The Philadelphia Association Community Houses: is it possible to offer asylum from Psychiatry?

In 1984, ‘M’ was living in the Philadelphia Association Community House on Shirland Road in Maida Vale. Having moved to London, partly to follow in the foot steps of her hero, the famous counterculturist and radical psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, M was drawn to the Philadelphia Association to seek therapy. When she fell acutely mentally ill she was invited to stay in a PA Community House.

First set up in 1965, these houses operated in a way that deliberately blurred the boundaries between doctor and patient.  These places of refuge were formulated on the principles developed by Laing and the Anti-Psychiatrist, David Cooper. While working as a psychiatrist in the 50’s, R. D. Laing was thrust into a jungle of traditional psychiatric remedies – drugs, electroshock., and insulin coma therapy – Laing began to question the wisdom of these so-called ‘treatments’ – treatment he believes is how one treats another person – and rather spent his time listening to and talking with his patients, thus commencing his thinking that real treatment (real therapy) is an interpersonal phenomenon.’ (Ticktin, S. & Laing, A., 1997)

pa_laing

Laing’s ‘hope was that the community would furnish evidence for his growing thesis that madness is not necessarily a breakdown, but may represent, potentially, a breakthrough into a more authentic way of being (i.e.- that it is a natural healing process with a beginning, middle, and end) re: the normal state of alienation to which the majority of us have succumbed.’ (Ticktin, S. & Laing, A., 1997)

M, subscribed to Laing’s beliefs and so persisted with her community therapy treatment in the absence of psychiatric drugs. Unfortunately her psychosis deepened to the point where she was a danger to herself. Assisted by her brother, M voluntarily went to the nearest psychiatric hospital where she was immediately sectioned and medicated.

pa_therapy

I am interested in examining the historical collisions between the early ideals of the Philadelphia Association when confronting the cultural/medical establishment’s perspective of mental illness and treatment. Now that psycho-pharmacology has a far more precise set of tools since 1965 when the PA was first set up, is there still a significant reasons to doubt dominant system of diagnosis and medication?

The PA has changed significantly in the past 52 years. Laing eventually became a disruptive figure and was forced to resign. Currently the association neither defines itself as either Laingian or as part of an anti-psychiatry movement.  Instead they are simply committed to reducing human suffering while not adhering to dogmatic theories or the disease model. I believe an exploration of the PA’s historical resistance to the pharmacological/diagnostic model will illuminate the wider debate regarding concerns about over diagnosis and over prescription in contemporary psychiatry.

It is my intention to continue my work interviewing people who have lived in the PA Houses. As the artist in residence at the Philadelphia Association I have access is a wealth of resources to help me get started. I’ve developed strong personal ties with several PA members and therapists some of whom currently work at the houses. They have also pointed me to several crucial texts; a collection of testimonies from past residence and in-depth examinations of the rocky history of the houses.

It is also important to balance sentiments of what used to be called “anti-psychiatry”, with research and testimony from those who believe in the medication based psychiatric system. The Wellcome Library will provide a strong foundation for investigating the medical establishments contemporary and historical approach towards treatment.

Feedback

On Monday 9th January I presented the Wellcome project to my documentary animation class along with Birgitta Hosea – program leader, Sylvie Bringas and Daniel Saul – visiting lecturers, and Hanna – a Movement Director, on placement from the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Much of the criticism I received in this session was focused on the absence of aesthetic development and the limited reach connections to the Wellcome Library collection. Both of these issues were in large caused by the short amount of time I had to prepare.

A day earlier my proposal was about an entirely different topic. Despite good intentions my ideas became irrevocably entangled in serious ethical concerns. During this crisis I met with a trusted adviser, Sara Thorsen Fredborg – RCA Curation MA student,  to discuss the issue. During that discussion we concluded that I must start from scratch and together weight up potential options. Quickly the PA Houses emerged as a strong prospect, building on my recent discussions with M and the excitement of recording her story.  While M had made it very clear she wished to not be involved, her testimony demonstrated that among the former PA Community House residence there was enormous potential for discovering meaningful narratives, which could illuminate a winder debate between the Philadelphia Association and the psychiatric establishment.

The initial feedback from Birgitta focused on the absence of tangible links to the Wellcome Library collection. Even though the bibliography I provided demonstrated strong a contextual foundation, I did not have the chance to search within the Wellcome Library for specific connections what would spark the interest of the Wellcome team. I am confident there will be a wealth of resources in the Wellcome library to support my subject matter. I am particularly confident as my chosen topic is relevant to the brief them of ‘Place’ and falls within the remit of the Wellcome Collections mission statement to ‘encourage new ways of thinking about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art’.

feet

Birgitta also noted a distinct lack of visual reference in my presentation, ‘the people you are pitching to need an indication of what it might look like’. It occurred to me that I had not had a chance to even think about the aesthetic of the documentary. However, during the process of explaining my project I realised how determined I was to continue with my experiments with replacement stop motion. Over the Christmas break I had completed the following animation test:

I was initially inspired by the work of Mikey Please’s use of foam in an advertisement he directed for Dragonframe animation software.

