‘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).

 

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.

 

Bibliography

Arnell, D. (producer) & Webb, T. (Director), (1992) A is for Autism [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Fine Take.

Aronowitsch, D. (co-producer/director) & Heilborn,. H (co-producer/director), (2003). Slaves: an Animated Documentary [Motion Picture] Sweden: Story AB.

Benner, A. (co-director), Borg, A. (co-director), Burditt, G. (co-director) (2014) Through the Hawthorn [Motion Picture]. London: Wellcome Trust.

Borg, P. (2014) THROUGH THE HAWTHORN [website]. Retrieved from http://piaborg.com

Bringas, S. (co-producer/co-director) & Yadin, O., (co-producer/co-director), (1998) Silence [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Halo Productions.

Broomfield, N. (producer/director), (1998). Kurt & Courtney [Motion Picture]. Capitol Films

Callam, C. (producer); Richards, C. (director) (2016) World Without Down Syndrome [one off television special]. Dragonfly Film and Television.

Child Care and Parenthood 4 [Television segment]. (1985, may 20). In Chapple, J. (series producer), Daytime on Two. London: BBC 2.

Cardinal, R., (1972). Outsider Art. London: Studio Vista

Carruth, A. (2013). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon. [review], MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 59(4), 847-849. doi: 10.1353/mfs.2013.0055

Ehrlich, N. (2013) Animated Documentaries: aesthetics, politics and viewer engagement. In S. Buchan (Ed.), Pervasive Animation (pp. 248-272) London & New York: Routledge.

Ehrlich, N. (2011, December 22). Animated Documentary as Masking [peer-reviewed open access online journal], Animation Studies Online Journal, Regrieved from https://journal.animationstudies.org/nea-ehrlich-animated-documentaries-as-masking/

Glynn, A. (Producer/director), (2012, June). Ali’s Story [Television series episode]. In Seeking Refuge. London: BBC 2.

Glynn, A. (Producer/director), (2012, June). Julianne’s Story [Television series episode]. In Seeking Refuge. London: BBC 2.

Fouman, A. (producer/director), (2008). Waltz with Bashir. Israil:Bridgit Folman Film Gang; France: Les Films d’Ici; Germany: Razor Film Produktion.

Heshmat. S., (2015, April 23) What Is Confirmation Bias? Wishful thinking. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias

Hoban, S. (co-producer); Mark Smith (co-producer); Marcy Page (co-producer) & C. Landreth, (director), (2004). Ryan [Motion Picture]. Canada: National Film Board.

Hodgson. J. (producer/director), (1997) Feeling My Way [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Hodgson Films.

Honess Roe, A. (2011). Absence, Excess and Epistemologica Expansion: Towards a Framework for the Study of Animated Documentary. Animation: an Interdisciplinary Journal, 6(3), 215-230, doi:10.1177/1746847711417854

Honess Roe, A. (2013). Animated Documentary, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kelsall, L. (producer) & Curtis, A. (director), Bitter Lake [Motion Picture], United Kingdom: BBC productions.

MacCay, W. (producer/director), (1918) Sinking of the Lusitania [Motion Picture]. United States: Jewel Productions.

Moore, S., (2014) Out of Sight: Using animation to document perceptual brain states [Doctoral thesis]. Retrieved at Loughborough University institutional repository (https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/2134/18020)

Nichols, B. (1991). Representing Reality, Bloomington: Indiana University Press,

Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary (1st ed.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to Documentary (2nd ed.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nixon, R. (2011). Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Reference Terms Cognitive Dissonance, (no date). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com

Sally Phillips’s film on Down’s is ‘unhelpful’ for families, warns antenatal specialist. (2016 October 2) The Guardian Online. Retrieved from

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/01/downs-syndrome-screening-jane–fisher-expert-criticises-sally-phillips-bbc-documentary

Strøm, G. (2003). The Animated Documentary. Animation Journal, 11. pp. 47-63

Tim Haines (co-director) & Jasper James (co-director), (1999). Walking with Dinosaurs [television series] (1999 October 4). Bristol: BBC Natural History Unit.

Tupicoff, D. (producer/director) (1997) Mother’s Voice [Motion Picture]. Australia: Australian Film Commission.

Traczyk, J., Sobkow, A., & Zaleskiewicz, T. (2015). Affect-Laden Imagery and Risk Taking: The Mediating Role of Stress and Risk Perception. PLoS ONE, 10(3), e0122226. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0122226

Walker Art Centre, (2017 October 12), Werner Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration . Minneapolis:Walker Art Center. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com

Ward, P. (2005). Documentary: The margins of reality. London: Wallflower.

Wason, P. (1960). On The Failure to Eliminate Hypotheses in a Conceptual Task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12(3), 129-140. doi:10.1080/17470216008416717.

Widdowson, A. (2011) Art: Redundant Term or Useful Category? BA dissertation, Loughborough University.

Widdowson, A. (producer/director), (2018). Music & Clowns [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Royal College of Art.

Widdowson, A. (producer/director), (2012). Patients [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Loughborough University.

 

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.

Manifestos in Action: Progression, Deviation and Lived Experience

Introduction:

This article has been developed to support a lecture/workshop hosted on 24th October 2017 at Concordia University, Department of Art History, for the class, Art and Its Changing Contexts: The Manifesto.

Despite the title only some of the examples mentioned in this essay are defined as manifestos. In order to make my argument I wish to also address methodologies and policies. Like a manifesto, they involve rules which are created with the intent of influencing behaviour in the future.

This article is split into three distinct sections. Firstly, the Hegelian Dialect will be unpacked to reveal how movements are connected despite their differences. Secondly, the disparity between the intent of an author and the real world application of a manifesto will be explored. As the poet Robert Burns wrote, ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men often go awry.” Finally, attention shifts towards autoethnography, a useful method for documenting the application of a manifesto. I will mostly be using documentary examples to illustrate my points but this article also touches on politics, economics, fine art and fiction cinema.

PART 1 –  The Hegelian Dialectic

A dialectic describes a discourse between two or more people who hold different points of view about a subject while wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments. The Hegelian Dialect, although associated with the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, was first attributed to Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus.

How it works: The dialectic is composed of stages of development. A thesis is proposed, a conceptual starting position. This gives rise to a reaction which forms into an antithesis. This position will either contradict or negate the thesis. If the tension between the thesis and antithesis resolved to produce a new position this would be a synthesis.

Using Chinese political history to demonstrate the Hegelian Dialectic:

Capitalism emerged in China in a way that was interlinked with the legacy of feudalism. There was a strong class structure which built on both heritage and personal wealth (thesis).  Marxist ideology spread to China leading to the formation of the Communist Party in 1921. They promoted the ideal of a classless society and criticized capitalism as a corrupting force (antithesis). In 1949 Mao Zedong led a successful revolution, establishing China as a communist state taking charge of all property and businesses. However, in the late 20th Century the impracticality of strict communist rule led to some Chinese citizens creating black markets. This led to small pockets of prosperity. In 2003 the leaders of the Communist Party of China amended their constitution to permit a degree of private enterprise. The result was a hybrid form of communist style capitalism (Synthesis).

Tracking the Hegelian Dialect in the methodologies and manifestos of documentary practice

It could be argued that documentary filmmaking developed as an antithesis to fiction film. While Hollywood produced forms of escapism, documentaries addressed “reality”.

John Grierson coined the term documentary, defining it as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’. This definition helps us understand the agency of a director when crafting a documentary. Mark Cousins placed emphasis on the balance between creativity and actuality when he characterized documentary filmmakers as having to ‘co-direct with reality’.

The Dogme 95 manifesto is an example of how the tension between hollywood fiction (thesis) and the realism of documentary (antithesis) was resolved to form a synthesis. In 1995 Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote and co-signed ‘vows of chastity’. Their goal was to purify fiction filmmaking by placing specific and strict limits on directors. Such chastity prompted circumstances that mirrored some of the limitations of documentary production and promoted a form of realism in fiction film. The Dogma group specifically rejected expensive and spectacular special effects, post-production modifications and other technological gimmickry. Instead they wanted emphasis to be placed on story and the performance of actors.

The Dogma 95 Vows of Chastity

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Only movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut, or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur).
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

Within documentary practice the pendulum swing from thesis to antithesis is visible. Bill Nichols, the eminent documentary theorist, identified distinct modes of documentary practice, each of which developed as a result of a particular time and context but also in response to previous modes. The majority of these modes developed without the explicit creation of manifestos, however each adear to distinct principles, rules or boundaries.

