Vertov vs. Oppenheimer

As much as Vertov Man with the Movie Camera is a cinematic achievement that continues to inspire filmmakers (as far as I know, even Jean-Luc Godard decided to call his radical group The Dziga Vertov Group in 1968), some of his concepts seem to have been rather unsuccessful in the documentary practice. He proclaimed that he aims for a new cinema that doesn’t need a help of a storyline or a theatre and could be used as a universal cinematic language understandable by everyone all around the world. By rejecting the idea of using the story and structured narratives, Vertov turned to an impressionist montage of shots from everyday life that share almost no unifying link – maybe except for the modernist enthusiasm for the new Soviet society.

Now, contrary to Vertov’s program, vast majority of the top contemporary documentaries (and ethnographic films alike?) do use narratives and storytelling. Some of my favourite documentarists stage meetings and initiate action to see their characters in a unique relationships, often going way further than Rouche would ever do. Vertov’s commandment of following the everyday life anywhere it takes the kino oko without interfering or disrupting the scenes is rarely followed.

One example of a great documentary in which theatre was used as a key aspect of the film is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012). The director in the film asked the former torturers and Indonesia to create a film depicting his memories and experience of the mass killings of the alleged communists. Through the process, the main character and a former member of a death squad realizes the scale of his guilt, even though he and others like him are celebrated as heroes by the government. The documentary thus interestingly features a narrative within a narrative, building up a story and eventually reaching the point of an emotional catharsis. Vertov would be appalled by such a high level of staging, yet in order to uncover the ‘truthful shots of the world’ that he strove for, the carefully managed story had to take place first.

Ax-Fighting in the Field

During my current fieldwork experience, I realized that I sometimes feel like the filmmaker in the Ax Fight (1975) by Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon. I have no idea where to turn first, with the life and the themes in the village ephemerally flowing in front of my eyes – and unfortunately there is no Chagnon around to help me make sense of the scenes and words of my informants (I realize I am supposed to be the Chagnon character in this scenario). Besides the big picture of the fieldwork, I have experienced the same feeling with respect to my attempts to produce some visual data. There is no literal ax fight, but the proliferation of the possible themes and the available approaches to taking the pictures have had me running around the place, not knowing how to find a unifying link to my work.

Now, leaving my fieldwork aside for a bit, with the process of editing and adding concepts and explanations, the Ax Fight moves from a chaotic video to a structured narrative. Suddenly we get to understand the scene, the motivations of the chararacters and see an actual story unfolding in the video.

In the same class, we also watched Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), a film from the asylum. The scenes from the total institution of this kind are often chilly, however, one of the strongest moments of the film that still gives me goose bumps was the conversation between the doctor and one of the patients, who seemed to be perfectly fine. The patient rather sensibly argues that he is well and that he is coercively being kept in the institution for no reason (maybe I just made this part up, but it seems to me that the character was simply gay, a thing that could easily be perceived as a diagnosis in the 1960s).

By including the scene and refraining from providing us with additional shots of the patient or his interactions with the environment, Wiseman intentionally planted a seed of insecurity about the functioning of the asylum, blurring the boundaries between the doctors and the patients, leaving us with questions about the nature of the institution.

In Visual Anthropology and the Ways of Knowing (1998) MacDougall writes that

It is the viewer who discovers connections within a network of possibilities structured by the author. The viewer may make other discoveries too, just as a reader of poetry (or of a rich ethnographic description) may discover meanings of which the writer is not consciously aware.” (p.70)

He also quotes Strathern, who said while the modernist anthropologist explains, the postmodern one “leaves all that work to the reader” (p.90). In a way, that is exactly what Wiseman did – he threw in a disturbing scene and did not bother to provide any additional information. He left the confused viewers with their ontological insecurities about what exactly we get to witness, providing a range of possible interpretations. In his manner, his approach could be contrasted to the Ax Fight, where eventually, all loose ends neatly fit together, in almost a modernist way, as Strathern would put it.

Now, returning to my Ax Fight-like fieldwork experience. If I really was shooting a film as a primary outcome of my work, I guess it would be acceptable to go MacDougall/Wiseman way and present the ‘network of possibilities’ about what’s happening in the field. However, since I am to produce a text (and maybe this is just my take on the conventions of the discipline), I don’t think loose themes and impressions would do – my findings should be substantiated by the data evidence and including an ambiguous scene of a village life without providing analysis would probably not be deemed satisfactory. In this respect, I am forced to go the Ax Fight way and make sense of the everyday in the field, identify narratives, patterns and introduce them to the fellow academics.