Sylvie Bringas also pointed me toward the Polish animator Piotr Kamler who had experimented with replacement stop motion in the 90’s.

During the same tutorial with Daniel Saul and Sylvie, in which we discussed Please and Kalmer, I develop the idea of constructing a series of these loops that loosely represent some of the dualities and tonal shifts in the film. Some of these shots may be abstract, others figurative, but none would literally illustrate or even sync directly with dialogue.

The following is a quick test which amalgamates abstract and figurative animation tests, created without the testimony in mind. The voice you hear is Will Self speaking two years ago at the Philadelphia Association’s 50th Anniversary.

In the interviews I plan to record with former and current PA House residence I anticipate the following types of dualities appearing; doctor vs. patient, psychotherapy vs. medication, the Philadelphia Association vs. mainstream psychiatry etc. In this test I have attempted to demonstrate how I could use figurative imagery, both to represent an individual emotive state and the wider discourses. I find it intriguing that the word figurative is defined as both ‘that which is symbolic’, as well as as ‘where reference is made the human body’.

Generated by  IJG JPEG Library
Generated by IJG JPEG Library

It is clear at this early stage that I will need to make some distinctions between the two sides of the dualities I reference. While I would like to avoid colour coding, I expect to create contrast using shape and movement. The studio I used to occupy in Brentford as next to the Glaxo Smith Kline headquarters. I was always struck GSK’s the cold glassy architecture and how it’s looming presence seemed to embody the power and ambivalence of “big pharma”. The headquarters of Eli Lilly, the manufacturers of Prozac, equality embody the aesthetic of corporate indifference. It is my aim to borrow some of these architectural tropes when designing the abstract forms that may represent connected themes in my film.

I was asked to consider why this project should be an animation. This is a powerful challenge to my proposal. It is very common for an animator to question weather or not their ideas could be more effectively created in live action. In my heavily interview based practice, I find myself constantly having to justify why I’m not creating a podcast. While there is some illustrative value to the sequence above, I feel it is not quite proof of concept. I have, therefore, not yet been able to answer the question ‘why bother animating this’? I am, however, excited about the prospect of developing a visual and verbal aesthetic language in tandem. If I start animating during the process of conducting interviews I anticipate the two aesthetics will inform and feed into one an other as the project takes shape. Such an approach may hold me back from being too illustrative, as I have been in with my previous work.

Appendix 1

Hungry has the highest suicide rate in the world, this is partly due to the genetic prevalence of Bipolar Disorder which makes an individual 18% more likely to take their own life. This phenomenon correlates with a diminished cultural taboo regarding suicide.  There is a common understanding in Hungary that the kind of medication taken to treat bipolar disorder changes one’s personality to such an extent that there may be more honour in taking one’s own life compared to becoming a stranger. (Dubner & Levitt, 2011)

Appendix 2

In 1950 Chlorpromazine the first antipsychotic was synthesised. Nicknamed the ‘chemical lobotomy’, Chlorpromazine (marketed as Thorazine) had the effect of emptying the asylums. While this panacea was akin in scale to the development of antibiotics, it was an incredibly blunt tool.*

*needs citation – see BA dissertation

Bibliography

Books:

Gordon, P., (2010) An Uneasy Dwelling: The Story of the Philadelphia Association Community Houses. PCCS Books.

Scott, B. (2104) Testimony of Experience: Docta Ignorantia and the Philadelphia Association Communities, PCCS Books.

Films:

Luke Fowler, (2011) All Divided Selves. LUX

Online Videos: 

Clatworthy, T., (2015), The Philadelphia Association’s 50th Anniversary. Avalible online at: https://vimeo.com/145327256

Unknown director, (2014) Psychiatrists and the pharma industry are to blame for the current ‘epidemic’ of mental disorders. Intelligence Squared. Avalible online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlFbuqunb1I Description: Will Self (writer) and Darian Leader (psychotherapist) debating over-diagnosing/over prescription in psychiatry with the Professor Sir Simon Wessely (President of the Royal College of Psychiatrist) and Dr. Declan Doogan (former Head of Worldwide Development at Pfizer)

Radio/Podcast: 

Dubner, S. & Levitt, S. (2011) The Suicide Paradox, from Freakenomics Radio, Dubner productions for WBEZ. Avalible at: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/new-freakonomics-radio-podcast-the-suicide-paradox/

Self, W., (2013) The Prozac Economy. Falling Tree Productions for Radio 4. Online At: https://wn.com/the_prozac_economy_by_will_self

Webpages:

Ticktin, S., (1997) Biography of R.D.Laing, adapted from a review of R.D. Laing: A Biography,  A. Laing.  Online at: http://www.laingsociety.org/biograph.htm

‘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.