The table below is an overview of the modes of documentary practice according to Nichols:

The expository mode of documentary making (thesis) was developed in the 20s and remains to this day one of the more dominant modes. Optimised by what Nichols refers to as the ‘voice-of-God’ exposition, these films are structured around an informative and authoritative narrator who delivers a carefully written script over footage.

In the West a climate of liberation was fostered in the 1960s. In the context of social, political and sexual counterculture movements, figures of authority were being questioned. The two documentary modes which emerged in this decade, observational and participatory, represented a loss of faith in the authority of the narrator. In its place an emphasis fell on capturing footage that could speak for itself (antitheses). Another reason this shift happened at this time is because technology permitted it. All of a sudden cameras were portable, more affordable and were quiet enough to record synchronized sound.  

The observational mode, also known as fly-on-the-wall documentary, took influence from ethnography.  This is a qualitative research method used by anthropologists usually involving a process of embedding with a community for extended periods of time. Researchers aim to gain the trust of the community in order to get access and insight into how the community operates. An ethnographer may conduct their research in secret but generally this is not possible when creating a documentary. Ethnographic subjects range from small tribe communities, to psychiatric institutions and criminal gangs. The aspiration of observational documentarians is for the filmmaker to blend into the background and quietly film as the events unfold around them.

Asylum, directed by Peter Robinson (1972) was filmed over a period of 7 weeks while he was living at one of the controversial P.A. community houses in London. Psychiatrists, disillusioned with the medical establishment, lived with liberated patients, many of whom were schizophrenic. Each housemate had a say in the running of the community while sharing responsibility for their own wellbeing and that of their housemates.

In this clip we see a father of one resident visiting the house and struggling to let go of his preconception about what a young man’s priorities should be.

The Participatory Mode, also known as Cinéma Vérité (truth cinema), was characterised by the visible participation of the filmmakers in devised interview scenarios. Like the observational mode, narration was rejected. However, this mode occupied an antithetical position against observational documentary by negating the fly-on-the-wall metaphor. Several crew members and a camera can be quite disruptive and are more likely to capture spectacle rather than natural behaviour. Cinéma Vérité prompts filmmakers to be reflexive and expose the artificiality of a filmed scenario. Interviews were devised carefully before filming, often being planned in partnership with the subject of the interview. Cinéma Vérité nullifies the pretense of observed reality in film, instead capturing  authentic testimony.

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) is an epic Cinéma Vérité documentary series in which survivors of the Holocaust are interviewed. Despite the fact Abraham Bomba had not worked as a barber for years he agreed to cut hair while describing his experience of shaving the heads of holocaust victims before they were gassed. This scenario powerfully links the subject and the audience to the topic being discussed. Bomba’s complicity in planning the interview permitted Lanzmann to press Bomba with difficult questions.

15 years after Shoah, Werner Herzog wrote his own antithetical manifesto, The Minnesota Declaration (1999) which explicitly debunked Cinéma Vérité.

This lyrical 12 point manifesto is at times hard to digest but I believe it’s essence emerges in points 1 and 5.

“1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.”

Here Herzog is arguing that the sort of testimony produce in a Cinéma Vérité style interview is akin to that of a courtroom. No matter how accurate the description, the nature of these interviews are unlikely to evoke in the viewer the sensation of the crime that instigated such a trial.

“5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

Herzog’s concept of ecstatic truth mirrors the notion that poets provided some of the most authentic documentation of the horrors of the First World War.

The synthesis of this particular Hegelian Dialectic is the emerging practice of animated documentary, my own discipline. For the past two years the Royal College of Art has hosted a symposium on animated documentary entitled Ecstatic Truth. Herzog’s liberal definition of how actuality can be imbued in documentary has helped animators to cover topics which live action footage could not reach, either literally or in terms of evocation.  

PART 2 – The Rule of Unintended Consequences

Returning to the example of communism, I would like to highlight how impossible it would have been for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to predict how the Communist Manifesto would have been put into practice and the contemporary outcome.

After a violent revolution the Soviet Union gained some stability as a functioning communist state under Lenin. However Stalinism seemed far from a Marxist utopia. During the despotic leader’s reign a famine struck Ukraine killing 7 million citizens. Some historians argue this was a deliberate genocide designed by Stalin to crush ethnic uprisings.  After decades of decline, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 leaving a handful of technocrats to pillage the remains of infrastructure resulting in today’s Russian Federation which is controlled by a elite class of fantastically rich oligarchs.

 

The rule of unintended consequence is a common theme in economic theory. Economics isn’t necessarily the study of wealth. It can be the empirical study of behaviour in the world through data sets. Please follow this link and listen to The Cobra Effect, an episode of Freakonomics Radio: (Listen from 00:05:00)

In summary, the cobra effect is named after an instance when the Imperial British government, which was ruling India, created a bounty for cobra heads to incentivise a cull, Local people breed cobras for the bounty. When the government figured out their mistake they canceled the bounty and the farmers released the cobras into the wild. The net result by the time the policy was rescinded was an increase in the cobra population.

Manifestos function in similar ways to well meaning government policies. Whether written by a political party or a practicing artist, a published manifesto intends to shape behaviour in the future. It is impossible to predict how a well meaning manifesto policy may be interpreted or executed.

Adam Curtis’ documentary The Trap: The Lonely Robot, (2007) addresses the unintended consequences of the policies introduced by the New Labour government in Britain in 1997. This party rose to power on a manifesto that stated specific targets as measures of success.

Watch from 00:36:36 to 00:43:00

Curtis argues the rigid target systems introduced by New Labour were reductive and distorting, serving to distract the institutions of state from their general remit. The incentives were high enough to make cheating the system a rational response.

An unintended consequence of the critical acclaim that befell the early Dogma 95 films was the appropriation of the manifesto by cash strapped studios and advertising agencies. As the Danish group came into vogue, producers around the world took notice of how much success was achieved on such small budgets. By the early 2000s the Dogma label was used to describe all mannerr of small budget productions. This could be viewed as a measure of success for the manifesto, however the cynical appropriation of the Dogma ethos and distinctive aesthetic led to proliferation, dilution of its meaning and ultimate decline.

These examples demonstrate that misappropriation and misinterpretation can result in outcomes which may horrify the authors of a manifesto. However, I would argue the rule of unintended consequences can be re-framed to describe these deviations as creative. The farmers in India, managers in the British civil service and low budget film producers are simply innovating in response to circumstances that were defined by a set of rules. The unpredictability of how manifestos will be executed may explain why they have endured as a motif in art and cinema.

Andre Breton, the author of The Surrealist Manifesto, was aware of the potential of unexpected outcomes. The text willfully insights transgressive and impulsive behaviour. Breton is daring readers to do something irresponsible and unpredictable:

“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd with his belly at barrel-level.”

André Breton, (1924) Manifesto of Surrealism

Exquisite corpses is a surrealist drawing exercise designed to utilize the inconsistencies between interpretations. Two or more artists would fold a piece of paper, taking turns to draw on one section. The folded section would reveal nothing more than where to join the lines at the edge. This exercise stitches together a multitude of aesthetic approaches producing a single work that is both coherent and fractured.

Nude  (1927.)- Cadavre Exquis with Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky)

This method has been appropriated by the animation community many times. The most recent example I came across was a online promo for Rick and Morty. Each animator starts their segment using the last frame of the previous artist.

Rick and Morty Exquisite Corpse (2017) multiple directors

 

The musician and producer Brian Eno collaborated with the artist Peter Schmidt to develop a system that would prompt innovation by incorporating unpredictable elements into a creative exercise. Oblique Strategies consists of a deck of cards. Inscribed on each one is a phrase or cryptic remark. When a music he was producing felt stuck or inhibited he would randomly select a card and attempt to put into practice it’s suggestion. They functioned like micro manifestos, prompting the user to change their approach in a way that on their surface seems meaningless, but in practice was liberating in its unpredictability.

