Reconciliation (Final Project)

 

While filming a video about the 1851 Provo River Battle for a history class with a friend, two of our subjects broke away from discussing the topic and spoke about the responsibility of history, that we need to come to an understanding of the past in order to accurately reconcile ourselves with our surroundings. The subject was a little-known but highly influential two-week military attack on the Native Americans living in Utah Valley in the 1850s, and while I got the facts I expected I did not anticipate such personal and apathetic commentary. Based on this, I saw an opportunity to create a documentary within a documentary in covering not only the story of the battle but the story of our discovery in researching the event and historians’ journey in reconciling themselves with the tragedy. We also saw the opportunity to apply the participatory mode and went on the streets of Provo and told random pedestrians about the Provo River Battle and asked them what they thought of that.

Condensing the documentary-within-a-documentary idea gave me Reconciliation, which is a combination of our street work and the talking-head interviews from the historians Forrest Cuch (Ute Nation) and Robert Carter (Provo City). It is a synthesis of many of the different documentary modes: not only participatory, but anthropological and essayistic. My goal was, to rephrase Bill Nichols, to “speak with them and you,” to make this a three-way conversation between my partner and I as the filmmakers, the historians we interviewed, and the audience, to make the talking-head interviews into a personal conversation, not a direct transfer of information.

I chose to film these interviews as medium shots, rather than more traditional tight shots, for this reason. I wanted to maintain a level of academic formality, yet hint at a candid, informal relationship by capturing more of the historians than just their face and shoulders like other documentary filmmakers such as Ken Burns allow. The incidental landscape surrounding the historians was just as interesting as what they had to say – Forrest Cuch in his home on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation, and Robert Carter in an 1851 adobe house at the Provo Pioneer Village Museum. Forrest’s colorful, varied surroundings contrast with the bare plaster and wood of the historic location Robert Carter chose which visually represents the cultural divide that continues a century and a half since the battle.

Regarding what modes apply to this project, while I or my partner do not appear on screen, it is participatory in that we kept our voices audible, forming a conversation with our subjects as Joshua Oppenheimer did throughout The Act of Killing. Anthropologically, I wanted to capture the behavior of the historians as much as what they had to say. This was a study of the historical method and how professional historians apply their studies to their philosophies and practices. By Nichols’ definition, it is more rhetorical than narrative, since the focus is not on the story itself but on the meaning and significance of the story. It is essayistic in that it is not straightforward narration, but personal musings on the importance of historical literacy.

Outside of what this project portrays, I considered that now is the best time for such a documentary to be made. Not only is there a wealth of new research on Native American history to work from, nonfiction filmmaking has progressed to the point that there is a broad range of stylistic modes to choose from.  If I were to have done this ten years ago, the social climate may not have been favorable to discuss the dark side of Utah’s settlement. A documentary about settler/Indian conflict from before 2000 would probably take the form of a formal narrative from the perspective of the fort looking out, telling the factual story from the perspective of the settlers. A film stepping back from the story to address its emotional and social consequences of would probably be very unlikely, since the definition and value of documentary changes over time. Not only is the subject challenging but the way the historians address the subject is challenging; both history and documentary have progressed greatly since the early films like Nanook of the North when there was no sharp distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

The downside to this project is the time limit, but even with 20 or 30 minutes it would be difficult to tell this story. There is just too much to cram into a short film, and it is difficult to synchronize the historical story of the battle with the modern story of people’s reconciliation with the past – too much has to be cut out to keep it cohesive; it’s almost one or the other. Much like Bert Haanstra’s experience making Glass (1958), there is a strong divide between what I want as the creator and what I know the different audiences expect out of a documentary.

Doc Mode Activity: Anthropological Mode

Benedict Anderson wrote about the formation of “community” in his book Imagined Communities, discussing how the concept of Nation, Community and Tribe are closely related in the subconscious of the human mind. A community may be formed through geographical relations, familial associations, occupation, belief, language, or hobby. In this exercise I recorded a hobby community at the Intermountain Train Expo in Salt Lake City, following a friend as he navigates a model train show. I focused on his and others’ behavior as they interact with each other during the show, much like other anthropological documentaries like Stranger with a Camera and Cannibal Tours, the latter from which I drew the concept for this project.