The question arising from there is clear – if we accept and cherish one way of looking at the world in visual anthropology, why is the discipline so uptight when it comes to writing (even after Writing Culture, experimental writing never really made it to mainstream). And vice versa, in class we seemingly understood any kind of visual project in an anthropological manner, are there any boundaries?

I would love to say that there should be none. But in that case, let’s liberate the whole field, not just the researchers working with the visual.

MacDougal, David (1998) Visual Anthropology and the Ways of knowing. In MacDougall,Transcultural Cinema. pp. 61-92. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Three notes on Leni

(apologies, this post is a bit inconsistent, stream of consciousness style)

  1. In Fascinating Fascism, Susan Sontag writes that “… fascist art has characteristics which show it to be, in part, a special variant of totalitarian art. The official art of countries like the Soviet Union and China is based on a utopian morality. Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetics—that of physical perfection.

This comment could be demonstrated on a scene that Stalinist propagandists literally stole from Riefenstahl. Triumph of the Will includes a sequence when party supporters in uniforms from all around the Reich cheerfully tell the camera where they come from. The characters we get to see are all up to Nazi ideals. They are young, handsome, mostly blond haired, giving the viewers a (subconscious) signal about the kind of people that represent the new Germany – the Ubermensch, the triumphant of the will. A few years later, the same type of scene was used in Soviet film Fall of Berlin. In the film, we see the celebrating troops that victoriously reached Berlin, waiting for the arrival of Stalin. Once again, soldiers from all over Soviet Union shout out where they are from and sometimes even do a little dance afterwards. However, there is a striking difference between the two identically staged scenes – the Soviets did not care about the looks of the characters. To be blunt, some of the men in the scene are just ugly. No master-race representation in sight. Just like Sontag says, the display of the shared morality and the unity of the different nations within the Soviet state was deemed sufficient for propagandist purposes. One might go as far as to say that by including not only physically beautiful people, the filmmakers might have aimed at promoting the inclusiveness of the Soviet project that set out to salvage the underprivileged.

(I couldn’t find the full Fall of Berlin online, sorry for that)

  1. The contrasting approaches of the two totalitarian regimes give rise to a question – would we still see the value of Riefenstahl’s films if the people featured in her works were not so attractive? Even Sontag affirms that Triumph of the Will is one of the greatest documentaries ever made, while Fall of Berlin and other Soviet films are waved down as mere examples of propaganda films (let’s ignore that they stole the scene for a bit). I dare to say that without the ancient-inspired beauty ideal Leni’s films include, they would lose their charm. But are we right to accuse Riefenstahl of following the then-fashionable aesthetics of her employer, if it is us, contemporary audience that so often gets taken aback by it?

In Fascinating Fascism Revisited, Carl Rollyson attacks Sontag for acknowledging the greatness of Riefenstahl’s filmmaking and aesthetics, when it is only discussed as a minority taste of an educated viewer (foremost herself), while the wide popularity of Nuba in the 1970s is already deemed to be a problematic issue. As if her aesthetics was “too dangerous to be trusted in the hands of the masses” (2009, 14- 15). I agree with his point here. Sontag and many other commentators keep making an implicit distinction between themselves and the others, the dumb audience that lacks the profound knowledge necessary to be able to appreciate Leni’s work without falling for it.

For me, her Nazi films as well as Nuba collection simply represent a highly-stylized conceptualization of a Western beauty ideal, one that has been with us for long time and unfortunately, there is little more than that in Riefenstahl’s work. Now, if it is almost an intellectual’s duty to comment on the beauty of her aesthetics seconds before denouncing her work as whole on the ideological grounds, doesn’t it tell us about our persisting inclination to the very same aesthetics that the Nazi’s used? What else is there to like?

  1. The last point leads me to the concluding remark. Whichever way I look at it, their totalitarian notion of beauty based on a combination of modernism and classicism/romantism was largely reactionary, standing in stark opposition to actual art that was produced at the time (no need to discuss the degenerate art exhibition and such). For a second, let’s believe that Riefenstahl really was interested in art only, as she kept on repeating. One interesting aspect of her work that people fail to mention is that this claim can only be taken seriously because she was in the film industry. I do not think that she could be recognized as an artist in any other, better established arts sphere – her naïve depictions of the master class, the will etc. seem prehistoric when juxtaposed to expressionist paintings, literature or musical compositions from that era. Riefenstahl could have only built up her artistic reputation that (somehow) lasted until her death because she chose a media that was intended to entertain the masses, plus started using it at initial stages of its development. Sontag rightly notes that neither her Nazi era films nor Nuba work are or will be cited among the breakthrough works that could serve as inspirations for other filmmakers and photographers. However, if Triumph of the Will at least captured (and helped to create) the zeitgeist , the Nuba just reproduce the boring beauty ideal that we have seen so many times and reinforce the noble savage stereotype. In the 1975. That is not dangerous or outrageous, as Sontag seems to think. It is just kitschy.