Interview with Alexandra Hohner

On 2nd November 2016 I gave a lecture for the animation students at the University of Western England, Bristol (The Fallacy of Objectivity and Ethics of Representation). Following my visit Alexandra Hohner contacted regarding her third year writing task, which takes the form of a journal article. The topic was how animated documentaries represent invisible illnesses. She wrote, ‘Your talk was very informative but I’ve tried to put together some more specific questions about Patients’ (2012).

1. What made you decide to use a realistic design of Patients instead of creating a more “psycho-realistic”, caricature design?

I wanted the realism in Patients (2012) to work as a counterpoint to some of the more hallucinatory scenes. I initially believed that it would help the traumatic moments feel real, however I’ve made more successful interpretations of those moments, such as the scene in Animated Attempts at Depicting Mental Illness (2015).

2. Do you think if the main character wasn’t based on you and your experiences, but on someone else’s- you would have shown things differently? how so?

Well that’s a hard question because I’d have to basically design a new film. I’ve made animations about other people and I generally try to capture their essence in a reduced and simple line drawing. For instance, Nick Mercer, the speaker in Escapology: The Art of Addiction (2016):

I believe these drawings are different because I made them 3 years later and by then my style had changed.

Patients is a bad example as I don’t distort the character much however I have made many contorted self portraits which I consider a form of psycho-realism.

However, I find it hard to push my self to be as derisive and disfiguring when trying to use the same methodology in portraits of other people.

3. I understand that for a documentary maker, the best-known subject can be themselves, but what do you think: why should other people should be interested in your personal story?

I was just lucky that something incredibly interesting happened to me. I think this is not a common story and that’s why it’s fascinating. Despite this it became clear that the people who connect to Patients the most were those who have friends or family who have suffered from acute mental illness.

4. A bit more provocative question: I understand that for a documentary maker, the best-known subject can be themselves, but what do you think: why should other people should be interested in your personal story?

I like to make films which confront issues that people don’t like to talk about, i.e. mental illness, addiction or sexual dysfunction. What I’ve found is that if you find the right topic you’ll discover a quarter of you audience can relate to it directly and the rest are likely to know someone who’s been affected by it.

I like to use a similar tactic to stand up comedians. I’ll explore the darker or even mundane side of my own existence to find something that people can connect to. Observational comedy may have been developed in response to the reflexive documentary discourse.

5. What do you think you’ve learnt about how to treat your future subjects and their stories, from being your own subject first?

The most important lesson I learnt was the fact that I know I could do a good job. I’ve shown the subjects of my films previous work and we more or less start the project with them trusting that I’ll make, at the very least, an interesting film. This confidence is really important and provides them with a lot of reassurance.

6. In your animation, the main character does look like you. Are the other characters based on the people who you met?

In Patients, all the characters are based on people I came across fleetingly in the hospital or people I know very well. The doctor, for instance, is still my psychiatrist. My parents really look like that although I decided to do their voices. In fact I did all the voices in Patients. I quite liked the idea of embodying each character as if it was all a dream and everyone was you. There was a pleasing madness to it.

7. What about the dialogues? Did you write them based on “real events” or have some of these words been actually said to you? How much freedom did you give to yourself during writing the script: were you a writer or just an editor?

All of the dialogue is invented. It is very hard to remember back two or more years to provide a perfect quote. I did my best to capture the spirit of each character I represented but this is definitely problematic. My brain was in such a mess around the time I was restrained and injected that I had no clear idea of the events leading up to it. I’ve been told by a health professional since completing the film that no nurse would ever say “What are you doing, get back to bed”. I just did my best to gauge the tone of what I meant to express. I am afforded a lot of trust by and audience who can sense that the film was based on personal experience. Even if that’s not clear the film gives the impression of being well informed. That’s the crucial.

8. Did you use actors to record them?

No. It’s all me. I can do some pretty mean accents and enjoy the process. Although I have since become increasingly sensitive to the racial insensitivity of such a practice. I’m not sure if I would ever do it again.

9. In case someone else would be your subject, how much of a role would you give him in editing or writing the script? Would it be a collaboration or would you only look for confirmation?

I’ve only ever used interview testimony in films I’ve made about other people. The crucial negotiation centers around the release form. Until that is signed I am nervous about the power an interviewee has over the film production. At any point they can withdraw their verbal consent and ruin your film. I think of this as a sort of yes or no question right at the beginning. ‘Do you want to be in the film, if so this has to be signed before we start’. I’ve recently felt more comfortable with this process because I realised that it’s almost impossible to put into writing the complex negotiation about how to represent some one fairly. That is build on a relationship of trust between you and your subjects. I try to make it clear that I would never want to make a film featuring someone who hates the outcome. A lot of this trust comes from showing previous work but mostly its from the relationship you build. I’ve had subjects release all control because they trust my artistic intentions, and I’ve had others who essentially want to authorize each piece of audio before It’s considered for the film. While I use the term subjects here, in fact I think it’s most healthy to think of them as collaborators.

10. When you were creating the representation of the main characters, what qualities and emotions were most important?
Do you think you were harder on yourself than you would have been in a case where someone else is the main character?

