Agnieska Piotrowska’s PhD thesis Psychoanalysis and Ethics in documentary Film

Agnieska Piotrowska, in her PhD thesis, Psychoanalysis and Ethics in documentary Film (2012),  argues that the bond that develops between a filmmaker and participant is akin to transference love, a psychoanalytic term that describes an attachment that develops between analyst and analysand, determined by the power dynamics in the relationship. Piotrowska argues the intense experience of documentary production typically culminates in a betrayal where, unlike analysis, a film is produced that is largely under the control of the director and thus reflects their fantasies and desires as opposed to the participants. The film is then irrevocably released to the public often to the horror of the participant. While Piotrowska does not provide a solution to this dilemma, her extensive analysis of reflexivity in documentary practice is helpful in addressing broader ethical concerns.

Is documentary unethical?

Piotrowska refers to Krzysztof Kieślowski a Polish director who pivoted in his career from documentary to fiction, reportedly for ethical reasons (2012: 104). Kieślowski wrote ‘…I am frightened of real tears. In fact, I don’t know if I have the right to photograph them.’ (in Cousins & MacDonald 1988: 316).

Slavoj Žižek (2006) quotes Kieślowski’s words in his analysis of the documentary form arguing that it is fundamentally predatory, and subsequently unethical. He characterises the genera as ‘emotional pornography’ (Žižek 2006: 30). Žižek evokes a ‘No trespassers!’ sign and proclaims that to avoid ‘pornographic obscenity’ tender subjects should only be approached via fiction (Žižek 2006: 31).

Piotrowska suggests, Žižek may have drawn too bold a conclusion from his reading of Kieślowski’s documentary work. Žižek bases his conclusion partly on a scene in Kieślowski’s reflections on his 1974 documentary First Love, in which a farther cries after his first child is born (Piotrowska 2012: 106). However, Kieślowski’s later account of ethical concerns in his documentary work was more closely connected to the necessity and inescapabilty of manipulating reality through the documentary process. This is in contrast to Žižek’s explicit focus on the unwieldly intrusion into the intimate lives of documentary participants (Kieślowski & Stok 1993: 64).

Žižek and Kieślowski are referring to different formulations of unethical behaviour when analysing the filmmaker’s decision to abandon documentary practice. I have come to refer to the primary commitments for a documentary filmmaker as the documentary ethics trichotomy, based on Jay Ruby’s list of moral responsibilities that every documentary director must balance:

‘(1) the image maker’s personal moral contract to produce an image that is somehow a true reflection of their intention in making the image in the first place-to, use a cliché, it is being true to one’s self; (2) the moral obligation of the producer to his or her subjects; and (3) the moral obligation of the producer to the potential audience’ (2005: 211).

Žižek explicitly refers to the director neglecting their duty of care towards the participant, which includes the right to privacy (Pryluck 2005: 200). Thus, Žižek conceives Kieślowski over emphasising his commitment to his audience, or in other words strictly adhering to the public’s right to know the truth. It may also be argued that Žižek is suggesting that Kieślowski over played his commitment to his own film by channelling an obscene and intrusive desire to capture compelling footage.

This subtly contrasts Kieślowski’s own conception of his unethical activity. He clearly identifies regret and unease regarding the over emphasis on his own ethical commitment to his documentary practice, at the expense of both a breach in his commitment to factual reporting for his audience and possibly the exploitation of participants in order to do so.

Žižek’s misreading of Kieślowski’s motivations for leaving documentary undermines the argument that documentary is a predatory practice. While Kieślowski shared these concerns to an extent, he was focused on his misleading of the audience and the inability to create objective artefacts for displaying truth.

Calvin Pryluck identifies a key insight into how to balance two poles of the documentary ethics trichotomy. The participants right to privacy and their control over the outcome of the film should be proportional to their power and standing in society, the less powerful they are, the more their rights should be exercised. The greater the participants standing in society the greater the public’s right to intrude in their lives and the less influence they should have over the final film (Ruby 2005: 204-205).

While the participant’s influence over the outcome of the film does have a baring on the director’s moral commitment to their work, there is no variable within this formulation that indicates how a director should understand their commitment to themselves, i.e. what circumstances would affect a director to question their own desires.  This is where Piotrowska’s psychoanalytic insights into the nature of the director’s unconscious desire become useful.

Before moving on to Piotrowska’s psychoanalytic reading of the documentary participant relationship, I would argue that animated documentary can resist what Žižek characterises as ‘pornographic obscenity’ (Žižek 2006: 30-31). The intrusive capturing of images would be replaced by the careful reconstruction of mimetic, stylised or evocative images, each of which could be approved by the participant before entering production. Similarly, Kieslowski’s concerns regarding the manipulation of reality at the expense of the audience’s reception of truth would be mitigated by an animated image which is recognisably constructed and makes no false claim to be representative of anything other than an impression of reality by the artist.

 

The psychoanalysis metaphor for documentary practice

Elizabeth Cowie (2011) argues there is a tension in all documentary practice between the ‘scientific recording of what one sees and somehow the desire to give it meaning and perhaps make it more beautiful.’ She refers to these as ‘contradictory desires’ (2011: 2). Cowie also identifies unconscious desires present in the makeup of documentary production, shifting the nature of the debate from ‘a discourse of sobriety’ (Nichols 1991: 4, Nichols 2010: 36), something akin to scientific investigation, to a ‘discourse of desire’ (Cowie in Gaines 1999: 25) in which the director is pursuing and delivering pleasure as well as knowledge to their audience (Piotrowska 2012: 91).  Michael Renov extends this argument calling documentary a ‘discourse of jouissance’, suggesting the filmmaker’s unconscious desires are likely to be exercised through the practice amidst attempts to represent reality (Renov 2004: 23).

In stark contrast to Nichols’ discourse of sobriety and the scientific objectivity that it connotes, Piotrowska argues the nature of the relationship between filmmaker and participant is a space of psychoanalytic turbulence in which both parties express unconscious desires, typically in the form of transferential love (Piotrowska, 2012: 74). Transference is not a phenomenon exclusive to the practice of psychoanalysis. When Jacque Lacan drew his own conclusions about the nature of transference in a psychoanalytic context, he used examples from outside of the clinic, including the dynamics between teachers and students (Piotrowska 2012: 72).

‘It is the idea of the illusion of knowledge inducing desire, which makes transference relevant in interrogating relationships outside the clinic too – in education in particular but also in other situations which feature a potential imbalance of power’ (Ibid.).

Lacan, however, does not insist that transference must be avoided, it is an inevitable phenomenon that should be embraced and accepted as a kind of love. A love that can be utilised as a tool in the psychoanalytic process (Ibid.: 73).

Piotrowska makes the connection between psychoanalysis and documentary explicit:

‘Documentary filmmakers often appear the perfect canvases on which to draw one’s emotions. Just like psychoanalyst, they listen, they try to stay ‘professional’ regardless of their drives, they attempt to hold on to their boundaries in order not to reveal too much of themselves to those about whom they make films. These very attempts of course make them perfect candidates for experiencing transference from those who they make films about.’ (ibid.: 74)

Piotrowska emphasizes that while there is an erotic subtext to transference it is not necessarily sexual in nature (ibid.: 79). It is instead a bond formed by one’s counterpart occupying a subject position that triggers unconscious desires in oneself. Lacan also makes no distinction between transference and countertransference, suggesting both the analysand and analyst are experiencing the same phenomena (ibid.: 72).

Piotrowska suggest another way in which documentary and Lacanian psychoanalysis are similar is that documentary does not attempt to remedy the problems in the lives of the participants. Lacanian analysis aims to develop understanding of an analysand’s unconscious activity rather than cure it (Piotrowska 2012: 56).

Piotrowska makes some compelling arguments as to why the relationship between filmmaker and documentary participant is akin to analyst and analysand. To support her argument she explores a number of case studies from her own documentary practice and analyses the relationship between Claude Lanzmann and Abraham Bomba during the production of Shoah (1985) (Piotrowska 2012: 208-212).

As Piotrowska illuminates the presence of transferential love as an inevitable factor in documentary production, it is the differences between filmmaking and psychoanalysis that expose the possible ethical dilemmas.

‘The point is not that the documentary encounter is ‘like’ psychotherapy or psychoanalysis; it is rather the exact opposite: through the structure of the encounter and powerful unconscious mechanisms a situation might arise leading to a profound ‘misrecognition’ on the part of the subject of the film and the filmmaker alike. A documentary encounter might feel like a special safe place in which one is listened to and even loved, but that private space will soon enough be turned into a public spectacle – a process which carries with it inherent dangers.’ (2012: 56)

Documentary filmmakers, while attempting to hold together professional boundaries, lack the frameworks for understanding and making use of transferential love. ‘Because these phenomena are not named in documentary film, they remain hidden and create confusion and sometimes hurt’ (Piotrowska 2012: 74).

What makes these circumstances even more concerning is that the more vulnerable you are as a participant the more susceptible you may be to desire the filmmaker’s attention and inferred insights. ‘The filmmaker in the society of spectacle, can in some circumstances become a bearer of a clear possibility for symbolising the potential subject’s relationship with the Real [the Lacanian term for the unsymbolised] and thus be particularly seductive for those whose traumas appear un-symbolisable’ (2012: 140). For example, it is possible that the trauma of the Holocaust contributed to Bomba developing a transferential relationship with Lanzmann.

According to Piotrowska, the completion of a documentary film typically culminates in various forms of betrayal.

‘Having agreed to take part in a documentary project, sometimes longed for it to come to being, having had complex fantasies about the film and the filmmaker, when the film is finished, the people in it mostly hate it. This phenomenon is so ubiquitous that the executives in broadcast television usually forbid the filmmakers to show their films to their subjects before the documentaries are screened.’ (2012: 216)

The participant has no say over how the film takes its form. As a result, the film reflects more closely the unconscious desires and fantasies of the filmmaker, rather than the participant. After seeing the film there is now no way to stop its release.

Without stating it explicitly, the specific problems Piotrowska has pointed out illuminate possible antidotes to what she considers common ethical failures in documentary practice. Transferential love may develop between filmmaker and participant, I have certainly felt a sense of bonding take place in many of the film’s I’ve directed. This must be acknowledged by the filmmaker as more than a convenient benefit and recognised as an ethical conflict. In accordance they should adjust their duty of care to match the possibility that they have seduced their participant into a nonsexual loving relationship and visa versa. By rendering this knowledge conscious, Piotrowska can help a director to examine the nature of their and their participant’s desires. As a result, a director can wield a greater consideration for the participants best interests and help keep in check the director’s commitment to their own creative vision.

As transference is likely to be proportional to the vulnerability of the participant, any adjustments in the power relations between filmmaker and participant, can be proportional to Pryluck’s suggestions regarding how to adjust one’s approach towards a participant according to their standing in society. For instance, if a participant is from a marginalised group they could be invited to collaborate in the edit and creative development of the documentary. This will shape a film so it reflects a negotiation between theirs and the director’s desires and fantasies. This opportunity would not be offered to someone who had much more power in society than the director, such as a politician, as they are less likely to fall victim to transference and the greater public interest in exposing their private life out ways their right to privacy. This approach should reduce the likely hood that vulnerable participants feel betrayed and helpless upon the release of the film.

I feel slightly uneasy about assuming a marginalised participant is unconsciously experiencing love for me based on my power to illuminate them and hear their story. It feels obscenely presumptuous. However, it is important to hold in one’s mined that Piotrowska is drawing attention to unconscious activity as appose to concrete realities. She has articulated in psychoanalytic terms, the ethical imbalance when working with someone where there is an inherent power imbalance. It is also worth noting that much of psychoanalysis can induce an uneasy effect if rendered too literally.

 

Reflexivity

While Piotrowska does not allude to increased collaborative involvement with the participants as a possible antidote to the power imbalances that can result in transference, she does refer to reflexivity as a best practice quality of ethical documentary filmmaking. This is, in the first instance important because reflexivity encourages the filmmaker to self-scrutinise, leading to the illumination and negotiation of unconscious desires. Secondly, reflexivity allows for the audience to understand better the position from which the filmmaker is approaching the topic or participant. Thirdly, it can be used to encourage ethical engagement from audiences by forcing them to maintain a certain distance from the seductive qualities of the film.

In contrast to Nichols’ ‘discourse of sobriety’ (1991: 4, 2010: 36), Piotrowska conceives of documentary production, in part, as the product of a turbulent web of unconscious activity on the part of the director. ‘[Documentary filmmakers] mostly keep making different versions of the same film, perhaps unconsciously reworking some kind of trauma in a process of sublimation’ (2012: 68). According to Lacan, the psychoanalyst usually possesses some form of unconscious libidinal desire towards the analysand which must be rendered clear in their mind (Piotrowska 2012:72). ‘[This] is an important move as it dislodges the lingering stance in psychoanalysis of the psychoanalyst possessing all the power and solutions’ (Ibid.). Both the analyst and documentary filmmaker benefit from greater understanding of their own motivations and fallibility. Without self-reflexivity they would likely be trapped in cycles of behaviour that may be unethical. They could draw in their participants or analysands into an ill-defined dance in which repressed desires or traumas determine the terms of engagement.

From the perspective of the audience, there is a clear advantage to having as much insight into a filmmaker as possible when decoding how they have subjectively interpreted reality for the purposes of a documentary (Piotrowska 2012: 25).  As Julian Barnes puts it in his fiction writing, ‘we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us’ (2011:12).

Susan Scheibler drew a distinction between the ‘constative’ and ‘performative’ tensions within the documentary genre, the constative referring to knowledge that is objective and unchanging, and the performative, as emblematic of subjective perspectives (in Renov 1993: 137). Piotrowska points out that ‘performative’ can also mean a documentary team setting up events that will unfold on camera.  ‘This issue of the camera creating reality, which is not exactly staged but somehow impacted by the process itself, is also an important ethical issue in the genre – it is that notion too which bothered Krzysztof Kieślowski’ (Piotrowska 2012: 95). Even if the footage captured in a documentary production was a true reflection of “objective reality”, Piotrowska argues that it is much easier to manipulate the footage through editing than most audiences realised. ‘The spectator might have no idea how his or her perception has been altered through quite simple means: just cutting out a hesitation or a question could make an enormous difference to how you perceive the piece’ (2012: 95). Stella Bruzzi, echoes Scheibler in arguing that documentary is not a record of reality but rather a recording of a kind of ‘performance’ in the world (Bruzzi 2000: 3).

As an antidote to the performative manipulations of reality and the subjective undercurrent of the genre of documentary, Bruzzi identifies ‘performative documentary’, or what Nichols would call the participatory mode, in which the filmmaker enters the filmic frame as a participant (2001: 33).  The filmmaker’s onscreen presence illuminates a certain honesty about the subjectivity of the film text as opposed to an objective record of events as they would occur naturally (Bruzzi 2000: 155). Piotrowska refers to Nick Broomfield’s performative (or in Nichols terminology, participatory) documentaries as a key example of this practice.

‘He is dismantling the conventional documentary because, in his mind, it doesn’t work. His films are ‘voyages of discovery for him’ and he wants ‘to take the audience with him’ (Broomfield in Jones et al 2010: 30), thus empowering them. The point is the filmmaker’s desire to demonstrate in some way the process of the filmmaking.’ (Piotrowska 2012: 96).

This reflexive aesthetic has its roots in Bertolt Brecht’s radical theatre, specifically his Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect), which ‘reveal the workings of the theatre in order to empower the spectator to question rather than just to have a pleasant experience… Brecht wanted the artifice of the theatre to be stripped down so that the spectator, rather than suspending her disbelief, could instead become a co-author of the performance.’ (Piotrowska 2012: 97-98).

Piotrowska connects this distancing effect in documentary with the psychoanalytic term ‘suture’ which describes the painful transition from the Imaginary into the Symbolic i.e. the uncomfortable intersection between the realm of senses and the realm of language and the other (2012: 105). Piotrowska uses suture ‘to describe the spectators’ rupture from the illusory identification with the screen to the realisation that it is but an illusion through a reminder that the frame of the screen frames the limit of the spectator’s experience’ (Ibid.). As such, distancing effects hopefully jolt the audience out of a passive role and into the poise of a critic.

