and those in need using vegan food, donated by various organic markets and shops since 1996. The organisation has no funding, is entirely volunteer based and is not exclusive to any particular group or social demographic. Anyone is welcome to attend the Tuesday night community gathering, young or old, rich or poor. As a movement Food Not Bombs is international, with chapters all over the world, on every continent.

Quote: Miller, P & Rose, N; 2008; ‘The Birth of Community’ in ‘Governing the Present’ Cambridge: Polity, p91

This documentary was shot over a period of three weeks as I followed the group from food collection, to cooking, to serving and finally pack up. Food Not Bombs serves from the street corner every Tuesday night, and has done so since 1996. I wasn’t aiming to merely present an exposition of what the group does, nor a description of the political and social implications of such a group. Instead I wanted to let the camera observe and create a mood that captured the sensation of stepping outside of one self’s comfort zone and into a diverse, littler known community group.


Disembodiment in documentary:

There is a simple formula of combining audio/voice, observatory footage, and a sound design that fits aesthetically, but appears thematically a bit odd, that creates a sense of disembodiment for the viewer. I first came across the technique in Chris Marker’s Sunless. It’s a reflexive technique as it draws attention to the aesthetic of the film itself, and re-contextualizes the subject. I tried my hand at creating the feeling of a strange interpretation of reality in my Food Not Bombs documentary for Transient Spaces. The question that arises is could this be applied to my main project, and if so how could such an effect benefit the biography?

What have I learnt through the production of the Food Not Bombs doco?

The characters aren’t defined individually, they are more anonymous representations of the human activity and human struggle within the story. In this case, gleaning food for the lesser advantaged of society. I think this effect adds to the conflict and the dramatic feel as it unsensationalises the story, at the same time making it feel a bit more real, at the same time a bit more like a dream. In biographical documentaries, however, the character has to be well defined and explicit. Is there any way of bringing these two things together? Perhaps the more disembodied aesthetics could be used for re-enactments of memory, like dream sequences.

The aspect of the Food Not Bombs doco that I liked was my editing style, which was based mainly on rhythm and feel. I shot the footage knowing only that I would need long shots, and was quite free with the camera. With lots of camera movement I was able to find good rhythmic edit points to cut from one shot into the next, quite often in the middle of a movement/action shot. This is a great way to shift time and space temporal locations, as it has a smooth, natural rhythmic effect, but a conflicting jolt and jump in time and space.

Summarizing Question:

By drawing attention to the filmmaking process, how does reflexivity effect biographical documentary and the representation of the experience of memory?

My main question/problem (regarding memory, the intersection of filmmaker and subject and the subject wantingto express memory) seems to addressing realism. Though I believe realism is probably the wrong word. Perhaps I am investigating the creation of a depiction of memory through acknowledging the presence of memory theory in the filmmaking process. At this stage this is still very vague, but I hope through reading and discussion with Adrian Danks I will be able to find a hook, or an anchor which will focus these more instinctual ideas.

Another question I need to discuss with Adrian is whether or not to include textual analysis in my exegesis. This could get me into hot water as I will need to spend time explaining why I chose specific films, and this could in fact limit the directions that arise as I produce. However, I am looking for these definite anchor points for discussion and so need to explore the possibility.

Movies to consider:

Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee; 2003)

This film is highly personal and subjective to the filmmaker. The story is of his own journey and autobiographical rather than biographical. Nevertheless, filmmaking techniques may be viable for me to take notice.

Bastardy (Amiel Courtin-Wilson; 2009)

This film is a straight forward biography of Jack Charles, an interesting and prolific Aboriginal Australian, resident of Melbourne. The story follows Jack for a number of years and so portrays quite an in depth and significant portion of Jack’s life. I thought this film would be a little more directly relevant to my own project in terms of style and technique.

Notes from…

Healy, Chris; Histories and Collecting: Museums, Objects and Memories in “Memory and History in Twentieth Century Australia” (ed. Darian-Smith, K and Hamilton, P) Oxford University Press, Mebourne 1994 (pp 33 – 52)

“I am really concerned with…giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection….the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” (Walter Benjamin in Healy, p33)

Imagine trading the term book for documentary, film or cinema. The disorder, habit and appearance of order could have a relationship with our need or quest for narrative. Like in Hitchcock’s ‘cuts’ or pure cinema. To give precise meaning to an otherwise chaotic situation with any number of outcomes.