Visually I need to show how gaunt the I was at the time of the psychosis. I felt this was such an unusual phenomena with a symbolic power that I knew it had to be focused on in the film. I was being eaten away by the illness so my body suffered just as much as my mind. Emotionally I feel much of the film is very neutral. I made little attempt to convey emotions until the final scene where the patient finally recognises that they are unwell. This was another key point for me, the idea that someone who is mentally ill may be the last to know about it. You loose track of how you appear as you internal perspective becomes warped though the fog of chemical imbalance.

I don’t think I was particularly hard on myself but there was a definitely intimacy I could afford. I remember including my penis in the drawings when I’m naked in the bathroom. I liked the way it make the character look vulnerable. I’m not sure if I would have done that if it was another person’s testimony.

Appendix:

Patient script – Revision 5 (2012)

memory

Doctor

You will be detained here under section 2 of the Mental Health Act.

 

Cut to a dark room where the patent on bed.

Listening to the shipping forecast.

Nurse

Nock Nock

Come on, time for your medication

When he turns off the shipping forecast the narration beings

The patient joins the end of the queue.

The cleaner swept round the corner emitting a high frequency drone. A flickering florescent strip light broke the patients conventional perceptions. The patient had often experienced such phenomenon. His most vivid encounter had taken place on the first night of his detainment.

Cut to common room

As day had turned to night the shadows revealed a flickering ghost like aura around the other patients. Beastly projections of their inner beings postured before one-another, strutting for dominance. The patient wondered how he might appear to the others.

Upon examining his hands he noticed tiny shoots emerging from his fingertips.

They coiled round the arm of his chair and spread across the vial floor from his feet.

Nurse

Just take the pill and show me your mouth.

He gulped down the sugary lump, stretched open his mouth and left.

In the bathroom the patient disrobes and examines his naked flesh. He pulls at his rubbery skin.

As the bath fills with pristine crystal fluid he submerges himself.

The patient towels down his skeletal frame. A dull pain in his arse reveled a pinprick on the cheek. A bitter taste filled his mouth as broken recollections fell into place.

Cut to the corridor at night

Nurse

Hey. What are you doing up? Get back to bed!

The patent turned to face the approaching tribesmen. As the hunters surrounded him, they grabbed his arms and pushed him to the ground. A knee pressed against the back of his head crushed his cheekbone into the floor. Fumbling hands pulled down his trousers exposing his bare buttocks. The howls of his torment echoed though the empty corridors, peeking as a needle prick pierced his behind. Gradually his distress petered to a drooling moan.

Fade to black

Nock Nock Nock

The patent opens his eyes with a shock as he is woken from sleep.

Nurse

Come on, its time for your appointment.

Upon entering the doctor’s office the patient was offered a seat. The soft leather wrapped around his boney bum as he lowered down. Opposite him the doctor bounced his knee as he skimmed over the contents of a paper folder.

Doctor

I think it’s about time we talk about your recent experience.

You’ve had what is called a psychotic episode.

Psychosis is caused by a chemical imbalance and can result in strange beliefs, paranoia and visual or auditory hallucinations.

So you may have seen or heard things that weren’t really there.

The anti-psychotics you are taking will gradually stop such occurrences but before our next appointment I want you to think back and try to establish what was real and what may have been caused by the illness.

The Doctor stood up with the patient to shake his hand.

Back in his room where the patient lay staring at the ceiling.

For the first time the he considered the authenticity of his astonishing visions. Could such apparitions be in his head? He even questioned the voice that chronicled his every moment….

The voice…

It was a disembodied voice in his head…

The patient sat….

 The Patient

Arrr… Shut up!!

silence

Nock Nock

Mother

Is it ok to come in?

His parents enter.

Father

Hello son.

You’re looking better

Mother

We brought you some fruit and more cloths.

I hate to think how long have you been wearing those hospital gowns?

Patient

I don’t think I’m very well.

Patient bursts into tears

Parents comfort him

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.

Changing Landscapes

Week 3 of the What’s Up Doc? elective was run by Katerina Athanasopoulou, visiting lecturer in animation at the Royal College of Art. She tasked us with making a psycho-geographic video portrait of the landscape. This was then presented as unedited rushes in a group crit later that day.

The morning began with Phil Ilson, the co-founder of the London Short Film Festival, leading a tour of Shacklewell Lane in Dalston. The festival’s offices had been based in the area for a number of years. Although Ilson didn’t live locally, his passion for British cinema and natural curiosity about the local history was eye opening. He drew our attention to tangible records of life, culture and politics that were etched in to the surrounding streets and architecture.

© Google 2016
© Google 2016

During our group discussions my attention was repeatedly drawn to what felt like a local anxiety regarding gentrification. On the same street where I saw an Afro-Caribbean hairdressers, which looked like it had been there for decades, there was also a sleek yoga centre, which was founded in 2012.