Atemporal and Claustrophopic Lumiere

1. Recently I remembered a 1976 film by John Smith that we discussed at Cityscapes class when dealing with the rhythms of the city. The avant-garde film called Girl Chewing Gum could be read as an extension of Lumiere style cinema – it includes long and stationary shots of an everyday life at a street corner. We see a rather normal urban scene with people passing by and cars coming and leaving. However, the ordinariness of the footage is broken down by a simple play by the filmmaker, as he tells us what is about to happen in advance with an all-knowing (god-like?) certainty of someone who has already seen the scene. By disrupting the temporality of the film and narrating the events in the street before they actually take place, Smith manages to move his work from a raw documentation of the daily occurrences to a make-belief of a fiction film. For a few seconds before a viewer uncovers his concept, the film seems staged.

The effect he achieved brought me to think about how we expect the visual to closely match the information we are getting in the documentary genre. If the unity is disrupted, the viewer automatically understands the work as a montaged work that leans towards fiction. As in case of the film, it does not need to matter; the director obviously always knows what is about to happen and the amount of information we get in Smith’s film equals the understanding we would reach if the film flowed in a more conventional manner. In this respect, the film is a gentle reminder that even after the lessons taught by the post-modern, we still cling on to the conventional story-telling.

2. As the visual anthropology class has altered my brain and now I seem to see Leni Riefenstahl and Lumieres everywhere, there is another example of a Lumiere style cinema as used by today’s independent filmmakers – Kreuzweg/Stations of the Cross by Dietrich Bruggeman. It should be noted that the film is not really an anthropological one (even though the story about Christian fundamentalists in Germany seems quite insightful). Anyway, the film includes 14 static scenes with no cuts and no music, all shot using cold, raw imagery, telling a story of a 14 year old girl, who deals with her faith, sin and sacrifice. While Lumiere films are easy to watch, as they feature simple actions and unproblematic scenes, some of the nerve-wrentching conversations in Stations of the Cross are sometimes very hard to handle. By refraining from cuts and fixing viewers’ gaze on the single event, the director creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, taking away any chance to look away and escape the weight of the action. In this manner, the Lumiere shots can also be understood as a powerful tool of locking in the attention of the audience – sometimes to an extent that can be very hard to bear.

70 (first version)

Family celebrations and parties are a specialty of my family. Ever since my high school times, schoolmates and friends would grin whenever I declined a weekend getaway offer on the basis of family obligations – a common scenario, as it sometimes seems we celebrate something every second week.

Translating this party obsession within my family into anthropological terms, it can be seen as a backslash against the disintegration of the strong family ties that took place as one of the results of the modernity. For example Costa (2012) has noted that even though it seems that family members spend less time together, the number and ritualization of the special family occasions has actually been increasing. Furthermore, new rituals are being invented, “combining past experiences and gaining new forms, meanings and actors and merging tradition and modernity” (Costa 2012, 273).

The film sets out to show one of the most important celebrations among such invented traditions, a decade birthday of my grandma. One level of the film could be understood as a depiction of the ritual process itself, framed by grandma’s narrative about the past forms of family gatherings and evolution of the contemporary celebrations. However, second level focuses on the grandma character and her role in creation and sustenance of the event. We see how she is not only the celebrated person that drew all the people together; she is also the one, who keeps the whole organization running.

In this manner, another feature of our contemporary gatherings is uncovered – as the gatherings no longer occur organically as a part of an everyday life, some family members have to assume personal responsibility for the events and take over their management, while others’ role is closer to a consumer position. As such, the film is a tribute to my grandma, who spent her own birthday party running around and organizing, plus covered hours of preparatory works, just like she so often does during the parties. By doing so, she is one of the most important pillars that contribute to the persistence of our family as a tightly knit social network – one sustained through an array of gatherings that she initiates and takes care of.

* For more reflexive notes, see my blog post written right after my return from the party.

Costa, Rosalina Pisto. Family Rituals: Mapping the Postmodern Family Through Time, Space and Emotion. CFR Seminar paper, KU Leuven 2012.