According to Ruby’s trichotomy of ethical responsibilities documentary filmmakers must consider, reflexivity is a direct response to ‘the moral obligation of the producer to the potential audience’ (Ruby 2005: 211). By treating the audience as active thinking agents and equipping them with the material to decode the desires and prejudices present in the text, the filmmaker would have acted ethically towards the audience. Piotrowska concludes that ‘the method of cutting out the author/the filmmaker rather than inscribing him or her into the text, has produced the greatest deceptions in the history of documentary film’ (2012: 118).

In my own animated documentary practice I have started to follow Broomfield’s example by including myself and my microphones in the films I animate. It is important to me to expose to the audience how strange a scenario a documentary interview is. The added artificiality of the images being purposefully rendered as opposed to captured, further highlights to the audience how I have performed my interpretation of reality. It is also important for me to be clearly present as the directing force behind the film, so the audience can understand the origin of these interpretations. Including these reflexive commitments helps me examine my own conscious desires and prejudices. I am aware I will be held accountable by my audience. This in turn heightens my sense of concern for gaining a balance between the ethical demands of my participant, my audience, and my creative project.

 

 

Bibliography

Barnes, J. (2011) The Sense of an Ending. London: Jonathan Cape.

Bruzzi, S. (2000) New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge.

Cousins, M. and MacDonald, K. (ed.) (1988) Imagining Reality. London: Faber & Faber.

Cowie, E. (2011) Recording Reality, Desiring the Real. London & Minneapolis: University of Minnesotta Press.

Gaines, J. & Renov, M. (eds.) (1999) Collecting Visible Evidence. Minneapolis: University of Minnesotta Press.

Jones, C., Jolliffe, G. & Zinnes, A. (2010) The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook. The Ultimate Guide to Digital Filmmaking. London: Continuum.

Kieślowski, K. & Stok, D. (1993) Kieślowski on Kieślowski. Trans. by D. Stok. London: Faber & Faber.

Nichols, B. (1991) Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nichols, B. (2001) Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nichols, B. (2010 [2001]) Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Parker, I. (2011) Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity. London & New York: Routledge.

Pryluck, C. [1976] ‘Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking’ in New challenges for Documentary. (2005) ed. A. Rosenthal, J. Corner. Manchester University Press.

Renov, M. (1993) Theorizing Documentary. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Renov, M. (2004) The Subject of Documentary. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesotta Press.

Ruby, J. [1979] ‘The Ethics of Image making; or, “They’re going to Put me in the Movies, They’re Going to Make a Big Star Out of Me…’ in New challenges for Documentary. (2005) ed. A. Rosenthal, J. Corner. Manchester University Press.

Žižek, S. (2006) The Parallax View. Cambridge. Mass: MIT Press.

Samantha Moore’s Doctoral Thesis ‘Out of Sight: Using animation to document perceptual brain states’

Samantha Moore’s PhD thesis, Out of Sight: Using animation to document perceptual brain states (2015), presents a methodology for improving the authenticity of animated renderings of invisible mental phenomena experienced by two sets of participants; those with prosopagnosia (face blindness) and those with phantom limb syndrome. Her method involved interviewing participants (referred to as collaborative consultants), she then creates animated representations of the brain state phenomena, before returning to the collaborative consultant for verification or suggested improvements. This collaborative cycle of consultation and revision persists until the collaborative consultant confirms the animated representation feels as close to their reality as possible.

Moore developed this collaborative feedback method before her PhD on a Wellcome Trust project in which artist are pared with scientists. Moore worked with Dr. Jamie Ward, the head of the Synaesthesia research group at UCL, on a project that would develop into the short film An Eyeful of Sound (2010), a film that attempts to represent visual synesthetic hallucinations that were prompted by audio stimuli.

Defensive discourse

Moore draws upon Jonathan Rozenkrantz’s identification of a tendency within animated documentary scholarship to adopt a defensive position. This is a concerted effort among animation academics to position animated documentary as a legitimate form of documentary practice primarily broadening the definition of the documentary genre (2015: 31). However, Rozenkrantz is not convinced by this discourse:

‘If the potency of a documentary’s truth claim is relative to the documents that constitute it, the animated documentary is significantly weakened by its lack of the fundamental evidential ingredient that is traditionally associated with documentary film: the photographic raw material. This is a problem that the ‘defensive’ discourse of animated documentary fails to acknowledge, arguing instead that every documentary is a construct and that, consequently, animated documentaries are just as ‘real’ as live-action ones.’ (2011)

Indexical deficit

Moore responds to Rozenkrantz’s conservative critique of animated documentary in several ways. Before even reaching Rozenkrantz in her thesis, she had already pointed out that indexical recordings exist in most animated documentaries, in the form of audio interview testimony.  However, Moore is suspicious of the consequences of depending so heavily on such material.  

‘This reliance on sound in the ‘animated interview’ film to provide the indexical link means that the visual is relegated to a supporting role for the soundtrack, simultaneously isolating and privileging the spoken testimony as ‘the document’. The visuals therefore become symbolic repositories for the words, inextricably linked to a language based coda’ (2015: 25).

Despite the constrictive impact audio testimony can have on the animated documentary form, the recorded material clearly functions as what Rozenkrantz would call ‘documents’.

An Intriguing Mistakes

Moore’s second response to Rozenkrantz involves a reflection on an instance in her own practice where she was forced to abandon indexicality because her audio interviews were poor quality. As a result, she chose to hire actors to dub over the testimony provided by documentary participants. ‘The Beloved Ones was no less received as an animated documentary than the previous and subsequent films of the author, using indexical sound made in the same genre’ (Moore:2015: 46). Moore “gets away” with a total lack of conventional indexicality in this film. This project raises interesting ethical dilemmas with regard to truth claims. Although there is nothing to suggest the messages contained in the words spoken by a voice actor are distorted, I suspect most audiences who saw this film did not realise the overdubbing took place. When Moore explained to me in person that the actors also put on accents to match the participants, I felt differently about the film’s authenticity but could not give a clear reason why this was wrong. In part my response was connected to breaching the documentary conventions that Rozenkrantz attempts to conserve.

However, I was also thrown off by Moore re-dubbing testimony for utilitarian reasons when it is typically reserved as a morally justifiable compromise. If a director masks a participant’s voice to protect their identity the director is essentially rebalancing a duty to the audience with a duty to protect their participants. However, rebalancing the authenticity of the documents against the director’s desire to make a film seems like a less justifiable sacrifice.

Regardless of my uneasiness around these issues, the project was successful, and the animation was received as a documentary. For Moore, this happy mistake opened a path to truth claims away from the restrictive commitment to indexical signs as the only guarantee of truth.

A World vs. the world vs. my world

Moore’s third response to Rozenkrantz is that in the right circumstance an animated image may be a more reliable representational tool than live action footage, i.e. when representing perceptual brain states. Moore refers to Bill Nichols distinction between documentary and fiction as the distinction between the historic world and a world of the filmmaker’s invention (1991:109). However this system only works ‘if we all agree on what the world looks like.’ (Moore, 2015: 56).

 ‘In certain situations animation can bridge the gap between ‘the world ‘ and ‘my world’ in a rounded and fulfilling way by creating a document of a perceptual brain state, an animated document evidencing the unphotographable ‘world in here’’ (Ibid: 24).

Moore draws upon the neuropsychology concept of the first-person-plural presumption, which is a form of cognitive bias that describes a person assuming the way the world appears to them is fundamentally the same as how it appears to everyone.  ‘You and I may agree that a flower is red but how do we know what it is exactly that we each mean by ‘red’?’ (Moore, 2015:61). This misconception provides the justification for both expanding Nichols’ restrictive definition of documentary, whilst also opening the possibility of animated documentary to exceed the capabilities of its live action counterpart.  

Evocation

Anabella Honess Roe (2011:225) argues that the ‘evocation’ of subjective brain states is one of the three main functions that animated documentary serves, distinguishing it as a practice from live action documentary. While it is clear evocation in animated documentary serves a useful role in communicating scientifically recognisable phenomena, the dilemma remains that the images themselves are symbolic and iconic and lack the evidentiary properties of indexical images. Moore tasks herself with developing a method to raise the reliability of evocative animated documents to the level of indexical record.

The collaborative cycle

Moore’s collaborative feedback cycle involves a cyclical consultation with participants (collaborative consultants) regarding the veracity of the animated representations she creates. To do this, Moore adapted Luke Eric Lassiter’s ‘collaborative ethnography’ methodology (2005) which is summarised as follows:

‘1. Ethical and moral responsibility to consultants, 2. Honesty about the field work process, 3. Accessible and dialogic writing, and 4. Collaborative reading, writing and co interpretation of ethnographic texts with consultants’ (2005: 77).

Despite Moore’s primary focus being verifying authenticity in an animated document, Lassiter’s collaborative ethnographic methodology is more directly concerned with ethics. Responsivity, honesty, accessibility and collaboration, are all moral principles that accommodate the needs of the other.

Jay Ruby identifies three key ethical considerations for documentary makers:

‘(1) the image maker’s personal moral contract to produce an image that is somehow a true reflection of their intention in making the image in the first place-to, use a cliché, it is being true to one’s self; (2) the moral obligation of the producer to his or her subjects; and (3) the moral obligation of the producer to the potential audience’ (2005 [1979]: 211).

While Lassiter’s ethics seem to emphasise the ethnographer’s moral duty to their collaborative consultants, Moore redirects these commitments to a moral obligation to the potential audience. In other words, Moore focuses her efforts towards the social contract between documentary filmmaker and audience that the documents in the film tangibly reflects actuality. This is not to say Moore has abandoned her responsibility to her participants. Her method empowers these collaborative consultants in the production process. 

‘By using a collaborative methodology the person being represented has the opportunity to comment, re-frame and change the work, occupying an engaged role in the process and transforming from the passive (‘subject’, ‘interviewee’) to the actively involved (‘collaborative consultant’)’ (Moore 2015:105).

However, Moore abandons the task of achieving an effective balance between her ethical commitment towards her audience and participants, and herself as an artist. ‘This shift in power balance has an equivalent effect on the role of the ‘facilitator’; previously film maker or director, whose authorial voice is devolved… and who is absolved of creative responsibility for the duration of the documenting process’ (2015: 105). The role of director is purposefully relegated to that of facilitator the filmic products of this study producing ‘documents’ rather than ‘documentaries’ (2015:24). Whatever happens to the animated documents afterwards (they may, for example, be made into a film as with An Eyeful of Sound), whilst engaged in the collaborative cycle the facilitator privileges the data from the collaborative consultants over every personal creative impulse.

It is perhaps unfair to diminish Moore’s research for not achieving goals that she explicitly put aside. However, from the perspective of documentary ethics, it could be argued that if I were to adhere strictly to the parameters she has set out by the collaborative feedback cycle would the role of the director be so  greatly diminished that the a key responsibility have been neglected, that of the creative intention?

Kneading the icon into an index

Moore argues that the collaborative feedback cycle fundamentally changes the relationship between referent and representation so much so that it is no longer reasonable to restrict the classification of the images of perceptual brain states as iconic. 

‘The subject of the film can become integrated and then re-integrated into the materiality of the film. The animated document is itself an indexical record of the conversation that has taken place and remains a representation of our very subjectivity’ (2015: 99).

Moore is suggesting that there is an indexical chain that links the perceptual brain states of the collaborative consultants to their speech, which has directly shaped and verified the animated representations to the extend that the chain is never broken.

However, I would argue Moore is overstretching her argument by suggesting her renderings of brain states are indexical. Indexicality suggested a direct trace of contact. However, Moore’s process, requires a large degree of translation, a fundamentally mimetic process involving symbolic and iconic semiotic codes, which simultaneously break the indexical link.  

If, however, the artist was representing their own subjective brain state, such as in the case of expressionist painting, there would be an indexical link between the marks they made and the mind that prompted them. I would argue autoethnographic evocative animated documentary possesses an indexical potency that cannot be matched by interpretive evocation, which is fundamentally mimetic, no matter how many times the image is tweaked according to feedback.

This is not to suggest Moore’s work is in authentic, clearly she has developed an innovative method for crafting verified representations of invisible phenomena. However, by arguing that these images are indexical, rather than iconic, Moore is contributing to the idea that indexicality is the only legitimate root representing actuality, when clearly she has developed a method that navigates around that issue.

Shadow Stories

Moore made one film that uses both the collaborative feedback cycle, while not also relying on audio testimony. Working with Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, the local council archaeologists became the collaborative consultants, providing feedback on animated scenes of how items from their collection would have been used in a prehistoric context. (2015: 173)

This film does not provide the feeling of a documentary, in fact Moore refers to it as a ‘short interpretive film’ (Ibid.). It is entirely based on re-enactment, with only best guess interpretations informing the content. This suggests to me that it is very difficult to produce the documentary feeling without indexical evidence. What is not clear to me is whether this is because the arbitrary conventions of the documentary genre have trained me to expect this or because there is some essential quality of indexicality that is inseparable form documentary practice.

Conclusion

The unavoidable draw back to the collaborative feedback cycle is that it extends an already time consuming and costly process. This is not an insignificant point; it may mean the difference between being able to produce/fund a film or not.  My second concern is that Moore’s method does not sufficiently account for her own role as a creative. Moore reflects upon her role as a facilitator or translator, but this radically reduces the responsibility’s laid at the hands of a documentary director to their own creative intentions. However, if we were to look at An Eyeful of Sound (2010) made before starting her PhD, or Loop (2015) make after, both of which use the collaborative cycle, it is self-evident that Moore would have had to make creative decisions when piecing together the documents that inform the documentary.

From my perspective as an animated documentary practitioner and researcher interested in ethics, the most valuable aspect of Moore’s research is building into the method a participant’s agency and influence. Moore’s collaborative consultants are the arbiters of when an animated document is ready to be included in a film. This method almost guarantees that the participant will be happy with the final film, which is not always the case (there are many examples of participants attempting to sue documentary filmmakers after the film’s release).

I believe Moore misses an opportunity to integrate her method into the content of An Eye Full of Sound (2010). I know how respectful and conscientious her approach to collaboration is from reading her thesis and seeing her speak at conferences, however, someone viewing the films without that knowledge does not see how reliable these animated simulations of synaesthesia are.

Moore moves closer to textual reflexivity in Loop (2015) by working on a project where many of the scientists involve disagree on the visual appearance of the biological phenomena they are attempting to study.

These disagreements leave room for multiple conflicting representations calling into question the reliability of the others. Similarly, there is some commentary from the collaborative consultants regarding the process of drawing: “This is going to be the most boring drawing in the entire world” (Loop: 2015: 1min 45sec).  These reflexive devices give a greater sense of Moore’s method, extending further her ethical commitment to the audience in terms of transparency. However, the conflicting perspectives are between the various collaborative consultants, rather than between the participants and the filmmaker. Moore remains, as she does in all her films, a hidden figure whose activity and influence is largely masked.

Drawing influence from Moore I intend to adapt the collaborative cycle by drawing closer focused on positional and textual reflexivity. I want my audiences to get a glimpse into the processes involved in shaping films that the participants are happy with, while also showing my presence as a fallible artist, occasionally projecting my own fantasies and misrepresenting the intentions of my participant. By including the flawed early interpretations into the finished film my goal is to redress the power balance between director and audience, which I feel is not effectively tackled in Moore’s work.  

Bibliography

Honess Roe, A., (2011) ‘Absence, Excess and Epistemological Expansion: Towards a Framework for the Study of Animated Documentary’ in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Sage: London. 6(3) 215–230.

Lassiter, L.E., (2005) The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moore, S. (2015) Out of sight: using animation to document perceptual brain states. Loughborough University.

Rozenkrantz, J., (2011) Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary Film

International online journal [online] Available at <http://filmint.nu/?p=1809&gt; [Accessed 23th

November 2020]

Ruby, J. [1979] ‘The Ethics of Image making; or, “They’re going to Put me in the Movies, They’re Going to Make a Big Star Out of Me…’ in New challenges for Documentary. (2005) ed. A. Rosenthal, J. Corner. Manchester University Press.

Animated documentary as documentary drag

I listened to a few lectures on Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) and it got me thinking about performativity and drag as a metaphor for animated documentary.  