 

 

© Naomi Annand & Yoga On The Lane 2012 - 2016
© Naomi Annand & Yoga On The Lane 2012 – 2016

I was interested in the nuanced perspectives of both long term and more recently arrived Hackney residents. There seems to be a clear line which connects Margret Thatcher facilitating the private purchase of council houses in the 80’s, up to present day Dalston where property prices are starting to push out small businesses and long term residents. In the past decade many artist and creative professionals have moved to Dalston, attracted partly by the former industrial spaces being converted into low rent studios. Meanwhile an independent cafe and bars scene developed, fueled by their patronage. The aggregate effect was that Hackney rapidly transformed into an fashionable place to live and work. It has started to attract Londoners who have more disposable income that both the long-term residence and those in the creative industries.

I picture gentrification as a set of concentric rings, each layer representing an era and the community that settled during that time. The population of each ring looks inwards at the preexisting smaller rings with affection and curiosity.  This encircling effect issn’t immediately see as threatening from the point of view of the bigger ring. However this ring community simultaneously looks out at the newer larger rings. They see their greater wealth and influence encircle them, leading to a sense of suspicion and claustrophobia.

Looking up at the two tower blocks that were being assembled in front of us in Dalston, the group speculated about who would move into these fancy new flats.

crane_cloud_01

My dad, a retired civil engineer, used to say that you could measure the health of the British economy by counting the number of cranes across London’s skyline. From below, however, these monoliths loom over the existing inhabitants of Hackney; a immutable sign of change. Cranes are simultaneously an index to the potency and destructive force of London, one of the worlds largest neo-liberal experiments.

I initially wanted to call the film Peckham, but changed my mind because of concern I was over-stating the point. Crane is an the closest and least pretentious I could get to the film being “Untitled”. In my experience, another area of London which seems to at a simlar stage of gentrification is Peckham Rye. The artist have been there for a while, the hipster cafes and bars followed. It is now recognised across London as somewhere that is “cool”. However I haven’t yet observed large property developments in Peckham. Brixton, on the other hand, seems to be slightly ahead of Dalston in that the rents have already gone up.  Large chains have moved in and the old businesses are on their way out.

crane_glow_02

While filming, the camera’s digital screen couldn’t represent the fidelity of the image being recorded. I saw a stark black and white silhouette. After staring for a long time my eyes created an Esher like optical illusion. My three dimensional interpretation of the 2D black and white image jumped from looking up to looking down from a 45° angle. While I did like the conceptual value of this shifting view point I was keen not to tamper with the raw footage. For the same reason I decided not to remove the natural glitches produced in camera.

crane_cloud_02

The small camera screen also lead to a nice surprise in the edit suit when I noticed the crane had the ‘Dalston E8’ written on the side. This reveal becomes an essential piece of evidence supporting the psycho-geographic frame of the film. If this wasn’t visible I would have used something similar for the film’s title.

Links:

http://underthecranes.blogspot.co.uk/

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/datablog/2016/jan/14/how-has-brixton-really-changed-the-data-behind-the-story

Interview by Animartists Culture and Psychology Journal

Earlier this year I was approached by Panagiota Karagianni about doing an interviewed for Animartists, a Geek online magazine about psychology and culture. You can read the English language post here. Below is a transcript from the interview:

 

Alex Widdowson is a very talented artist and an Animator living in London. Alex had been preparing a beautiful animated documentary for four years, in which he covered fundamental issues on mental illness and the treatment that people from around the world get in clinics. The title of this documentary is “Patients” and is a tough but a really realistic approach of the lifestyle of the people that are mentally ill. Lately, he prepared a new video based on the previous version, a stronger representation of the topics covered in the “Patients” and you can watch it here:

How and when did you realize that all you want to do as a job is to be an Animator?

Animation seemed the most useful medium to process and communicate my confusing and traumatic experiences of mental illness.  I initially started a fine art degree at the relatively prestigious college Goldsmiths, London in 2007. However I became quite unwell for the first time and quickly dropped out after causing a whole host of chaos. My subsequent hospitalisation and recover were truly devastating so by the time I restarted a fine art degree at Loughborough University I had something to prove. I felt it was my duty to push myself, taking on challenges that were truly daunting. For a while I experimented with immersive performance, this involved founding a cult based on agnosticism.  The goal was to lose track of whether or not I was joking and that the cult was indeed fictional. It was so evocative of my first experiences of mania and psychosis that I effectively induced these states and that summer I was in hospital again. Broken and medicated I picked up animation as a way of directly processing some of the trauma of my treatment and illness. I was haunted by having injections forced upon me by a team of nurses when I was running around wild on the hospital ward. Animation was a means to an end at the start but it also fitted well within my desire to push myself. I like to think of the medium as a multi-dimensional canvas. If you can picture it you can animate it. The only limitations are time and energy.

How would you say that you feel when you do art, when you express yourself through art? 