Examples of oblique strategies:

  • Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics
  • Take away the important parts
  • Faced with a choice, do both
  • Use an old idea
  • What is the reality of the situation?
  • Pay attention to distractions
  • Ask your body
  • Honour the error as a hidden intention
  • Work at a different speed

This tool functions  like a randomised manifesto, the blind selection of clauses plorifiates the variety of future outcomes and the vagueness of the content broadens its applicability and as well as potential for interpretation. The most famous application of Oblique Strategies was during the creation of David Bowie’s critically acclaimed albums known as the Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, and Lodger), which Eno produced.

 

PART 3- Documenting a manifesto’s execution

Ethnographers, like the fly-on-the-wall documentarians, were confronted with the dilemma that their presence was most likely distorting the natural order of the communities they wanted to research. Reflexivity, the notion of contextualising observations with critical self-awareness, became an essential consideration when collecting reach. The greater their insight into how they were impacting a community, the better equipped they were to minimise that impact and and see beyond it.

Autoethnography emerged as an extension of the reflexive method of critique. It combined ethnographic research methods with autobiographical subject matter. The researcher attempts to collect and organise qualitative research about their own lived experience, in this way the researcher, and the circumstances they experience, are both primary subjects of the investigation. For instance, an autoethnographic investigation into alcoholism is likely to contain first hand records of struggling with addiction.

Keeping diaries and writing memoirs is nothing new. However by setting key research questions, formulating a method of collecting and processing qualitative data, and prompting self reflexive critical analysis autoethnography brings rigour to this common human instinct.

Susan Young is a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. She had a very successful animation career that was severely disrupted by a hand injury as well as difficulties in her personal life. The Betrayal is a product of auto-ethnographic research into a period of her life where she was abusively controlled by a doctor who was responsible for her becoming addicted to medication. The images in the film include leftover pills, as well as medical and court documentary specific to her case.

The Betrayal – trailer (2015) Susan Young

Autoethnography can be a useful tool to record first hand experience of enacting a manifesto. The following passage is a brief given to students at Concordia as a class exercise:

PART 4 WORKSHOP – One-week manifesto exercise (for field notebooks)

You have 30 minutes to form groups and co-write a manifesto that will influence how you live or work in the following week. For example:

– You could write a manifesto on how to best exploit social media (or to not use social media!)

– Your manifesto may push you to work outside of your comfort zone in a particular way

– You could prompt significant changes in you social life

Your manifesto should involve:

– A theme or focus of intent agreed upon by the group

– Context for this decision

– A praxis or statement of action how to be agents in said context

– A list of undersigned

Breakdown:

This is a group activity so after deciding a theme you must debate and agree on your manifesto points as a group. Consensus may be difficult, and negotiation is part of the process.

Consider your manifesto ideas in context. What ideological, cultural or personal concepts inform your choices? Do they occupy a thesis, antithesis or synthesis dialectic position? If it is hard to reach a consensus on your manifesto points don’t forget each individual is free to interpret the manifesto through their own practices.

After you have agreed on your manifesto’s position and praxis, nominate one member of your group to read them out to the class.

For the next 6 days you must try to put your manifesto into action.

While doing so, use an auto-ethnographic methodology to document the experience. This must involve keeping a record of your experience in you field notebook, but feel free supplement your written notes with experimental, expressive, or innovative ways of recording experiences but you must insure remain reflexive. Documenting how a manifesto affects you (or not!) is part of this workshop.

You will have an opportunity discuss and share parts of your autoethnographic research in class.

London Animation Club – Documentary Animation Discourse

Part 1: Representing oneself in animated documentaries:

In 2008 I left a Art Practice BA at Goldsmith’s College in disgrace. Soon afterwards my shaky mental health deteriorated and I was sectioned for drug induced psychosis brought on by cannabis abuse.

This was profoundly traumatic because I was experiencing delusions and hallucinations, while being confined for a month in a psychiatric ward whose staff practiced forceful restraint and sedation when necessary.

From 2009 to 2012 I made many animated documentaries about these experiences during my BA in Fine Art at Loughborough University. Animation seemed to be the most useful tool for processing my difficult experiences. I thought of my BA as intensive art therapy, finding that each time I crafted a narrative based on what happened I forged a more navigable path through my memory.

 

In addition to psychosis I experienced hypomania, a mild form of mania, marked by elation and hyperactivity. This symptom, despite not being particularly destructive or traumatic, had a strong influence on one work in particular, Ultraviolent Junglist. While not being a documentary does capture the frenetic momentum of hypomania.

WARNING – NOT SUITABLE FOR THOSE WITH PHOTO SENSITIVE EPILEPSY

Ultraviolent Jungleist (2013)

Part 2: Representing identifiable subjects in animated documentaries:

Chris Landreth was awarded an Oscar in 2004 for his documentary animation. This was characterised by Landreth as a psycho-realistic portrait of Ryan Larkin, a fallen star of the National Film Board of Canada.

Ryan (2004) Chris Landreth

I’m interested in notions of caricature and its relevance to contemporary documentary animation practice. This mode of representation is traditionally regarded as derisive, yet it is still a reasonable description of how identifiable subjects in animated documentaries are represented.

Is it fair to see Chris Landreth’s approach to representing Ryan Larkin as a caricature?

Portrait: a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.

Caricature: a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.

If it is not the artist intention to be comic or grotesque is an image no longer a caricature? I would argue an audience has just as much right to make this judgement.

I found Ryan inspiring as an undergraduate. It essentially introduced me to animated documentary as a practice. Moreover I was drawn to the idea of ‘psycho-realism’. Since my teenage years I’d been expressing my own mixed feelings through illustrations, which contorted the male nude. I was struck with how Landreth was able to find such a convincing  practical use for this type of imagery.

Sad (2015)

sad-2

However, I-did-this-to-myself. Images, such as the one above, were all self-portraits, self-mutilations. Yes they were self-indulgent, but I was contorting my own image and not the face of someone I’d met, certainly not a vulnerable adult.

In contrast to the animated documentary, Ryan, the live action representation of Ryan Larkin and Chris Landreth in Alter Ego (d. Laurence Green, 2004) offers a more equal footing for the pair. Larkin is given a chance to respond to the animated film in this ‘making-of’ documentary.

Alter Ego (2004) d. Laurence Green (Start watching at 0:45:21)

Larking states:

  • “I’m not very fond of my skeleton image”
  • “It’s always easy to represent grotesque versions of reality”
  • “I wish I could change that script”
  • “I’m very nervous about being scrutinised so tightly. I just want out of this picture”

Landreth’s vision, no matter how honourable, failed to produce something that Larkin was comfortable with upon completion.

What Chris Landreth calls “psycho-realism” is also a useful term to describe Francis Bacon’s search for a raw truth in his portraiture practice. The key difference between Bacon and Landreth is that the painter acknowledges, to a degree, the inherent violence in the process of disfiguring his subject.

Francis Bacon – Fragments of a Portrait (1966) d. Michael Gill (Start watching at 0:02:29)

A significant issue with Ryan, made evident in Alter Egos, is that Landreth and Larkin seem to barely know each other. We get a sense that they’d only met a handful of times. If Ryan Larkin was offered more involvement in the film’s creation would he have felt more comfortable with how he was represented? Would Chris Landreth’s vision for the film been compromised or augmented by allowing Ryan to influence the way he was depicted?

Alter Ego only shows the moments immediately after Larkin first saw the film. I was recently informed by Shelly Page, Head of International Outreach at Dreamworks and a friend to Landreth, that Chris was still proud of film. Ryan after his initial reluctance grew to appreciate the film. It drew attention to him as an artist and reinvigorated his animation career before his death in 2007.

Christoph Steger has an incredible track record for forming trusting and collaborative relationships with the subjects of his animated documentaries. In Jeffery and the Dinosaurs, the negotiation is clear, Jeffery Marzi is offering Steger access for his low budget documentary in order to gain exposure for his screen plays.

Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007) d. Christoph Steger

Marzi shares his story in a relaxed and candid manner, occasionally punctuated by Steger’s modest questioning. We are given the impression of a relationship built on sensitivity and mutual respect.

Marzi’s spoken biography reveals a universal story of concern for the future, however the strange inversion of the conventional narrative of frustration and aspiration is revealing. While most of us might dream of Hollywood success, Marzi engages with that goal as part of the daily grind. Meanwhile his limitations led him to covert the reliable role of mechanic and postal worker.