If drag is a performance that subverts the idea of naturalised gender, i.e. it exposes the culturally constructed and actively performed properties of gender, could animated documentary be functioning as a metaphorical “drag” subversion of the conventions of live action documentary practice? 

My animated documentaries impersonate many of the tropes of live action documentary tradition to compensate for the absence of some if the indexical mechanisms that supposedly guarantee documentary value. For example, I draw in microphones in some of my participatory interviews. My animated documentaries also feature visual excesses, i.e. rapid scene changes that exaggerate and exceed the norms of documentary. Despite this ambivalence of authenticity in the animated scenes, the films build to form something that feels like it has documentary value. 

The trajectory of animated documentary discourse is defensive, featuring many variations on an argument that justifies the status of animation as capable of presenting documentary narratives. However in doing so it has contributed to many debates that erode the truth claims and objective nature of documentary practice, arguing instead that all documentary is a performance of subjectivity and manipulation masquerading as objectivity. 

From this perspective animated documentary is metaphorically functioning as a form of documentary drag that further illuminates the instability of documentary ontology. Like biological sex, indexicality does exists but, in regard to truth claims, it’s semiotic role is far more complicated and blurrier than documentary practitioners give it credit for. Likewise, the traditions and tropes of documentary practice could be viewed as fragile performances that must be defended fiercely to ensure the binary status of fiction and documentary. 

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, Routledge.

Theory & Philosophy (13 Jul 2019) ‘Judith Butler “Gender Trouble” (First Half)’ available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtA1CpcNxhk

Theory & Philosophy (3 Aug 2019) ‘Judith Butler “Gender Trouble” (Second Half)’ available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Idi0Fhx4WE

YaleCourses (1 Sept 2009) ’23. Queer Theory and Gender Performativity’ available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bkFlJfxyF0

Race and Representation in Animated Documentary

This article was co-written by Alex Widdowson (AW) and Daniel Murtha (DM), each author’s contributions are labeled with their initials.

AW: In my role as festival producer of Factual Animation Film Festival (FAFF), together with Daniel Murtha, festival director and founder, we gave a presentation on ‘Race and Representation in Animated Documentary’ at the Festival of Animation Berlin. 

We originally entitled this talk ‘Race and Othering in Animated Documentary’, but after preparing we realised Race and Representation was a more accurate descriptor of our intentions.

Daniel and I recognised there was an irony to two white people taking the stage to talk about race. However, back in May 2020 when we were asked to give a presentation on animated documentary, drawing from the FAFF archive, the Black Lives Matter protests were reaching their peak, following George Floyd’s murder. 

As a result the conversation in the UK and around the world shifted away from race being a topic typically discussed by primarily people of colour, to race as a conversation that we all need to be having, especially white people, who, according to the trope, suffer from a fragility that positions race as a no-go topic. 

Daniel and I wanted to do our best to advocate for a cause we both believe in and decided to use our privilege and this opportunity to promote the ethos of Black Lives Matter in a public forum. 

DM: Alex and I are both practicing filmmakers and festival programmers, so race and representation was discussed through the lens of craft and the practicalities of making film.

AW: Our focus was on the questions of who can / should tell a story, how does one’s position inform the stories they tell and can one speak for someone else? 

Daniel and I wanted to be clear about our own positions, so the audience had a better understanding of who we are, how we identify. This hopefully equipped the audience to critique our perspectives based on more than our appearance. 

I, Alex Widdowson, am British, straight white male, I use male pronouns he/him. I identify as neurodivergent, due to my dyslexia and my history with inconsistent mental wellbeing. 

DM: I, Daniel Murtha, am white, British, bisexual, nonbinary, and my preferred pronouns are they/them.

To clarify, our degrees of marginality do not justify us talking about race and the black experience; we do, afterall, live with white privilege, however, perhaps our interest in this topic relates to the fact that we don’t come from an entirely monolithic, homogenous group. Both Alex and I view this work differently, but if you can understand who we are and where we’re coming from, you’ll better understand how we’re decoding these topics.

One Day On Carver St

Azure Allen, 2016, USA, 3:38

AW: It’s important to note that this film was made when the director was 16 years old. Azure Allen is a white woman from South Carolina, USA. She clearly had very good intentions and is a lot more socially engaged than I was age 16.

I think the John Sawhill quote presented at the end of the film is interesting in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

‘In the end our society will be defined not only by what we create but what we refuse to destroy.’ 

Clearly this was intended to refer to the maintenance of favorable memorials, but this statement  sheds a light on the statue debate taking place in 2020. In Bristol, UK, an infamous statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, was torn down by protesters. Whereas, elsewhere vigilante groups gather around statues of confederate icons and problematic world figures such as Winston Churchill in order to protect fantasies of a simpler past. 

The director’s race raises interesting questions, what are the limitations of a well meaning white person making a film about racism? 

There is a sense of white liberal detachment to the material realities of racism. The racism that is present in this film is almost cliched. It manifests as hooded KKK members and the hypocrisy of hotel managers who expected entertainers to sleep elsewhere. Despite being legitimate grievances from the pre civil rights era, these tropes have been well worn by Hollywood’s white saviour films. 

By focusing on the overt grievances present before the civil rights movement, a subtext is created that positions racism as a thing of the past.  

Another absence is noticeable in this film. The people of colour, selected as protagonists were all presented as victims, and the story of black power, and the potential for resistance or even protest does not enter this selective history. 

The black figures presented in this film are nearly all entertainers. Here the filmmaker unwittingly perpetuates the fetishization of the black body as magically gifted for song and dance, a trope that persists to this day. One black character who is not themselves an entertainer is Charlie Fitzgerald, the business owner, who is brutally abused and never recovers. He is punished by society for stepping out of the accepted pathways of black professionalism. 

This film was created with the best intentions, each of these specific points were all raised in the context of illuminating some of the horrors of racism. However, the construction and emphasis in this film seemingly draw more from the tropes of Hollywood’s attempts at anti-racism, suggesting a limited perspective and shallow analysis of the complex systematic and unconscious aspects of historic and contemporary racism.

 I Never Picked Cotton

Students of USC, 2018, USA, 3:38

DM: A group of 12 students from the documentary programme at University of Southern California, decided to forego traditional production hierarchies and share the director title. This film features personal testimony from Yolanda Morgan, a young black woman who is also one of the co-directors. Morgan delivers an anecdote about overt racism that she was exposed to at a very young age. I find this film profound because Morgan recognises she is already too cynical to live innocently in the world without seeing it through a racial lense, however she points to her younger brother as someone for whom there is hope. 

It is hard to imagine what it must be like to approve an animation sequence in which your siblings are shot, and yet this is a possibility that Morgan has to contend with as a black woman living in the US.

This film exemplifies a consciously collaborative approach to filmmaking. While Yolanda Morgan did not have complete creative control, the organisation of this project positioned her to offer feedback and a sense check on every aspect of the production. Much of the success of this project lies in that a young black woman was given a platform to tell her story while being positioned to maintain a degree of control over her own representation and narrative. 

Land Of The Free? 

Students of USC, 2018, USA, 4:19 

AW: This film weaves the story of Colin Kaepernick, taking the knee during the national anthem, into the history of American protest, revolutionary theory and post-colonialism. This concise and powerful story is constructed by another group of 13 students from USC. 

It seems hard for us to understand why some Americans, in the name of patriotism, object so strongly to taking the knee in the national anthem. We get the impression these might be the same people who take part in celebrating Martin Luther King jr. Day, i.e. people who don’t think they are racist. But I think what this shows is that privilege and comfort can be an inhibitor for building empathy and understanding for those in different circumstances. 

Segregated by Design

Mark Lopez 17:42

DM: 

‘Explainer’ films are all over the internet, though underrepresented and under-discussed in festival discourse. Typically these films are not compatible with the auteur filmmaking approach. The animated documentary canon consists of more personal or idiosyncratic films, but the value of Segregated by Design resides in the calm delivery of argument, supported by sources and facts, providing valuable knowledge to complement some of the personal testimonies elsewhere in this programme.

This film makes use of the well-worn documentary mode, exposition. A tradition that stretches back to the first feature documentary, Nanook of The North (Flaherty, 1922). 

The expository mode is easily criticised for representing the narrator with unwavering authority. This so-called Voice-of-God exposition has historically presented a straight, white, middle class male’s perspective as if it were the monolithic, linear history of the world, while failing to acknowledge the possibility of multiple perspectives on truth. A marxist/postcolonial framing of exposition associates the voice-of-God narration with hegemonic ideologies. However, it’s interesting that this film presents an anti-establishment perspective delivered by way of a hegemonic trope, with the goal of exposing a system of hegemony and oppression.

While there is clearly value in the ‘explainer’ format, be aware that audiences are easily overwhelmed with detail and may prefer not to have facts hurtled at them in a didactic manner. ‘Showing’ an argument through story can be more compelling.

We included Segregated by Design firstly because it is well-made, but also because it highlights truths about systematic racism; we often fail to see that even when legal discrimination is technically abolished, insidious and deliberately disguised forms of discrimination can creep back in. 

Hair 

1:20, UK, 2020

Zainab Sanyang

DM: A successful doc doesn’t need to have a explicit thesis; it is enough to show a place or person in their honest form. This film is really simple: young black people expressing positive comments about their hair. That’s it!

Black bodies are often battlegrounds — debated and excluded, regulated and shaped — and black hair is no different. In 2016 it was reported that searching for ‘unprofessional hair’ in google produced screens of afros, cornrows and dreadlocks, hairstyles that require as much upkeep as straight hair, but that all happen to be black (Guardian Online, 2016). A film as simple as this is novel and refreshing, and permits black hair to exist apart from the subtext with which western societies have encumbered it.

‘Black is beautiful’ is a black power slogan from the 1960s, and it’s worth highlighting that this message still needs to be said today. Internalised prejudice, i.e. prejudices held about a group by members of that group, has always been a powerful inhibitor to change. If the medium is the message, then films like this are statements of freedom by their existence.

I Don’t Protest, I Just Dance In My Shadow

Jessica Ashman, 2017, UK, 5:21

DM: As white people we tend to look outward at racism rather than inward, and while we may try to interrogate ourselves, we often overlook our institutions. Most people believe that rapists are strangers or outsiders, and fail to see rape culture amongst their family, friends and partners. We are just as blind to racism, often because we actively choose not to see it.

AW: I could identify at least four of the eight participants in this doc are People of Colour who studied or worked at the RCA. In the last few months the RCA Universities and Colleges Union has been working hard to highlight the systemic, implicit and casual racism that persists at this prestigious art school.

View this post on Instagram

Student testimony #generationrca

A post shared by RCA UCU (@rca_ucu) on

In the talk we showed a few posts from the RCA_UCU instagram feed, testimonials from staff and students about racism at the RCA. 

Decolonising the institution is a major theme within the British art world that is building momentum. Ashman’s film displayed the landscape of unease that bubbled up and contributed to the tensions being played out through protest in the UK and around the world.

Our Story

Lorenzo Latrofa 4:31

 

DM: This film is chiefly about immigration but the overlaps with race are overt.

If the film didn’t give us the date of ‘March 1946’, it could be set any time from WW2 to the present day. Indeed, the animation that accompanies this story shows refugees from Africa and the Middle East arriving and striving in modern-day Italy. The narrator is sparse with details, but two minutes in, and we realise the narrator is talking about immigrants in a different place, in a different time.

The film eventually gives the names and faces it withheld at the start, and ties these two complimentary tales into one, a universal one, ‘our story’.

This film was worth including in part because the animation is very appealing, and from a craft standpoint, shows the benefits of a limited colour palette.

It’s worth asking, in a medium in which anything can be portrayed, how far an animator should dive into metaphor and fantasy e.g. this film represents the abstract idea of hatred as a pack of wolves. It is interesting to consider if a scene closer to real events may be more or less impactful. Perhaps this depends on the audience. 

Marcus McGhee

Alix Lambert & Sam Chou, 4:19

DM: This is one of our favourite animated documentaries, and we couldn’t not include it in a programme on race. 

AW: Interestingly, the directors of this film are an Asian Canadian man, Sam Chou, and a white American woman, Alix Lambert. I think this is a perfect example to show that you don’t have to be a member of a group to make a film about issues that affect that group. 

I personally think it’s a very dangerous message to say only black people can create black stories and only white people can make white stories. This further segregates how we produce culture. My point is that if you’re not a member of a community you are more at risk of perpetuating narratives that serve your own community. These risks are serious and result in tropes like the white savior that are still being played out in mainstream Hollywood. However, with a lot of openness, sensitivity and respect, it is possible to represent people from another group well. 

In Marcus McGhee the representation of criminals is an obvious example of actively resisting black criminality stereotypes by diversifying the perpetrators. More importantly, we feel the directors truly engage with the perspective of their protagonist. Personally I would advocate collaborative filmmaking between a protagonist and filmmaker to ensure the filmmaker’s attitude or gaze is not problematic or misconceived. 

DM: As a programmer I see that often filmmakers seem to think a serious subject requires a serious tone. But dropping the viewer’s guard with humour is a powerful method of changing minds. It’s also worth adding that this is a story about shit police. The most explicit comment about race is as much about patriarchy.

The KD Doc

Students of Reynolds Elementary, 2016, USA, 2:37

Online video unavailable 

DM: kids talk about why they admire a basketball player, what’s not to like?

AW:  It makes me sad that merchandising is such a prominent aspect of this film. These kids really are captivated by consumerism, but it’s also very interesting to see ideology being interpolated so clearly. 

Aspiring to be a sports star has a racist component to it. Alkala, a british musician and author, wrote a book called Natives, in which he describes the different experience of visiting schools in Uganda and London. The Ugandan kids had a wide variety of career plans, whereas the black british boys he spoke to all either wanted to be rappers or sports stars (2019).  The lack of diverse role models and dominant stereotypes significantly shapes children’s psychology. This example adds weight to the adage “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” As filmmakers we need to diversify the way we represent minority characters within mainstream and independent media.

Daniel and I ended our talk with two questions for the audience, many of whom were animators. We’ll let you ponder your own answers. 

How would you feel being asked to make a film about a subject that affects a minority of which you are not a member? 

What would you do to make sure you didn’t fuck it up?

Finally, Daniel and I were interviewed about our talk by Robert Loebel (director of the short films Island, Wind and Link) for his podcast Trickfilm Forscher (Animation Explorer) as he gave us a lift back to the hotel on the last night of The Festival of Animation Berlin.

Bibliography: 

Akala (2019) Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. John Murray Press.

The Guardian Online (2016) ‘Do Google’s ‘unprofessional hair’ results show it is racist?’, Leigh Alexander, published 08/04/16. Available online [accessed 16/10/20]:https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/08/does-google-unprofessional-hair-results-prove-algorithms-racist-

Loebel, R. (2020) ‘interview with Alex Widdowson and Daniel Murtha’ in ‘Folge 38 – FA Berlin 2020 (Teil 2)’, Trickfilmforscher [Podcast], published on 17/10/20. avaliable online [accessed 18/10/20]: https://soundcloud.com/trickfilmforscher

‘Can the subaltern speak?’ and representing autism

In 1988 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote an article entitled “Can the subaltern Speak?” (1994). This essay has become one of the standard texts of post-colonial studies due to its nuanced analysis of well-meaning western intellectuals inadvertently perpetuating the remnant structures of colonialism through their efforts to speak for the marginalised (Riach, 2017: 12). Spivak makes use of Antonio Gramsci’s term subaltern, which had been used in post-colonial discourse to refer to the manual labour force and peasantry of the developing world serving globalized neo-colonial capitalism (Spivak 1998, 78). Spivak goes further by focusing in on the subaltern woman, those whose subject position intersect numerous forms of globalised and localised oppression (ibid.)

Spivak’s central argument is that the leftist intellectual of the west – for example Michel Foucault and Gille Deleuze – who, through good intentions, speak for the oppressed of the world, are essentially filling a space that could be occupied by the speech of the subaltern. Their Eurocentric position remains transparent to them as they try to express their compassion. They are inescapably drawing upon and adding to the neo-colonial mechanisms of knowledge, which effectively maintains the silence of the subaltern voice. This is what Spivak refers to as epistemic violence (1994: 76).