The whole process is utterly stimulating; animation challenges me as a writer, journalist, director, draftsman, actor and mechanic.  But often animation is very methodical. After the initial planning you are more or less locked into an intricate process for rendering. I find this sort of intense and rhythmic process soothing.  It reminds me of a math class at school where you are taught a complicated formula, you repeat the exercise and then move onto the next similar problem. There is also an extraordinary feeling with hand drawn animation when you piece it all together towards the end of the day and see the scene in motion for the first time. I’ve never found this suspense and release in any other medium.  It makes me very happy.

Do you often like to undertake a social range of issues in your art as you did with the Patients documentary?

I’ve become increasingly interested in animation as a tool for exploring real-world topics where often live-action might fall short. While researching and writing for the blog animateddocumentary.com I was constantly amazed by the new ways artists use animation to explore factual content. These stories deserve so much more than a talking-head interview or reenactment. Initially I didn’t see my work as serving a critical social function. Patients, for instance, was primarily indulging my own need for catharsis. As the project developed I ultimately saw its value as a tool to help people understand what madness felt like. Now that I’m making films about other people, from the start of the process I have to be much more aware of the socio-political framework that encompasses their stories.

And talking about Art and Social issues, Patients and your latest reworking of that project, actually are a great presentation of a very big issue of our society: mental illness. What did inspire you to occupy with an edgy and so alive issue like this?

It’s nice that not everyone assumes that these films are biographical. They most definitely are, but still, it’s comforting that sometimes people assume they’re no more than an artistic and journalistic endeavour.  The truth is that they are painfully close to my heart. Part of the value of these films is that when I look back at my most difficult experiences, those traumatic images have now been substituted by my drawings. This pain has been so heavily processed I often perceive the scenes I’ve made in my films rather than a direct memory. I feel very blessed that I can use art in this way. Mental illness is a very tangible and pervasive phantom in all our lives. If you have never been affected directly you may at least know someone who has, yet until recently in Britain there was a strong convention not to talk openly about this topic. Charities like Mind and Time To Change had genuinely shaped the landscape when it comes to stigma. I hope my films made a modest contribution. 

William Shakespeare used to say that the purpose of Art is to give life shape.  Do you feel that art can really reflects the real life without senses of exaggerations?

I don’t worry that exaggeration is a problem. The films I make have carefully translated, condensed and articulated experiences as honestly as possible. Their value comes from the accuracy of these processes.

What do you manage to bring off through your animated documentary in which you cover that kind of issues? (Feelings or beliefs)

The premise behind Patients was to create the clearest and most accurate depiction of psychosis I could muster. Madness is often perceived as horrifyingly nonsensical, but for the most part it feels like a muddle of your existing persona and experiences mixed with a bit of fantasy and fear. I wanted to do my best to smooth over some of these ambiguities and depict a simple sequence of events that lead the protagonist to realise they might be unwell. With Patients I hope to make psychosis less scary, where as my retrospective film, Animated attempts at documenting mental illness, made use of the rough and more expressive animation tests I’d made to capture the frenzied sensations of psychosis. While these did nothing to make psychosis seem less intimidating, it was a more honest representation.

Do you believe that a diagnosis of mental illness can put the personality of the ill person aside and degrade him as a human being?

From what I see this is certainly becoming a more popular perspective in psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Doctors identified two episodes of psychosis in my life. This is indisputable. However I’ve never been given a diagnosis of an underlying condition that causes this. My doctor’s exact words were that I have ‘Alex Widdowson’s disease’.  He said that as I didn’t neatly fit any of the diagnostic models there was no use in labelling me. Yet I have older colleagues from Sage Community Arts, a mental health charity where I was artist in residence, who were been given a different set of diagnosis every ten years, never quite fitting any of them. If the label helps you, your loved ones or medical professionals more easily understand what is happening then I think that shouldn’t be suppressed. But I’m also much happier with the newer, more open-minded model adopted by parts of the British psychiatric services. However I need to remind myself that mine is a story of successful treatment. I feel like I was treated incredibly well and was able to recover quit effectively. I’m aware that some people had a terrible time and perceive the psy-professions with great suspicion.  

FEAR is the number one reason why people treat mentally ill people the wrong way and why ill people live under the “stigma” of illness. What place do you believe that FEAR occupies in our lives and how would you advise someone to control it?

I’m sure it was tougher in the past but personally I feel like I’ve encountered very little discrimination in my life. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by supportive and sympathetic friends who I can be open with. They project little judgment or unnecessary concern. However my circumstances dictate how open I am about my history of mental illness. When I started working in a more strait-laced job, as a graphic designer, it just didn’t feel appropriate to expose myself that way. Even though I am a little secretive I believe that if I ever became ill I would maintain the respect I’ve earned, be given time recover and be invited back to work. Essentially, I feel safe. What really worries me is the potential doubt in people’s minds that I am not aware of. I cannot calculate or predict this. For all I know it doesn’t exist. So sometimes I find it easier in a professional situation to restrict it to a need to know basis. I would say this is an important skill I have learnt. I was so open about my issues at the beginning, not because I felt safe or wanted to address stigma but because I was so uncertain about my experiences I compulsively put details out there to see how people reacted. If they dealt with it badly I knew not to trust them and vice versa. It wasn’t until I found some inner peace that I was able to choose when to talk about it.