I was interested in Steger’s choice to include a scene where Marzi expresses a clear misconception; the idea that J. K. Rowling’s literary success lifted her out of homelessness. Steger did not correct Jeffrey or omit the moment from the film. A director has a moral obligation to represent this subject without turning the documentary into a freak show or social pornography. Although the fear of homelessness is the driving force behind Marzi’s work, and therefore crucial to the narrative, he might have had other footage that captured this anxiety without exposing or exploiting Marzi’s naïveté.

It is possible that Steger saw the moment as crucial to the film. It feels like an honest expression of anxiety and an important moment to help audiences understand Marzi’s perspective and vulnerability. Steger may have felt it dishonest to shy away from moments like this. Would it have been patronising to omit the scene for fear of embarrassing him?

When Steger discusses the project you get a strong sense of the collaborative relationship: “I like life, and animation is almost the opposite, it’s all about fantasy. So I felt a relief to be able to have Jeffery take care of all that. He does all the imaginary work of the visuals and it’s down to me to bring them to life…. The real film for me and the artistic challenge is in the structure of the poetry, and trying to bring out those poetic moments of a story like Jeffery’s.”

 

escapology

I worked with Nick Mercer, an addiction therapist and former addict, in Escapology: The Art of Addiction (2016).

Despite the promise of anonymity while producing the film, Nick was proud of what we produce together and insisted on being listed in the credits.

nick_mercer

I believe our smooth working relationship is connected to the fact that Nick and I had grown to trust one another well in advance of me making this film. In 2013 Mercer was my psychotherapist. It was a strange inversion asking him to expose his personal experiences. That therapeutic relationship lay the foundation for a trusting filmmaker/subject relationship. He’d seen my previous films and fully believed the idea of using animation to expand on his wise words.

I essentially reduced Nick down to a caricature, although the desired effect was neither comic or grotesque. I drew him many times without using photographic reference to distill my image down to a few lines.  Here are some early character designs:

While I send Nick early animatics he had no desire to suggest changes. He saw my allegorical interpretations of his words as part of a 50/50 partnership to the film’s content.

My own experiences struggling with cannabis addiction as a teenager both motivated me to make this film and helped me empathise with Nick’s experience.

Part 3: Representing anonymous subjects in animated documentaries:

Lawrence Thomas Martinelli (2015) identified six motivations for creating contemporary animated documentaries: 

  • To integrate meta-material to visualise what is known but cannot be shown
  • To manifest subjectivity
  • To impress a particular point of view
  • To convey emotion beyond the facts documented
  • To give aesthetic stylistic expressive print to the work.
  • To hide or camouflage part of the authentic footage

Camouflaging part of the authentic footage often manifests as characterd design to protect the identity of the subject providing testimony.

I became interested in how notions of caricature could relate to animated documentaries in which the subjects were not identifiable in any way other than through their membership of a minority group.

My interest in this topic arose during the creation of Very Angry (2016), a fiction short about alcohol addiction produced at the Royal College of Art for the embodying voice workshop.

Very Angry (2016)

In essence I created a West-Indian character but as a middle class, white, strait, male I struggled with notions of authenticity when a representing a race that was not my own. You can read more about my moral floundering here. This experience inspired me to examine other animated documentary films in my critical work, where representations of race or nationality were central to the content.

I felt very differently  about the four examples I chose and admittedly this was partly to do with my subjective enjoyment of each animated documentary. However, I was convinced that part of my suspicious interpretations of these four examples had its roots in the tension created by the strategies employed by the teams of privileged white artist controlling the representation of another race for an equally privileged western audience.

I met with Ramsey Hassan, the comic artist and writer, who wrote Zorse (2015) – a semi-biographical story of a young asylum seeker moving to London and joining a predominantly middle class white school.

zorse_ramsey_husain

We first discussed our interpretations of the following two films, both of which use character designs to anonymise the subject of the film but allow the audience to identify their race:

Please Don’t Let Go (2012) Andy Glynn/Mummu Studios

Slaves: an Animated Documentary (2003) David Aronowitsch and Hanna Heilborn

In summary we concluded that Slaves seemed to be the most ethically robust film for the following reasons:

  • The film acknowledges it’s own reflexivity, i.e. the makers and the mechanisms used to create this film are thematically part of the film’s content. This demonstrates an understanding of the circular relationship in which the filmmakers and their subjects actions and differing perspectives may affect one another.
  • There was a deliberate attempt to avoid mimetic colour pallet. As a result the characters skin colour didn’t fit into a conventional visual language.
  • The character designs indicate that the aesthetic traditions of sub Saharan sculpture and mask making seemed to inform the design of the black characters. While these influence don’t directly like to a Sudanese aesthetic traditions, this gesture pushes the contextual frame work of the film in the direction of self representation.
  • The three Sudanese characters look distinct from one an other.
In contrast we saw Please Don’t Let Go as more problematic:
  • Please Don’t Let Go features testimony from a courageous girl who jumped from a moving lorry into the arms of her mother, who she’d been separated from. The character design and After Effects puppetry make the girl seem a flimsy and weak.
  • The girl’s mouth doesn’t ever close during the film. This unusual feature strongly contrasts the dignity present in her testimony.
  • Ramsey identified the bulging eye as problematic…. Between us we concluded that, while the character design in Slaves were rooted in an Sub-Saharan aesthetic tradition, the character designs in Seeking Refuge: Please Don’t Let Go, had a stronger connection to historic representations of black people created by white people.
  • While we acknowledge that it was the intention of the film makers to be entirely supportive and earnest, we suspected they may have been unconsciously informed by unfavorable cultural and historical discourses when creating their character designs.

Ramsey and I then discussed two animated documentaries in which anthropomorphism was used. To varying degree, both the subject’s identity and race were anonymised.

It’s Like That (2003) Southern Ladies Animation Group (S.L.A.G.)

https://vimeo.com/89827782 (Please follow the link)

Creature Comforts (1989) Nick Park

Ramsey and I spent a long time debating It’s Like That and Creature Comforts. We concluded:

  • The Southern Ladies Animation Group chose to navigate around the complex ethical issues of representation and identity by anthropomorphising the child refugees.  Unlike most films about asylum seekers, their race and nationality were not shared. Presumably to ensure that the audience connect to their narratives on a purely humanist level.
  • Ramsey suggested the symbolism of a ‘caged bird’, was a little shallow because it related to the broader context of the detained refugees and was  not specific to the individual characters.
  • In Creature Comforts each anthropomorphised character and the context in which they were presented are treated separately. They are carefully designed to build links to the human voices they are embodying.
  • In some instances there are tangible links between the nationality of the speaker and the species of animal they were assigned. For instance: the Brazilian man is represented as a big cat (possibly a panther), native to his homeland. Beyond his nationality, the nature of the character design also reflects the man’s interest in meat and his frustration with living standards int he UK.
  • The three children in It’s like That are all birds and it is easy to perceive their characters interchangeable, despite attempts to differentiate through scale and colour coding. This is made more difficult as there are a number of animation directors working in different media.
  • Ramsey argued by never revealing the race or nationality of the subjects in this film you are taking away part of their identity. He compared it to the well meaning privileged liberal left slogan ‘I don’t see race’. He argued that by trying to ignore a cultural context as important as race or nationality you are limiting your own ability to better understand someone and stripping them of their culture.

Part 4: Animated Documentary and Education

Royal College of Art: Documentary Animation MA

Last year the  Royal College of Art launched a new MA pathway in Documentary Animation. I am on the inaugural year of the course. This is a project I created at the RCA in the first semester.

Performance (2016)

Currently I am developing my first year film for a brief created in partnership with the Wellcome library. I am working closely with the Philadelphia Association, for whom I am artist-in-residence, to create a documentary about their history and the PA Community Houses, places of refuge for those in mental distress. They aim to offer the true meaning of asylum. The following is a very early animation test:

Foam hand test 01 (2017)

To celebrate the launch of the new pathway in the summer of 2016 the RCA hosted the Ecstatic Truth symposium.

ecstatic_truth_portraits_panel_1

Birgitta Hosea, the animation MA programme leader, has recently announced a call for papers for the second Ecstatic Truth conference.

The ANIDOX:LAB at the Animation Workshop, Viborg, Denmark

Denmark’s Animation Workshop also offers a documentary specific animation course called The AniDox:Lab, which I completed in 2015. We were taught by Uri and Michelle Karnot, in addition to a host of guest lecturers such as recent LAC speaker Paul Bush.