Cannibal Tours observes at least three communities: the native Papua New Guineans, the tourists, and the national communities of the individual tourists themselves. It is an observational film; the filmmakers do not interact with the subjects, only watching as the community players unconsciously reveal the problems in their own communities. While the model railroading community is not quite as problematic as first world tourism in third world countries, I wanted to apply the Cannibal Tours style in observing the interactions of my friend with other members of his hobby community. However, there were some interesting aspects of this community that are not revealed simply through observation, so factoids appear occasionally through the video to point out two of the issues with the hobby of model railroading that are relevant today: it is expensive, and it is 95 per cent male. I intend for the fact that these are addressed in subtitles and not by the community itself to show that while model railroaders are aware of the problems within their community, they will not do anything to address them. While this specific community is supposedly very close and social, it is very much not self-aware, much like the well-intentioned but shamelessly ignorant tourists in Cannibal Tours or the reporters intruding on Appalachian coal towns in Stranger with a Camera.

 

Online Response 5: Nationalism and Community

Bill Nichols proposes that the documentary was instrumental in the construction of the 20th-century form of national identity; from Americans capturing the Americana of a declining Appalachian coal industry to Soviet documentarians applying Karl Marx’s statement that the working class need to be represented because they cannot do so themselves, documentary shapes our concept of community and nationality. This can be useful; such films brought attention to issues that otherwise were invisible to the general public, or reinforced unity during wartime, or create a positive cultural experience like  Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon, but nationalistic documentary has its downsides.

Mysterious Object at Noon explores Thailand as random participants add to a story in their own way, creating a long tale that is as much them as it is a work of fiction. This film creates a positive national identity as Thais represent themselves through a creative process.

Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours embodies the concept of negative nationalism and identity as wealthy Europeans and Americans visit underdeveloped formerly colonized countries to observe the culture of the people living there. The arrogance of the tourists illustrates the drawbacks of a strictly nationalist identity when used to elevate one’s own country/region/language/culture over another. From the Italians judging the natives as being “happy in their primitive ways,” to the German who interviewed a local man about German colonialism then recorded his own interpretation that the natives enjoyed the German presence despite that never being said, these tourists are interloping into a place they do not and will not understand assuming that in some way they are wiser, stronger, or more advanced than the native peoples.

It also illustrates the value, and pitfall, of “print capitalism” as defined by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities. The “sophisticated tourists” benefit from the printed word; in their conversations they say “I read this about the natives” or “I read that about their art,” while the native peoples suffer the loss of their own culture and identity in favor of a manufactured show to please the tourists. The native children go to school and are educated in the culture of the printed language, losing their own identity in the process. That the tourists have a written language and the natives they are touring do not is not explicitly said out loud, but can be seen through the conversations that O’Rourke recorded.

Cannibal Tours flips the stereotype of anthropological documentary – this time, the wealthy observers are the victims, and the colonized people, previously the victims of documentary, are the only voice of reason and logic amidst it all.

The importance of recognizing and analyzing nationalistic documentary is to recognize the problems that such styles create. Many documentaries are patronizing and manipulative when dealing with the “other,” the person or people outside of the filmmakers or audience’s own community. Early documentaries altered reality, like Nanook of the North, to fabricate an identity for the people being portrayed; others, with less intentional manipulation, simply portrayed their subjects as being helpless, romanticized, like children who need assistance from somebody else. However, the very definition of documentary requires us as filmmakers to break out of our own “imagined communities” and record other communities with the same care and fairness as we do our own.

Doc 2: Performative Mode

While no film perfectly fits a solid description, I think the performative mode is the point where participatory and poetic modes meet. Bill Nichols explained that it “emphasizes the subjective or expressive aspect of the filmmaker’s own involvement in the subject…it rejects notions of objectivity in favor of evocation and affect.” (Introduction to Documentary p.22) Participatory documentary shows the filmmaker’s process of creation as part of the story itself; performative mixes in art to better evoke emotion.  Agnes Varda created staged symbol-laden shots and mused on life, old age and death to heighten the experience of watching gleaners at work; Rea Tajiri artistically recreates her vision of vague familial memories and intersperses it with Hollywood films to emphasize just how little is known about Japanese internment.

