Jay Ruby identified three essential ethical responsibilities a filmmaker must grapple with in documentary production:
The filmmaker’s responsibly to their own creative autonomy is the least intuitive aspect of the documentary triad of ethical commitments because creativity is not commonly associated with the field of ethics. This is because because a person’s commitment to themselves contravenes the dominant perception of ethics as concerned with the treatment of others or the principles of how to behave in a society.
I would argue, a useful way to reflect upon Ruby’s use of Shakespeare’s aphorism, ‘to thine own self be true’ (2003, 1.3: 32), is to see it within the framework of pluralist ethics.
Pluralist, relativist, and sceptical theorisations of ethics were developed to account for the wide variety of normative definitions of “moral” behaviour. They each argue the variety in values and behavioural codes are informed by a specific context, history, and culture. The strong argument of meta ethical relativism positions each moral framework as alternatives to one another. They are equally legitimate in context, but ultimately incomparable, because of differences in material, social and historical conditions (Baghramian and Coliva, 2020: 228). A sceptical position asserts there is no such thing as ethical truth because ethics is entirely subjective and thus lacks any foundation (Baghramian in Boland Smith, 2021). Whereas a value pluralist would argue: ‘…. there are many objective ends and ultimate values, some incompatible with others, pursued by different societies at various times, or by different groups in the same society, or by particular individuals within them. People can lead valuable moral lives by pursuing conflicting but equally ultimate and objective ends.’ (Baghramian and Coliva, 2020: 250-251).
Ethical progress has occurred in human history, for example the abolishment of slavery and the improvement of women’s rights, and some moral principles can be defined uncontroversially, particularly negative ones such as “torturing children is bad”. So, while pluralism postulates the existence of ethical truths, it posits that it is both hard to define and there may be many correct answers (Baghramian in Boland Smith, 2021). Some value systems or individual acts may be more ethical than others, and competition between these perspectives may account for ethical progress.
“Being true to oneself” is an investment of trust in one’s own judgment, over normative codes of ethics. From a pluralist perspective, this can be seen as a commitment to behave in a way that, while distinct from others, is still anchored by meaningful insights, that aspire towards elusive ethical truths. I have deconstructed Ruby’s formulation to show that autonomy, rather than being antithetical to ethics, can guide individualised interpretations of what counts as ethical behaviour. Furthermore, many philosophers — including Ayn Rand (1964), Jean-Paul Sartre (2015), Simone de Beauvoir (1948) and Jacques Lacan (2013) — have argued that autonomy is a virtue that should orient one’s ethics. It is beyond the scope of this text to engage fully with each of these theorists on the topic of autonomy. My point is a filmmaker’s commitment to their own creative autonomy, is a relevant ethical consideration to balance against the treatment of participants and a responsibility to their spectators.
COLIVA, A. & BAGHRAMIAN, M. 2020. Relativism. London: Routledge.
DE BEAUVOIR, S. & FRECHTMAN, B. 1948. The Ethics of Ambiguity… Translated… by Bernard Frechtman, New York.
KANT, I. 1949. Immanuel Kant: The Critique of Practical Reason and other Writings in Moral Philosophy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
LACAN, J. & MILLER, J.-A. 2013. The ethics of psychoanalysis 1959-1960: The seminar of Jacques Lacan, London: Routledge.
RAND, A. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. In: RAND, A. (ed.) The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. New York: Signet.
ROWLAND SMITH, R. 2022. The paradox of moral codes | David Friedman, Timothy Williamson and Maria Baghramian. In: ROWLAND SMITH, R., FRIEDMAN, D., WILLIAMSON, T. & BAGHRAMIAN, M. (eds.) Philosophy for our Times. London: Institute of Art and Ideas.
RUBY, J. 2005 . The Ethics of Image Making. In: ROSENTHAL, A. & CORNER, J. (eds.) New Challenges for Documentary. 2nd ed. ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
SARTRE, J.-P. 2015. Being and nothingness. Central Works of Philosophy v4: Twentieth Century: Moore to Popper, 4, 155.
SHAKESPEAR, W. 2003. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. New Haven: Yale University Press.
The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.Originally posted on Adapt.
About Alex Widdowson
Documentary Director and Researcher
Alex Widdowson is a London based multi-award-winning animated documentary director and researcher specializing in the representation of neurodivergence and psychology. In addition to freelancing and his work as festival producer for Factual Animation Film Festival, he lectures on animation at the University of Hertfordshire and is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, researching animated documentary ethics.
What are the unique challenges and opportunities that come with telling a nonfiction story through an animated lens?
The unique challenges and opportunities for me revolve around representation and ethics. With animated documentary, well, with all documentary, you have a responsibility to your participant…a duty of care. You have a responsibility to your audiences, which are around issues of truthfulness in film, and then you’ve got your own responsibility as a creative practitioner to be true to yourself.