Pigs is a story about two teenage witnesses who describe the day they saw three officers of the law perform an unexplained act of surreal depravity in broad daylight. Fred and Dom, the narrators, are ambitious young comic artists who seek out real adventure as inspiration for their practice.

Pigs: Pitch Trailer (2015)

This film was a disaster, never work with teenagers. These two fantastic liars convinced at least half a room full of adults that their story was true. I hoped to work collaboratively with them but  having never confronted them directly we were forced to communicate as if their story was completely factual. Eventually they must have got sic of the deception and stopped replying to my emails long before I was able to get to know them well enough to encourage a confession.

Martina Scarpelli was also in my year group and went on to win the AniDox:Residency. A year long funded programme at the Animation Workshop in Viborg. Her project addressed personal experiences when struggling with Anorexia. The film is in production now and I’m very excited to see the final result.

Egg: teaser (2015) Martina Scarpelli

To close I would like to end with a film I made in 2014 after visiting Malawi. It’s called Hours and Hours of Footage of Two Giraffes…

‘Performance’: 20 minute single shot illustrated film & an 8 minute edited sequence

8 minute edited film:

20 minute unedited single shot version:

The focus of my semester’s output, from the elective ‘What’s Up Doc?’, was a 20 minute film called ‘Performance‘. This film focuses on moments of sexual dysfunction and what those fractures reveal about our performed gender roles.

Performance consists of three separate interviews conducted over a period of 2 months in late 2016.  Lakis is a cis male therapist with the Philadelphia Association, a Psychotherapy organisation. Tessa is a cis female documentary film maker who identifies as a lesbian, and Dot is a transgender woman and former radio presenter, who sometimes occupies both a masculine and feminine gender roles. I am a heterosexual cis male.

studio-space

Production:

From the 7th – 12th December I booked the large stop-motion studio at the RCA. I filled the space with a channel of drawings which were mimetic, symbolic and at times abstract. These images create a time line which matches a 20 minute audio edit. Using a Sony A7 camera with a 50mm lens, I filmed the illustrations in a single tracking shot, in-time with the audio. By the end of the week had time to create 4 takes.

I was drawn to the word ‘Performance‘ because of how many of it’s meanings proved relevant to the content and construction of the film. The content was very much about sexual performance and how our gender roles are to an extent constructed and displayed. I also liked the performative aspect of creating an ambitious instillation and 20 minute film in a week. Finally the manor in which the footage I captured, a single shot brimming with imperfections as well as moments of artful execution, was in it’s self the most tangible aspect of performance.

Unfortunately the most consistent negative feedback from my class and tutors was that Performance was too long. In addition to this the timing of a live camera performance could never match a carefully edited sequence. I cut the film down to 8.38 minutes, while this erodes at least one of the conceptual layers of the film, the final outcome is stronger.

Contextual Research:

I’ve recently realised that, in addition to the workshop with Bunny Schendler, the method I’ve developed for this film strongly references Paul Bush‘s scratch films. I’ve been following Bush’s career since 2006 when we first met. It was my great privilege to be taught by him on the AniDox:Lab in Copenhagen in 2015.  To my surprise, when he presented at the London Animation Club in October 2016, he screened what he described as his “break out film”, a short that I’d never heard of.

His Comedy, (1994), 8 mins, 35mm, colour, Dolby Stereo.

Bush used a celluloid film camera to pan across the detailed illustrations in Gustav Dore’s etchings of Dante’s The Devin Comedy. This footage was then scratched into directly by Bush cell by cell, producing a jostling line-boil which brings these inanimate illustrations to life.

‘The poet Dante is taken by Virgil through the gates of the city of desolation and into the centre of hell. What he sees is not simply an apocalyptic vision of the punishment that awaits sinners after death but also the very real horrors committed by human hands on earth.’ (PaulBushFilms.com)

inferno14
‘Inferno’, Gustav Dore’s etchings of Dante’s ‘The Devin Comedy’

Paul Bush’s film demonstrates that we share a fascination with intricate narrative compositions, common in Flemish renaissance painting.

noahs_ark_on_mount_ararat_by_simon_de_myle
Simon de Myle’s Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat

I have noticed dense compositions have become more popular in contemporary illustration. I believe this traces back to Keith Harring’s influence via the mainstream fine art world and the legacy of the New York Street Art scene. I am particularly interested in interlocking imagery with inconsistent perspective fields. Harring’s work focuses heavily on silhouetted design and bold mark making. While I have a tendency to shift into three dimensional space I hope to adopt a similar sense of cohesion in my drawings.

kwongchi_pop3
© Keith Haring Foundation Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi | © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York

The Paper Cinema have been a huge influence on my decision to animate static drawings using camera moment. While they use a complex set up of static cameras capturing moving 2D drawigs, their adaption of the Odyssey inspired me to break out of the 3 minute animation format. By being less precious about my method I was able to produce 20 minutes of footage in an afternoon after one week of drawing and 2 months of development.

paper_cinema_kit_01

Nic Rawling, artistic director of The Paper Cinema, came to visit the RCA and offered creative consultation on my film. We replicated Bunny Schendler and Sylvie Bringas’ drawing workshop (described in more detail here), knocking out spontaneous illustrations in time with the pre-edited interview soundtrack.  Nic created a fantastic illustration of a lit match and a it’s shrivelled, post-combustion state. This seemed like a poignant metaphor for male potency, how one moment a man can feel virile and powerful and the next, pending the loss of an erection, they could feel useless.

nic_match_01

Colour Palette:

In the past year I have developed an inverted colour technique using Pentel Sign pens. I initially started this work as part of a proposal for the 2016 AniDox Residency. The idea was based on Irene Liverani‘s PhD research into the Genova G8 political violence in 2001.

I then produced a music video for Autoheart using the same method in animation, this time working without photographic reference.

For Performance I attempted to colour code each character to help differentiate their presence in the shifting interviews. In order to plan this I had to use an inverted spectrum key.

colour_skeme

I am particularly drawn to this method because it can breathe life into quite flat drawings. The vibrancy of this sudo-neon pallet is highly appealing to me.

performance_inverstion_before_after_01

Conclusions and future outcomes:

From the feedback I’ve heard so far, a common criticism is that this work would make a strong podcast but a weak film. It is difficult to engage an audience for 20 minutes with a single screen. The first solution is to scrap the visuals, polish the audio and submit the edit to a podcast production company such as WBEZ, the producers of This American Life, or Falling Tree productions, an award winning British radio production company.

I will create a gallery instilation in Febuary 2017.  The ‘Performance‘ drawings will be hung and light with black lamp in the Courtyard 1 Gallery at the Royal College of Art. I hope to have a one off projected screening during the private view, but for the rest of the week I will set up separate screens around the gallery. These will be synced to the 20 minute audio loop, each screen showing one of the 4 takes I recorded with the Sony A7 camera. While the individual screens won’t match exactly, the timing of each will correlate to the soundtrack. Performance lends itself to a more transient audience who can pass through the space, drifting in and out of the prescriptive screen narratives and the jumbled wall mounted drawings.

There is potential to make a concise edit of the current footage I’ve captured. From the four takes I should have decent shots of each section, some of which will be lost for good. The Matador and trampoline scenes stood out as featuring noticeably successful metaphorical content. I hope to slice up the sequences and pull together the best components with the hope that I’m not loosing anything by choosing to edit what was meant to be a single shot performance.

Finally, I must decide weather or not any of the content gathered in this project so far deserves to be pulled forward into my next animated short. The 2016-18 Documentary Animation MA class will be working with the Wellcome Collection Library to create a film that takes influence from the institution’s collection to encourage audiences to ‘think about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art’. In many ways sexual dysfunction is an ideal subject for this brief, however if I keep the project so focused on my personal experiences I might make a film that doesn’t fully take advantage of what the Wellcome Library has to offer.

The Fallacy of Objectivity and Ethics of Representation

The Fallacy of Objectivity:

Animated documentary has existed as a mode since 1918. Winsor McCay was commissioned by the US government to create an animated reconstruction of the sinking of the Lusitania, a commercial ship carrying American citizens that was sunk by a German U-Boat during the First World War. The film was used to help sway popular opinion regarding America joining the European conflict.

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) d. Windsor McCay (Start watching at 0:08:28)

In the absence of footage Animation seemed like the only appropriate medium to represent the horrific events. Crucially, the persuasive nature of the medium was understood by its commissioners. What McCay made was essentially propaganda.