In this documentary I explore the idea of place identity – where am I from? I can say that I’m from Farr West, but that’s not where I was born, and not where I spent the first eight years of my life, and definitely not where I spent the last eight years of my life, but it is where I spent the most memorable years of my life. The performative comes in with the presentation of the story, by showing the physical prints of a few photographs representing the highlights of where I have lived interspersed with current footage of where I live now to illustrate the memory that builds identity. It represents a reflection of how places become home and home changes over time. I am showing my photos to the audience, but in a way that instills nostalgia and subtle conflict.

Performative Documentary is difficult to carry out in a two-to-three-minute time limit; being such a personally creative process, I feel like it would have been nice to be able to expand the exploration of place identity into 20 or 30 minutes and tell stories apart from my own. However, this was an good exercise in thinking about simple ways creatively illustrate Performative Documentary.

Participatory Documentary

Online Response 4: Participatory

            Participatory documentary is like a journal. As you watch, you read the diary of the filmmaker in their process of making the film, and see the film unfold as they saw it unfold. The first reflexive documentary I ever saw was Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves, which some have lauded as a documentary about the negative effects of tobacco, but which I saw as a discovery of one man’s family history. It is, of course, both; he set out to learn about his ancestor’s story, but wound up discovering much more about the impact the tobacco industry on American society and health. He participates openly in the process of making the documentary, explaining what he’s doing with the camera, where he’s going, why he does what he does. As Bill Nichols described it, he “speaks with them for you [the audience],” rather than “speaks about them to you.” It is a more personal form than simply throwing out information through narration over some illustrative images.

This clip from Bright Leaves illustrates the process of recording an unusual interview, and the filmmaker’s discomfort in the off-putting experience of being forced into a wheelchair and pushed around by the brilliant but eccentric Vlada Petric. Participatory filmmaking exposes the documentary process as part of the storytelling itself.

            Bright Leaves was Ross McElwee’s first film in participatory style, but not his last; Photographic Memory is structurally similar, as he carries his camera with him on a journey of self-reflection and rediscovery. Both show us what it was like for him to make the films as much as it shows us what he saw while researching the stories that he wanted to tell, a more intimate approach to cinéma vérité than Rouch and Morin’s A Chronicle of Summer. Rouch and Morin were still tied to the formalistic documentary procedure while adopting their revolutionary approach in openly illustrating the mechanics of the production as part of their film: the viewer is still dependent on a well-dressed individual with a microphone to direct their attention, whereas in more recent works of participatory film such as McElwee’s, we see the filmmakers as individuals, in their lives as they are, insecure and vulnerable.

A still from Photographic Memory shows both the filmmaker’s son, who is key to the point of the story, and the filmmaker himself in the reflection of the window.  Throughout participatory documentary we (as the audience) are reminded how the film came to be. From Harvard Film Archive

Documentary Mode – the Poetic Mode

Doctor Jay Buckley of the BYU history department often asks his students “Where is Indian Country?” His point is that the concept of “Indian Country” is an imaginative construct, that there is no set geographical location or official descriptor that defines what or where Indian Country is. There is a vague notion among most Americans that Indian Country is a place, usually full of sand, buttes and old women selling pots somewhere in the southwest, but it comes as a complete surprise to many, especially in Utah, that the closest reservation is not too much further than a Sunday drive.

I decided to try a variation the poetic mode; perhaps it could be considered partly observational. On the way to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation to meet with the former state director if Indian affairs Forrest Cuch for a different project I filmed the trip to show that it is not quite the strange, exotic place that some of my acquaintances have imagined it as. I wanted the aesthetic of Maelstrom as a candid, home-movie production showing the journey from “normal” America into “Indian Country.” I say it is also observational, because nothing extraordinary is done with the footage as was done with poetic documentary like Francis Thompson’s To Be Alive!, but rather it is presented as it was captured from the car, showing the reality that “Indian Country” is not that different from the rest of the country, similar in concept (but not as masterful as) Bert Hannastra’s poetic/observational Glass. While Glass is arranged to a rhythm, it is a process, and it is difficult to do the same with a trip, so the same level of poetic arrangement is not present in mine. To accentuate the purpose, Through Indian Country closes with a quote by Forrest Cuch, which he told us during the interview – yes there are differences in culture and appearance, but in the end, the similarities between Native Americans and all other Americans outweigh the differences, and all of the country is Indian country.

