«An van. Dienderen Promotor: Professor Dr. Rik Pinxten Proefschrift voorgelegd tot het behalen van de graad van Doctor in de Vergelijkende ...»
1 Initiated by Rik Pinxten and myself in 1995 and set up by Didier Volckaert, Eric Pauwels, Reinhart Cosaert, Laurent van Lancker, and Willem de Greef, with assistance from Els Dietvorst, Alex Claes, Renzo Martens and Tarik Elhaik Collectivity on screen prompts questions on identity construction. As pointed out in chapter 1.2, Pinxten and Verstraete argue that the concept of identity proposed is free-floating, and not connected to an ‘essence’, it is instead thought of as a performance based on the interplay of narratives and labels within a certain socio-cultural context (Pinxten and Verstraete: 1998; Longman, Pinxten and Verstraete: 2003). This view on identity dynamics is fundamental in our visual anthropology seminars.
Instead of claiming the truth, we are researching the interaction of the research process (Bourdieu 1980: Chap. 3). Ethnography is of necessity doubly biased (Pinxten 1997: 9). We conceive a ‘fact’ in ethnography as an item of knowledge usually expressed in a statement, which is, or can be, agreed upon by both the community of ethnographers and by the consultants of the culture concerned. The statement should be a true, correct or viable description of such cultural ‘data’ (Pinxten 1997: 9).
This also holds for visual data. It is not the reality of the subjects that can be visualized, nor are we aiming at depicting our own ethnocentric interpretation. It is the visual diagnosis of the interaction between researcher, subject and the impact of the system of representation that is being researched.
I used a super8 camera in my film Visitors of the Night (1998) to illustrate the reactions of the Mosuo-people in China on my digital camera. The super8 images can therefore be presented as more ‘real’, more authentic in relation to the mode of production of this film as they evoke the scene of filmmaking. However, the medium itself (super8) can work as an imaginary process, evoking memories of the early 1970s when it was used to produce home movies. The super8 images filmed on location in China projected this nostalgic remembrance of (Western) time past. The complexity thus created reveals an approach to the real in a multi-layered way. It refuses to perceive reality as a good-bad fiction.
What we suggest as a methodological framework is a form of collaborative negotiation. The negotiation method implies that social or cultural-scientific research is based on the conviction that reality is shaped by the concept of continual negotiation. The ‘subject’ thus becomes a sort of ‘coauthor’, present at different stages of the process. The codes of representation are explained to and contextualized for all those portrayed. By proceeding in this way, the construction of images, the way in which the image of ‘the other’ takes shape, is negotiated. This context also confirms the director as the creator of image, sound and editing as well as negotiator of parameters; in doing so it clearly outlines the personal ethics of the director. An image can be perceived as relevant when participant and filmmaker agree about its interpretation (its truth).
Truth (or some degree of rightness: Goodman, 1989) is reached from the moment both the informant and the ethnographer agree about the result of research. This result then relates to the mediating device (frame of reference) in the sense that it is the modification of the frame (to whatever extent: vast alteration or minor modification) that is deemed satisfactory and understandable (communicable) by both interacting parties. The result is to a large extent a common construct engaging both parties and involving biases of both. (Pinxten 1997: 56-57) In the year 2000 we were encouraged by one of the directors of ‘Brussels 2000’, Guido Minne, to join a group called Crossing Brussels, founded by Eric Corijn of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and funded by Brussels 2000. This group researched different public spaces in Brussels by means of three public buses. The buses were converted into an exhibition space, a cinema and a café, and parked in the researched public spaces in view of improving the collaboration between scientists and members of the community. The films produced by our students were shown in the bus located in the area where the films were made, in order to enhance the interaction and discussion of the production of the images. The preference for public buses was the result of careful deliberation: the recognizability and familiarity of these vehicles lowered the threshold for the inhabitants, and diminished the gap between themselves and the researcher. Also, the location of the buses ‘on the spot’ was perceived by the residents as a strong invitation to the lively discussions in the buses. The confrontation of students and their work with the residents lies at the heart of the commitment one needs to practise visual anthropology.
We do not expect more truthfulness or authenticity than this. If this image represents a recreation of the real, which is agreed upon by researcher and participant, then we can assume that we evoke
something of the interaction between them. As cited by Nichols:
It goes without saying that, as part of this method, stereotypes are constantly being challenged. This is achieved by developing a precise view on dealing with audiovisual media. This view is based on two crucial principles: one is that the interaction with the ‘other’ is ‘mediated’. Audiovisuals are not neutral recording devices. The medium does not function as a mirror, reflecting whatever is being experienced in reality, but as a system in which different identities are created and reconstructed.
The medium has its own parameters, patterns and codes of representation that transform the subject. Attention is paid primarily to the interconnection between form and contents and the relation with the applicable context. The other principle is that dealing with audiovisual media is interpreted as a performative act. Its starting point is not a pre-set end result. It is the meeting that drives the process and claims its own medium. Experimental filmmakers, performance artists, immigrant artists, ethnic film directors, visual anthropologists, etc. provide inspiration.