Spivak provides an example from India’s colonial past in which well-meaning white male western authority figures intervein for the benefit of oppressed women without their consultation. Sadi is the Sanskrit word for good wife and had come to refer to widows who ritualistically self-immolate on the fourth day of their husband’s funeral rights. The British colonial force outlawed this Hindu ritual, rightly or wrongly, due to their perception of it as pagan barbarism (1994: 94).  Clearly the practice was problematic, and Spivak goes to great lengths to avoid defending the religious encouragement of female suicide, however, her point is that the dominant outsider’s demonstrated shallow understanding of the native culture and specifically fail to faithfully speak for those who are most marginalised. This was evidenced by the fact that the act was not addressed in terms of religious superstition that paved the way for a favourable afterlife, but rather a crime and a matter of social justice, positioning the sati as criminal. Western values of freedom were imposed upon a culture without the consultation of those who it intended to protect (1994: 97).

Spivak concludes that “the subaltern cannot speak’ when they are spoken for by those in positions of power, specifically people who lack the access to listen to the ones they are speaking for. The domination of emancipatory platforms by those who are in power, results in missed opportunities for the marginalised to self-advocate. An even more insidious problem is that if the subaltern does speak, they are unlikely to be heard due to the structures of knowledge dissemination (Riach, 2017: 12).  If subalterns could both speak and have a forum to be heard, Spivak hopes these people will be able to form their own political voice (Riach, 2017, 11).

Spivak’s essay prompts readers to analyse the common-sense logic that guides their thinking. This is not a neutral process and is culturally informed by one’s background. As such, these factors must be kept in mind when addressing other cultures (Riach, 2017: 13).

Spivak, in a later interview, emphasised that it is not enough to step back from emancipatory discourses. After all, given the structures of power, the subaltern’s voice will not be easily herd. We must instead work to dismantle the power structures that prop up a world where the subaltern position exists. We must work to actively dismantle oppression (Riach, 2017: 13). 

This is distinct from speaking about oppression as the representative of the subaltern, and prompts a more collaborative, positional and reflexive approach to emancipatory alliance.

Should the neurotypical speak?

When reading Spivak’s text my focus was on drawing parallels between the subject position of subaltern/subaltern woman and the neurodivergent community/the non-verbal autistic. The neurodivergent community are engaged in a political project to have their difference embraced and their status as valid human beings recognised.  The worst incarnations of the opposing medical narrative present the autistic as an aberration whose difference is perceived as a disorder that requires curing. 

The neurodiversity movement has achieved a great deal in the last ten years, raising public awareness about the socially constructed nature of so-called cognitive disabilities. Much of this work has been achieved through self-advocacy, neurodivergent individuals taking to the internet, engaging with public and academic discourses. In many ways this cohort has achieved the ideals suggested by Spivak. They have found their political voice. The Neurodivergent community have a adopted the aphorism ‘nothing about us without us’, along with the hashtags #ActuallyAutistic and #AskAutistics, to emphasise their desire to be involved or consulted with regards to all representational practices, be it neuroscience research, charitable enterprises or mass media coverage. However, the neurodiversity movement and socially constructed model of disability are not without controversy.

The antagonists to the neurodiversity movement are embodied by the Autism Speaks organisation, a charity dedicated to finding a cure for autism, which in practice amounts to supressing autistic difference. Many autism researchers express a moderate position with regards to the neurodiversity movement, while also suggesting it’s practical limits. Uta Frith, a leading British autism researcher, characterised the neurodiversity ideology as reasonably applicable for those without complex needs, but considers it ‘perverse’ when accounting for the suffering caused by severe autism (2008: 38). While this language is inflammatory, Frith is addressing a crucial dilemma; in what way are notions of the socially constructed nature of disability relevant when someone is physically blocked from engagement with society. The Autism Speaks movement would argue this shows the flawed logic of the neurodiversity movement, however, as a faithful advocate of this ideology, I believe that this form of difference is a legitimate version of human existence.  However, the subject position of a person who physically cannot speak raises further ethical considerations regarding Spivak’s essay; if an autistic person with complex needs does not use conventional language to communicate, and no clear inference can be drawn from their non-verbal communication, in what way can their needs be advocated for?

Here Spivak’s reference to the Sadi become more acutely relevant.  A woman is not a Sadi unless she self immolates. Therefore this community definitively has no voice. In order to be a member, one must have committed suicide. Spivak resists the temptation to designate who should speak for the Sadi. What is made clear is that westerners, with limited insight into Hindu customs and no lived experience of the circumstances where these events were taking place, were not well positioned to intervein. Moreover, the act of intervening blocked the possibility of this community to reconcile these issues in their own terms.

Returning to the prospect of creating a representation of an autistic person who does not communicate in a manner that I can perceive, is it ethical to persist in my attempts to raise public awareness about the diverse experience of those on the autism spectrum?

The answer might be no, it would be unethical to represent someone without the ability to seek their full consent or engage in collaborative acts of cocreation; moreover it may even be unethical to seek the consent of their relatives and community as those individuals cannot share the lived experience that allows them to truly speak for that person.

If it is truly unethical to attempt to represent someone in these circumstances, then we are presented with a new dilemma. How can this group ever achieve any form of representation? What circumstance would allow for their political voice to be spoken, let alone herd? 

Amanda Baggs’ ‘In My Language’ (2007) is an example of someone with a-typical communication methods creating a film with a powerful political message. It highlights the hypocrisy and condescension of a common neurotypical perspective regarding her own modes of interaction. Despite the insight this film provides into a life of someone with a radically different perspective from that of the neurotypical, it could be argued that the use of text to speech software allowed Baggs to speak for her-self and thus she is removed from the portion of the neurodivergent community whose representation I am contemplating. This community is by definition unable to speak for themselves.

Hypothetically, if there is such a thing as this truly voiceless community, incapable of self-advocacy, should anyone speak for them?

Is someone on the autism spectrum, by dint of their diagnosis, more qualified to provide insights into the life and experience of someone else in a very different position on the same spectrum?  I infer from Spivak’s approach that a greater sense of shared lived experience would clearly be an advantage. The Eurocentric hegemony to which Spivak refers could be substituted by neurotypical hegemony. Those who’s subject position roots them outside of this hegemony are better positioned to render the discourses of power and knowledge as a visible force that effects our understanding of autism. However, with reference to Spivak’s essay, there is a potential parallel between those on the spectrum who are capable of self-advocacy and the local elites who become indirect collaborators with the colonial forces in India. This group occupied an in-between position with ties both to the local peoples and hegemonic forces of power. This group were not necessarily totally corrupted by colonialism, but they were elevated to a position that differentiated them in terms of class from the subaltern. Perhaps the neurodivergent individuals capable of self-advocacy could be considered a distinct group from those for whom this is not a possibility. There is nothing that disqualifies the self-advocates from advocating for those who cannot speak, but Spivak’s model may suggest the subtle differences in these groups may deserve closer analysis when decoding such acts of ‘speaking for’. 

The final dilemma to address is that I have come across several neurodivergent self-advocate filmmakers, speaking for themselves, but not many examples of neurodivergent advocates speaking for those without a voice. If this work is not being produced, then does that result in an ethical justification for me to use my privilege and training to create advocating films for those without a voice? I believe the answer is yes but only if I proceed with extreme caution. Spivak after all was not dismissive of all western liberal intellectuals, she aligned her perspective with Jacques Derrida for his aptitude for deconstructing the global power dynamics at stake when speaking for others.

Ania Loomba, in her reading of Spivak, emphasises the closing statement:

The subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with ‘woman’ as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish.

(Spivak, 1995: 104)

Loomba expands on Spivak’s concluding points by drawing upon the Gramscian aphorism  – ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ – to suggest that intellectuals should combine a ‘philosophical scepticism’ about the possibility of erecting the subaltern agency, combined with a ‘political commitment to making visible the position of the marginalised’ (2005: 195).

Here Loomba privileges the intellectual’s responsibility to represent the subaltern for the purpose of illuminating how their marginalisation is in part a consequence of social power structures. Loomba proposes this while maintaining a critical perspective on the risk of ‘romanticising and homogenising the subaltern subject’.

Drawing upon Loomba’s insights on Spivak, I could conclude that as a filmmaker I have a commitment to attempt to represent at least one silent autistic. I must treat them as an individual who can account simply for their own lived experience, while remaining critically reflexive about my position and role in the socially constructed form of disability this participant would experience. By this I mean I must bracket my expectations of what counts as communication, collaboration and self-advocacy, and remain conscious of how these expectations have contributed to this participant being marginalised in the past.

To conclude, I would suggest that speaking for someone who literally cannot speak has significant ethical considerations to be accounted for but in principle is not the same circumstance as speaking for someone who could be speaking for themselves. I would argue there is an urgent need to be present with this silent cohort within the neurodivergent community in order to forge an emancipatory alliance that can match some of the broader achievements of the neurodiversity movement. It is my aim to create representations of individuals that occupy different positions on the autism spectrum through collaborative, positional and reflexive animated documentary practice. Working with someone who cannot speak for themselves will make it harder to be collaborative, however it is possible this is because I have not developed a more nuanced insight into a-typical modes of expression. Whether this expectation turns out to be true or not, I feel ethically bound to persist in my attempts at such an alliance.

FRITH, U. 2008. Autism: A very short introduction, Oxford University Press.

LOOMBA, A. 2005. Colonialism/postcolonialism, 2nd ed., Routledge.

RIACH, G. 2017. An Analysis of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?, CRC Press.

SPIVAK, G. C. 1994. Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. A Reader, edited by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. Columbia University Press.

The Animated Psyche – Part 1: Ethical Dilemmas Associated with Evocative Animated Documentary Production

The content of this post was first presented as ‘The Animated Psyche: Representing neurodiversity and psychology through animated documentary’. This took place on 30th December in Zagreb at ANI DOK 2019, organised by ASIFA Croatia. Cover photo by Nina đurđević. 

Part 1 – Ethical Dilemmas Associated with Evocative Animated Documentary Production

In order to identify the main functions of animated documentary, Annabelle Honess Roe (2011) investigated what animation was doing that couldn’t be achieved through the conventional live-action approach. The third function she identified, ‘evocation’, described animation that visualized the subjective perception of a documentary participant or filmmaker. The following article focuses on ethical considerations relating to the creation of evocative animated documentaries that intend to represent the psyche of someone other than the filmmaker.

The conventional approach to creating evocative animated documentaries about psychology is typified by Andy Glynn’s Animated Minds series. Glynn, a  trained clinical psychologist, recorded interviews with people whose experience exemplified specific mental illnesses. Each interview was edited to form a first person account. Working from these narrative structures the animated minds team interpreted the diagnosis into a visual form. Fish on a Hook (2009) addresses Mike’s experience of anxiety. 

The following list shows the stages one would go through when creating an evocative animated documentary about a hypothetical psychological or neurological form of difference (X). 

  1. I’m interested in the mental illness / disorder / disability  X and want to make a documentary about it.
  2. An animated documentary is a good way to represent X because camera footage of people who live with X, wouldn’t show how they think or feel differently.  
  3. I haven’t experienced X myself so…
  4. I will find someone who suffers from X to be a participant in my film.
  5. In order for them to trust me we must get to know each other. 
  6. I will record an interview with my participant where we discuss what it’s like to live with X, 
  7. Based on their words I will visualise (evoke) X through animation 
  8. Before starting the production I must ask my participant if they want their identity hidden or not
    1. My participant wants to be anonymous so I will use animation to mask their recognisable facial features, helping them to avoid the stigma of having X
    2. [or] my participant is happy to be identifiable but there’s no point in making the animation look realistic; I could have just filmed them. I will use artistic licence as I design their character. 

Step by step, I’d like to explore some of the ethical considerations that I feel should be addressed by animated documentary directors attempting to represent neurodivergence or psychology. 

  1. I’m interested in the mental illness / disorder / disability  X and want to make a documentary about it

Before you make a film about X it’s worth researching related debates or controversy?  Does everyone agree X is an illness, a disorder or a disability? Do the people you think of as living with X consider themselves possessing something that needs curing?  Is it possible society has been structured without the flexibility to accommodate people who live with X. If this were true perhaps we should think of people who live with X as a minority community who are in a disadvantaged position as a result of how  society is organised. So disadvantaged that the rest of us find it easier to think of them as ill, disordered or disabled? Thinking of X through the lens of identity politics and organising for social change reflects the ethos of the neurodiversity movement. 

I’m not suggesting a moral superiority to any one perspective but I do advocate questioning “common sense” ideas relating to mental illness, disorders and disability. Antonio Gramsci argued that common sense ways of thinking are often indicative of hegemonic ideology internalised by the wider population (Schmidt 2018).

Consider “mental illness”. The dominant model for understanding and treating psychological distress in medicine is based on a philosophical  approach called logical positivism i.e. the only meaningful philosophical problems are those which can be solved by logical analysis (Fuchs, 2010, 269). The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, relies on standardized checklists of symptoms to help doctors reach diagnoses. Previously psychiatrist subjectively interpreted symptoms to form treatment plans based on theory and experience, while often conferring with peers. The standardized checklist reorganized psychiatry by  improving the reliability and objectivity of measuring personal distress. This helped improved the consistency with which diagnoses were given and restrained the unconscious bias that could affect a doctors value judgements when assessing a patient. 

However, checklists cannot measure many aspects of a patients rich and diverse experience of suffering, nor do they factor the history and social context in which such suffering develops. Without accounting for these dimensions in the theory of how to treat mental suffering the medical establishment is left with a very narrow perspective. For this reason clinical depression, which is considered to be an illness that can be treated with medication, is loosely defined in the UK as feeling sad, lacking interest in fun activities and lacking energy (MHFA England, 2016, 50). If you feel like this for more than two weeks, irrespective of the circumstances, you have an “illness”. 

The tradition of scrutinizing psychiatry first flourished in the 1960’s.  A diverse range of intellectuals and practising psychiatrist started a counterculture movement refereed to as Anti-psychiatry. They broadly argued that psychiatry in it’s contemporary form did more harm than good to individuals and society as a whole. 

R.D. Lang questioned how much madder his psychotic patients were than those who fit into what he considered to be a mad world: 

‘A little girl of seventeen in a mental hospital told me she was terrified because the Atom Bomb was inside her. That is a delusion. The statesmen of the world who boast and threaten that they have Doomsday weapons are far more dangerous, and far more estranged from ‘reality’ than many of the people on whom the label ‘psychotic’ is affixed…. Thus I would wish to emphasise that our ‘normal’ ‘adjusted’ state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities, that many of us are only too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to false realities.’ (1960:12)

The idea of mental illness was an innovation from the late 19th Century. It transformed how we thought about “lunatics”. If these phenomena were considered illnesses we could separate the symptoms from the identity of the people suffering. However, Thomas Szasz in his book The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), argued that mental illness was really a metaphor that came to be taken literally. These were not like other illnesses. At the time there was no physiological evidence of their existence. Szasz believed that, more often than not, doctors were observing distressing behaviours that were responses to social, political and interpersonal issues.  Psychiatrists were misreading this real suffering as illness. Treating the symptoms of these patients  simply pacified them and perpetuated the causal problems in their lives. 

It has been more than fifty years since the publication of these two books, and while their rhetoric sounds extreme, many of the arguments of anti-psychiatry have been quietly adopted by the medical mainstream, particularly in regards to patients rights. Simultaneously, modern psychiatric medications have advanced so much that it is difficult to argue that they have no value.  However, psychiatry is far from uncontroversial and anti-psychiatry lives on in new forms [see the Critical Psychiatry Network for example.]

  1. An animated documentary is a good way to represent X because camera footage of X people wouldn’t show how they’re feeling or thinking differently.  

Are you sure? Here are some pros and cons of animated documentary compared with the live action alternative. 

pros: 

  • You are unlimited in your creative capacity to represent a concept
  • You can create images that were never recorded or have never existed
  • You can mask the identity of your documentary subjects
  • You can evoke affect and the sensation of thought through stylization 
  • There is no such thing as objective filmmaking so why not use animation to be honest about the constructedness of documentary

Cons: 

  • Live action filmmaking is much quicker
  • Live action filming is normally cheaper
  • Truth claims about the relationship between what happened in the world and what is presented in the film are still complicated, but less distracting compared to animated documentary.
  • Without the mechanical indifference of a camera you are utterly responsible for the representation of your participant’s image. It’s a lot of responsibility.  
  • Animated documentaries often rely heavily on interviews to support their truth claims, are you sure a radio documentary wouldn’t be just as or more effective? 
  1. I haven’t experienced X myself so…

The fact that you have no prior experience of X does not mean your position is neutral.  Perceived neutrality suggests an allegiance with neurotypical hegemony. The concept of the Other can help explain this dynamic.

