‘Can the subaltern speak?’ and representing autism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should the neurotypical speak?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Spivak, 1995: 104)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1 – Ethical Dilemmas Associated with Evocative Animated Documentary Production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pros: 

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

Cons: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diagram 1

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

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

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

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

Diagram 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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