What really interests me about Healy’s analysis of the museum in Silverton is its close similarity to the predicament of the documentary filmmaker as he approaches his subject: “The Museum held a huge collection – pastoral, industrial and domestic artifacts; photographs, private papers, sporting and recreational memorabilia; portraits, medals and much, much more.” (p33)

In this case of the Silverton Museum, artifacts “were not ordered by chronological sequence or theme. Many were not labeled and, more often than not, the objects did not follow a theme or ‘teach’ the visitor anything in particular. The museum employed none of the characteristic means by which visitors have been trained to understand and interpret objects on display: the devices of category, of narrative sequence, of juxtaposing the typical and the singular, or of generating an aura of aesthetic wonder. It seemed as if the objects were meant to invoke associations, to trigger memories, to generate questions, confusion or fragmentary recognition.” (p34)

“The Silverton Museum was an anachronism. Those who could have remembered or interpreted the memory palace were dead; it was a place of silence and sadness.” (p34) In a sense a documentary does not document the ‘memory palace’, the documentary is the memory palace. Like the Silverton museum is set up for the understanding of someone from the 19th or 18th century, a documentary is for the understanding of the 21st C. The objects in the museum gather their context and meaning from the situation of the museum, how the museum has ordered them. Likewise, a person’s lament or story gains its context for memory and storage, from the construction of the film. Even, at the most basic level, from the frame of the screen.

Fetishising the subject, making it relatable: “…the stuffed carcass of the racehorse Phar Lap only works as a memory site because it is more than a dead horse in a glass cabinet. It works because it elicits social imagination and desires, and because it has been remade, both literally and figuratively, as an object on display. The museum is the key public institution in which these processes of memory work have taken place in Australia.” (p36)

“The ‘museum’ of the nineteenth century functioned as a general archive in which time never stopped building, in which things of all epochs, all styles, all forms could be accumulated and preserved against the ravages of time, in perpetuity. The Museum acted and in many ways still acts (and not least, conceptually) as a microcosm of the world, as a universal sacred space where Man can rediscover and reconstitute his fragmented self.” (Eilean Hooper-Greenhill in Healy, p3) Once again make as metaphor for documentary. As if documentary, or even the home video, is a way of preserving and a way of reconstituting the fragmented self.

Striving for difference and originality/breaking norms: “these odd collections and their strange ways of communicating relationships between object and history provide very different models of historical understanding, ways of thinking about the past and ways people remember their lives in relation to material objects. We all live as historians by inscribing and depositing the artifacts of our own historical cultures. That remembering, that making of histories, need not be that which we aim to capture, to preserve, to make present or to supersede; it can be part of the performances of remembering, of enacting histories. Digital systems of information storage and production might shift the focus of collecting and remembering in contemporary culture away from preservation and towards renewal, towards what Nietzsche called the possibility of history for life.” (p49)

Themes for memory: Desire, disappointments, fulfillment and compromise

Themes are starting to take shape

I have found that the original themes that I thought I would be chasing through observing the Food Not Bombs movement completely changed as I looked for the qualities that define the group as a community. For instance, on the surface it appeared that the group was collated by veganism, political activism and various ideologies. This was not the case as what is more important to the group than dietary habits is the constructive and charitable use of public space, and the operation of an organization outside of the ‘official’ charity groups and bureaucracies. The group also focus on their activities as being a social experience. The operation is not aimed at the homelessor any particular group but rather at anyone who wishes to attend and socialize. Ideally they would enjoy the attendance of people from all demographics, and I have personally observed quite a variety of people, including students, backpackers, homeless, workers and Fitzroy locals.

Where to from here…

The main problem I face is time and patience. To compose a film that really paints a portrait of the diverse characters that come to Food Not Bombs would require many more weeks of attending with the camera. The fact is that the more time you spend the more people come to feel comfortable around the camera to the point that they start to offer up stories. Unfortunately time is not on my side so I have to opt for a short video piece with only two or three interviews. This is sufficient to express the story though not ideal.

The visual style and am I delusional? (this can happen with me)

The visual style is predominately an attempt at the observatory mode of documentary. I have engaging dialogue in the form of interviews and plan on setting atmospheric visual material to the dialogue. The idea is to create the feeling of experiencing a day and night with the Food Not Bombers out on the street, whilst at the same time having expository and informative dialogue.

Concluding the story…Michael Mann the poet

The intro and conclusion are going to be the hardest parts for me to work out. For the ending I will take inspiration from Michael Mann and basically cut the atmosphere audio to silence and have a closing image such as the van driving off screen after a night on the street. In a sense this aesthetic could be described as a quiet loudness, where the conclusion is not overstated and the story is left somewhat hanging between the closing of the characters and the appropriate rhythmic moment to get out of the story. As for the intro, ala Michael Mann I think I will just dive straight in with some footage and audio that gets us straight to the point.