Documentary as a discipline would not be popularised for another 4 years when Robert J. Flaherty created the first feature documentary, Nanook of the North (1922). It captured the imaginations of the cinema going public and forged a genre.

Nanook of the North (1922) d. Robert J. Flaherty (Start watching at 0:31:21)

The common language of narrative cinema is evident in this film. There is a continuity of storytelling which, to Flaherty, is more important than the accurate recording of events. Many of the scenes were artfully edited or even staged to create a clear story. Years after this film was released it was revealed that the star of the documentary was not called Nanook, nor was that his family portrayed in the film. Nonetheless a genre and a new set of ethical considerations were born.

Mark Cousins characterised the genre of documentary film making as a practice in which one must ‘co-direct with reality’ (The Story of Film: An Odyssey, 2011, Channel 4, Ep. 2 The Hollywood Dream). This shared control is crucial for understanding the paradoxical position of documentary director. They are both afforded the role of ‘agent of truth’ and ‘master manipulator’ attracting similar criticisms as journalists. They are accused of twisting words or taking them out of context, while simultaneously audiences offer little thought about the trust they place in the medium as a record of immutable facts.

Sheila Sofian wrote an extraordinarily concise article on this topic in relation to animated documentary: The Camera and “Structuring Reality” (2013). Forgive me for quoting almost the entire piece, but who am I to paraphrase such eloquence:

…Michael Cieply, [while] discussing documentary filmmaking as compared to traditional journalism… made the following statement: “The camera is a tool to structure reality, not report a reality.”

I remember giving a lecture in which a student in the audience claimed that live action photography presented a “real” depiction of events, and animation could not replicate reality in a convincing manner. I agree that animation cannot replicate the effect of live action photography. What bothers me is this misconception of live action presenting a “truth”, or… a “window to reality.” (Annabelle Honess Roe)

…[D]ocumentary filmmakers shoot hundreds of hours of footage and carefully select the few minutes they choose to include in their film. All documentary filmmakers understand that you can manipulate footage, editing, relationships of picture to audio, and a myriad of other cinematic techniques to match the point of view you hope to present. And yet, audiences often forget how manipulated they are when absorbing the information presented to them in a seamless fashion. There is still a pervasive idea that live action documentary is “real” and therefore animation cannot be an accurate depiction of reality. My argument has always been that live action cinema can be manipulative and often misconstrues what it claims is “reality”, whereas in animation it is actually more clear in that what is presented on the screen is constructed by the filmmaker… Live action documentary can create a false construction of events that the audience assumes is true.

I met the producers of “Spellbound”… The film follows several contestants preparing for a spelling bee competition… I found it interesting that they admitted they did not originally shoot any footage of the spelling bee winner preparing for the competition, so they went back and shot additional material, which ultimately appeared to portray the contestant training for the spelling bee.

This is only one example of how live action documentary can misdirect the audience. Of course, both live action [and] animated documentaries can be misleading. In my Documentary Animation Production class at USC I stress how important it is to present the content in the manner in which the subject intended. We discuss the ethics of documentary filmmaking and how easy it is to manipulate material. It is ultimately up to the integrity of the filmmaker when it comes to honouring the subjects’ intent.

Erik Gandini, director of The Swedish Theory of Love (2015) and Videocracy (2009), said in a lecture that any director who believes they can make an objective documentary is deluded. Every film is subjective so you may as well embrace it. After all, mocumentaries have demonstrated that the fly-on-the-wall, observational mode of documentary making is just another aesthetic.

The Ethics of Representation:

Sheila Sofian’s notion that a director has a responsibility to honour their subject’s intentions is worth considering with regards to the Oscar winning animated documentary Ryan (2004). The short illustrates an interview that took place between the film’s director, Chris Landreth, and Ryan Larkin, a fallen star of the National Film Board of Canada. Landreth adopts an aesthetic methodology which he calls ‘psycho-realism’, a mode of pictorially expressing the psychological state of those represented.

Ryan (2004) d. Chris Landreth

I found Ryan inspiring as an undergraduate. It essentially introduced me to animated documentary as a practice. Moreover I was drawn to the idea of psycho-realism. Since my teenage years I’d been expressing my own mixed feelings through illustrations, which contorted the male nude. I was struck with how Landreth was able to find such a convincing  practical use for this type of imagery. Personally I doubted that my psycho-realistic work was self-indulgent.

art-is-therapy

However, I-did-this-to-myself. Images, such as the one above, were all self-portraits, self-mutilations. Yes they were self-indulgent, but I was contorting my own image and not the face of someone I’d met, certainly not a vulnerable adult.

In contrast to the animated documentary, Ryan, the live action representation of Ryan Larkin and Chris Landreth in Alter Ego (d. Laurence Green, 2004) offers a more equal footing for the pair. Larkin is given a chance to respond to the animated film in this ‘making-of’ documentary.

Alter Ego (2004) d. Laurence Green (Start watching at 0:45:21)

Larking states:

  • “I’m not very fond of my skeleton image”
  • “It’s always easy to represent grotesque versions of reality”
  • “I wish I could change that script”
  • “I’m very nervous about being scrutinised so tightly. I just want out of this picture”

Landreth’s vision, no matter how honourable, failed to produce something that Larkin was comfortable with upon completion.  However, Alter Ego only shows the moments immediately after Larkin first saw the film. I’m not aware if Ryan grew to love the film or if Chris grew to hate it. It’s been 12 years so both outcomes are possible.

What Chris Landreth calls “psycho-realism” is also a useful term to describe Francis Bacon’s search for a raw truth in his portraiture practice. The key difference between Bacon and Landreth is that the painter acknowledges, to a degree, the inherent violence in the process of disfiguring his subject.

Francis Bacon – Fragments of a Portrait (1966) d. Michael Gill (Start watching at 0:02:29)

Participatory Film making:

A significant issue with Ryan, made evident in Alter Egos, is that Landreth and Larkin seem to barely know each other. We get a sense that they’d only met a handful of times. If Ryan Larkin was offered more involvement in the film’s creation would he have felt more comfortable with how he was represented? Would Chris Landreth’s vision for the film been compromised or augmented by allowing Ryan to influence the way he was depicted?

Christoph Steger has an incredible track record for forming trusting and collaborative relationships with the subjects of his animated documentaries. In Jeffery and the Dinosaurs, the negotiation is clear, Jeffery Marzi is offering Steger access for his low budget documentary in order to gain exposure for his screen plays.

Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007) d. Christoph Steger

Marzi shares his story in a relaxed and candid manner, occasionally punctuated by Steger’s modest questioning. We are given the impression of a relationship built on sensitivity and mutual respect.

Marzi’s spoken biography reveals a universal story of concern for the future, however the strange inversion of the conventional narrative of frustration and aspiration is revealing. While most of us might dream of Hollywood success, Marzi engages with that goal as part of the daily grind. Meanwhile his limitations led him to covert the reliable blue-collar role of mechanic and postal worker.

I was interested in Steger’s choice to include a scene where Marzi expresses a clear misconception; the idea that J. K. Rowling’s literary success lifted her out of homelessness. Steger did not correct Jeffrey or omit the moment from the film. A director has a moral obligation to represent this subject without turning the documentary into a freak show or social pornography. Although the fear of homelessness is the driving force behind Marzi’s work, and therefore crucial to the narrative, he might have had other footage that captured this anxiety without exposing Marzi’s naïveté.

It is possible that Steger saw the moment as crucial to the film. It feels like an honest expression of anxiety and an important moment to help audiences understand Marzi’s perspective and vulnerability. Steger may have felt it dishonest to shy away from moments like this. Would it have been patronising to omit the scene for fear of embarrassing him?

When Steger discusses the project you get a strong sense of the collaborative relationship: “I like life, and animation is almost the opposite, it’s all about fantasy. So I felt a relief to be able to have Jeffery take care of all that. He does all the imaginary work of the visuals and it’s down to me to bring them to life…. The real film for me and the artistic challenge is in the structure of the poetry, and trying to bring out those poetic moments of a story like Jeffery’s.”

Collaborative Documentary Animation:

Samantha Moore’s PhD research focused on the use of animation to record and communicate neurological phenomena such as phantom limb syndrome or, in the case of Eye Full of Sound (2008), audio-visual synesthesia. She developed a methodology for film that involved close consultation with the subjects of the film. Each participant listened to a audio score, designed by Adam Goddard, and then described in detail the visual sensations it induced. Crucially, Moore provided a process of review after each animation test. The subsequent process of small adjustments improved the accuracy and authority of the film as a representation of extreme experiences of subjectivity.

