Documentary Now!

Last week I was at a gathering of around 200 academics and practitioners (quite a few of whom these days span both worlds) for the annual Documentary Now! Conference at Birkbeck College, London. There was an entertaining keynote from Florian Thalhofer – the Berlin-based inventor of the Korsakow System – who described the development of his “easy-to-use computer program for the creation of database films” from its beginnings a decade ago.  In his open source system, now in version 5, “the author decides on the rules by which the scenes relate to each other, but s/he does not create fixed paths”. Thalhofer is on a mission to promote nonlinearity as a superior structure for documentary reflection, and the work he’s created in the Korsakow System makes a persuasive case. Take a look at Forgotten Flags, or 7 Sons. The quality is lovely, you want to explore the subjects he chooses, and Thalhofer has a distinctive, engaging authorial voice. Over a thousand people have made films in Korsakow – many in group workshops. Those making use of it to date are often media artists – Korsakow describes his works as “art pieces” – but the system is open to anyone to use. I’m certainly planning to experiment with it.

Among the presentations at Birkbeck were a couple which explored issues of authorship and collaboration relevant to participatory media. In the session dedicated to Interactive, Susan Aasman from the University of Groningen pointed to the practice of “passing the camera” between director and subject adopted by Jennifer Fox during the making of her first person film “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman“. For this epic documentary of six hour-long episodes that was released in 2006, Fox travelled to over seventeen countries – her project, provoked by questions about the direction of her own life, to understand “how diverse women define their lives when there is no map”. As she explains on the “Flying” website (and illustrates in a video that’s worth taking a look at), Fox found that passing the camcorder between herself and those she was in conversation with focused the attention of her subjects and facilitated the kind of disclosure she was looking for. “Many people say that the camera used in this way makes them “wake up” and become more attentive to the moment. If done properly and with the right intention, “Passing the Camera” creates a space that often gives people the courage to ask questions they maybe normally wouldn’t ask and reveal things about themselves that they normally wouldn’t reveal.”

Aasman was interested in passing the camera as a form of interactivity which throws the roles of the observer and the observed into question, and in its potential to turn first person cinema into “collective self-portrait” – a theme at the heart of my research. She made connections with Jean Rouch and Sol Worth’s experiments in “shared anthropology”, with home movie, and with the Guerilla TV and Radical Software movements. “Passing the camera” also demonstrated that, in Fox’s words, “everybody can shoot”, and Fox invited the audience to submit video contributions for a seventh episode, a user generated postscript to the film. Aasman asked what it might mean for documentary now that consumers are becoming producers in this way.

Fox sees passing the camera as particularly appropriate to capturing conversations between women. According to the “Flying” website, “Fox creates a documentary language that mirrors the special way women communicate.” Among those who’d seen “Flying” in the audience at Birkbeck there was a strong suggestion that this idea of the universality of female experience in fact played out in the film as Fox harnessing the experience of diverse women to her own agenda. Given Fox’s control over the editing process, “passing the camera” was then dismissed as not being a significant departure from the norm of directorial control.

I haven’t seen “Flying” and don’t imagine (from the clips available online) that I’d want to defend the film from this critique. But this discussion made me reflect on how my experience co-producing BBC2’s Video Nation project leads me to think that the idea of “passing the camera” is interesting and that someone holding a camera in her hands can be an actor in a filming process in a way that is different from someone who is the object of filming. For the original Video Nation project for BBC2, which I’ve written about before, we established a cohort of around 50 people who we trained and who then filmed their lives during the course of a year or so. They filmed what and when they wanted to, the BBC team viewed and edited the material, and the participants had a contractual right of veto over what was shown on TV. I’d call the production arrangement one of co-creation. It’s been studied and discussed, and commentators have taken different views of the approach to editorial control. It certainly brought those individuals to TV in a way that presented them as subjects of their own lives.

On occasions – just before the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control in ’97, in the aftermath of the severe floods in Bangladesh in ’98 – we were commissioned to produce content for BBC seasons. For these we “passed the camera” to people for a few hours or a day, and I was struck by how even that brief arrangement would lead to content which presented a strong sense of an individual’s perspective, and felt different to me from the likely observations of an outsider. A ferry man in Bangladesh rowed as he talked to camera about the ferry crossing as a metaphor for life’s journey. A teenage girl in Hong Kong showed her high rise block, (on what seemed to me a pretty grim housing project), and talked about how beautiful it was, and how much she loved it there, because of the sense of community.

Why “passing the camera” seems to me to matter is that, despite the impression that You Tube can give, that “everyone” is now creating media, there are still many people who aren’t. As Jenny Kidd noted in her study of the BBC’s Capture Wales digital storytelling project, and which struck us forcibly as we worked on that project, the majority of those taking part were certainly not otherwise digital creators. These days in the UK this will tend to be less to do with access to equipment – the so-called “digital divide” –  and more to do with what Henry Jenkins calls the “convergence gap” – a lack of access to the skills and/or understanding of the protocols of participation. So I think a variety of co-creative strategies are worthwhile, in giving people an experience of content creation, extending the perspectives that make it to the screen (TV or computer), and presenting people as subjects rather than objects of representation.

It’s noteworthy how, in the interactive, participatory environment of the web, specific, variegated structures of engagement and control around content creation and sharing are ubiquitous, from calls for UGC where the offer is simply presence on a platform or credit, to user options re membership and rights like you get on Flickr, to collaborative editing as on Wikipedia, and there are lots of terms for shared authorship – co-creation, co-collaboration, “Collab”. What’s considered important is the transparency of the “house rules”, so that someone getting involved knows upfront exactly what the deal is, and is able to make an informed decision about taking part. In contrast, in documentary, on TV, radio and elsewhere, there has generally been one model of engagement – with editorial control and rights resting with the director/broadcaster – and any other arrangement continues to be regarded warily and with scepticism.

So I was very interested in one of the conference presentations that explored a discourse around shared authorship that has been developed in the context of first person film. Paul Kerr (who introduced his work in a comment on this blog back in the Autumn) focused on “Marilyn on Marilyn”, which he made for the BBC in 2001, The programme was built around two in-depth audio interviews with Marilyn Monroe and archive footage – Kerr deliberately chose anything but movie clips of Monroe – to create a film which eschewed the usual gaze at the film star and instead invited the viewer to imagine her life as seen from her point of view. Kerr explored how the concept of “shared textual authority” might work as a way of thinking about his programme. This idea was originally proposed by Michael Renov as a way of describing authorship in the context of home video – where different family members may share a camera. The idea was then developed by Berber Hagedoorn to provide a conceptual framework for the “Found Footage Documentary” – recent films like Grizzly Man and Capturing the Friedmans – where a substantial proportion of the content has been generated not by the director of the finished piece but by the subjects of the story. Kerr showed how his moving documentary made sense within this framework – and it’s an idea that I find helpful,  both in looking back on on Video Nation, and at the web based Collabs I’m getting involved in now.