Through the development of this method we try, on the one hand, to impart representation to the participant, or to at least give him or her a higher degree of control. Consequently, the system provides a guarantee for truth claims without alleging to reveal the truth, represent reality or make an objective statement. This method shatters the illusion of showing other cultures but at the same provides an alternative for the cynical concept of exotic reconstruction. On the other hand, this system allows the viewer to gain insight into the construction of the representation: it also suggests the context of interaction between filmmaker, subject and their mediated relation. In this way the film offers the viewer a position of critique. By presenting a context of interaction between the researcher/film maker, the participant and the cinematic disposition, the viewer is presented with a more precise and relevant image, allowing the subject to regain its vitality.
In a research conducted among anthropology students at The University of Melbourne, Australia, Naomi Offler concluded that there is a strong link between how students negotiate their emotional reactions to the actions and behavior of ethnographic subjects on film and the degree to which accessibility to the subjects is made available within the film. Greater levels of accessibility lead to a broader understanding of the world of the subject. Not only the stereotype but also the emotional basis behind the formation of this stereotype needs to be understood and both emotionally and cognitively contextualized in relation to the film as a whole and the external material being used in conjunction with it (Offler 1999).
In our workshop we encourage our students to develop a collaborative framework in their research in order to produce a film process that is appreciated by both parties, the researchers and the participants. The book that accompanies the documentaries contains photographs of the production process. The edition on the fishermen of Ostend three years ago presented a rectangular photo shot by one of the students showing the subjects of the film. This photo was presented next to a square photo that was taken by one of the subjects and showed the group of students. In this way, the form generated the representation of the maker, a more sophisticated way of revealing the production process.
Furthermore, to enhance this interactive view, the subjects of the workshops are chosen within subclasses of Belgian society. The reason for this type of research is also to identify the 'other' as part of the same culture in pointing out the differences-within-the-same. Projects include the multicultural experience in Genk (1999), the fisher community in Ostend (1998) and the First World War trauma in Vinkt (1997).
. Formal play In our workshops we suggest looking upon the mode of production as a site of critique. Because of the previously elaborated reasons, we think it is crucial to include the production mode and responses to it in the film. In this way the codes of representation are to be found in the film itself, therefore enhancing the accessibility of the subject’s image. I do not, however, want to imply an academic formalized system of feedback within the film. I prefer to consider it as a formal play in which this type of self-reflection needs to find its own place in the film. Or in other words: I believe it is necessary to explore artistically the formal aspects of imagining cultural groups.
This kind of formal playfulness was stimulated by the tradition in experimental filmmaking of the film school. In this tradition techniques of deconstruction and reconstruction in a plastic and textural way are elaborated. Experimental filmmakers mostly work in an independent way. They refuse affiliation with the predominant modes of production, and they manage to organize their own circuits, their own festivals and most of all their own forms and formats. A wide range of film and video makers, including Maya Deren, Peter Kubelka, Jonas Mekas, Su Friedrich, Bill Viola, Kidlat Tahimik, Tracey Moffatt and Chantal Akerman, are regarded as sources of inspiration here.
Experimental film and ethnographic film have long been considered separate, autonomous practices in the margins of mainstream cinema. Catherine Russell explores the interplay between the two forms (Russell 1999).
Our workshops can be regarded as a playing field within this intertwining of traditions. We think it is important to open up this self-reflective and critical stance to a playful and explorative mode. In our view, formal renewal challenges conventional modes of object-subject relationships, perception of audiences, and content-form divisions. For instance, while researching the fisher community in Ostend, the students came across a stereotypical and deep-rooted expression: ‘The fishermen are the Negroes of the city.’ They used this phrase as a tool to provoke reactions within the fisher community and in the city of Ostend as a whole. In their documentary they assembled these recorded phrases with photos in black and white of the people who were responding. This process created a very strong image that deconstructed the stereotype but nonetheless located its background.
Addendum 2: Questionnaire for “Night Passage” Consequences of production process of an independent film funded by National Endowment for the Arts and sponsored by the Film Arts Foundation on the relation between fiction and film
1. Introduction This questionnaire serves as a tool to research the aspects of production processes in relationship to independent film making, and the impact they have on the bound between fact and fiction in the result. The basic principle of the methodology I propose, is grounded in interactive research. Instead of claiming the truth, I will be researching the interaction of the research (Bourdieu 1980: ch. 3). Ethnography is necessarily double-biased (Pinxten 1997: 9). A fact in ethnography in this method is an item of knowledge usually expressed in a statement which is or can be agreed upon by both the community of ethnographers and by the consultants of the culture concerned. The statement should be a true, correct or viable description of such cultural ‘data’ (Pinxten 1997: 9). As a method I either interview people or send them this questionnaire by email. Both ways, the results of the interview will be presented in text form to the respondent and her or his agreement for release will be asked before that text will be used in my Ph.D. If the respondent wants to change her or his comments, or answers, or wants to change the text, I guarantee this will be done before anybody else will read the text. In proceeding in this way, I hope to warrant the respondents as much feedback as possible in the process of this inquiry. My aim is to make a text that is approved by all the parties involved in the interview. The respondents have the option to remain anonymous. If only one of the respondents wishes to do so I will make all of the respondents anonymous. Some questions in this list are more detailed then others and might be answered by specific persons, others are more general and aimed at all the respondents.
4. Shoot Documentary approach towards crew members: In her documentary films, Trinh Minh-ha works with small teams. What is the difference when making a narrative film? What impact does that have on the process itself?