You can totally control how your participant looks and what they do and where they are. And it’s enormous power.
Animated documentary really expands all of those responsibilities. You can totally control how your participant looks and what they do and where they are. And it’s enormous power. And with that, it undermines the truth, the reliability of the image. You might support that with interviews, but maybe you don’t.
What’s good about animation is that it’s a modular process. Maybe you start with an interview, you then reflect on how you want to interpret that interview through animation as a meta commentary on what was said in that moment. But then you can also go back to your participant and say, “these are some ideas of how it might look,” and you can work together on that. I’ve had this interesting innovation, in this new film Drawing on Autism, I then record those collaborative discussions, and fold them back into the narrative of the film. When it comes to talking about structure, a lot of it is changed and doesn’t so much rely on conventional short story structure.
How are you taking a good story and making it great?
It feels a bit like distillation, you know, the way you’re just constantly refining. You take a few seconds off here, a few seconds off there…you have to be really decisive. When I’m editing, I work in layered channels. And if I know something is brilliant, I’ll put it on the top layer. If I’m not sure about something, I might knock it down a layer. Sometimes I delete the bottom two rows and then start again. It is very rare I delete something, and I miss it. Which is a surprise, you think, “oh, but maybe that could be used in another way,” it’s not true. You don’t need everything; you don’t need to hold onto those things and be precious in that way. You just can’t when you’re working in the short format.
It is very rare I delete something, and I miss it.
It’s quite different now that I’m grappling with longer form material, but I’m still using the same technique where you just chip away. I think it might have been Michelangelo that talked about “there’s a sculpture in the granite block somewhere.” And he just has to find it. It feels like that sometimes. You listen to it a thousand times when you’re making the film, it just feels like it was always there, and it wasn’t, it is something you’ve basically crafted. Yes, it’s based on a conversation, but it’s very much constructed in a way that felt right to you. There is a high degree of artificiality and constructiveness in all documentary practice, and you can tell a story in different ways, but there’s something sort of fateful about it at the end, where you feel like it was always there, and you just had to find it.
Why does storytelling matter and why is it powerful?
We are a storytelling species. We think that science is the thing that guides us in this modern age. I don’t think it’s true. There are very few people who actually have the expertise to really grapple with the science and understand just how messy everything is. What we get as a public is massively simplified and tied into some sort of narrative of how we should all behave.
When we go to therapy or have a deep discussion with a friend to try and understand the mess of our personal lives or our inner thoughts, we have to tell each other stories for it to be digestible. It’s just how our brains work.
We are a storytelling species.
Doing a PhD, you start to realize how slippery everything is and, especially a humanities PhD, starts to show you just how fluid language is and all knowledge…there’s a certain lifespan to everything we think we know is a fact. At some point it will be changed or the ideological system that views it will think of it very differently.
What questions do you ask yourself before starting to tell a story?
I used to rely on my personal angle, like, “I can relate to this topic. That’s something I’m passionate about. This is a person who knows a lot about it. Maybe we’ll have a chat about it.” And I’d be careful not to promise too much. There’s a low cost of sitting down with someone and having a chat for an hour or two. There’s a huge cost of spending six months making an animated film about it. But I think ethics is a much more important issue. Are you the right person to tell this story?
I started off with [telling] my own story, but in terms of ethics, I built up my confidence telling the stories of people I knew. And then I thought, “it’s time to really use all these skills to tackle a topic I don’t have significant prior knowledge of.”
And what does that mean, ethically, to enter a community and say, “well, I can help you tell your story,” Or “we can tell a story that you think that needs to be told, but I don’t have that primary experience myself.” And it does cause problems and you do make mistakes and you are just not up to speed with how people like to describe themselves.
Speaking for or entering a community…that’s a big problem.
I didn’t start my PhD in autism representation and animated documentary ethics knowing the difference between a person with autism and autistic person. It wasn’t intuitive to me. But speaking for or entering a community…that’s a big problem. And so, I’ve been spending years trying to work out how to reduce all those risks and develop methods that are intensely collaborative, and reflexive and positional. I started to learn from the autistic advocates about the neurodiversity paradigm and how relevant it was to me, and I developed a new comfort with my own diagnosis and realized I was in a very comparable position, and I should be talking about the fact I’m schizoaffective more often.
I started my career by making films about those experiences of psychosis. I still experience some form of neurodivergence that marks me as different from other people, but I wouldn’t give it up. It’s who I am. There’s probably an enormous number of people with quite scary labels to others, that just don’t talk about it. I’m glad to advocate for the schizoaffective community.
How are you measuring the impact of the films you make?