Do you think that the common opinion assists the regulatory function of the psychiatric professions and why do we need to be normal to live?

The idea of being normal is ridiculous. It sounds to me like a synonym for being boring or scared. For instance, I don’t really trust anyone who enjoyed being a teenager.  These people confuse me. It’s my guess that these are also the ones who strive to be normal. I believe one should nurture their eccentricities.

I often work with the Philadelphia Association in London, set up by R.D. Laing in the 60s. He was a very well known counterculturalist who helped spark the anti-psychiatry movement. He questioned our rigid perceptions of sanity and madness asking whether it is indeed our society that is sick. Laing asks: ‘Who is more dangerous? The psychotic who mistakenly believes he carries a hydrogen bomb in his stomach or the perfectly adjusted B-52 bomber pilot who will drop very real hydrogen bombs when ordered to do so?’ These sentiments seem entirely relevant in the past 15 years of British foreign politics and the financial crisis. Our government waged two seemingly pointless wars in order to keep our American friends happy.  Five years later the financial sector started to realise they had conceptualised the practices of lending and debt so far beyond its rational definition that the entire system imploded. Yet rather than Tony Blair being condemned as a war criminal he was made peace envoy to the Middle East; rather than prosecuting bankers for corruption the state propped up the banks. These absurdities exist at all levels, in all parts of society and in the individual. I believe those happy healthy “normal” people are just as scared and conflicted as the psychotic if you dig down a little.

How do you think mental ill people should be treated and what should change on the function of the psychiatric wards so ill people can have a better and more balanced and comradely way of life?

From what I remember I went through some pretty extreme experiences on those psychiatric wards, but in no way do I disapprove of how I was treated. When I was lucid I was offered extraordinary levels of respect and patients, and when I was at my worst I believe they restrained and sedated me for my own protection. I don’t think there is much of an issue about how patients are currently dealt with in the UK other than the funding cuts. Austerity measures imposed by the Conservative government have had a massive impact on resources for the treatment of mental illness. The inpatient clinic where I was last hospitalised has been shut down.  For me this is the real battleground.

And coming to an end, i would like to know if you are preparing something this season? 

I’m currently working on a short animated documentary about addiction but it’s a little early to really go into any detail.

A wish for Animartists

I was really struck by an Oscar Wilde quote brought to my attention by the experimental animator, Paul Bush: ‘The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.’

 

Embodying Voice workshop with Matt Abbiss

This lip-sync-and-beyond workshop reinforced a lot of the fundamentals of animation for me. Some of the class did not come from an animation background and so we spent a lot of time picking apart several key points in Richard William’s The Animators Survival Kit (2001).

We were given the choice of several recorded clips from the British Library Sound Archive. There was also the option to use our own recording to avoid any copyright problems. Several months ago while editing the dialogue for an animated documentary, Escapology: the Art of Addiction (2016), I took a break mid edit. Wile in the shower the words of Nick Mercer, the films subject, floated around my head and focused on some of the key phrases. Over the next twenty minutes I invented a female character who’s primary concern was her son’s alcoholism. I saw a dark humour in my subsequent recording, but every time I showed a friend they could only comment on how sad it was. I wanted to use animation to better articulate this tragic comedy.

From the beginning I was a little concerned by my choice of character. The accent I’d used was a hybrid between something from North of England (Nick is from Liverpool) and something that is vaguely Caribbean. I think this was partly informed by some consulting I did around the same time. It was for a short documentary by Kyra Hanson in which she interviews her elderly Jamaican grandmother. I began developing the character design while deliberately trying not be too self-conscious about my white-male-middle-class appropriation.

embodying_voice_01    embodying_voice_02

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However, this lead me to a representation that I was ultimately was not comfortable with. As I was essentially recording myself pretending to be a different race, using animation to then depict a caricature seemed too much like a digital equivalent of black face.

At the animatic stage I decided to wipe all distinguishing features from the characters and put these issues aside.  Instead I focus on the body language of the mother and son.

Embodying Voice Animatic: (password avalible on request)

The feedback I got in the first crit was that either I should worry less about being politically correct, or have some one else record the voice. There was a week left to complete the project and so rather than re-doing the dialogue and starting from scratch (the timing woudl have been completely different.) I chose to simplify the character designs to make them racially unidentifiable.

embodying_voice_04

In hind sight I’m still not convince my appeasing the situation was the best rout. I should have re-recorded the dialogue with an actress. Now the animation is complete and I am reflecting on my work I can see something which is much more concerning than my original worries about caricaturing someone from an Afro-Caribbean background. Looking now I can see some resemblance between my character design and the Golliwog children’s toy, a relics from Britain’s Imperial past.  I really feel like I’m out of the frying pan and into the fire.

It’s often said that animators are hired as actors. I’ve seen Hollywood being criticised for casting white actors to represent non-white roles. Specifically Last Week Tonight’s feature ‘How is this still a thing‘ (p. John Oliver, HBO, 2015).

