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

 

Alex Widdowson: Documentary Animation MA Y1. New Student Presentation

Alex Widdowson

Contact:

  • alexander.widdowson@network.rca.ac.uk

Social Media: Facebook,  TwitterVimeo & Tumblr

Bio and animation practice:

In 2008 I dropped out of a Fine Art BA at Goldsmith’s College. Soon afterwards my mental health deteriorated and I was sectioned for drug induced psychosis brought on by cannabis abuse.

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

From 2009 to 2012 I made many animated documentaries about this during my BA in Fine Art at Loughborough University . Here is a short clip from a montage I made called Animated Attempts at Depicting Mental Illness (2015).

In the 8 years since this happened I have abstained from illicit drugs and developed strong insights into my mental health. I am personally committed to talking openly about my experiences. If you have any questions or ever need a sympathetic ear please feel free to approach me.

My artistic practice has developed as a form of self administered therapy. Below is an example of an illustration I created last year while experiencing difficult relationship problems. My contorted figurative style was influenced by what Chris Landreth referrers to as ‘psycho-realism’, a term he developed to describe his methodology in his animated documentary Ryan (2004)

art-is-therapy

I have been a contributing writer for the blog AnimatedDocumentary.com since 2013; publishing over 40 articles, attending animation festivals and working closely with my co-authors and copy editors Alys Scott-Hawkins, Ellie Land, Carla MacKinnon and Linnéa Haviland.

My practice was further developed at the Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark, where I attended the AniDox:Lab. This is an Animated Documentary professional development course where I learnt how to develop and pitch a project. While my film, PIGS, did not get funded the process of developing and animating the pitch trailer was invaluable.

In March 2016 I teamed up with Nick Mercer a psychotherapist and drugs addiction counsellor from the Philadelphia Association to make a film about addiction.

(Please email me if you would like to view or screen this film)

I’d like to close with a rather somber documentary I created after returning from a trip to Africa; Hours and Hours of Footage of Two Giraffes… (2014)