The “Other” is a phenomenological term that describes one’s conception of another living being. Simone De Beauvoir, in The Second Sex (1949), argued that the institutionalized oppression of women could be understood as a manifestation of women’s “Otherness” from the perspective of men. The practice of “Othering” is when a group or individual are treated like outsiders because they do not fit the norms of a more dominant social group. Singling someone out because you perceive them to be representative of an illness, disorder, or disability is a subtle form of Othering. This could be harmless but it is something to consider. 

Laura Mulvey introduced the idea of the “male gaze” to feminist theory (Autumn 1975). It is the act of depicting women and the world from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. As a director you must be critically aware of your own gaze. To start thinking about this ask yourself what your relationship is to the topic:

  1. If you have no connection to X and you think of people living with X as exotic or mysterious you are already on the way to Othering your participant.  You possess a neurotypical gaze and need to work hard to become familiar with people who live with X.
  2. If you suffer from X you will probably be looking through an auto-ethnographic lens. This gives you a big advantage over others, but ask yourself how you will address difficult, embarrassing or troubling aspects of X. Are you willing to share these with your audience? If not perhaps your work will feel less authentic. 
  3. Do you have some academic or clinical experience of X? If you adopt a medical gaze perhaps you will focus on selecting participants who help  clarify your existing understanding of the diagnostic category X, rather than allowing your participants to redefine X for you and your audience. 
  4. Have you cared for or share a close personal connection with someone who lives with X? Did that person cause you suffering or feel like a burden at times? What kind of ambivalence are you holding onto? Will this film help you process your guilt, resentment or even hostility? 

4.a.  I will find someone who suffers from X and…

How we position someone in relation to the concept of X is important. Labels matter and people disagree about them. Does someone suffer from X or are they an X type of person? 

The neurodiversity movement is in part based on the premise that there is no separating a person from their autism, dyslexia, ADHD etc. For example, asking an autistic person if they would like their autism to be cured, is like asking them to commit a hypothetical ego suicide and reform as a different human? From this perspective we could conclude it is respectful to describe someone as autistic and not a person with autism.  If we think of these labels as describing minority groups, the people in these groups are therefore different instead of disordered. It then becomes easier to place emphasis on unleashing their potential value in society because of, not in-spite of, their neurological difference. 

Conversely, most people prefer to conceptualize their mental suffering as an illness, keeping it separate from their identity. Someone with clinical depression might prefer to be thought of as suffering from depression, rather than being a depressive. These topics continue to be debated, so a simple rule of thumb would be to ask your participant what they prefer. 

4.b. I will find someone who suffers from X and…

In Zagreb I asked the group to take part in an exercise:

  1. Close your eyes and picture a tree
  2. Open your eyes and draw that tree
  3. Consider the difference between the tree you imagined and the tree you drew.
  4. Consider the difference between the tree you drew and the tree your neighbour drew.
  5. Finally, consider the difference between the tree you drew and the tree your neighbour imagined.

Step five demonstrates the scale of the task ahead of an animator attempting to represent how someone else perceives the world.

Phenomenology is a set of philosophical tools that help us consider the difference between our perceptions of reality and reality itself. Each of you have an image of a tree stored in your memory. This shares some relation to what are commonly considered to be trees, living organisms that exist in the world, but as a human, you don’t have direct access to the essence of a tree.  You must instead use your senses and corroborate that information with shared knowledge from your community.  From this you’ve created your own interpretation of what the concept of a tree is. Do the small differences between your version of a tree and that of your neighbour matter? It depends how important you think it is to represent X accurately . Samantha Moore’s PhD Thesis (2015) describes the collaborative feedback cycle she invented to help improve the authenticity of evocative animated documentary. An example of how to close the perceptual difference gap through participant feedback.

When we try to represent neurodivergent experiences, we are trying to describe the way someone perceives and makes sense of their unique phenomena. These include the feeling and information gathered through basic senses: light, sound, touch, taste etc.; as well as the conceptualisation of the world such as space and time. We must also consider someone’s experience of their body, their thoughts and the presence of others as phenomena.  Each of these phenomena could be radically different from your own (Bogdashina, 2016). We might never know If someone living with X perceives a tree differently from us. They may struggle to articulate the unique insights they have about the tree, either because that’s just how trees are to them or, possibly, because languages invented under nuerotipical hegemony are not well equipped to describe these unique readings. In some cases their attempt to turn the information they gather from a tree in to a symbol could be beyond your comprehension. See Amanda Baggs’ 2007 film, In My Language, for an example of a autho-ethnographic film about a private language that developed in the context of perceptual and sensory difference.

  1. In order for them to trust me we must get to know each other

In her book Psychoanalysis and Ethics in Documentary (2013) Agnieszka Piotrowska argues that the relationship between the documentary maker and their primary participant is like that of the therapist and client. Piotrowska’s theoretical stance is largely based on Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, specifically his conception of “transference”. For Lacan transference is an intimacy that is built in the context of a power imbalance. Building on Freud’s observations, Lacan noticed the transferencial dynamic both in psychoanalysis and other professions, such as teaching. While not necessarily erotic in nature, this affection can build in both the annalist and analysand. In psychoanalysis this is a safe phenomena if managed carefully, however, in the context of documentary, transference typically culminates in a form of betrayal at the end of production. The interviews end, the edit is locked and the intimate dialogue between the filmmaker and participant is exposed to an audience of strangers. Moreover the final outcome is typically reflective of the fantasies, desires and ambitions of the director rather than the participant. We should be aware of the intimacy of documentary as a joint endeavour and consider how that bond will be managed throughout the life of the film.

  1. I will record an interview with my participant where we discuss what it’s like to live with X

diagram 1

Double Hermeneutics is a way of describing intersubjectivity, i.e. how two people interact with each other.  With diagram 1 in mind, lets position person A as the filmmaker and person B is the participant. B is the only one with direct access to their experiences. These are then processed as thoughts and contextualised among previous experiences. B must then translate these thoughts into spoken language in-order for A to be able to  perceive the concept. A must then convert B’s language into thoughts and contextualise these ideas among their existing knowledge. However, there are not enough words in existence for B to accurately represent their internal phenomena. What ever is transmitted through speech has inevitably been simplified and changed. The cyclical nature of this process makes it even more complicated. The presence of A and the things they communicate have an effect on B, changing  what and how they communicate. The perpetuation of this feedback cycle describes all dialogues. 

Observational documentary is modeled on the idea that a documentary crew can function like a “fly on the wall”, observing and recording events without disrupting how they happen. This is a fantasy. It takes an enormous amount of work during filming and editing to hide the disruptive influence a film crew has on the people and events they are filming. “Act natural” is an impossible request for a participant. A more honest version would be to say “pretend I’m not here”. At least the pretense has been acknowledged. 

Many animated documentaries, including my film Escapology (2017), make use of the masked interview. A interviews B, but A edits out everything A says.  The masked interview positions B as a first person narrator, hiding the influence A had on B’s half of the dialogue.

  1. Based on their words I will visualize (evoke) X as animation 

Diagram 2

If B is the narrator it is quite understandable that audiences assume the animated scenes are representative of B’s perspective on X. However, if A has no direct experience of X, when A creates an evocative animated documentary built around a masked interview with B, the animation represents A’s graphic interpretation of B’s interpretation of X. This type of animated documentary could be described as an unmediated representation of the director’s othering gaze masquerading as the gaze of the other. A’s gaze is unmediated due to the total absence of representation through photographic indexicality. Without an analogue or digital camera rendering an image of B, A must rely on their artistic impulses to organise the construction of images of B. What’s more, these images are supposed to be simultaneously representative of X. Perhaps when A thinks they are drawing X, by way of B, they are more likely to be drawing their own gaze.

8.b. My participant wants to be anonymous so I will use animation to mask their recognisable facial features, helping them to avoid the stigma of having X

To mask your participants identity you must first strip away their distinguishing features from a character design. However, this can be problematic if X has a visible component. Lets say A is making a film about X where X is immigration status and B is a different race to A.

The Southern Ladies Animation Group avoid the representation of nationality or race by depicting each participant, stranded asylum seekers, as caged birds in It’s Like That (2005).

However, avoiding the topic of race or nationality can strip the participant of their group identity and a historic context which might be inseparable  from the dilemmas addressed in a documentary.

Andy Glynne directed another series about asylum seekers called Seeking Refuge (2012). The character designs in Julianne’s Story allow her race to be visible but facial features are generalized to fit a stereotypical cartoon child i.e.  big eyes and head, and small body, nose and ears. This is common to many animated representations of children. The approach is problematic when representing black children because a stereotypical cartoon black child bares a strong resemblance to stereotypical racist colonial imagery. (Widdowson, 2017)

I believe a better approach was adopted by David Aronowitsch and Hanna Heilborn the directors of Slaves: an Animated Documentary (2003)

Here the children’s characters seem to be stylized in inventive ways that masks their identity while leaving an impression of individuality.  They’re characters reflect more than a collision of generic symbols of ethnicity, age and gender.

8.2 My participant is happy to be identifiable but there’s no point in making the animation look realistic; I could have just filmed them. I will use my artistic licence when I design their character. 

Portraiture is the practice of rendering an artistic likeness of a human. Caricature falls within this domain but with additional emphasis. It is defined as ‘…a depiction of a person in which distinguishing characteristics are exaggerated for comic or grotesque effect’ (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2012). Grotesque or comedic aesthetic distortions of celebrities or politicians are typically mocking, antagonistic and disrespectful. I would argue that animated documentary directors, working with vulnerable participants, must consider if their stylized character designs are manifestations of a hostile, prejudicial or othering gaze. (Widdowson, 2017)

One of the most well known evocative animated documentaries, Ryan (2004, Chris Landreth) operates within the realm of grotesque caricature. Ryan Larkin was a once celebrated animator, whose career was destroyed by addiction. At the time he was begging for money on the streets of Montreal. Landreth uses, what he called “psycho-realism” to manifest vulnerabilities as bodily distortions, in the case of Larkin, depicting him as structurally unstable and contorted (Singer, 2004).

Ryan Larkin in Ryan (2004) Dir. Chris Landreth. National Film Board of Canada.

The making-of documentary (Alter Egos, 2004, Lawrence Green) shows the moment when Landreth screens the finished animation to Larkin, having not involved him in the film process since recording their interview. Larkin states his shock and discomfort, confronting Landreth about the grotesque nature of the portrait.

Ryan Larkin (left) and Chris Landreth (right) in Alter Egos (2004) Dir. Lawrence Green. National Film Board of Canada .

The structure of the film demonstrates that Landreth became aware of the hostility he was expressing towards Larkin during the interview. Landreth’s misplaced resentment for his alcoholic mother and personal fear of creative failure are proposed as the underlying causes of his ambivalence towards Larkin. This reflexive gesture positions Landreth in the film as someone owning up to their mistakes. However, after Landreth came to this realisation, instead of seeking atonement, he decided to commit further to his othering, prejudicial and hostile perspective of Larkin. He spent months transforming this unethical attitude into grotesque bodily distortions, then showed the finished film to his participant when it was too late to change or pullout. Chris Landreth’s reflexivity serves to justify and perpetuate the public humiliation of Ryan Larkin, a vulnerable adult.

Ryan is an accomplished and complex short film that can be much better understood in the context of it’s feature length making-of documentary. This film exaggerates how character designs function as a manifestation of how we feel about our participants. It was both honest and reckless for Landreth to make a film about his unethical behaviour. A clear lesson we can learn from this project is that consulting with our participant throughout the film-making process will illuminate for us what it feels like to be subject to our gaze. The earlier this process starts, the more time we have to identify and improve upon our unethical assumptions, impulses and practices.

Bibliography

American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth Edition.

Simone De Beauvoire (1949) The Second Sex.

Olga Bogdashina (2016) Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome; Different Sensory Experiences – Different Perceptual Worlds. 2nd revised edition. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.

Concise Oxford English Dictionary, revised 10th edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) p.212

Thomas Fuchs, (2010) ‘Subjectivity and intersubjectivity in psychiatric diagnosis’ in Psychopathology. Volume 43, Issue 4, 268-274

Annabella Honess Roe (2011). ‘Absence, Excess and Epistemological Expansion: Towards a Framework for the Study of Animated Documentary’. Animation: an Interdisciplinary Journal, 6(3), 215-230.

R.D. Laing, (1960) The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Tavistock Books: London.

MHFA England (2016) Adult MHFA Manule.  Mental Health First Aid England Community Interest Company: London.

Samantha Moore, (2015) Out of sight: using animation to document perceptual brain states [PhD Thesis] Loughborough University.

Laura Mulvey (Autumn 1975). ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Screen. 16 (3): 6–18.

Agnieszka Piotrowska (2013) Psychoanalysis and Ethics in Documentary. Film Routledge: London

Brian Schmidt https://doc-research.org/2018/08/hegemony-conceptual-theoretical-analysis/

Gregory Singer, ‘Landreth on ‘Ryan’’, VFXWorld Magazine (Los Angeles: Animation World Network,
2004) <http://www.awn.com/vfxworld/landreth-ryan&gt; [accessed 6 April 2017].

Thomas Szasz (1961) The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. Harper & Row: New York

Alex Widdowson (2017) Identifying Caricatures Among the Character Designs of Animated Documentaries which Feature Both Anonymous and Identifiable Interview Subjects. [Masters dissertation] Royal Collage of Art: London.

 

One of the Gods or a Mere Mortal: Fantasy, Fiction and Documentary Filmmakers

First published in August 2019 on Fantasy/Animation blog 

In this article I will explore the conceptual position a director occupies in the world they create or represent as a method for clarifying a film’s status as either fiction or documentary. As an animated documentary practitioner I am particularly interested in finding a balance between the seemingly limitless fantastic potential of animation and the duty of a documentary filmmaker to create authentic and ethical representations of people and the world.

Annabelle Honess Roe qualifies an animated documentary as a film that is animated, a film that is about the world rather than a world and a film that is intended or received as a documentary (2013: 4). Establishing a concise definition of animation seems intuitively simple but increasingly difficult, in part because of the multiplicity of digital techniques that no longer restrict animation to be created frame-by-frame. That said, the criteria that animated documentary should consist of animation does not require scrutiny in this article. Despite the apparent circular logic of Honess Roe’s third criteria, that the film be intended or received as a documentary in order for it to be a documentary, in practice it draws attention to the cultural context of the film as a helpful factor for identification.

Fig. 1 – Map of Middle-earth (1968).

I have found Honess Roe’s second criteria the most useful when explaining animated documentary to others. At one extreme we can see a world exemplified by Middle Earth in the epic high fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels. When considering the opposite pole one might think of Louis Theroux visibly engaging with constituents of the world in his iconic participatory documentaries. However, I’ve spent the last few years considering the disparity between the clear boundary suggested by Honess Roe’s second criteria and the slippery slope between these narrative extremes. I was given further pause for thought when I realized that there was nothing stopping a filmmaker or critic claiming any animated film was a documentary, instantly pushing passed the first and third criteria. This leaves us with whether or not it represents the world or a world. Despite the clear logic of this principle, when applying it to live action film and television, it seems too expansive to isolate the documentary genre. For instance, what kind of world is represented in a historical dramatisation or a biopic of a figure from popular culture?

Fig. 2 – Neighbours (1985-) [2018]).