Am I doing the same thing? It seems extreme to propose that it is unethical for me, a white man, to represent a black person in animation. However maybe there is a stronger argument against me impersonating a Jamaican accent. I can’t imagine do anything comparable in my future practice.

When Mike Read sang an anti-immigration song at a UKIP Gala in the style of the Calypso music genre his white appropriation of Afro-Caribbean culture was done with intent of communicating xenophobic sentiments. Inversely, I feel I can defend my film on the ground that it is about addiction, a topic a I care deeply about. Any representation of race is incidental and completely lacks hatred, nor does it focus on stereotypes.

Putting my white privilege aside for a moment, I’d like to bring attention back to the fact that this workshop was designed to focus us on our animation technique. Matt Abbiss‘ enthusiasm for the principles of animation really inspired me to loosen up my own 2D work. I had previously come across the tumblr account, Animation Smears. In the past I had experimented with this method but my usage was always mimetic and fleeting.

I concluded after the first crit that exaggerated, blurry smears would be the perfect way to represent the son’s alcoholism.

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Very Angry: rev.12a (password available on request)

Here is a second version in which the background is the same orange as the the line drawing. This had an interesting affect of dissolving the characters silhouette. While I was intrigued by this effect I feel it is too destructive to the drawings.

Very Angry: rev.12b (password available on request)

Feedback from the group critique:

The Mother seemed under developed both in character design and in behavior. I didn’t offer her any moments of attention where her personality shone through. She could have had a modest set of distinctive mannerisms. Instead the character came across as flat. I was complacent as I believed her personality was delivered in the voice but it seemed I needed to translate this to her behaviors too.

The key poses of the drunk son were too strong. If I wanted him to maintain consistent fluidity then the key frames should have been adjusted to demonstrate this. Instead I snapped into position too sharply. These were very static key frames which were created before the idea of swaying and smears were used.

The major problem with this film is that it is not a documentary, nor does it indicate it’s status as a mocumentary. How can I analyse in-depth the ethical implications of representation in this film when nearly all of it is an invention of my own.

Conclusion:

It is not worth developing this film further. I should concentrate on incorporating what I have learnt into future documentary projects. It has been very useful to address issues of race and the representation of minorities  in this film. I have learnt that I shouldn’t avoid such topics because of my white, strait, male, bourgeois bias, but what is essential is I should try and engage rigorously with the ethics of representation from the very beginning. Side stepping and avoiding the issue has only lead me to dig a deeper hole.

Ultimately, if I had interviewed a mother who was concerned about her son then, firstly, matters of race would have been truly incidental and, secondly, the film could have been much more powerful.e

What’s Up Doc? Pitt Rivers Museum Documentary

Personal experience of the Museum: Aware of Britain’s inglorious history of imperial plundering, I arrived at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, expecting to hear little of the collection’s colonial back story. However, such issues seemed to be the primary concern of the educational officer, Katherine Rose. She described a number of case studies which demonstrated the cultural and historical sensitivity of the recent museum administration. I became fascinated with how compelled the staff were to highlight the good in the collection. Speaking to them I could sense an affinity towards the spirit of adventure which helped cultivate such a collection. However, this enthusiasm seemed to be fettered by their keenness to emphasize moments in the museum’s history where ethical considerations were implemented or updated. Post-colonial guilt hangs heavy in the climate controlled air, but it’s clear the Pitt Rivers team feel compelled to address the collection’s difficult past, even if it can only happen one case-study at a time.

2 Minute Documentary: Our primary objective on the day was to gather footage for a short film. I was struck by how reflective the space was, quite literally, each exhibit was placed behind protective glass. I captured layered imagery, in-camera, using the reflections of direct light sources and adjacent displays. While interviewing two staff members I could feel my fascination pick up each time Maori artifacts were mentioned. My mother grew up in New Zealand and for some reason I associate the native culture with my childhood.

(If I gain clearance for this film and the support of Pitt Rivers museum it will be made available online)

Manifesto: We were tasked with writing 5 rules one could follow while making a documentary:

  • What does your subject care about? What excites you? Stride towards the centre of that Venn-diagram.
  • Imperfection is interesting. Don’t rehearse, re-shoot, prompt or repeat. Work with what you have.
  • Finnish the film and make another. Perfectionism is a disorder. Do more and get better each time.
  • If it’s being said, don’t show it. If it’s being shown don’t let it be said.
  • There is only so much space on the surface of the film. Place you key messages and images here, but leave gaps for the audience to see below into the subtext. Down there you can build a cavern and fill it with nuance.

Feedback and notes from group crit:

  • Add breathing space in the story.
  • Think about what you want the audience to fee at each moment in the film.
  • Why am I, the film maker, so hidden from the final film? Is there room to show my subjectivity and personal interest in Maori culture.
  • Explore motion stabilization on After Effects to see if it has a positive effect on the footage.
  • Refine the film and present it to Pitt Rivers for clearance.

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.

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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 .