Eye full of Sound (2008) d. Samantha Moore

Experimental Documentary forms:

There is a strong thematic connection between Eye Full of Sound and Jonathan Hodgson’s incredible experimental documentary Feeling My Way (1997). Hodgson superimposes the conscious activity of his mind’s-eye over point-of-view video footage of his walk to work.

Feeling My Way (1997) d. Jonathan Hodgson

As with an Eye Full of Sound, Feeling My Way is a record of a extreme form of subjectivity. This film demonstrates the value of animation as a tool to express and understand ones own perspective of the world. The audience is struck by both the similarities and differences in the way our brains work compared to Hodgson’s.

The first animated documentary films I made were explicitly about my own traumatic experiences struggling with mental illness. This process was invaluable for me to understand how it felt to be represented and exposed on screen. This week I returned from the Au Contraire Mental Health Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. While there I met Katie Frances Orr, a talented film maker and choreographer, who was screening what she referred to as an ‘experimental documentary’. Her film demonstrates perfectly just how open the borders are in the shifting discourse of documentary.

Coward (2015) Katie Frances Orr

Animation is too time consuming, labor intensive and expensive to justify making a film that could be just as effective using live action. Animation needs to be essential for it to exist. Animated documentary has persisted as a method to fill the gaps in mainstream documentary practice:

  • maintaining a subjects anonymity
  • substituting missing footage
  • creating images which don’t exist outside of the subject’s consciousness

However this is only the starting point. Animation is truly a limitless medium, capable of extraordinary feats of innovation, insightful expression and precise visual communication. A documentary director cannot merely trust that the camera will provide truth, this must be crafted. The authenticity of an animated documentary must come from the integrity and sensitivity of the artist. The increased agency afforded to a documentary animator means they are simultaneously more transparent about how they manipulate an audience and more accountable for their chosen methods of representation. Co-directing animation with reality is a nuanced but rewarding process.

Notes:

This post was developed for a lecture that will be given at the University of Western England in Bristol on the 2nd November 2016.

Links:

Sheila Sofian (2013) The Camera and “Structuring Reality”, Animation Studies 2.0, weblog URL: https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=159

Christoph Steger discussing Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007), Animate Projects, URL website and video link: http://www.animateprojects.org/films/by_date/films_2008/jeff_dino

 

Cinéma-Vérité

A shift in the conventions of documentary making took place in the 1960’s. In terms of technology, the televisual image has become ubiquitous, cameras were now portable and could easily sync picture/sound. With regards to western culture, the golden years of consumerism and mass media following the Second World War, prove to be a fertile bed for huge social shifts which would take hold in the 60’s; the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the counter culture movement, the cold war and anti-Vietnam war protests, to name a few. This plethora of perspectives demanded a mode of representation which disregarded the singular, authoritative, expository voice. There was a gap in the market for a mode of non-fiction film that wasn’t interchangeable with the advertising or propaganda of the day.

bill_nichols_documentary_modes

It is reductive to think of the modes, which Bill Nichols identified, developing in a completely linear fashion (2001). A period of innovation in the UK took place under the guidance of John Grierson, who coined the term ‘documentary’ in a review of Monna by Robert Flaherty. Grierson, who was put in charge of, the state funded, Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, was awarded remarkable levels of editorial freedom. Flaherty was hired by Greirson in the 1931 to create Industrial Britain, a filmic survey of the industrial power of the United Kingdom. It’s quite amazing to see how abstract and poetic the aesthetic becomes at points.

Housing Problems (d. Arthur Elton, 1935) Is a very early example of the observational mode of documentary making. Tenants in the UK housing slums were interviewed in their crumbling dwellings. Unusually for it’s time the director provided the opportunity for the subjects of the film to speak their mind on camera. While these interviews are book-ended by the expository voice of authority, it was non-the-less rare to hear anything other than received English in the media at that time.

The film strikes at the conscience of the British viewing public. An interesting footnote to this innovation is that the film was commissioned by a commercial organisation which built alternative housing and would directly benefit from the slums being demolished. Is the moral mission behind this film compromised when it is understood to also be propaganda, shrewdly designed to shift public opinion and aid political lobbying for commercial gain? In my view, yes. I would argue in order to understand the ethical components in the film one must consider who will benefit and how such intensives influence a director’s editorial freedom. The film is not completely undermined, but this information certainly tarnishes the moral clarity of Arthur Elton’s film.

Lonely Boy (1962), is a National Film Board ‘candid cinema’ documentary about the former teen sensation and Canadian Elvis rival, Paul Anka. The unusual thing about this film is the emotional distance the film makers demonstrate from their subject of study. Rather than Anka, the documentary examines his fanatical fans. I was left with the feeling that the directors, Kroitor and Koenig, demonstrated little empathy for the screaming teenagers, instead they looking on through a cool ethnographic lens.

Lonely Boy (1962), Co-d. Roman Kroitor & Wolf Koenig (Start watching at 00:19:04)

Cinéma vérité… combines improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality.

It is sometimes called observational cinema, if understood as pure direct cinema: mainly without a narrator’s voice-over. There are subtle, yet important, differences among terms expressing similar concepts. Direct Cinema is largely concerned with the recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera’s presence: operating within what Bill Nichols… calls the “observational mode”, a fly on the wall. Many therefore see a paradox in drawing attention away from the presence of the camera and simultaneously interfering in the reality it registers when attempting to discover a cinematic truth.

Cinéma vérité can involve stylized set-ups and the interaction between the filmmaker and the subject, even to the point of provocation. Some argue that the obvious presence of the filmmaker and camera was seen by most cinéma vérité filmmakers as the best way to reveal the truth in cinema. The camera is always acknowledged, for it performs the raw act of filming real objects, people, and events in a confrontational way. The filmmaker’s intention was to represent the truth in what he or she was seeing as objectively as possible, freeing people from any deceptions in how those aspects of life were formerly presented to them. From this perspective, the filmmaker should be the catalyst of a situation. Few agree on the meanings of these terms, even the filmmakers whose films are being described.

(Wikipedia article, 2016, multiple authors)

The director of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann (1985), devised a barber scene with Abraham Bomba, the subject. Bomba hadn’t cut hair in years but understood and agreed to the context of the interview because, presumably, he believed in Lanzmann’s mission to document the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Shoah (1985) d. Claude Lanzmann

The crucial and defining moment in this interview takes place from 00:12:40 onward. Lanzmann pushes Bomba to talk about his friends and neighbors whose hair he cut while fully aware of their impending mass execution. We see Bomaba start to choke up but Lanzmann persists. This forcefulness is some how permissible in a scenario where the subject of the film has previously helped construct the scene. Prearrange consent afforded the director enormous freedom to challenge his subject. He does this in a way which would be inappropriate were the artifice less collaborative. The tangible presence of the camera and director transforms the interview into a interrogation.

Louis Theroux’s My Scientology (d. John Dower, 2016) is, at it’s heart, a exercise in Cinéma-Vérité. Because Theroux had such difficulty accessing the active Scientology community he could only rely on the testimony of former members who had renounced the religion as a dangerous cult. Much of the film focused on insights provided by Mark “Marty” Rathbun, who held one of the highest ecclesiastical positions whit in the church and was close to the center of Scientology’s inner circle. With Marty’s help Louis re-stages some of the most incriminating moments of abuse alleged against David Miscavige, the current leader of the Church of Scientology (official title: The Chairman of the Board of the Religious Technology Center and Ecclesiastical Leader of the Scientology Religion).

Theroux was heavily criticized by Mark Kermode (BBC radio 5 live, 2016) for not adding to the preexisting body of knowledge established in Alex Gibney’s film Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015), which was characterized by Kermode as forensic in it’s approach. While Kermode does address the similarities between My Scientology and The Act of Killing (d. Joshua Oppenheimer), another contemporary Cinéma-Vérité excercise, he gives little credence to the value of the staged performances.