When contemplating these ambiguous cases of realism I became interested in using the relationship the author/director has to the world that is represented as a method for distinguishing between fiction and documentary. Tolkien’s role in the world of Middle Earth is that of the creator (Fig. 1). He is an interventionist god whose omniscience and omnipresence defines all aspects of that universe, including the fate of his subjects. From the perspective of the other characters each of them seem to act according to their own free will, yet there is a tangible sense of destiny. A destiny, that as readers, we attribute to Tolkien’s intervention each time our suspension of disbelief is disrupted. This interventionist God dynamic isn’t restricted to high fantasy. As a teenager I was a regular viewer of the Australian soap opera Neighbours (1985 – present) (Fig. 2). Despite this world looking very similar to contemporary life, never before had I observed karmic equilibrium be reached so swiftly and with such consistency. As a viewer, I knew that if a character acted immorally, within a few episodes a twist of fate would expose their sins and result in social retribution. The transparent fatalism of soap opera logic has much to do with the pressure put on writers to construct an efficient narrative formula. However, these threads of destiny, serendipity and the role of the author/director as creator/puppet master are present throughout all works of fiction. While the creator can choose to dampen the detectable appearance of fatalism in the narrative in order to emulate realism, audiences can infer the dynamics between creator and content as within their command.

If we are then to think of the dramatisation of historical figures, is this dynamic changed?

Fig. 3 – The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988).

When the creator isn’t choosing how events unfold are they still the god of this film universe? The most enduring definition of documentary, “the creative treatment of actuality” (Grierson 1933: 8) leaves enough room to include the Hollywood biopic. In the case of Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004), why does this not feel like a documentary about Ray Charles? We know that in the logic of the universe of Ray we must have faith that Jamie Foxx is in fact a young Ray Charles. Likewise as viewers, to immerse ourselves in the story we must disengage with our knowledge of staging, performance and the presence of the film crew. This might seem like a simple way to position this world as a fiction, however, in order to represent a historic murder of a police officer, Errol Morris used staged reenactments in The Thin Blue Line (1988) while maintaining the documentary status of the film (Fig. 3). In the feature animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir (2008), animated interviews between the director, Ari Folman, and his colleagues from the 1982 Israeli war with Lebanon are intercut with animated reenactments of Folman’s fractured memories, speckled with elements of fantasy. While not accurate representations of the past these scenes powerfully communicate how the trauma of the war has affected his own psychology and memory (Fig. 4). Like The Thin Blue Line, when these sequences are viewed among the more conventional documentary mechanisms the audience develops an appropriate level of trust that the film is a documentary. This is further justified by the personal and subjective nature of the fantasy content in Waltz with Bashir. Folman is representing his own psychology and is thus positioned as an auto-ethnographic expert with unique access and authority. However, if the film were entirely constructed of these semi-fictionalised fantasy scenes it would be much harder to make a case that this film was a documentary.

Fig. 4 – Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008).

The significant difference between the world of Ray and the world of The Thin Blue Line or Waltz with Bashir, is the totality of the staged realism. The presence of documentary tropes, such as interviews or exposition, embeds the artificiality of reenactments into a world that also includes the filmmaker as a constituent. The Hollywood biopic implicitly requests us not to look behind the curtain, upholding the position of the director as a mythical figure in relation to the narrative universe. In contrast, a documentary director operates with the curtain pulled back, like The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), he still has access to all the same tools for conjuring illusions but their meaning is contextualised by a sense of transparency (Fig. 5).

The exception to documentary’s tendency towards transparent production is the observational mode, where the filmmaker makes every effort to capture events as they unfold while hiding the presence of the crew as if it would be an unnecessary distraction. In these films the footage has such a strong sense of authenticity that the audience can feel directly present. The role of the filmmaker is pushed aside in the audience’s mind much like in fiction film. However, if successful, at no point do audiences sense that these scenes are staged. It’s interesting to note that rarely, if ever, does animation or reenactment appear as a component of this mode. The presence of such deviations from direct indexicality may introduce the necessity to ground the film more clearly as a documentary. We see in The Thin Blue Line and Waltz with Bashir that this is achieved by making use of less passive techniques that inspire trust in the directors documentary intentions.

Documentary techniques have been developed over the past century, a set of methods and modes that position the filmmaker firmly in the world they address, sanctioning their capacity to act as a godlike author. Mark Cousins description of documentary as “co-directing with reality” (2011) gives a sense of a filmmaker grappling with the world and its contents. This version of creative interpretation has more in common with the liberties of free will afforded to all humans, than it does the power of a god.

The kind of world depicted in a historical dramatisation or a celebrity biopic is one in-which director and crew are gods and angels, never visible but ever present, pulling the strings. A documentary director, whether working with live action or animation, must demonstrate to their audience that they are grounded in and engaged with the world they are depicting. If this can’t be felt in some way by audiences then the world the director has captured is theirs alone.

References

Cousin, Mark. The Story of Film: An Odyssey – The Hollywood Dream (Hopscotch Films, Episode 2, 2011).

Grierson, John, “The Documentary Producer,” Cinema Quarterly 2, no.1 (1933): 7-9.

Honess Roe, Annabelle. Animated Documentary (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).

 

Music & Clowns – Outcomes

Music & Clowns (2018) 7.23 minutes

Music & Clowns is an animated documentary which functions as a rich portrait of my family, which includes Jamie, a person with Down syndrome. This film was conceived as a response to a polemic documentary by Sally Phillips the UK’s leading public advocate for the Down syndrome community. A World Without Down Syndrome (2016) addresses the UK’s introduction of Non-invasive Prenatal Testing and the likelihood that it will increase the abortion rate of Downs fetuses. It could be argued the significant drop in birth rates of people with Down syndrome fits Rob Nixon’s characterisation of ‘slow violence’ as gradual and often invisible. The medical establishment argues these tests simply provide pregnant women with more accurate information. However, a diagnosis cannot describe the life of someone with Down syndrome, like my brother Jamie. I am tackling the critical under-representation of the ordinary lives of people with Down syndrome by first directing a film that provides qualitative evidence of my parents experience of raising Jamie and speculating what life is like for him. Phillips was criticised for focusing too much on high functioning people with Downs and building an argument based on their ability to contribute to society. My film illuminates Jamie’s human worth irrespective of his profound limitations.

Ethics were my first concern. Luckily Jamie offered on tape what I inferred as consent. However I cannot assume he understands a film like this might be watched by thousands. Our parents consented to this on his behalf. While my family are all identifiable, the potential for my brother to be subject to unwanted attention is minimal as he has no engagement with social media. Jamie visibly liked elements of the film featuring clowns or music and was able to recognise family members, however the pacing was too fast for him. He is not the intended audience and if he were the film would be very different.

During interviews with my parents it became clear there were discrepancies between our speculations on Jamie’s inner life. I chose to manifest these perspectives symbolically through shifts in aesthetics. A baseline of 2D digital realism functions as the filmmaker’s perspective from which others deviate. These symbolic modes are the result of experimentation with printing, hand-drawn and animation techniques. I also traced Jamie’s drawings to build a scene from his perspective.

This multi perspective approach was extended by secondary interviews, in which I recorded participants responses to the animatic. The result was a critique of the perspectives of other participants as well as my own interpretations. These secondary layers of dialogue were then incorporated into the film, augmenting it with reflexive elements, most notably when my father disputes my mother’s inference that Jamie wishes to be a Clown.

Throughout the film I disrupt the temporal space of reenactments by suddenly appearing, shifting the scene into a lip synced interview. Similarly the contrived assembly of microphones stands draws attention to my role as documentary maker. These elements help distinguish Music & Clowns from the “personal story films” which appropriate subjects perspective in a total simulacra.

My film, Critical Living (2017), drew criticism regarding an imbalance between visual and verbal storytelling. Redressing the show and tell relationship has been a crucial point of development. In the past I avoided illustrating someone’s words through heavy handed application of a metaphor or steering the imagery into abstraction. For this project I have developed a more nuanced approach, sometimes delaying descriptive imagery till after the correlating testimony. It was argued that Critical Living could function without the visuals. However, Music & Clowns features entire scenes without dialogue and consistently emphasises character animation to illuminate family dynamics. I have also addressed other weaknesses including static compositions, avoidance of colour and impenetrably academic documentary subject matter.

The second significant development was the introduction of comedic elements. Shelley Page, Animation Talent Consultant, emphasised the value of humour in the animation industry and the filmmaker, Michael Moore, also argues that comedy is significantly under used in documentary. My family’s sense of humour proved ideal material to test my skills as a comedic film maker.

Music & Clowns was exhibited at the Royal College of Art’s School of Communication Degree Show, 2018. The film was played on a television in an installation built to resemble Jamie’s bedroom. Visitors were invited to sit on his bed to watch the film. When Jamie visited the exhibition he seemed to feel very much at home. As he sat on his spare bed sheets, surrounded by posters of ABBA and his old clown dolls, I think enjoyed the film much more so than the first viewing. I don’t know if he recognised that he was a minor celebrity in that room but he certainly enjoyed the attention.

Animating Documentary Modes: Navigating a theoretical model for animated documentary practice

First Published in the International Journal for Film and Media Arts,  Universidade Lusófona, Lisbon. 

Abstract:

Music & Clowns is an animated documentary that intimately portrays the subjectivity and relationships between my brother, our parents, and myself. This film will function as a case study to facilitate a reflective exploration and practice-informed analysis of some of the theoretical frameworks relevant to animated documentary discourse. Placing emphasis on Bill Nichols’ modes of documentary, I trace the influences, interactions, and specific application that this theoretical topology has had on Music & Clowns. Expanding upon Nichols’ framework by way of visual metaphors, I develop increasingly sophisticated models of the interactions between practice and theory, maintaining Nichols’ topology to integrate live-action and animated documentary traditions.

Key Words:

Bill Nichols, documentary modes, animated documentary, theory, practice

Introduction

Music & Clowns is an animated documentary containing a rich portrait of someone with Down syndrome. This film was conceived as a response to the polemic documentary, A World Without Down Syndrome (Richards, 2016), presented by Sally Phillips, which addresses the introduction of Non-invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) to the United Kingdom (UK), and the likelihood that it will decrease the birth rate of people with Down syndrome. In the UK, prior to the introduction of NIPT testing, 90% of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome were aborted. In Iceland, after NIPT testing was introduced, the abortion rate rose to 100% (“Sally Phillips’s film on…”, 2016, para. 7-8).

It could be argued that the significant drop in the birth rate of people with Down syndrome fits Rob Nixon’s caracterisation of “slow violence”, a process or destruction that is gradual and often invisible (Carruth, 2013, p. 847). Jane Fisher, director of the support organisation, Antenatal Results and Choices, argues that these tests simply provide pregnant women with more accurate information. Phillips was criticised by Fischer for occupying an overtly pro-life position, attempting to directly influence the choices of pregnant women who are likely to give birth to a baby with Down syndrome (McVeigh, 2016, para. 5). It was also problematic that Phillips focused on the stories of people with Down syndrome who are high functioning. Fischer argued that Phillips’ thesis was informed by a relatively privileged experience of raising a high functioning child with Down syndrome. Despite Phillips’ son being representative of just a small fraction of the UK’s population of people with Down syndrome, she built an argument for the potential of the entire community to make societal contributions comparable to those without the diagnosis. In response to the dialogue between Phillips and Fisher I chose to create a film that placed emphasis away from the abortion debate, instead developing a film which tackles the under-representation of the ordinary lives of people with Down syndrome. This film provides qualitative evidence, which will hopefully demonstrate to audiences my brother Jamie’s human worth, irrespective of his profound limitations or capacity for proactive contributions to wider society.

Suzanne Buchan proposed that politically motivated animated documentaries can be characterised as an “encounter”, evoking for the viewer a sense of being “…“present” and/or involved in the subject matter and people depicted” (2014, p. 252). Music & Clowns has the potential to present viewers with an encounter with my family, positioning them in our home, immersed in our interpersonal dynamics. This film contains within it curated opportunities to observe Jamie’s unique personality, quality of life, and the influence his presence has had on my parents and I.

Despite Jamie’s extremely limited verbal communication, Music & Clowns attempts to demonstrate how funny, charming, and perceptive he is. The film is structured around a series of interviews I conducted with mine and Jamie’s mother (Anna) and father (David). Topics discussed, relevant to the political subtext, include how they both felt when first hearing of his diagnosis, as well as the impact of their decision to eventually move Jamie out of the family home into one run by carers. Anna, who was not provided with a prenatal diagnosis, does not express a position on the debate surrounding diagnosis informed abortions. In contrast, David alludes to his pro-life perspective. During the editing process his politicised opinions were selected based on their relevance to his informed perspective and rejected where it was possible to infer overt judgment regarding the choices made by others.

I also conducted interviews with Jamie. It felt necessary to grant him an active role in the documentary and offer him an opportunity to provide consent. The ethics of creating a film about someone who is not legally able to offer informed consent was a significant concern. In response to asking Jamie if he felt comfortable with me making a film about him, he laughed and kissed the microphone (figure 1). While it is tempting to infer consent from this act, I cannot assume he understands the difference between a private screening of the film and its wide distribution, and thus may not be able to forsee the potential impact of the film’s release on his life. In accordance with the Royal College of Art’s ethical procedures, David and Anna provided consent on Jamie’s behalf. In a later interview, without prompt, Jamie kissed the microphone once again. I interpreted this repetition as a signifier of his intuitive comprehension of the comedic value associated with unanticipated subversion. He was either making a joke in the former interview or observed my response, prompting a reenactment.

      Figure 1: Jamie kissing the microphone. Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Upon completion, I observed Jamie’s response to the film. He engaged enthusiastically with elements of the work, particularly those featuring clowns or music, and was able to recognise family members. However, his attempts to articulate his recognition or approval were cut short, possibly because the fast editing and dynamic animation may have been difficult for him to process. I do not consider this a flaw in the project as he is not the intended audience. If he were, the final outcome would be significantly different.

Music & Clowns addresses several ethical ambiguities, arguing for the social value of the life of someone who can’t care for themself, referencing Jamie’s limited ability to explain whether or not he is offering consent, deciphering obscured mental processes based on observation, questioning the legitimacy of each family members interpretation of his cognition, and challenging viewers to trust documentary value of a non-indexical method of representation to illustrate informed qualitative observations. In order to encourage critical engagement with the form and subject matter, the film possesses numerous reflexive devices. However, the multiple strategies employed in this film prevent it from being categorized in Bill Nichols’ reflexive mode. My choice to animate the presence of microphones in some scenes replicates and contrives a trope of the participatory mode. Interspersed between conventionally structured participatory scenes, structured around indexical testimony, are sequences that exemplify Bill Nichols’ performative mode, in which the subjectivity of a participant is evoked. In addition to this, the use of observational archive footage and the playful experimentation with form imply additional affiliations with both the observational and poetic mode. This complex medley of modal interactions has prompted my reevaluation of the relationships between animated and live action documentary practice, and the theoretical discourses relating animation to Nichols’ topology of documentary.

Developing visual metaphors to plott Nichols’ theoretical framework of documentary

John Grierson’s pithy definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality” (1933, p. 8) has endured as the foundation of documentary theory. Annabelle Honess Roe argues this is partly due to a flexibility associated with epistemological “broadness” (2011, p. 216). Bill Nichols’ proposed modes of documentary create six subdivisions akin to sub-genres in his book, Introduction to Documentary (2001, p. 99, 1st ed.). His topology was composed of the “poetic mode”, which places emphasis on aesthetics rather than a subject; the “expository mode”, which presents a linear authoritative perspective; the “observational mode”, documenting a subject naturalistically; the “participatory mode”; focusing on the relationship between the filmmaker and subject; the “reflexive mode”, focusing on the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience; and the “performative mode”, attempting to represent subjective knowledge (2001, p. 125 & 138, 1st ed.). Collectively the modes appear, at first glance, to be a method for dividing the spectrum of documentary productions into distinct camps. This evoked for me an image of six pillars standing tall upon Grierson’s enduring foundation. Nichols’ rough chronology of the advent of each mode (2001, 138) could inform an extension of this metaphor indicating both the order and manner in which Nichols arranged the theoretical columns. The allegorical act of erecting individual columns could represent the linear progression implied by Nichols’ table of documentary modes (2001, 138).