Breton, Zaki and my grandma research troubles

Them and Me by Stephane Breton tells a story of building up a relationship between the anthropologist and the tribe he studies, framed by the institution of shell trading. During the film, we learn how the shell economy works and find out that shells are bound to social relationships, as they are ‘true social beings’ (Breton 2000: 562) that cannot be simply exchanged for abstract money with just anyone. It takes Breton a whole film to manage to be accepted into the trading circles and be recognized as a worthy partner to participate in the shell exchange.

In this manner, he positions himself as the main character, in what is almost an anthropological fairy tale story – a hero gets through obstacles (even betrayal) and eventually reaches the happy ending he wished for. He moves from the position of the unfamiliar towards the familiar and binds his experience in the village around this straightforward, linear narrative.

On the contrary, in My Kosher Shifts, Iris Zaki refrains from building up a storyline; instead, we witness a panopticon of characters that she gets to observe and interact with from her fixed point at the reception. The film therefore evokes more of an impression, a collage of a series of encounters, without a clear narrative link. Another difference is that while Breton spends the film creating the bonds, Zaki blurs them – most guests probably assumed that the orthodox-like dressed girl at the reception desk is one of them before she moves on towards disrupting the situation and unfamiliarizing the practices at the hotel through her questions.

Interestingly, both Breton and Zaki put themselves in the centre of the action, stir it and manifest their presence, but do so in different ways. Through the style and the form they choose, Breton evokes an image of a single warrior, an agent trying to penetrate a tightly-bound social order in the village and learning ethnographic details about it along the way. Zaki, being stuck behind her desk, paints a different picture. With her being the stable element, the informants she meets represent an ever-changing variety of different approaches to Jewish orthodoxy, providing viewers with a taste of fluidity within the seemingly stiff frame of their religion.

I had Zaki’s film in mind while shooting the Grandma’s 70th birthday party – I hoped I could move from the familiar to the unfamiliar and expose some of the practices and hidden assumptions behind them during the ritual by asking provocative questions, without directly creating the situations (no such thing would be possible during the party anyway, the event is socially well-scripted and only little deviation is acceptable). However, I hate to admit that I probably failed miserably in doing so. Firstly, everybody knew that I am an insider and therefore share the knowledge about the party – grandma and other people mostly did not feel the need to elaborate on their answers beyond the banal, despite my attempts to make them so. Partially, this was also caused by the fact that I did not want to push anyone over the comfort zone, as it was not socially appropriate at the event as well as due to my position of a relatively young member of the family, who should show a certain amount of respect to older ones. This also leads to a last reason of my problems – in a close family circle, especially at an event like this, it is very hard to overstep the boundaries applying both to me and to the people I spoke with, leading to a series of safe answers to safe questions. A lesson in anthropology at home taken.

Ps. Remark on ethics in Breton’s film: I was genuinely surprised by the moment when the villagers asked him to stop shooting and put the camera away and he not only did not do so, but also used the material in the film. I am aware that the notion of consent of the informants might have blurry boundaries, but this was a clear-cut case, when someone voiced disagreement in participating in the making of the video. During my visual anthtro fieldwork at the party, I unfortunately had to face similar reactions, especially later on in the evening, when some of the jokes and talks at the table got juicier and less politically correct. As much as those were the moments that would be tremendously useful in the video, I respected guests’ wishes, as I believe that is the only ethically acceptable position to take in such cases. And there’s a question that should be asked – would Breton continue shooting also if he worked with Western informants?

Ps2. When I told people in the class about my project, some joked that I should just drop some kind of a Rouch-style bomb and watch the family disintegrate in quarrels. This reminded me of one of the very first Dogma films, Vinterberg’s Celebration, where a family member reads out a sexual abuse accusation towards his father and we get to follow the development of the party from then on. Even when excluding such extremes cases as portrayed in the film, any kind of social order falling apart is usually anthropologically interesting. However, is it ever acceptable for anthropologists to initiate it? Or more importantly, how to find the lines that shouldn’t be crossed.

Breton, S. 2000. Social body and icon of the person: a symbolic analysis of shell money among the Wodani, western highlands of Irian Jaya. American ethnologist 26: 558-582.

Grandma birthday project

For my final project, I would like to use the opportunity to shoot my grandma’s 70th birthday party. Among my friends, my family is famed for organizing gatherings under the pretense of birthday or namesday parties almost every second week. How do such celebrations look like?

The usual events are attended by the same, relatively small group of people living in two neighbouring houses – my nuclear family, family of my aunt and grandparents plus great-grandma, who stays in her place at the end of our street. Due to such a spatial proximity and the fact that (with the exception of great-grandma) we would meet almost every day anyway, the family gatherings termed as ‘celebrations’ have highly ritual nature, in order to demarcate them from the mundane daily life – we dress up, lots of food is prepared and adults are expected to engage in conversations for at least a few hours after lunch/dinner. It could be argued that grandparents (who are the main organizers) want to maintain tight relations with the rest of the ‘closer extended’ family that inevitably crumble with the push towards more independent nuclear family units that arrived together with my parents’ generation and make up for time that we don’t spend sharing household or farm tasks anymore.