I’m not industrialized enough to be able to collect that data and know for sure. I get people writing me messages to say how much [my films] mean to them. Certainly, that happened a lot when [Music & Clowns] was released by the New York Times.
I think as an artist, it’s very hard to know if you’ve done well. I mean, sometimes it isn’t hard at all. I finished Music & Clowns and I was like, “yeah, I can die now.” I finally made an artwork I’m totally proud of. I know it’s great, and that’s an incredibly rare experience as an artist. I didn’t have the same feeling with other projects. I’ve never had that simple, “yeah, this is brilliant. I’m very happy with this.” In many ways, Music & Clowns was the easiest film I’ve ever made, because there was 30 years of research that went into it.
Write up by Martina Scarpelli from November 3, 2022
How do you ethically represent a group you are not a member of?
With the help of British autistic participants, filmmaker and PhD candidate Alex Widdowson reimagines the way we represent neurodiversity in animated documentary films.
Divergent Minds (working title) is a feature length animated documentary about the neurodiversity paradigm, autism representation, and collaborative film practice, featuring four autistic participants and the director. Throughout a series of interviews, the film investigates how non-member status can make you blind to the emergence of problematic representations, such as stereotypes, and how these issues emerge unconsciously.
In his research and through his films Alex developed methods to mitigate the risks associated with representing minority groups. Methods including a focus on collaboration, the sharing of power and the use of animation for visualization of interviews. Crucially, animated documentary, unlike its live action counterpart, is a modular production process, where the images are created after interviews. This allows for the director and participants to negotiate how to best approach their representation. If these conversations are also recorded, they can be fed back into the narrative of the film. This collaborative reflexive cycle empowers the participants, reveals to the audience their evolving relationships with the director, and forces the filmmaker to acknowledge and address their ignorance and unconscious bias.
Alex Widdowson is currently attending the Open Workshop residency, working on a 60-minute animatic edit, build from the first round of interviews with his participants. His latest short film “Drawing on Autism” was recently released online and serves as a proof of concept for his current work. With a little irony, the film is a thoughtful exploration of how easily unconscious bias can emerge in animated documentary practice, while highlighting the pros and cons of using the medium to explore factual narratives.
Director’s statement: Drawing on Autism is an investigation into the ethics of representation in animated documentaries. Although I am neurodivergent, I’m not autistic, so when working with my anonymous participant, an autistic friend, I needed to be mindful of well-rehearsed and problematic autism tropes. These tropes seem to say more about the desires and needs of neurotypical audiences or filmmakers than they do about the autistic subjects. Moreover, animation presents a distinct set of ethical dilemmas. Without the mechanical indifference of a camera, the act of observation is substituted for expressive or symbolic representation. A mode of representation where the artist is responsible for how the documentary participant looks, where they appear, and what they do. Through collaborative feedback I attempt to share these responsibilities with my participant, while making use of positional and textual reflexivity to equip my audiences with the information they need to scrutinise my documentary interventions. – Alex Widdowson
Aeon.co was kind enough to repost the film with the following article:
An animator wonders: can you ever depict someone without making them a caricature?
The UK filmmaker Alex Widdowson crafts shortanimations that explore psychology, personality and neurodiversity. In Drawing on Autism, Widdowson considers the complex ethics of his work. Speaking with the Autistic man at the centre of his latest animated project, Widdowson wonders if he can ever animate him in a way that doesn’t reduce him to a caricature or otherwise misrepresent him. Is he being careful to the point of paranoia? Or does, perhaps, his exacting internal vigilance ultimately improve his work? As their conversation unfolds, Widdowson pivots between animation styles as if to comment on his own uncertainty. From this self-referential structure, an intricate, revealing and often funny portrait of the two men at its centre arises. Through his construction, Widdowson also crafts a thoughtful meditation on broader, and often controversial, questions of representation in entertainment and the arts.
Awards and Accolades: Winner – UK Research & Innovation: Research in Film Awards 2021 – Best Doctoral and Early Career Film Winner – Rising of Lucitania AnimaDoc Film Festival 2022 – Best AnimaDoc Blue Ribend Award (Student Jury) Nominated – Edinburgh International Film Festival 2022 – Norman McLaren Award for Best British Animation Nominated – UK Research & Innovation: Research in Film Awards 2021 – Best Animated Film
Official Selection: Rhode Island International Film Festival 2021 (Premier) Raindance 2021 Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival 2021 New Orleans Film Festival 2021 Berlin Festival of Animation 2021 Spark Animation 2021 Factual Animation Film Festival 2021 Montreal International Animation Festival 2021 Big Cartoon Festival 2021 London Short Film Festival 2022 Fargo Film Festival 2022 Cinemagic ON THE PULSE Short Film Festival 2022 Edinburgh International Film Festival 2022
Agnieska Piotrowska, in her PhD thesis, Psychoanalysis and Ethics in documentary Film (2012), argues that the bond that develops between a filmmaker and participant is akin to transference love, a psychoanalytic term that describes an attachment that develops between analyst and analysand, determined by the power dynamics in the relationship. Piotrowska argues the intense experience of documentary production typically culminates in a betrayal where, unlike analysis, a film is produced that is largely under the control of the director and thus reflects their fantasies and desires as opposed to the participants. The film is then irrevocably released to the public often to the horror of the participant. While Piotrowska does not provide a solution to this dilemma, her extensive analysis of reflexivity in documentary practice is helpful in addressing broader ethical concerns.