Notes taken from Pedagogy of Pardon

“Aristotle defined narrative as ‘the imitation of an action’. Therefore the ethical challenge of story is to look for ‘points of support’ in the living experience of acting and suffering. The experience of human suffering demands the assistance of narrative and expresses the need for it. Ricoeur then re-iterates the ‘pre-narrative quality of human experience’ as the justification for speaking of the two-fold qualities of life as: (a) a story and (b) an activity (praxis) in search of a narrative so that our lives can be recounted, understood, and ultimately provide us with a sense of meaning, hope and purpose. He proposes that the idea of a plot or story provides us with a means of understanding by which we can discover and not simply impose from the outside, ‘the narrative identity’ which constitutes us.” (p34)

The point is, in essence this is what all doco’s seek to do one way or another. The narrative journey of a documentary, particularly the biographical documentary, needs to have conflict, even if the subjects’ memories are generally positive. This conflict has to be sourced from the living experience of acting and suffering. For instance, in Lowell’s case, he may have made an adventurous life for himself in the Carribean, but what was the experience of leaving home? If this was a good experience, or one without regrets, what are the implications in terms of his sense of roots and home.

The relationship/tension between filmmaker and subject can also be seen as a point of conflict, but one that in my case will be more implicit rather than explicit. The nature of this conflict is the responsibility of the filmmaker to give filmic life to the subjects memories.

Understanding Memory, relating it to the language of Cinema: perhaps somehow there is a way of exploring this representation of anothers’ memory as a theory. After some reading I will try to frame this into a question.

Paul Ricœur was a French philosopher who was best known for best known for combining phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation. What’s interesting for in this is that in philosophy, particularly this strand of philosophy, Ricoeur is looking to study human reality, which in effect is what documentary cinema does. So documentary cinema is inherently philosophical and should probably be explored and created in those terms.

Notes from Documentary and Collaboration: Placing the Camera in the Community by Elizabeth Coffman

“Contrary to fears that the age of cinema is ending, this new age of digital media offers more, not fewer, opportunities for individuals or groups interested in producing documentary work.” (p62)

This is something I’ve personally felt to be an aesthetic revolution as well as a mobile and participatory one. Digital media means more than mobility and lesser picture quality (or at least, different picture quality). It actually changes the ways in which stories get told. For that matter it actually effects what stories get told. Digital technology has lifted the art of documentary from the feature film and television industries and scrapped the rule book on methods for documentary story telling. Bill Nichols modes can still be applied to documentary works, but these borders and definitions are rapidly becoming blurrier and harder to distinguish. Nichols modes of the reflexive, performative and poetic seem to have been the modes that could encompass those films that sat outside of the mainstream in the pre-90’s period before the mass popularisation of documentary through filmmakers such as Michael Moore. The real binary that becomes apparent when comparing the old world with the new are the notions of subjectivity and objectivity. It seems to me that the trend in the past was for documentary to present itself as an entirely objective viewpoint. A literal window on the world in which the camera is merely the medium. Filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Chris Marker and many more spent their careers challenging and exploring this industry norm, and have subsequently found themselves hailed as the guru’s of contemporary cinema as subjectivity has found its way to the forefront of integrity and honesty. For instance, compare the controversies of Michael Moore’s representations of characters and events in Roger and Me (1989) and Fahrenheit 9 11 (2004) to the completely subjective and almost fictional depiction of images from the first Iraq war in Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992).

“documentary is just another form of fiction. It is arbitrary…made up. It doesn’t follow the natural order. Its major sequences are shorter than they are in real time. They acquire meaning they wouldn’t have in isolation. What’s magical about a good film is magical about a good play or a good novel. If you try to define it, you’re a fool….” (Frederick Wiseman in Coffman)

The article discusses the dynamics of the relationships between filmmaker and subject. It suggests that collaboration entails a giving up a certain amount of authority over the story to the subject. This is absolutely true for the filmmaking process to work, but it does not mean, as the article suggests, that authorship is threatened. The true author of a documentary is the person who oversees the editing process as that is where meaning and all meanings intricacies are formed for the final result. Unless there is a collaborative process with the subject going on in the editing room, the filmmakers voice (assuming he is overseeing the editing) will still be the predominant voice. My personal feeling on this matter is to bite the bullet and opt for total involvement of the filmmaker within the narrative. This way, the subject, the filmmaker and the audience are all on the same page. The filmmaker is not feigning a false sense of objectivity.