Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Documentary Final: Helix

One of the potential strengths of any documentary, is that the process of making it forces the maker to reflect more deeply on the concept they are illustrating than they may have had cause to using other mediums. In the process of constructing an intentional metaphor, the many creative decisions that fall to the filmmaker are also positioned to ask the filmmaker many difficult questions about what they are trying to communicate.  Bill Nichols[1] noted,  “One… generalization about recurring topics in documentaries is that they involve those concepts and issues we need metaphors to describe.” This common use of the medium, to use images, subjects, juxtapositions, and audience expectations to initiate a discussion about otherwise abstract ideas, is inherent in the nature of storytelling, and doubly inherent in the nature of telling “true” stories. 

As was discussed by Nichols and by Broderick Fox[2], there are a number of fluidly categorized ways – modes – that filmmakers regularly use to present these stories or ideas to their audiences.  For this project, given the logistic constraints (mainly of time) involved in the undertaking, it seemed to be in my best interest to make as many decisions before shooting as possible.  This pre-meditated approach lent itself to an essayistic mode, combining elements of the poetic, reflexive, performative, and autobiographical modes.  

The poetic mode is perhaps an unavoidable component of essayistic documentary.  Nichols said that in poetic mode, “The filmmaker engage[s] with the film form as much as or more than with social actors.”  This prevalence of form over subject was also a component of the essayistic mode insofar as it was explored in class.  The subject, in this case myself, becomes less important than the idea, or affect being emphasized by the filmmaker’s creative decisions. 

There are reflexive moments in this project where the presence of the camera and its operator are acknowledged, as well as a certain thematic reflexivity, wherein “Reflexive documentary sets out to readjust the assumptions and expectations of its audience, more than to add new knowledge to existing categories.” (Nichols)

Large portions of this project became performative, largely out of necessity.  In order to capture the appropriate tasks and actions for this essay, many of them had to be staged.  They were all things that happen regularly without the camera present, but because it was my own life, there was no way to enter the space and capture those tasks in an observational style.  In some cases I was able to turn a camera on to capture something that was happening anyway (making my bed) but in other cases I had to stage actions, because capturing them otherwise proved prohibitive. (The laundry basket being filled was clearly staged.  Leaving my camera set up in the hall to capture an actual time lapse would almost certainly lead to the death of said camera.)

But the performative mode isn’t employed merely because of staged tasks, it’s also relevant because the staged tasks are illustrating a hypothetical idea that would be difficult to convey without some kind of embodied subject.  But given the nature of that idea and the way it is communicated, the fidelity of the featured actions has little weight to the validity of the complete piece. In this case, performative documentary “demonstrate[s] how embodied knowledge provides entry into an understanding of the more general processes at work in society.” (Nichols)

The Autobiographical elements of this film are pretty overt.  The voiceover is my voice, my words, speaking in the 1st person about my own experience.  (Though through the process of recording it multiple times and never liking how it turned out, I’m finding out how subjective and constructed that can be.)  I am the subject of many of my shots, and nearly all of the content comes from the context of my day-to-day life. I think this piece imperfectly fits Fox’s parameters for Autobiographical documentary, that ”baring one’s self to the public is at the heart of the autobiographical mode. The emotional and personal life experiences of the producer become the documented reality.”  I don’t feel that I was able to be as raw or vulnerable as the “best” autobiographical documentaries defined by Fox, wherein “the autobiographical mode not only closes the gap between photographer and subject, but also the space between filmmaker and audience – brought together through a subjective familiarity and an invitation to know the “I “ behind the camera.“

Because of that, I feel comfortable describing this piece as primarily essayistic.  Fox said that essayistic mode is “an active one, in which a proposed idea or question is tested by a range of means and intersecting lines of argument.”  This film does not entirely fit the template of “an experiment” as outlined by Fox, but it does explore an idea thematically, rather than a story chronologically. 

If the “written or documentary essay hinges upon integrating personal experience, history, and social critique with taut, kinetic progression toward a synthesizing claim.” (Fox) then I think that is where this piece ultimately fits best.  The synthesizing claim made here is a pretty abstract idea, and a lot of the nuance of it is communicated non-verbally. But ultimately, the entire film progresses to support a reflection on it.  (At least that was my intent.)

My intent, if it is relevant for a viewer, was to compose a media essay about how and whether there is value in repeated, prosaic tasks.  Such endeavors make up a majority of my days and this created for me a meaningful way to reflect on content I had suitable access to for filming.  This project allowed me to further a democratizing idea that acts don’t have to be extraordinary to be worth telling a story about.

[1] Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010. Print.
[2] Fox, Broderick. "Movements and Modes." Documentary Media: History, Theory, Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010. 40-44. Print.

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