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
Gregory Singer, ‘Landreth on ‘Ryan’’, VFXWorld Magazine (Los Angeles: Animation World Network,
2004) <http://www.awn.com/vfxworld/landreth-ryan> [accessed 6 April 2017].
Thomas Szasz (1961) The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. Harper & Row: New York
Alex Widdowson (2017) Identifying Caricatures Among the Character Designs of Animated Documentaries which Feature Both Anonymous and Identifiable Interview Subjects. [Masters dissertation] Royal Collage of Art: London.