Is documentary unethical?
Piotrowska refers to Krzysztof Kieślowski a Polish director who pivoted in his career from documentary to fiction, reportedly for ethical reasons (2012: 104). Kieślowski wrote ‘…I am frightened of real tears. In fact, I don’t know if I have the right to photograph them.’ (in Cousins & MacDonald 1988: 316).
Slavoj Žižek (2006) quotes Kieślowski’s words in his analysis of the documentary form arguing that it is fundamentally predatory, and subsequently unethical. He characterises the genera as ‘emotional pornography’ (Žižek 2006: 30). Žižek evokes a ‘No trespassers!’ sign and proclaims that to avoid ‘pornographic obscenity’ tender subjects should only be approached via fiction (Žižek 2006: 31).
Piotrowska suggests, Žižek may have drawn too bold a conclusion from his reading of Kieślowski’s documentary work. Žižek bases his conclusion partly on a scene in Kieślowski’s reflections on his 1974 documentary First Love, in which a farther cries after his first child is born (Piotrowska 2012: 106). However, Kieślowski’s later account of ethical concerns in his documentary work was more closely connected to the necessity and inescapabilty of manipulating reality through the documentary process. This is in contrast to Žižek’s explicit focus on the unwieldly intrusion into the intimate lives of documentary participants (Kieślowski & Stok 1993: 64).
Žižek and Kieślowski are referring to different formulations of unethical behaviour when analysing the filmmaker’s decision to abandon documentary practice. I have come to refer to the primary commitments for a documentary filmmaker as the documentary ethics trichotomy, based on Jay Ruby’s list of moral responsibilities that every documentary director must balance:
‘(1) the image maker’s personal moral contract to produce an image that is somehow a true reflection of their intention in making the image in the first place-to, use a cliché, it is being true to one’s self; (2) the moral obligation of the producer to his or her subjects; and (3) the moral obligation of the producer to the potential audience’ (2005: 211).
Žižek explicitly refers to the director neglecting their duty of care towards the participant, which includes the right to privacy (Pryluck 2005: 200). Thus, Žižek conceives Kieślowski over emphasising his commitment to his audience, or in other words strictly adhering to the public’s right to know the truth. It may also be argued that Žižek is suggesting that Kieślowski over played his commitment to his own film by channelling an obscene and intrusive desire to capture compelling footage.
This subtly contrasts Kieślowski’s own conception of his unethical activity. He clearly identifies regret and unease regarding the over emphasis on his own ethical commitment to his documentary practice, at the expense of both a breach in his commitment to factual reporting for his audience and possibly the exploitation of participants in order to do so.
Žižek’s misreading of Kieślowski’s motivations for leaving documentary undermines the argument that documentary is a predatory practice. While Kieślowski shared these concerns to an extent, he was focused on his misleading of the audience and the inability to create objective artefacts for displaying truth.
Calvin Pryluck identifies a key insight into how to balance two poles of the documentary ethics trichotomy. The participants right to privacy and their control over the outcome of the film should be proportional to their power and standing in society, the less powerful they are, the more their rights should be exercised. The greater the participants standing in society the greater the public’s right to intrude in their lives and the less influence they should have over the final film (Ruby 2005: 204-205).
While the participant’s influence over the outcome of the film does have a baring on the director’s moral commitment to their work, there is no variable within this formulation that indicates how a director should understand their commitment to themselves, i.e. what circumstances would affect a director to question their own desires. This is where Piotrowska’s psychoanalytic insights into the nature of the director’s unconscious desire become useful.
Before moving on to Piotrowska’s psychoanalytic reading of the documentary participant relationship, I would argue that animated documentary can resist what Žižek characterises as ‘pornographic obscenity’ (Žižek 2006: 30-31). The intrusive capturing of images would be replaced by the careful reconstruction of mimetic, stylised or evocative images, each of which could be approved by the participant before entering production. Similarly, Kieslowski’s concerns regarding the manipulation of reality at the expense of the audience’s reception of truth would be mitigated by an animated image which is recognisably constructed and makes no false claim to be representative of anything other than an impression of reality by the artist.