Poetry you can see

As a form of writing, poetry breaks free from the root origin of writing – the communication of information – and transcends reality by exploring the indescribable. Documentary often does the same: there is the typical documentary which, as its name describes, documents, preserves and interprets events as information, and then there is poetic documentary, which can take the very same images and converts them into visual prose.

The Maelstrom: a Family Chronicle makes a good example: it is home movies, stitched together with modern music, and punctuated with radio recordings from the period, to tell the story of one Jewish family’s experience of the Nazi occupation of Holland. It is an artistic approach to doucumentary that distinguishes it from all other holocaust documentaries. What if the filmmakers decided to add non-diagetic narration, probably from some history professor, to explain the images rather than leave them alone with occasional silent captions to explain what was going on? A typical expository documentary would not do the same justice in communicating the sorrow, hurt and rage that the Holocaust means. So, rather than simply expose history, it creates prose about it.

Simple captions are all the explanation we get out of Maelstrom, which preserves the idyllic home-movie style of the footage rather than narrating every detail of the Nazi occupation of Holland, which lets the audience figure out the context on their own as the film progresses.

            Read this single line from Avrom Sutzkever’s poem Frozen Jews:

Fist, fixed in ice, of a naked old man:

the power’s undone in his hand.

I’ve sampled death in all guises.

Nothing surprises.

We’ve all read textbooks, many of us even novels, describing the horror of World War II, but every sentence written by a historian does not do justice to the emotion provided by creative verse. In much the same way, Francis Thompson’s To Be Alive! creatively communicates an uplifting epic of modern life from childhood to adulthood using mirrored images, timelapse and spatial juxtaposition. To Be Alive! does not tell a linear narrative or even a single story, but rather, like the later (and very similar) Sans Soleil, is a stream-of-consciousness observation of humanity as a whole.

Devorah Bennish’s poem A Child Within captures the same imagery as To Be Alive!:

Marveling at simplicity
Realizing divinity
A child is alive,
Within, she does hide,

Though darkness beckons
And cynicism threatens
Our inner child calls
To disregard it all.

In some ways, documentary and poetry are similar; even when not linked in poetic documentary, it is still, as Jon Grierson wrote, “the creative treatment of actuality.” Some poetic license is taken in any well-made documentary to emphasize  and accentuate the rhetoric of the theme that it documents. If applied well, documentary (and writing) works not only as a carrier of information but as an artform that breaks the barriers of functionality into something more meaningful.

Documentary Prosecution

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The Act of Killing shows the vibrant, happy current lives of former mafia and military enforcers responsible for thousands of murders. This juxtaposition with their reenactments of the murders incites a surreal sense of irony and outrage in the audience. (Image from Paste Magazine)

Genocide is a hard topic to portray, partially because it is such a brutally violent subject and partially because nobody who did not live through it can understand exactly what it was like. However hard historians and writers have tried to explain it, it takes a filmmaker to show it for the full weight of the event to hit someone, as is the case with The Act of Killing and Night and Fog. Both films characterize how genocide is normalized when condoned by society conforming to government expectations. They emphasize the typicality that the holocaust and the Indonesian coup became to the people who lived through them. In The Act of Killing, it is the depiction of these mass murderers living normal, happy lives which shakes us as the audience; in Night and Fog, it is the colorful, vibrant yet distancing shots of the concentration camps as they exist today (meaning as they existed when the film was made) that draws the holocaust out of a grainy black-and-white world into the clear and vivid world of here and now. The two films take different approaches in how they tell the story, however: Night and Fog shows the images without giving voice to the perpetrators, whereas The Act of Killing does the exact opposite, hearing the story from the perpetrators only without showing any actual portrayal of the events except as the perpetrators themselves recreated them.