I believe Louis Theroux, being aware of Gibney’s approach, did not attemp create a comprehensive exposé of accusations railed against the church. Instead his well practiced and distinctively unassuming interview style afforded extraordinary access to former members of the church. Marty Rathburn, by participating in the casting actors, leading their training and by directing the final reenactment, revealed far more than would have emerged in a conventional interview. The focus of the film seems to shift in the third towards Marty’s lack of remorse for the abuses that he was directly involved in. We see, during the violent reenactment of Miscavige’s alleged abuse, Marty appearing switched on and excited. The audience is haunted by the idea that  Theroux’s collaborator, behind all his suffering at the hand of the Church, is genuinely a ‘nasty piece of work’. We are left wondering, had he not fallen out of favor with Miscavige, would Rathburn have continued to this day enforcing the harsh laws of the religion while administering corporal punishment and psychological abuse?

 

 

 

Bibliography:

Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo, (2016), BBC Five Live, Published by BBC BBC Five Live on Youtube.com, 7th October 2016, Video URL:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkjNoqrOEbQ

Bill Nichols, (2001), Introduction to Documentary.

Ethnographic Documentary Making

Anthropology is defined to be an academic discipline, the study of human cultures and the material of those cultures. Ethnography, on the other hand, is considered a methodology for producing anthropological knowledge.

In the 19th century Europeans became more interested in the cultures of the people they’d colonized. This new field of study was problematic from the beginning as there was often a disparity between those who were in the field; missionaries, explorers, soldiers; and those who published papers from the safety of their universities.

Later, field research and academic writing merged. Bronisław Malinowski, a well known anthropological writer, traveled the world immersing himself in various indigenous societies. His papers permeated both academia and the popular culture of his day. However, the cool observational style of his published work greatly contrasted his private diaries, put into print several decades later.  They indicated the difficulty he had relating to the people he was studying and illustrated a critical outlook which some readers perceived as racist. Are either of these documents were more valid as sources? Put simply, the action of referencing and contextualizing both documents would be the appropriate contemporary method. The anthropologist’s subjectivity and the manner in which they project themselves onto their field of study became an increasingly important area of ethnographic research in the second half of the 20th Century.

Imperialism and the other ideologies that permitted colonialism have endured as problematic themes in anthropology. While such issues were partially addressed in many western societies during the 20th century. Post-colonialism and insidious forms of racism must be considered in contemporary ethnographic ethics.

As communication technology developed academic ethnography research and practice maintained a bias towards the written word. Footage was created as supplementary material but the writing was maintained as the focus. The films were created to document aesthetic activities like dance. An interesting consequence was that the resulting film archives over emphasize dance in indigenous cultures and fuel reductive cliches.

Workers Leaving the Factory (d. Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895) was one of the first films ever created. The factory, in which this revolutionary technology was being developed also became the subject of the fledgling filmic gaze. The Lumière brothers set up a static shot of the building’s exit, a bottle neck where every employee passes at the end of the shift. The footage captured a procession of men and women flooding out. Some appeared to be performing for the camera, others quickly passed by with ambivalence.

On first appearance one is struck by how differently people dressed in the late 19th century. What was not immediately obvious, however, was that the Lumière brothers had given advanced warning to their factory staff informing them of the camera experiment. Consequently many of the employees followed the day’s convention to dress in their finest, as if they were posing for a photographic portrait. In what way does this effects one’s reading of the film and the ethnographic significance of the footage?  The context of how the people’s image was captured has proven to be just as much a part of the ethnographic data as the recording it’s self.

Nanook of the North (d. Robert Flaherty, 1922) is considered the first feature documentary. This film was enormously successful and is credited as the birth of the genre. Flaherty adapts the language of narrative cinema to tell the story of an Inuit patriarch, Nanook, and his community.

However, when subject to closer scrutiny this feature was clearly problematic. From first glance it is obvious that many of the scenes were staged. Some times Flaherty was simply using the language of Hollywood cinema to represent a linear narrative; shooting a sled being pushed over a hill, for instance, requires the camera to move, re-shoot from another angle and be edited together to make it appear seamless. Non-the-less his method would have been truly disruptive to an authentic sled journey.

There are also scenes which feel utterly contrived and are more easily red as a projection of how Flaherty, a white visitor, perceived the native people. Flaherty demonstrates a gramophone recording device to Nanook, who repeatedly misunderstands the mechanism and insists on biting the record plate several times. Moments like this seem directed, and may have been constructed to please the expectations of western audiences.

It was eventually revealed that Flaherty staged most of the scenes in the film. He encouraged the Inuits to abandon their rifles and modern cloths in favor of traditional garments. Moreover, the main character was not called Nanook, nor was he married to the woman we were told was his wife. There seemed to be some ambiguity around the circumstances in which Flaherty’s original documentary footage from an earlier expedition was destroyed. This second batch of footage, which makes up Nanook of the North, seems to be an attempt at recreating and augmenting what he had previously scene.

The Documentary Modes, established in Bill Nichols’ book, Introduction to Documentary (2001), are a vital framework through which we can dissect the genres. Flaherty uses the expository mode, normally associated with an authoritative voice-over telling use what to think and where to look. For instance, David Attenborough’s entire career. This God’s eye view is manifest in Nanook of the North via the inter titles. The technology to synchronize sound with film had not been developed.

bill_nichols_documentary_modes

These modes are a set of tools that have developed in the past century. Despite the shifts in emphasis over the decades, there is no right or wrong technique and it is counter productive of be puritanical about what documentary should be.

Margaret Mead’s film Trance and Dance in Bali (1952) was created as a supplement to her written work as an anthropologist. This film also adopts the expository mode; her authoritative voice precisely describes well researched interpretations of the dance rituals. There is great attention paid to how the camera is used; towards the end of the film, when a state of trance is achieved by the dancers, the live action photography shifts into slow-motion in an attempt to mirror the dancers psychic state.

Between 198 and 1989 the nomadic African tribe, the Wodaabe, was the subject of two ethnographic documentary productions. Disappearing Worlds (1970- 1993) was a series produced in the UK by Granada television International. For their episode on the Wodaabe the producers employed an anthropologist to work with the crew while interviewing and filming the tribe. The second production was an independent film directed by Werner Herzog.

Unfortunately there are no online clips of Disappearing World: The Wodaabe (d. Leslie Woodhead, 1988, s.1/1 e.36/49). In the observational mode, the film gradually introduces us to the customs of this tribe, allowing the people to speak for themselves. In line with the reflexive mode, the director included footage tribes-people reflecting white film crew’s presence and their impressions of the West. The film climaxes with a ritual dance, the meaning of which is explained as a community wide courtship display, culminating in the young women of the tribe selecting a young man as a sexual partner.

This cultural sensitivity and self-consciousness is hugely contrasted by Herzog’s film, Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun (1989) which mostly utilized the poetic mode. The highly strange looking ritual dance is featured in the first moments of the documentary. It is not explained nor given any context. We are simply confronted with it’s oddity. I feel Herzog was exploring his own uncanny sensations rather than attempting to understand the dance or communicate it’s significance. These introspective in-sensitivities are further exasperated by Herzog juxtaposing the dance with European music.

In typical fashion, the German auteur (who’s films I am a great fan of), narrates his documentary with an implausible poetic exposition, placing his interpretation and feelings center stage.

The penultimate and most impressive film of the evening  was Alain Resnais and Rhris Marker’s essay documentary – Les Statues Maurent Aussie (Statues Also Die, 1953). This astonishing french language documentary lures the viewer in with conventional museum edutainment imagery and framing. Shot after shot of African mask are cut starkly into a static procession, all the while a frenetic french narrator delivers the director’s cutting thesis at break-neck-speed. Gradually the analysis deviated further away from polite, white, dinner party topics. We are eventually plunged into a troubling world of appropriation, exploitation and racism. It’s particularly bold that this film was made in an era when France still held sovereignty over some African colonies. Truly extraordinary; I only wish I could read subtitles as fast as the French at-ta-at-tack, machine gun delivery.

Irish Folk Furniture (2012), is a short pixilation film directed by Tony Donoghue. It is an example of contemporary documentary animation which was being taken seriously by anthropologists and by “grown-up” documentary festivals; proving once and for all that the documentary animation bubble is not such a cul-de-sac.

 

Credits:

Many of the ideas and opinions in this article were originally shared or developed in a seminar, hosted by Sylvie Bringas, at the Royal College of Art on the 6th October 2016. Bringas co-produced an ethnographic film, There is Nothing Wrong With My Uncle (2011), with director, Dul Johnson .