The psychoanalysis metaphor for documentary practice
Elizabeth Cowie (2011) argues there is a tension in all documentary practice between the ‘scientific recording of what one sees and somehow the desire to give it meaning and perhaps make it more beautiful.’ She refers to these as ‘contradictory desires’ (2011: 2). Cowie also identifies unconscious desires present in the makeup of documentary production, shifting the nature of the debate from ‘a discourse of sobriety’ (Nichols 1991: 4, Nichols 2010: 36), something akin to scientific investigation, to a ‘discourse of desire’ (Cowie in Gaines 1999: 25) in which the director is pursuing and delivering pleasure as well as knowledge to their audience (Piotrowska 2012: 91). Michael Renov extends this argument calling documentary a ‘discourse of jouissance’, suggesting the filmmaker’s unconscious desires are likely to be exercised through the practice amidst attempts to represent reality (Renov 2004: 23).
In stark contrast to Nichols’ discourse of sobriety and the scientific objectivity that it connotes, Piotrowska argues the nature of the relationship between filmmaker and participant is a space of psychoanalytic turbulence in which both parties express unconscious desires, typically in the form of transferential love (Piotrowska, 2012: 74). Transference is not a phenomenon exclusive to the practice of psychoanalysis. When Jacque Lacan drew his own conclusions about the nature of transference in a psychoanalytic context, he used examples from outside of the clinic, including the dynamics between teachers and students (Piotrowska 2012: 72).
‘It is the idea of the illusion of knowledge inducing desire, which makes transference relevant in interrogating relationships outside the clinic too – in education in particular but also in other situations which feature a potential imbalance of power’ (Ibid.).
Lacan, however, does not insist that transference must be avoided, it is an inevitable phenomenon that should be embraced and accepted as a kind of love. A love that can be utilised as a tool in the psychoanalytic process (Ibid.: 73).
Piotrowska makes the connection between psychoanalysis and documentary explicit:
‘Documentary filmmakers often appear the perfect canvases on which to draw one’s emotions. Just like psychoanalyst, they listen, they try to stay ‘professional’ regardless of their drives, they attempt to hold on to their boundaries in order not to reveal too much of themselves to those about whom they make films. These very attempts of course make them perfect candidates for experiencing transference from those who they make films about.’ (ibid.: 74)
Piotrowska emphasizes that while there is an erotic subtext to transference it is not necessarily sexual in nature (ibid.: 79). It is instead a bond formed by one’s counterpart occupying a subject position that triggers unconscious desires in oneself. Lacan also makes no distinction between transference and countertransference, suggesting both the analysand and analyst are experiencing the same phenomena (ibid.: 72).
Piotrowska suggest another way in which documentary and Lacanian psychoanalysis are similar is that documentary does not attempt to remedy the problems in the lives of the participants. Lacanian analysis aims to develop understanding of an analysand’s unconscious activity rather than cure it (Piotrowska 2012: 56).
Piotrowska makes some compelling arguments as to why the relationship between filmmaker and documentary participant is akin to analyst and analysand. To support her argument she explores a number of case studies from her own documentary practice and analyses the relationship between Claude Lanzmann and Abraham Bomba during the production of Shoah (1985) (Piotrowska 2012: 208-212).
As Piotrowska illuminates the presence of transferential love as an inevitable factor in documentary production, it is the differences between filmmaking and psychoanalysis that expose the possible ethical dilemmas.
‘The point is not that the documentary encounter is ‘like’ psychotherapy or psychoanalysis; it is rather the exact opposite: through the structure of the encounter and powerful unconscious mechanisms a situation might arise leading to a profound ‘misrecognition’ on the part of the subject of the film and the filmmaker alike. A documentary encounter might feel like a special safe place in which one is listened to and even loved, but that private space will soon enough be turned into a public spectacle – a process which carries with it inherent dangers.’ (2012: 56)
Documentary filmmakers, while attempting to hold together professional boundaries, lack the frameworks for understanding and making use of transferential love. ‘Because these phenomena are not named in documentary film, they remain hidden and create confusion and sometimes hurt’ (Piotrowska 2012: 74).
What makes these circumstances even more concerning is that the more vulnerable you are as a participant the more susceptible you may be to desire the filmmaker’s attention and inferred insights. ‘The filmmaker in the society of spectacle, can in some circumstances become a bearer of a clear possibility for symbolising the potential subject’s relationship with the Real [the Lacanian term for the unsymbolised] and thus be particularly seductive for those whose traumas appear un-symbolisable’ (2012: 140). For example, it is possible that the trauma of the Holocaust contributed to Bomba developing a transferential relationship with Lanzmann.
According to Piotrowska, the completion of a documentary film typically culminates in various forms of betrayal.