Now, while our regular gatherings cater to the tighter circle of the family, decade birthdays celebrations are attended by extended family members and always take place outside the house. The level of ritualization is much higher, as the event is perceived as a significant threshold in life of the honoured person and also as a demonstration of the success and coherence of the family standing besides her. Special emphasis is therefore put on presentation of the members of ‘closer extended’ family in front of other guests, eventually transforming them into co-hosts of the event, playing out their well-rehearsed roles that they learnt during previous gatherings and acting as living social capital symbols for the birthday person (e.g., I was always reprimanded by my mum not to forget to mention my ill-fated law studies besides anthropology, as “that is what people care about”).

Together with the rise of the importance of our position, in this case grandma symbolically tones down her activity during the actual party, since this is her celebration and most of the social obligations should be taken care of by the rest of the closer extended family. The stark contrast between busy grandma as an organizer before and after the party and her (expected) stillness during the actual event might be well documented by the visual means, depicting the switches between the rhythms and modes of conduct she goes through. Like this, I could document the way she bakes cakes, prepares her clothes, discusses seating organization, then relatively passively follows the pattern of the birthday party, just to re-assume her leading role after the party ends.

Similarly, it might be interesting to capture the moment of the commencement of the ritual (usually starting by the first person, who decides to congratulate with the flowers), its duration and its gradual end (slow disintegration with first guests leaving and taking care about whether they have boxes with cakes up to the breaking point of clearing up the leftovers from the room and leaving home).

A question to be solved is whether it would be best to focus solely on my grandma and try to create a more intimate portrait of her or divide the camera time among more people. Ideal result of my work would be a cinema verite style documentary of the Goffmanian splits between on and off the stage moments linked to the party (even though counting with off-the-stage with the camera present is a rather absurd concept, as Rouch taught us). I am planning to ask questions and actively engage with the people on-screen, as I guess they would actively engage with me whether I would want it or not.

Idea 2 (maybe I actually like it more than the first one): Break down the party to chapters based on food being eaten. Rhythms of all our parties are signified by the food and different temporalities of its serving. By trying to capture the impressions of conversations and actions surrounding particular food and drink chapters would probably give quite accurate image of the flow of the event together with plenty of information on the rituals and norms linked to consumption. (I could again start with grandma baking and end with people dealing with leftovers).

Human Fragility in Cinema Verité

In Chronicle of a Summer, Rouch intervenes, shakes up situations in front of the camera and directly engages with the characters in order to reveal a “reality as it is provoked by the act of filming”, a new cinema-truth (Rothman 1997:87). He becomes one of the characters himself, he interviews and stages situations that clearly wouldn’t take place without his involvement and finally extracts the innumerable revelatory moments that spring up from the ways individuals try to cope with the unusual experience he stirs up at the presence of the camera.

As we already discussed in the classroom, one of the most interesting aspects of such an approach is that Rouch does not seem to be afraid of consequences of his on-screen actions and he openly addresses them right in the film. At the very end, he not only discusses the film with the people who participated in its making and often stripped themselves in front of the camera, he also tackles his own sentiments about what he hears at the screening, by confiding in his colleague how sad it makes him to see that some people dislike the characters that he adored. In this manner, he manages to bring the human experience, the existence of the actual individuals that stand behind the characters back to the picture, reminding us all that anthropologists’ or filmmakers’ encounters with the people they study always have consequences.

Rouch also uses two elegant ways to underline this message. First one of them is hidden in the way he sets the final dialogue in the anthropological museum, half-jokingly implying the link between his filmmaking practice and the work of scientists who studied body parts in jars. The second one that caught my attention was the usage of the carillon music during the closing sentence as a symbol of fragility and sensitivity of the characters in the film and the filmmaker himself. By repeating the gentle sound he probably recorded at the apartment of the artistic couple, he intentionally evokes nostalgia and delicacy of the human beings that he so ruthlessly exposes in his films.

Thanks to all the above-mentioned, Chronicle of a Summer is a beautiful example of the multitude of ways in which reflexivity can be thematized and exercised in anthropology and filmmaking alike.

Rothman, W. 1997. Chronicle of a Summer. In Rothman, W. Documentary film classics.Cambridge studies in film. Pp. 69-107. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.