Figure 2: Bill Nichols erecting the modes of documentary practice on top of John Grierson’s foundational definition, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Annabelle Honess Roe reviews early approaches to building a theoretical framework for animated documentary (2011, p. 223). These theoretical strategies anchored the discipline to individual modes of documentary practice proposed by Nichols. Contextualising animated documentary in this way further atomized his framework. The resultant discourse became preoccupied by conflicting opinions regarding which of the modes possessed animated documentary as a constituent. Sybil DelGaudio (1997, p. 192), while referencing an earlier publication by Nichols featuring just five modes (1991, p. 56), argued that animation was inherently reflexive in a documentary context because it functions as “metacommentary” by way of artistically interpreting conventional documentary sources. Gunnar Strøm undermines the idea that animated documentary is a subdivision of the reflexive mode by illuminating the culturally informed audience’s preconceived limitations on the practice. Non-fiction publications demonstrate that the written word, devoid of indexical mechanics, evidences the potential for animation to be capable of representing fiction and reality (2003, p. 52). This argument trivialises DelGaudio’s reflexive characterisation.

Strøm instead points to Nichols’ performative mode due to the emphasis it places on subject specific strategies of representation (2003, p. 53). Eric Patrick supports this categorisation, however, his argument shares similarities with both Strøm and DelGaudio by adding that “…the very nature of animation is to foreground its process and artifice” (as cited in Honess Roe, 2013, 18). Animation is therefore performative, evoking subjective of subject and animator, by way of a reflexive device.

Paul Ward, in contrast, considers the relationship between a documentarian animator and their subject demonstrates a participatory or “interactive” tendency within the discipline. Like Patrick, Ward focuses on the interpretation of testimony as animation, instead emphasizing the potential for dialogue between subject and filmmaker to facilitate representational authenticity through feedback (Ward, 2005 p 94-95).1

Honess Roe was critical of attempts to “shoehorn” animated documentary into Nichols’ modes, which were conceived with live action documentary in mind. Instead she establishes a framework specific to animation based on how the medium functions differently from live action in a documentary context (2011, p. 225). These included: “mimetic substitution”, in which live action documentary footage is imitated due to the absence of a camera or be impossibility of capturing events on film; “non-mimetic substitution”, where footage is replaced with illustrative or figurative imagery unbound by conventional documentary aesthetics; and “evocation”, which describes the use of animation to represent abstract and subjective concepts such as emotions, sensations, and mind-sets. (2011, pp. 225-227).

Nichols is also dismissive of attempts to segregate individual films into any one category, preferring a “mix and match” approach (2001, 34). He avoided categorising animated documentary into any particular mode. While not mentioned in the first edition of an Introduction to Documentary (2001), in the second edition (2010) he grounds various animated documentaries into two separate modes, while highlighting the overarching relevance of a third.

Characterised by the modernist tendency towards artistic interpretation, an emphasis on form and overthrowing conventions, Nichols references Silence (Bringas & Yadin, 1998) and Feeling My Way (Hodgson, 1997) as exemplars of the poetic mode in which the artist’s vision is foregrounded (2010, p.164). Nichols points to the stylized reenactments and metaphorical signifiers in Waltz With Bashir (Folman, 2008), Ryan (Landreth, 2004), and His Mother’s Voice (Tupicoff, 1997), attributing them to the performative mode (2010, 204). Furthermore, Nichols highlights the use of animation in documentaries as inherently reflexive. For at least some audience members animation prompts them to “question the assumption that a documentary must support its proposals or perspective with historically authentic footage” (2010, p. 33).

Despite his efforts to accommodate animated documentary in the second edition, Nichols has overlooked a significant portion of the discipline. The films he cited are certainly exemplars of the animated documentary cannon, however, Honess Roe, proposed a modal distinction between the films Nichols discussed and what she describes in her own topology as examples of mimetic substitution. The Sinking of the Lusitania (McCay, 2018) and the series Walking With Dinosaurs (BBC, 1999) use animation to replace absent or what would be impossible footage (2011, p.226). In the former, the intertitles represent the U.S. government’s propagandist motivations, and in the later a voice-over matches the contentions of natural history documentaries, linking both examples to the expository mode.

With Nichols’ “mix and match” approach in mind, my previously proposed architectural metaphor now appears to be superficial and inadequate. In its place I envisage a more complex gravitational system model, akin to a solar system, which may elucidate the interactions between the genre, modes of practice, and individual films.

Each mode, with its own gravitational field, orbits the documentary genre. In this model an individual film moves through the figurative solar system, initially guided by the directors intentions. The production’s progress is influenced by a number of gravitational fields in varying strengths, shaping the film’s trajectory. Some will arrange themselves like satellites, in tight orbits of a single mode, others will form a complex series of arcs as they travel between modes, through the system.

When extending the metaphor to account for the difference between animated and live action documentaries, one can observe that the two disciplines tend to be drawn to particular modes, and offer distinct qualities. Comparing the medium to a vehicle, allows us to account for animation’s time consuming nature, and thus these productions have a slower means of propulsion. Live action, which often involves larger crews for a shorter period of time, can be represented by larger, faster shuttles. Educational or industry training may be equivalent to a starting position or resting place. I imagine two distinct stations orbiting the documentary sun, one which services animation shuttles, the other larger live action ships.

The movement of the modes, in their orbit of the genre, may roughly characterise the shifts in trends throughout documentary history. Live action expository films, for instance, gradually rose and fell in prominence during the 20th Century. This tendency can be represented by the relative proximity of the two orbiting bodies at any given time. Tracking the 100 years would show the modes gradually rotating clockwise around the genera, before reaching their current position represented in figure 3.

Figure 3: Tracking modal influence and mediums used in Music & Clowns through a gravitational system model of the documentary genre, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Navigating documentary modes through animated documentary practice

Case study 1: Jamie’s aspiration to be a clown vs. his appreciation of clowns. Facilitating and visualising verbal metacommentary to further distinguish contrasting perspectives, manifested in the performative mode.

Music & Clowns is one of six films produced by the inaugural year group of animation masters students graduating, from the documentary pathway, at the Royal College of Art (RCA). Initially conceived by Joan Ashworth and Sylvie Bringas, following Ashworth’s departure as programme leader, Birgitta Hosea oversaw its launch in 2015. This coincided with the first Ecstatic Truth symposium, hosted by the RCA, and organised by Tereza Stehlikova and Hosea.

Figure 3, which tracks detectable influences from Bill Nichols modes of documentary in my graduate film, Music & Clowns, is a testament to how effective the master’s degree has been in familiarising me with documentary discourse. In addition to this training much of the success of this project is attributed to working with my family. It became clear early in development that 30 years of first hand experiences of my subjects facilitated unlimited access and provided an enormous advantage.

The performative qualities of animated documentary, argued by Strøm (2003) and Patrick (2004), and supported by Nichols’s reading of specific examples (2010, 111), are conceptually dominant in Music & Clowns. Nichols characterises performative documentary as, resisting the western philosophical tradition of knowledge as abstract and universal, instead promoting forms of knowledge that are subjective, constructed from lived experience and personal interpretation. Nichols emphasises that the performative mode promotes an interpretation of meaning as a “affect-laden phenomenon” (2001, 131). Jakub Traczyk, Agata Sobkow, and Tomasz Zaleskiewicz, faculty members from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Wroclaw, consolidate various definitions of affect-laden as follows:

People differ in the ease with which they create vivid mental images of various objects and situations. Consequently, affect-laden mental images should evoke emotions that differ in intensity in people who vary in mental imagery ability.

(2015, para. 35)

In the context of performative animated documentary, a directors role is to expand and articulate a subject’s affect-laden reading of a situation. The ambiguous nature of Jamie’s communication strategies provide numerous opportunities for this. The most tangible evidence for what Jamie is thinking at any time is his frequent reference to key interests. These include family members, favoured musicians, clowns, and the circus. More often than not these words or phrases are proclaimed spontaneously. The limitations on his ability to engage in dialogue makes it hard to contextualise his assertions and decipher his thought process. Despite not knowing what goes on in his head, the rest of the family are prone to speculation, often drawing different conclusions. For instance, while Anna thinks Jamie’s fascination with clowns must indicate that he has aspirations to be one, David disputes this, believing Jamie is drawn to clowns because their comedy is communicated almost entirely through body language and therefore more legible to him than other humour. Inspired by Samanta Moore’s “collaborative cycle” methodology (2014, pp. 105-125), I capture my parents differing perspectives by recording David’s feedback as he watched an early version of the film, featuring Anna’s speculations about Jamie’s aspirations. I then incorporated David’s verbal metacommentary into a later version of the film. This created space for David to narrate a shift in style between the two scenes, both of which are simulations of their respective affect-ladened interpretation of Jamie’s aspirations (see figure 4).

Figure 4: Jamie’s interest in clowns representing Anna’s and David’s perspectives. Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Case study 2: Interpreting Jamie’s ambiguous behaviour. Demonstrating the complex inter-modal dynamics at play when shifting between the perspective of multiple documentary subjects

Some of the speculations about Jamie by the other subjects in Music & Clowns arguably reveal insight into the mindset and biases of that participant. When David recalls Jamie approaching him during a moment of stress, he compares his son’s touch to the effect of a “lightning conductor” (Widdowson, 2018), draining away the frustration. David is proud of Jamie’s sensitivity and perception. During an interview he proposed this anecdote as supportive evidence, however, I remember thinking that this story didn’t prove Jamie’s intentions. I’ve seen my brother approach my father this way a number of times but this instance stood out in David’s memory, possibly because of his vulnerability at that moment. Rather than demonstrating Jamie’s intention to comfort my father, I inferred from this memory that the anecdote was an indicator of confirmation bias. This term is used in behavioural science to describe people’s tendencies to overvalue information that supports an existing belief, while overlooking evidence that is unsupportive or contradictory (Heshmat, para. 2). During the editing process I reflected on how audiences might interpret the conflicting attitudes in this interview. I could see how David might be seen as a sentimentalist, where as I come across as more of a cynic. Resisting the impulse to introduce to the film as an argument for confirmation bias, I developed representational strategies to signify our conflicting interpretations and visualised the tension between them.

Figure 5: David’s colour Scanned frame from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

The scene was initially rendered in TVPaint2. These digitally drawn frames were then printed and, with the help of four assistants, manually coloured. The shots where David experienced stress were shaded with charcoal, signifying his melancholy (see figure 5). Jamie is coloured using pastels, a signifier for David’s emotional reading of Jamie’s healing potential. Triggered at the point of contact, a wave of pigment radiates across the frame, vanquishing gloom from the scene. The temporal space of this reenacted memory is fractured when I enter the frame to question my father about his proposition. This break with documentary convention hybridised the performative reenactment with a participatory interview, invoking reflexivity. I signify my detached, analytical perspective by transitioning the imagery from printed, hand-coloured frames to stark, flat, digital colours rendered in TVPaint (see figure 6).

Figure 6: The perspective of David, hand coloured in charcoal and pastels, and Alex Widdowson, manifest as digital colour. Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018 Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Unlike the rest of the film, line-boil is absent from the digital character animation in this scene. This specialised term is used, in my experience as a practitioner, to refer to an animated line, the product of traced and sequential substitution, often looped, composed of a minimum of two drawings. The stillness of the fully digital sequence can be read as a further manifestation of the cynical nature of my critique. In contrast, the scanning process of the printed scenes was conducted with such haste that many frames are misaligned. When played in sequence, a tonal comparison with early black and white footage is noticeable. Where charcoal shading is dominant, the frame movement both invigorates the sequence and adds a turbulent quality. This was complimented in post-production with non-diegetic sound design featuring a recording of heavy rain. As pastels fill the frame the rain subsides, making way for bird song. The calming effect was further enhanced by my efforts to stabilise the josseling image sequence, correlation with the moment of transition. The cumulative result of these methods should invoke in the audience recognition of: firstly, an emotional shift in David, triggered by Jamie’s approach; followed by a change in tone, instigated by my intruding scepticism. The modal transition towards participation, and it’s reflexive connotation, rather than nullifying the performative qualities of the scene, illuminate the dynamics between active participants and their subjectivity. Jamie’s passivity, and lack of representation in the performative construct is informed by his absence during the source interview.

Case study 3: Approaching Jamie’s subjectivity. Demonstrating the complex ethical and inter-modal dynamics at play when representing the explicit perspective of an individual documentary subject.

Paul Wells, in an early attempt to innovate a topology specific to animated documentary in 1997, proposed four categories: the imitative, subjective, fantastic, and postmodern modes (Wells, 1997). Wells’ subjective mode recognised the attempt of documentary makers to use animation to represent the individual worldview of their subjects. This sub-category shares a close affinity with Nichols’ performative mode.

In two scenes I attempt to embody Jamie’s perspective. The first instance features abstract animation to emphasise the difficulty experienced, by both David and Anna, when imagining the manner in which Jamie thinks. This scene is unique in the film as the only sequence I chose not to animate myself. Emily Downe, a first year documentary animation student at the RCA, with an aptitude for abstractaction, had never met my brother. Her unfamiliarity with him liberated the scene from the potential signifiers which may have emerged if I were to have animated it. I anticipated that a lifetime of observing Jamie’s behaviour and appearance may have contaminated my attempts at abstraction (see figure 7).

Figure 7: An abstract representation of the impenetrability of Jamie’s consciousness. Screenshot from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018 (animated by Emily Downe).

The second attempt at representing Jamie’s subjectivity took Inspiration from A is for Autism, directed by Tim Webb (Arnall & Webb, 1992). In what Ward described as a “collaborative working method”, Webb encouraged the subjects of his film, who are on the autistic spectrum, to draw and discuss, on tape, their passions and concerns (p.94). In 2005, I was able to encourage Jamie to draw my portrait for an A-Level project about our relationship (see figure 8). Thirteen years later, he showed no interest in participating as an artist in Music & Clowns. I navigated around this by tracing, on my graphics tablet, drawings he created when he was younger. The resultant images, which were the basis for character designs of the entire family in this scene, do not constitute “Outsider Art”3. Roger Cardinal, coined the label Outsider Art to formulate an English language equivalent of Jean Dubuffet’s term, “Art Brut”. Their overlapping definitions encompass artwork created without traceable influence from contemporary art practice or history (Cardinal, 1972, p.21). The movement is associated with works produced by individuals who are either institutionally or mentally isolated from the art world. If Jamie’s drawings are identifiable as Outsider Art, my taking influence from his representational style could be interpreted as an inversion of the outsider convention due to my formal training, as well as my purposeful response to a recognised art movement. When considering my translations of his work, the indexical chain between Jamie’s drawings and the scene I’ve animated is significantly weak. With regards to the documentary process, the scene is better described as an imitation rather than a collaboration.

Figure 8: A portrait of Alex by Jamie. Jamie Widdowson, 2005, with permission from the artist’s parents.

My inability to solicit drawn contributions from Jamie prompted me to appropriate artwork he created in an educational context, approximately twenty five years ago. This process was further problematised by his inability to provide consent, in an informed manner, for me to use his artwork. Our shared parents, once again, took this decision on his behalf. While maintaining a strong degree of resemblance, the images I traced were significantly altered by adapting them into new mediums, and coloured, before being animated. The aforementioned conclusion, that my method was antithetical to Outsider Art, would not apply to A is for Autism, as the film is mitigated by the director’s significantly collaborative approach.

Mosaic Films, under the direction of Andy Glynn, have produced a number of animated documentaries which adopt performative devices comparable to the Music & Clowns, scene discussed in the previous two paragraphs. The Seeking Refuge series (2012), features first hand testimony from children who were forced to flee their homeland and chose to resettle in the United Kingdom. A comparison between two of the Seeking Refuge episodes reveals potential problems that arise from an imitative, as opposed to collaborative, performative animated documentary. There is a noticeable difference in the degree with which Glynn has executed artistic collaborations with the young refugees featured in each episode. This is demonstrated by Juliane’s Story (2012), animation direction by Karl Hammond at MUMMU Studio, and Ali’s Story (2012), animation direction by Salvador Maldonado, produced in house at Mosaic Films.

Ali’s Story is rendered without adherence to conventional perspective. The animation technique, commonly known as cut-out or 2 ½ D, makes use of flat puppets, consisting of individual bitmap images rigged together to make a character form. These are composited in a three dimensional digital space featuring parallaxing sets and backgrounds. Ali’s Story includes a mixture of digital imagery and scanned hand rendered artwork, much of which was created by the subject. His testimony emphasises a passion for drawing. A viewer has enough information to identify the influence Ali’s artwork had on the films art direction.