‘Having agreed to take part in a documentary project, sometimes longed for it to come to being, having had complex fantasies about the film and the filmmaker, when the film is finished, the people in it mostly hate it. This phenomenon is so ubiquitous that the executives in broadcast television usually forbid the filmmakers to show their films to their subjects before the documentaries are screened.’ (2012: 216)
The participant has no say over how the film takes its form. As a result, the film reflects more closely the unconscious desires and fantasies of the filmmaker, rather than the participant. After seeing the film there is now no way to stop its release.
Without stating it explicitly, the specific problems Piotrowska has pointed out illuminate possible antidotes to what she considers common ethical failures in documentary practice. Transferential love may develop between filmmaker and participant, I have certainly felt a sense of bonding take place in many of the film’s I’ve directed. This must be acknowledged by the filmmaker as more than a convenient benefit and recognised as an ethical conflict. In accordance they should adjust their duty of care to match the possibility that they have seduced their participant into a nonsexual loving relationship and visa versa. By rendering this knowledge conscious, Piotrowska can help a director to examine the nature of their and their participant’s desires. As a result, a director can wield a greater consideration for the participants best interests and help keep in check the director’s commitment to their own creative vision.
As transference is likely to be proportional to the vulnerability of the participant, any adjustments in the power relations between filmmaker and participant, can be proportional to Pryluck’s suggestions regarding how to adjust one’s approach towards a participant according to their standing in society. For instance, if a participant is from a marginalised group they could be invited to collaborate in the edit and creative development of the documentary. This will shape a film so it reflects a negotiation between theirs and the director’s desires and fantasies. This opportunity would not be offered to someone who had much more power in society than the director, such as a politician, as they are less likely to fall victim to transference and the greater public interest in exposing their private life out ways their right to privacy. This approach should reduce the likely hood that vulnerable participants feel betrayed and helpless upon the release of the film.
I feel slightly uneasy about assuming a marginalised participant is unconsciously experiencing love for me based on my power to illuminate them and hear their story. It feels obscenely presumptuous. However, it is important to hold in one’s mined that Piotrowska is drawing attention to unconscious activity as appose to concrete realities. She has articulated in psychoanalytic terms, the ethical imbalance when working with someone where there is an inherent power imbalance. It is also worth noting that much of psychoanalysis can induce an uneasy effect if rendered too literally.
While Piotrowska does not allude to increased collaborative involvement with the participants as a possible antidote to the power imbalances that can result in transference, she does refer to reflexivity as a best practice quality of ethical documentary filmmaking. This is, in the first instance important because reflexivity encourages the filmmaker to self-scrutinise, leading to the illumination and negotiation of unconscious desires. Secondly, reflexivity allows for the audience to understand better the position from which the filmmaker is approaching the topic or participant. Thirdly, it can be used to encourage ethical engagement from audiences by forcing them to maintain a certain distance from the seductive qualities of the film.
In contrast to Nichols’ ‘discourse of sobriety’ (1991: 4, 2010: 36), Piotrowska conceives of documentary production, in part, as the product of a turbulent web of unconscious activity on the part of the director. ‘[Documentary filmmakers] mostly keep making different versions of the same film, perhaps unconsciously reworking some kind of trauma in a process of sublimation’ (2012: 68). According to Lacan, the psychoanalyst usually possesses some form of unconscious libidinal desire towards the analysand which must be rendered clear in their mind (Piotrowska 2012:72). ‘[This] is an important move as it dislodges the lingering stance in psychoanalysis of the psychoanalyst possessing all the power and solutions’ (Ibid.). Both the analyst and documentary filmmaker benefit from greater understanding of their own motivations and fallibility. Without self-reflexivity they would likely be trapped in cycles of behaviour that may be unethical. They could draw in their participants or analysands into an ill-defined dance in which repressed desires or traumas determine the terms of engagement.
From the perspective of the audience, there is a clear advantage to having as much insight into a filmmaker as possible when decoding how they have subjectively interpreted reality for the purposes of a documentary (Piotrowska 2012: 25). As Julian Barnes puts it in his fiction writing, ‘we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us’ (2011:12).
Susan Scheibler drew a distinction between the ‘constative’ and ‘performative’ tensions within the documentary genre, the constative referring to knowledge that is objective and unchanging, and the performative, as emblematic of subjective perspectives (in Renov 1993: 137). Piotrowska points out that ‘performative’ can also mean a documentary team setting up events that will unfold on camera. ‘This issue of the camera creating reality, which is not exactly staged but somehow impacted by the process itself, is also an important ethical issue in the genre – it is that notion too which bothered Krzysztof Kieślowski’ (Piotrowska 2012: 95). Even if the footage captured in a documentary production was a true reflection of “objective reality”, Piotrowska argues that it is much easier to manipulate the footage through editing than most audiences realised. ‘The spectator might have no idea how his or her perception has been altered through quite simple means: just cutting out a hesitation or a question could make an enormous difference to how you perceive the piece’ (2012: 95). Stella Bruzzi, echoes Scheibler in arguing that documentary is not a record of reality but rather a recording of a kind of ‘performance’ in the world (Bruzzi 2000: 3).
As an antidote to the performative manipulations of reality and the subjective undercurrent of the genre of documentary, Bruzzi identifies ‘performative documentary’, or what Nichols would call the participatory mode, in which the filmmaker enters the filmic frame as a participant (2001: 33). The filmmaker’s onscreen presence illuminates a certain honesty about the subjectivity of the film text as opposed to an objective record of events as they would occur naturally (Bruzzi 2000: 155). Piotrowska refers to Nick Broomfield’s performative (or in Nichols terminology, participatory) documentaries as a key example of this practice.
‘He is dismantling the conventional documentary because, in his mind, it doesn’t work. His films are ‘voyages of discovery for him’ and he wants ‘to take the audience with him’ (Broomfield in Jones et al 2010: 30), thus empowering them. The point is the filmmaker’s desire to demonstrate in some way the process of the filmmaking.’ (Piotrowska 2012: 96).
This reflexive aesthetic has its roots in Bertolt Brecht’s radical theatre, specifically his Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect), which ‘reveal the workings of the theatre in order to empower the spectator to question rather than just to have a pleasant experience… Brecht wanted the artifice of the theatre to be stripped down so that the spectator, rather than suspending her disbelief, could instead become a co-author of the performance.’ (Piotrowska 2012: 97-98).
Piotrowska connects this distancing effect in documentary with the psychoanalytic term ‘suture’ which describes the painful transition from the Imaginary into the Symbolic i.e. the uncomfortable intersection between the realm of senses and the realm of language and the other (2012: 105). Piotrowska uses suture ‘to describe the spectators’ rupture from the illusory identification with the screen to the realisation that it is but an illusion through a reminder that the frame of the screen frames the limit of the spectator’s experience’ (Ibid.). As such, distancing effects hopefully jolt the audience out of a passive role and into the poise of a critic.
According to Ruby’s trichotomy of ethical responsibilities documentary filmmakers must consider, reflexivity is a direct response to ‘the moral obligation of the producer to the potential audience’ (Ruby 2005: 211). By treating the audience as active thinking agents and equipping them with the material to decode the desires and prejudices present in the text, the filmmaker would have acted ethically towards the audience. Piotrowska concludes that ‘the method of cutting out the author/the filmmaker rather than inscribing him or her into the text, has produced the greatest deceptions in the history of documentary film’ (2012: 118).
In my own animated documentary practice I have started to follow Broomfield’s example by including myself and my microphones in the films I animate. It is important to me to expose to the audience how strange a scenario a documentary interview is. The added artificiality of the images being purposefully rendered as opposed to captured, further highlights to the audience how I have performed my interpretation of reality. It is also important for me to be clearly present as the directing force behind the film, so the audience can understand the origin of these interpretations. Including these reflexive commitments helps me examine my own conscious desires and prejudices. I am aware I will be held accountable by my audience. This in turn heightens my sense of concern for gaining a balance between the ethical demands of my participant, my audience, and my creative project.
Barnes, J. (2011) The Sense of an Ending. London: Jonathan Cape.
Bruzzi, S. (2000) New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge.
Cousins, M. and MacDonald, K. (ed.) (1988) Imagining Reality. London: Faber & Faber.
Cowie, E. (2011) Recording Reality, Desiring the Real. London & Minneapolis: University of Minnesotta Press.
Gaines, J. & Renov, M. (eds.) (1999) Collecting Visible Evidence. Minneapolis: University of Minnesotta Press.
Jones, C., Jolliffe, G. & Zinnes, A. (2010) The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook. The Ultimate Guide to Digital Filmmaking. London: Continuum.
Kieślowski, K. & Stok, D. (1993) Kieślowski on Kieślowski. Trans. by D. Stok. London: Faber & Faber.
Nichols, B. (1991) Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Nichols, B. (2001) Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Nichols, B. (2010 ) Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Parker, I. (2011) Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity. London & New York: Routledge.
Pryluck, C.  ‘Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking’ in New challenges for Documentary. (2005) ed. A. Rosenthal, J. Corner. Manchester University Press.
Renov, M. (1993) Theorizing Documentary. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.
Renov, M. (2004) The Subject of Documentary. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesotta Press.
Ruby, J.  ‘The Ethics of Image making; or, “They’re going to Put me in the Movies, They’re Going to Make a Big Star Out of Me…’ in New challenges for Documentary. (2005) ed. A. Rosenthal, J. Corner. Manchester University Press.
Žižek, S. (2006) The Parallax View. Cambridge. Mass: MIT Press.
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).
I’m interested in the mental illness / disorder / disability X and want to make a documentary about it.
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.
I haven’t experienced X myself so…
I will find someone who suffers from X to be a participant in my film.
In order for them to trust me we must get to know each other.
I will record an interview with my participant where we discuss what it’s like to live with X,
Based on their words I will visualise (evoke) X through animation
Before starting the production I must ask my participant if they want their identity hidden or not
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
[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.
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.]
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.
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
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Close your eyes and picture a tree
Open your eyes and draw that tree
Consider the difference between the tree you imagined and the tree you drew.
Consider the difference between the tree you drew and the tree your neighbour drew.
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.
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.
I will record an interview with my participant where we discuss what it’s like to live with X
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.
Based on their words I will visualize (evoke) X as animation
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
Music & Clowns is an animated documentary which functions as a rich portrait of my family, which includes Jamie, a person with Down syndrome. This film was conceived as a response to a polemic documentary by Sally Phillips the UK’s leading public advocate for the Down syndrome community. A World Without Down Syndrome (2016) addresses the UK’s introduction of Non-invasive Prenatal Testing and the likelihood that it will increase the abortion rate of Downs fetuses. It could be argued the significant drop in birth rates of people with Down syndrome fits Rob Nixon’s characterisation of ‘slow violence’ as gradual and often invisible. The medical establishment argues these tests simply provide pregnant women with more accurate information. However, a diagnosis cannot describe the life of someone with Down syndrome, like my brother Jamie. I am tackling the critical under-representation of the ordinary lives of people with Down syndrome by first directing a film that provides qualitative evidence of my parents experience of raising Jamie and speculating what life is like for him. Phillips was criticised for focusing too much on high functioning people with Downs and building an argument based on their ability to contribute to society. My film illuminates Jamie’s human worth irrespective of his profound limitations.
Ethics were my first concern. Luckily Jamie offered on tape what I inferred as consent. However I cannot assume he understands a film like this might be watched by thousands. Our parents consented to this on his behalf. While my family are all identifiable, the potential for my brother to be subject to unwanted attention is minimal as he has no engagement with social media. Jamie visibly liked elements of the film featuring clowns or music and was able to recognise family members, however the pacing was too fast for him. He is not the intended audience and if he were the film would be very different.
During interviews with my parents it became clear there were discrepancies between our speculations on Jamie’s inner life. I chose to manifest these perspectives symbolically through shifts in aesthetics. A baseline of 2D digital realism functions as the filmmaker’s perspective from which others deviate. These symbolic modes are the result of experimentation with printing, hand-drawn and animation techniques. I also traced Jamie’s drawings to build a scene from his perspective.
This multi perspective approach was extended by secondary interviews, in which I recorded participants responses to the animatic. The result was a critique of the perspectives of other participants as well as my own interpretations. These secondary layers of dialogue were then incorporated into the film, augmenting it with reflexive elements, most notably when my father disputes my mother’s inference that Jamie wishes to be a Clown.
Throughout the film I disrupt the temporal space of reenactments by suddenly appearing, shifting the scene into a lip synced interview. Similarly the contrived assembly of microphones stands draws attention to my role as documentary maker. These elements help distinguish Music & Clowns from the “personal story films” which appropriate subjects perspective in a total simulacra.
My film, Critical Living (2017), drew criticism regarding an imbalance between visual and verbal storytelling. Redressing the show and tell relationship has been a crucial point of development. In the past I avoided illustrating someone’s words through heavy handed application of a metaphor or steering the imagery into abstraction. For this project I have developed a more nuanced approach, sometimes delaying descriptive imagery till after the correlating testimony. It was argued that Critical Living could function without the visuals. However, Music & Clowns features entire scenes without dialogue and consistently emphasises character animation to illuminate family dynamics. I have also addressed other weaknesses including static compositions, avoidance of colour and impenetrably academic documentary subject matter.
The second significant development was the introduction of comedic elements. Shelley Page, Animation Talent Consultant, emphasised the value of humour in the animation industry and the filmmaker, Michael Moore, also argues that comedy is significantly under used in documentary. My family’s sense of humour proved ideal material to test my skills as a comedic film maker.
Music & Clowns was exhibited at the Royal College of Art’s School of Communication Degree Show, 2018. The film was played on a television in an installation built to resemble Jamie’s bedroom. Visitors were invited to sit on his bed to watch the film. When Jamie visited the exhibition he seemed to feel very much at home. As he sat on his spare bed sheets, surrounded by posters of ABBA and his old clown dolls, I think enjoyed the film much more so than the first viewing. I don’t know if he recognised that he was a minor celebrity in that room but he certainly enjoyed the attention.