While these two documentaries portray different events in different parts of the world using different techniques, they both fall under the definition of “prosecutor” as described by Erik Barnouw. Before and during World War II, “bugler” documentary was used to proclaim the means and methods of war – a bugler going before the troops, so to speak, rallying the people and striking fear in the enemy. All sides of the war, Allied and Axis, used the same methods of propaganda to further their agenda in the war, and this created the first time that a war was so well visually documented since both sides filmed so much of their work.

Frank Capra’s Why We Fight documentary series is the epitome of American bugler documentary, telling why the United States was necessary in the outcome of the Nazi advance, using footage of recent events.

After the war, documentaries focused for many years on making sense of what happened – it was hard to fathom just what the war meant, and what its impact was and would be. It was also used to condemn the crimes committed – hence the term “prosecutor.” Before the war, it was present-tense documentary, filming events as they happened. After, it was past-tense, taking the footage from other filmmakers and piecing it together to form a story. That is where both The Act of Killing and Night and Fog fit in – they are portraying events of the past after the fact. At the same time, another difference between the two films becomes apparent: The Act of Killing does not condemn anybody; the condemnation comes from the participants themselves, whereas Night and Fog places blame with the scalding question, “Who is responsible?” as images of the concentration camp staff move across the screen.

Tabloid news, travel guides, and the origins of early documentary

The moving image is still a relatively new art form, having less than 150 years to mature compared to writing or drawing which have developed over thousands of years. Hence, it is easy to look back on the history of film, documentary specifically, and see a microcosm of the evolution of an art.  Documentary according to its name is today considered to be an accurate representation of reality, “documenting” actuality as it is and as it unfolds, but in the past this was not the case; while today we make some leeway for documentary filmmakers to interpret the meaning the reality they record, in the past, documentarists were free to not only liberally interpret reality but to alter it, replicate it, and fake it completely.

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Filmmakers such as Ken Burns,  who does historical documentary, and  Orlando von Einsiedel, who became famous for his almost real-time coverage of the Syrian first responder group White Helmets,  have given modern documentary an academic standard of honesty, but their predecessors were not as dedicated to reality.
(from pbs.org and imbd)

This is due in part to the cultural expectations that formed the milieu of early film. Documentary film was the natural successor to the 19th century market for documentary literature. Guidebooks and trip reports were popular, and hundreds of thousands of these books, based on the observations of travelers, explorers, and even simple laymen barely literate were published and were very popular. Before the moving image, these accounts were the most accessible way for a person to learn about their world. However, these books were rarely accurate – the travelers who wrote them filled their accounts with personal bias, assumptions, rumor, and often, outright lies for the sake of excitement (the shock value sells the book, after all). It was only natural that the next level of expository media, the documentary film, would follow suit, and it would take decades for it to develop the responsibly truthful standards that we expect from documentary film today.

The title page of an 1899 travel guide, “Russia on the Pacific,” published in London. Books such as this were extremely popular but often misleading as the authors rarely put any effort into verifying the factuality of their works. (from archive.org)

Based on this history of contrived exposé that characterized not only guidebooks but publications such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (the illustrations of which were generally drawn by artists who weren’t even present at the event reported on), that documentary film would follow suite. Thus, Nanook of the North, probably the best-known feature documentary of early film history featured half-igloo sets, simulated seal hunts, and a forced elimination of any modern technology which by the time of filming already was an integral part of the Inuit lifestyle. Similarly, newsreels featured faked battles using miniatures, white actors in blackface acting as African hunting guides, and reconstructions of Texas murders filmed in New Jersey.[1] The goal of early documentary, according to Bill Nichols, was exhibitionism rather than exposition, which fit very well with the excitement-hungry culture of the turn of the 20th century that valued the interest of the story over fidelity to the truth.

The interior scenes in Nanook of the North were filmed in a half-dome of snow to allow sufficient light and space for the camera to operate. While Robert Flaherty showed remarkable interest in filming the actuality of Inuit life, the fact that he wanted to document an actuality of the past meant that many of the activities filmed had to be faked.
(from Screen Shadows Group)

[1] Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary p.91