Juliane’s Story includes some animated references to what might be her own drawings. However, unlike Ali, she does not corroborate that these are her creations. The indexical link between Ali’s scanned drawings and those of Julianne’s are broken in this episode by the animators use of vector based tracing. The mechanical indifference of scanned original artwork, akin to the mechanisms of live action documentary, is entirely lost.

While this methodology is comparable to one used in Music & Clowns, audiences are left to infer a collaboration between Glynn, Hammond, and Juliane. Where as, this is explicitly evident in Ali’s Story. The increased creative dominance of the animators in Juliane’s Story makes the episode a relatively strong example of Nea Ehrlich’s characterisation of animation as “suspect and un-objective as a documentary language” (2011, para. 3).

Glynn described his interview methods during a panel discussion I attended at the animated documentary festival, Factual Animation Film Fuss (FAFF), in September 2015. Glynn, a trained clinical psychologist, recorded conversations with the pree-teen subjects of this series. From this he would extract the narration for the series by editing out his voice. Nichols referred to this process as the “masked interview”, utilised by observational documentaries in order to maintain the fly-on-the-wall aesthetic (2001, 113).

In contrast to the performative and participatory tone of the relevant scene in Music & Clowns, the Seeking Refuge series, directed by Glynn and supported by multiple animation directors, navigates a different path between modal influences, aligning very closely with performative conventions. This dominant mode contains within it a complex amalgam of other modes: a poetic animation, informed by an observational version of obscured participatory interviews.

Nichols describes a shift in prominence from the observational to participatory documentary modes. He partly attributes this trend to the limited scope of observational methodologies for exposing a director’s existing bias, as well as the disparity between a literal documentary crew and the figurative fly-on-the-wall (2001, 114). The strategies developed in the participatory mode were successful in mitigating these issues, providing further opportunities for filmmakers to reveal their existing prejudices by way of perceivable profilmic or audible interactions with subjects. Participatory documentaries also reveals some of the influence filmmakers have on events as they unfold (Nichols, 2001, 119). The weaknesses Nichols attributed to observational films, which prompted participatory innovations, helps further illuminate problems relating to ethics of authenticity when comparing Music & Clowns with Seeking Refuge.

Doctoring the interviews in the Seeking Refuge series obscures Glynn’s presence in order to remove potential distractions from the subjects’ testimony. However, whittling down the dialogue to produce a monologue nullifies the transparency and ethical benefits of the participatory act. The masked interview facilitates the construction of the performative strategy “We speak about ourselves to you”. This notion is essential to the performative mode and influenced by auto-ethnography (Nichols, 2001, 133-4). However, as mentioned previously the degree of influence the Seeking Refuge subjects had on the art direction of this series varied greatly.

Despite the visual auto-ethnographic and observational intentions of the seeking refuge series being either inconsistent or lost, animated documentary audiences are in an advantageous position, relative to viewers of a live action documentary. The indexicality of footage also helps to mask a filmmaker’s bias. Animation on the other hand provides continuous stream of fully constructed semiotic information, providing vast data set for a critical analysis of what prejudices may have informed the iconographic coding of each animated documentary. Ehrlich’s scepticism with regards to the limited documentary value of animation based on it’s “constructedness” (2011, parap. 3), is in these circumstances an advantage for a critical viewer.

There is also value to be found in reflecting on why these modal strategies were selected by the directors. In Music & Clowns I appropriated Jamie’s adolescent drawings out of necessity. He was out of practice and would not engage with a collaborative exercise. Where as, Ali’s accomplished drawings were, judging from his testimony, presented to the filmmakers with enthusiasm. Julianne on the other hand evidences no enthusiasm for drawing, possibly due to her level of ability and the self consciousness one could infer from this. Glynn may have masked his presence in the Seeking Refuge interviews because he probably considered his relationship with the participating children as irrelevant. In contrast, I chose to maintain a role in the scene with Jamie because our relationship is as much of a central theme as his ability to respond to questions and the performative interpretation of his subjectivity.

Other modal explorations in Music & Clowns

Music & Clowns features one observational scene composed of archive footage taken from a 1985 BBC Two documentary about my parents experience raising a child with Down syndrome (Chapple). This segment originally began with exposition from the programme narrator. The testimony then shifted to off camera masked interviews with my parents, participatory at the point of recording but observational in the context of the BBC Two documentary. The camera crew hid from sight, an explicitly observational filming technique, providing scope to record the dynamics between David and Anna, both in their thirties; Guy, my other brother, age two; and Jamie, age five. Within the context of Music & Clowns, careful editing of this footage allowed me to partially synchronise contemporary testimony from Anna and David with footage of them from over thirty years ago. The observational footage of my brother, visibly joyful and energetic, combined with the materiality of the damaged VHS recording may evoke a sensation of nostalgia. This is juxtaposed with contemporary participatory interviews I conducted with mine and Jamie’s parents. David describes Jamie’s decline after being moved out of the family home into one where he is assisted by carers. My brother, who was in his late 20s when this decision was made on his behalf, has since entered a gradual intellectual decline, probably caused in part by the relatively unstimulating and overly accommodating environment he lives in. Anna, responding to my questions about this decision describes her “no regrets” attitude, managing the associated guilt by explaining “you can only do what you think is best at the time” (Widdowson, 2018).

The affecting disorientation of combining conflictual visual and verbal narrative threads, complimented by a temporal displacement, places the scene closer to the performative mode. It may produce in a viewer a divided emotional state, something akin to cognitive dissonance, a term used in psychology to describe the discomfort of simultaneously experiencing conflicting thought processes (“Reference Terms Cognitive Dissonance”).

This pluralised subjectivity approach was inspired by Through the Hawthorn (2014). An animated documentary, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, to communicate problems related to the disparate interpretations of risk and attitude that can develop during psychiatric treatment. Three directors: Anna Benner, Pia Borg, and Gemma Burditt, were each granted equal space within the frame, adopting contrasting methods to simultaneously represent the perspective of each of the three protagonists: a psychiatrist, a psychiatric patient, and the patient’s mother. Not strictly a documentary, the script was written by D. R. Hood and inspired by the 2011 non-fiction book, Henry’s Demons; co-authored by Henry and Patrick Cockburn; and informed by observations of family therapy sessions in a Hospital in South London (Borg). Despite the several degrees of separation between the animated film and the real world experiences that inspired it, Through the Hawthorn clearly demonstrates performative methodologies, which are situated within the experimental and formal concerns of the poetic mode.

The poetic mode sacrifices the conventions of continuity editing and the sense of a very specific location in time and place that follows from it to explore associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions.

(Nichols, 2001, 102)

It could be argued that the prominence of formal devices, which help divide and structure my film, Music & Clowns, justify a poetic undertone. However, a performative and participatory reading of the film are more dominant. These devices could also be interpreted as having a reflexive connotation.

Unlike David, Anna and Jamie, I attempt to manifest my own subjectivity consistently throughout the film. Adopting the role of an inquisitive documentary filmmaker, the mimetic, untextured digital animation technique was intended to function as a baseline from which the aesthetics deviated throughout the film. Taking inspiration from Slaves: an Animated Documentary (Aronowitsch & Heilborn, 2003), and Ryan (Holborn, Smith, Page & Landreth, 2004), I signified both the participatory context of the audio recordings and emphasised my role as a documentarian by contriving the appearance of microphones in frame.

There is a conceptual difference between a utilitarian use of microphones and their symbolic inclusion an animated interview. Nick Broomfield’s confrontations with an unwilling documentary subject in Kurt & Courtney (1998), may not have become a film at all were he to ask for permission off camera. Thus, his wielding of a microphone is a necessity (Nicholson, 2001, 119). While microphones were present in my family home, similarly arranged to how they appear in Music & Clowns, this is not an example of Honess Roe’s mimetic-substitution category. I could have easily captured these scenes on camera as profilmic participatory interviews. This fact is evidenced to the audience when footage of me painting Jamie’s face appears alongside the end credits. By contriving participatory acts in animation I was able to both emphasise to audiences the dynamics between subject and filmmaker, while also promoting a reflexive metadiscourse, due to the purposefulness of this act. The reflexive potential of a contrived microphone adjustment is exemplified in the scene where Anna recalls her emotional state following Jamie’s birth and the subsequent diagnosis of Down syndrome. The animation features her in a hospital bed 40 years earlier holding Jamie in her arms. At the start of the scene, I adjust the microphone while I sit beside her, ten years before I was born. It is reasonable to predict some viewers may be momentarily distracted by this folding in of temporal space. Making use of Nichols’ comparison between the participatory and observational modes (2001,p. 125), the onscreen presence of an animated documentarian, microphone in hand, prompts the viewer to raise their awareness of the form, shifting focus momentarily from the relationship between me, the filmmaker and my subject, Anna, to the me, the filmmaker and them, my audience. I use this trope a number of times in the film, often with comedic effect.

While I would argue the act of navigating between multiple documentary modes is inherently reflexive, Music & Clowns, completes a full orbit of the performative mode in figure 3, indicating its dominance. However, Nichols warns of the strategic limitations of the mode to address objective truths, in addition to their “excessive” preoccupation with style (2001, 138). Ward also argues this point, highlighting the pertinence of these issues with regards to performative animated documentaries (2005, 86). This mirrors Ehrlich’s aforementioned concerns about the “constructedness” and “un-objective” constraints of animation in a documentary context (2011, parap. 3).

Rather than diminishing the authority of animation as a documentary medium, Okwui Enwezor, when addressing recent documentary innovations, argues such works “…raise new relations of ethics and aesthetics because instead of presenting the viewer with non-negotiable facts, they create a ‘truth process’” (Ehrlich, 2013, p. 252). This mirrors Werner Herzog’s attack on the preoccupation within the documentary tradition for seeking objective truths. Herzog mocks this concept comparing it to the “truth of accountants”. In its place he coined the term “ecstatic truth”, describing it as “…mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization” (Walker Art Centre).

In attempting to strike a balance between the fluid concepts of documentary truth proposed by Herzog and Enwezor, and cautionary words regarding the performative mode and animated documentary put forward by Nichols, Ward, and Ehrlich, I devised a strategy for mitigating the risk of anecdotal subjectivity. Rather than developing a single performative strategy, as I did in my auto-ethnographic film Patients (2012), I developed distinct representational styles to separate the subjectivity of the four documentary participants in Music & Clowns. In addition to this, Anna, David, and Jamie presented or prompted distinct topics that required individual aesthetic treatment, further pluralising my representational pallet. The accumulative effect of this montage of techniques was intended to figuratively increase the sample size of my aesthetic readings of the participant’s subjectivities. Within the social sciences such an approach would in most circumstances be expected to improve the reliability of data collected. However, this research contains within it only a degree of correlation between the figurative data points. In addition to the general glowing assessment of Jamie’s character, there are many conflictual accounts and unsubstantiated assumptions about what life must be like for him from myself, David and Anna. Rather than undermining the usefulness of my results, it helped me create a rich portrait of Jamie’s life, contextualised by our family dynamics, the results illuminate the limits of our knowledge. The product of my research, Music & Clowns, suggests we can never truly know Jamie because of his limited expressive capabilities, and to a lesser degree each other, due to the limits of our own subjectivity. A key aim of this film was to evoke “truth”, in Herzog’s sense of the word, by way of a reflexive transparency regarding the capability of animation to supersede the “truth of accountants”, which still holds the attention of many live action documentarians.

Conclusion

My eight years of practice informed animated documentary research has been punctuated by exposure to two key text, An Introduction to Documentary (Nichols, 2001 & 2010) and Annabelle Honess Roe’s book, Animated Documentary (2013). Honess Roe establishes a bespoke theoretical framework for animated documentary, breaking from previous attempts to adapt Nichols mode system. Honess Roe went back to the drawing board and developed her own taxonomy, based on how animated documentaries function differently from live action: mimetic substitution, non-mimetic substitution, and evocation. Defined as categories rather than modes, they illuminate three distinct strategies employed by animated documentaries and, for the most part, they are inapplicable to live action documentary. Honess Roe’s framework was both insightful and inspiring, as well as a helpful framework to improve the efficiency with which I repeatedly explained what my discipline was.

However, when directly comparing the practical application of theoretical topologies contained within these two publications, the emphasis Honess Roe places on the difference between live action and animation potentially marginalises the practice of animated documentary. In a teaching context, if fledgling animator documentarians are encouraged primarily to pursue the topics that live action documentary is not capable of addressing, this might point them down a narrowing path.

Nichols, contrasts this approach in the second edition of his book, Introduction to Documentary (2010), by introducing animated documentaries into an existing theoretical framework. Despite only referencing examples of practice that exemplify particular modes, the flexibility of his modal system, characterised by the “mix and match” approach, prompts the reader to compare and contrast animated and live action documentaries that intersect two or more modes. The boundaryless approach to documentary discourse that Nichols promotes stimulates a dialogue with dominant live action forms, while illuminating numerous potential paths for creative exploration.

The detailed analysis, diagrams, metaphors and examples collected in this article should demonstrate both the aptitude of animation for navigation of Bill Nichols’s modes and the enduring and invaluable contribution he has made to animated documentary discourse. The complex, shifting and interactive relationships contained within Nichols’ documentary topology, should not be considered evidence for his weakness as a taxonomist, but rather, a testament to his strength as a theoretician, having developed a powerful set of tools to inform and reflect on animated documentary.

When attempting to articulate the influence Nichols’ modal system has had on the development and production of Music & Clowns, I found it necessary to invoke visual metaphors to clarify my insights. This process culminated in the development of a gravitational system model of Nichols documentary modes. It is a testament to the enduring brilliance of Nichols’ theoretical framework, that I was able to expand my initial solar system metaphor to not just indicate the relative position the modes in relation to each other and the genre, but also account for tenancies and trends associated with the two dominant mediums, live action and animation. The analytical potential of this figurative approach was then demonstrated by the ease with which I was able to plot the allegorical journey of my own production through the medley of influences specific to the documentary genre. While conscious of the risk of over extending the space exploration metaphor, I would like to propose one final annex to the figuration, borrowed from Adam Curtis’ 2015 essay documentary, Bitter Lake4 (Kelsall).

Stanisław Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel, Solaris, centres on an exploratory mission by cosmonauts to observe a strange planet. While orbiting Solaris, the crew experience vivid hallucinations, which are at times indistinguishable from reality. These mirages, seemingly evoked by the planet; and the subsequent delusions, are informed by past experiences and memories of loved ones. The application of Lem’s science-fiction to the metaphor of the gravitational system model of the Nichols topology for documentary, expands, all be it fantastically, the intangible mechanism by which each mode inspires and facilitates creativity at the point when filmmaker enters the range of a particular mode’s gravitational pull. My choice to conclude my practice informed theoretical analysis of the animated documentary, Music & Clowns, by leaving the realms of Newtonian physics, and entering the territory of science fiction, may indicate the limits of my own comprehension with regards to the precise mechanics of inspiration.

 

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Notes

1 Nichols’ participatory mode was originally coined as “interactive” in Representing Reality (1991, p. 44).

2 2D bitmap animation software

3  I examined the potential redundancy of Outsider Art in terms of ontology, due to increasing reach of media and popular culture influences, as well as ethical implications of a movement which incentivises the exclusion of artist for fear of creative contamination 

4 In his 2015 essay film, Bitter Lake, Adam Curtis’ proposed the planet Solaris as a metaphor for Afghanistan, illuminating the ideological fractures experienced by invading forces throughout modern history.

‘Music and Clowns’, the launch of my graduate film from the Documentary Animation MA at the Royal College of Art

Music & Clowns (2018)

My brother, Jamie, has a profound learning disability. Despite being close to nonverbal he demonstrates charisma, a sharp sense of humour and incredible emotional sensitivity. I team up with my parents to discuss what it’s like caring for someone with Down syndrome. We piece together fragments of insight to gain a sense of his inner life but our differing perspectives reveal as much about our own subjectivity as they do Jamie’s.

The UK has a critical under representation of the ordinary and diverse lives of people with Down syndrome. As prenatal screening tests improve I feel an urgency to create rich and thoughtful portraits of the Down syndrome community, so people have more than a diagnosis to inform their decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy.

If you wish to watch the film please feel free to email me to request a password protected vimeo link -alexander.widdowosn[at]network.rca.ac.uk

Music & Clowns trailer: