Jared Callahan and Compassionate Filmmaking

Jared Callahan has the sort of personality that captures the entire room the moment he enters. He seems to actually listen to your voice and opinions, and makes you feel important when you talk to him. This in itself is not a unique trait, but what is is that his mannerisms come across in his films. I found his short films especially to be compassionate and inquisitive, despite their brevity, and reflective of who he is as a film maker.

What stood out from meeting Jared was his desire to portray his subjects as lovable people. As a person who primarily deals with narrative film, I find this to be difficult because I spend so much time creating flawed characters who are interesting, and taking already flawed people and making them lovable is a totally different approach. In consideration of how to do this, I’ve been thinking about a phrase he tossed out: creative audacity. As filmmakers we need to have the creative audacity to dare to tell stories with sensitivity and capture the humanity of our subjects, rather than focus on the “otherness” that makes them compelling to research. How to be responsible to our subjects while still telling a story that is interesting to an audience is an issue I’m still struggling with, but I appreciate Callahan’s approach of making a story about a person who is or who does something, rather than something that is being done by a person.

Waiting for Katrina

 

Paul Chan and Creative Time produced Waiting for Godot in New Orleans in two neighborhoods— the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly— in partnership with the University of New Orleans, Xavier University, and Dillard University for the benefit of the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In conjunction with the play, Creative Time and Paul Chan co-produced an experimental film entitled The Fulness of Time, which explored the lives and psychological state of Hurricane Katrina survivors. The film, directed by Cauleen Smith, was filmed concurrently with Chan’s production of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, and combines elements of science fiction and documentary film to express the range of emotions had by those who experienced the trauma of Katrina. The Fulness of Time amply captures the joy and despair of post-Katrina New Orleans through its series of vignettes which do not follow a narrative structure. The goal of the cast and production team of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans was to contribute to the society that they came into, which influenced Chan’s choice to not charge for tickets to the show or any of the subsequent events. Instead, Chan set up a “shadow fund” which raised money for the neighborhoods where Waiting for Godot in New Orleans was performed. Waiting for Godot in New Orleans was described as “a socially engaged performance at the heart of a national crisis, and direct support to the community is an essential component of the project”.

Photo elicitation

The method of photo elicitation brings about the interesting question of whether visual communication is inherently better. I feel like this is a very subjective question as it truly depends on the person’s learning style, some do better with visual than others. It links into the degree of comfort for communication. Yet, this method really brings up the importance of material culture, something that is very unique to us humans.

With regards to the Burning and the interviews, it was interesting to note that the context of the ethnographic work was worth knowing. We are fortunate enough to be literate but for most of the African migrants, they are illiterate and therefore rely heavily on visual mediums and the method of photo elicitation would definitely be preferred. Also, with regards to photos that Fino sent to his family we see the trail of misrepresentation of reality in terms of representation one’s best self to others. There is a distinct link or parallel to our use of Instagram in which we make reality look better than it actually is!

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In Douglas Harper’s article, he defines photo elicitation was that it is simply the idea of inserting a photograph into a research interview. The best part of photo elicitation seems to be its ability “to prod latent memory and to stimulate and release emotional statements about the informant’s life”. Photo elicitation can also overcome the difficulties that come along with in-depth interviewing because its based on an image that is at least in part understood by both parties.

My favorite part of his article was the section in which he discusses the two ways in which photo elicitation can lead the subject and researcher towards a mutual understanding. Photographs when breaking the frame and taken from a different angle or perspective can challenge the person and lead to deeper commentary. Thus, jolting the subject into what he calls a new awareness of their social existence. The other method he discusses was the use of images as a bridge between worlds especially culturally distinct ones. As such, one photograph can elicit different ideas from different people and when a photo is made up that shared view, the differences in perspective can be compared and analyzed.

 

Pressure to Please Our Parents

American Moderate was an eye opening film for me because I did not expect to connect with Liz as much as I did. Although, my parents and I do not have big discussions about politics, we do however; disagree on many other important things. Our opinions on romantic relationships, career and education differ mainly because of our different upbringings. My parents lived through communist and post-communism Albania, while I have lived in New York City for most of my life. Although, I often believe I am capable of “doing my own thing”, the older I have gotten and the further away from home I am, I have come to realize that I am heavily influenced by their beliefs and what they think of me and my actions.

Liz is growing up in the age of social media and is influenced by many more different people and in many more different ways than her parents. I too am growing up in the social media age and am surrounded by a number of different beliefs and ways of living than my parents have in their entire lives. Even knowing this, I did not expect Liz to be concerned about the fact that she held different beliefs from her family, because my impression of most American youth is that they adopt the attitude of “doing my own thing”.

Screencap of "American Moderate" by Jared Callahan.

Screencap of “American Moderate” by Jared Callahan.

Beauty and the Streets

Two summers ago, I travelled to Buenos Aires, Argentina for six weeks on a Study Abroad Program to study the Spanish language and culture. Buenos Aires is a luxurious city influenced by Italian architecture and the cosmopolitan capitals of the world. The people on the streets are beautiful and exceptionally kind. Yet there is a stark contrast in the beauty of this city compared to the beauty of the rest of the country. This difference is not necessarily something bad, yet it turns negative when these differences divide the population in terms of power, status, and opportunities.

Due to the Great European Immigration Wave in Argentina in the 20th century, most of the residents of Buenos Aires are of European descent. The concentration of lighter skinned Europeans being located in the largest city in Argentina led to a beauty standard that resembled more closely the Europeans rather than the majority of the darker skinned Argentinians. When I was in Argentina, even in other parts of the country all of the advertisements depicted light skinned models who looked nothing like the major population.screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-10-55-48-pm

This idolized beauty standard led to noticeable mistreatment of those who did not slightly resemble this image or come from European descent. In order to challenge the status quo, the street artist duo Primo took to spray painting large murals of solely dark skinned and indigenous people on the streets of Buenos Aires.

Primo is made up of two artists, Sasha Reisen and Nicolás Germani, who stand out from other street artists because they exclusively paint darker skinned people which drastically contrast with the abundance of advertisements featuring lighter skinned models. The intended effect of these murals is to not only show that there is beauty in all shades of skin, but also to bring the presence of the darker skinned Argentinians into Buenos Aires in a beautiful way. One piece that I find particularly stunning is the mural of a young dark skinned woman with a pony tail. The image is simple. In this simplicity, Primo is able to show the normalness of having different skin tones. In addition, the angle of the woman’s head is slightly up showing that she is not hiding, she is proud.

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While many people specifically in the street art community praise Primo’s work for the beauty of the portraits, not everyone treats them with the same appreciation. One mural of a black man with a snake coming out of his mouth had not been finished in one day, so Primo wrote “mural en proceso” (mural in process) only to return the next day to see that someone had painted over the image. The vandalizers instead wrote “mural en DESproceso” as well as “Y el respeto?” (and the respect?), “No se tapa, se respeten” (don’t paint over it, show some respect), and drew a speech bubble that said “no respiro” (I’m not breathing) as if the black man was saying that he couldn’t breathe now that the vandalism had covered his face[i]. While it is not clear if these comments are in regards to Primo not having respect, black people not having respect, or just a silly prank, the effect of this vandalism was that the mural was ruined and Primo had to start over in another location. According to the article by BA Street Art, the artist duo commented on the vandalism by reporting that they felt hurt and angry that these people implied a lack of respect and that they wasted a lot of time and resources just to have to start over again[ii]. This act of vandalism could have been a meaningless prank, but it also could have been targeted towards Primo since they are creating somewhat controversial murals by solely painting darker skin people. Since the vandalizer left their street art name “Lake” on their tag, it does seem as though they are directly challenging Primo.

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One critique of Primo’s street art is that since graffiti is a relatively new medium of art, it certainly does not hold the same impact on a community as other longstanding forms of art. People may not attribute the same respect to graffiti artists since graffiti is often associated with rebellious teenagers who are “up to no good.” Potentially, by using a medium that is not well respected, it could lead to these murals not being respected as well and have a reversed effect on the intention to create beauty around darker skinned people in Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, while this street art is not the ultimate fix to racism or changing the beauty standard, it does start conversation about what is art and what is beautiful.

 

[i] “Graffiti Wars as Primo Mural Painted Over Before It’s Finished.” BA Street Art. 2012.

[ii] Ibid, 2012.

Falling in Love with Film

What makes us fall in love with a film?

I found myself asking this question as I walked out of class after meeting Jared Callahan last week. While his three shorts we watched, Janey Makes a Play, American Moderate, and The Many Friends of Sommer Caffarella were all beautiful, well-constructed, and heartwarming pieces of film, none of them immediately struck me as impactful. Not in the way that Homemade or The Burning had – in a way that made me feel moved to action or residually haunted by problems that seemed so grand that they couldn’t filter through the sieve of my attention span. After watching Jared’s films I felt intrigued and impressed, but beyond that they left nothing but a warm aura of an impression.

And then we met Jared. From reading the other posts of my classmates, I know I’m not the only one who felt drawn into his charismatic responses to questions and his infectious enthusiasm. Within minutes of first hearing him speak about his filmmaking history and process, I wanted to see every film he’d ever made and ever film he would ever make. Forgetting the slow lulls in Janey Makes a Play that I had noted the night before, I found myself retrospectively enchanted with all of Jared’s films. I wanted to watch them again, I wanted to tell other people about them, and I wanted everyone to know how great this person and his artwork appeared to me. Suddenly, I felt a certain type of love for these pieces of work and their creator.

While I reacted with cynicism towards other guests we have brought into the class, I found for the first time that meeting Jared made me like his films more. That his approach, one he described as centered on a goal of “having [viewers] fall in love with [the subjects of his films],” made me feel more accepting of the films we had watched and less critical of their agendas. Jared’s films suddenly seemed an extension of himself, someone I found compassionate and charming, making his camera’s gaze seem comparably kind. Knowing and liking Jared made me feel like I knew and liked his film. Like I really, truly loved his films that night before I had felt somewhat ambivalently about.

As I’ve thought about the way meeting Jared tinted my perceptions of his films, I’ve begun to wonder if more important than the question of what makes us love certain films is if in doing so we come to love the people who create them. American Moderate, my favorite of the three pieces, portrays a set of characters who I would imagine I’d find it hard and disagreeable to interact with in person. Liz and her community are different from me – they have different views, different life experiences, and different values in many ways – but through Jared’s vision of them I found them understandable if not even endearing. However, I am unsure if the feeling of warmth that I feel towards Liz is truly directed at her: if I love Liz or if I love the way Jared loves Liz. If I love the subjects of his film or if I love his outlook on them. And if the two are divorceable in the first place.

In class we spoke at length about the ability to like films without liking their filmmakers, alluding to immoral or unpleasant filmmakers, authors, and others. It seemed like many of us thought that while in some capacities knowing an author, or actor, or director may be a “bad” person makes us look at their work more critically – in documentary film, several of us could find examples of films we loved despite their grating subjects. While I wasn’t uniquely drawn to Liz or Janey, meeting Jared made me feel drawn to the way he understood them. Piecing through this experience, I’ve begun to wonder if what makes us love documentaries – something unique from loving fictitious creators – is loving the way they see things.

The things I found enticing about Janey Makes a Play and Jared’s other works were not their stories or even their subjects, and in some sense, I believe that contrary to his objective, what Jared made us love was not these people but rather his relationships to them. Janey Makes a Play is only exciting because of the admiration that Jared expresses when he speaks about his grandmother. The Many Friends of Sommer Caffarella is heartwarming because of the kindness with which we see Jared interact with Sommer and the palpable intimacy and love in their relationship. Liz, a girl from a background that has led her to have beliefs I fundamentally disagree with, is relatable because Jared chose to make her so, omitting intentionally incriminating footage of her and her family saying racist or offensive things. In all of these instances what draws me to these people are never the people themselves but Jared’s choice to portray them in a certain light – I am drawn to his perspective and his mission as a filmmaker.

I believe that this relationship – not just between the viewer and the filmmaker – but between the viewer and the filmmaker’s perspective and intent is integral to the way we consume and relate to documentary film. Thinking back to other guests we had in the class, the significance of this relationship became more apparent. I didn’t dislike Danielle as a person; I disliked the way she related to a family she saw struggling and the way she chose to represent them. While these are examples are anecdotal, they speak to what I believe is a critical component of what makes us love film: an ability to find in film a perspective that appeals to us and resembles our own, people who look through similar lenses and interpret things in similar frameworks. Just like how we find ourselves in characters, in fiction, and in people, we find ourselves equally in the resonance between our own outlook and those of others’. I love Jared’s approach to film because it seems grounded in a set of principles that are agreeable with my own. Even if we can divorce people from their work and their character from the quality of their creations, it is perhaps in the inextricable influence of an artist’s perspective that we find ourselves falling in love with work – with the idea that the frameworks through which we interpret, imagine, and observe the world are shared and given some weight of truth.

Jared Callahan’s Work

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Once Jared told us that Janey was actually his grandmother that just completely changed everything. The fact that he knew her just shed light on so many of my questions such as how he was able to incorporate such raw footage from her wedding and past pictures. The use of her own proper archived videos and pictures, made it way more real and you could really connect with her. I also really liked the fact that he focused on the history and nature of the town Rio Vista along with the community and their struggle, as it really completes the picture. I also could really relate with the point he was trying to relate through Janey makes a play about Ageism in the US and it really gets you to think about your own life and what your doing with it. This especially hit hard at the end when the 16 year-old girl dies yet the 95 year old still lives.

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It was clear from all three clips that the relationship with the subjects is strongly based on trust. This is especially relevant for the short clip American moderate as he could have thrashed the family but instead portrayed them as balanced and not homophobic or racist. Also, the way it was filmed also made us as the viewer really follow her journey of struggle and indecision.

His “compassionate” style of filming really makes the films more about the people and their stories as opposed to getting a real point across although the point is also conveyed in the end. He thus addresses big issues by letting the audience fall in love with the characters. His job as a storyteller is to make the audience fall in love with the characters and I feel like her really did a great job capturing that, although to a certain extent it seemed like he just really focused on the positive and completely omitted the negative. This just made the documentaries a little to idealistic if I may and a bit too fake as there is more to these people’s stories than just happiness, we all struggle and seeing the struggle can allow the viewer to connect at an even deeper level.

Jared: Jannie Makes a Play and The Many Friends of Sommer

I found Jared to be a very inspirational speaker.  He displayed great humility when speaking about his role portraying others through film.  He spoke about the importance of honoring a person and their story and being true to who they are to make the audience love the person.  He used this philosophy to portray Sommer and Jannie, two subjects in his work.  He mentioned that how you relate to your subject is very important because they trust you to tell their story “truthfully” and with “honor.”  What a responsibility for a filmmaker to have!  I think the line between telling a story, making a story, and being honorable is blurry and even with this guiding philosophy can present challenges at times. What if your subject isn’t lovable?  Take Adam and his wife in Homemade.  Arguably at many times throughout the film we cannot love them.  Are we still expected to show empathy towards these characters?  What if the subject’s believe they are being presented inaccurately?  These are some really important ethical and moral questions that need to be grappled with as a filmmaker.

Additionally, Jared presented the idea that an individual and a concept cannot be separated.  Sommer for example, by the nature of her identity as a disabled woman, carries the weight of disability, a concept that comes with prejudice, economic, and social problems.  I think this is fascinating.  With the film, Homemade, we questioned whether the concept of Veteran substance abuse and medical neglect was conveyed through a such a small window.  Jared would argue, I believe that it was.  In his mind, telling a large story through an individual is effective and perhaps preferable.  I don’t think I agree with this completely because I feel like this could risk complacency from the audience who believe this is a “one-off” or rare case.  This should be cautioned against.  The connection to a broader issue, I believe should be explicitly stated or demonstrated.  Ultimately, however, Jared reminds us that we are obligated to tell the story of the people and build a case for empathy and challenge the status quo.

Jared’s films Jannie Makes a Play and The Many Friends of Sommer remind us that seemingly small stories are still worth being told.  They reflect more than we realize about the culture and world as well as the individual.  I feel if we are able to elicit engagement through empathy, compassion, and love through visual anthropology and film, the journey has been worthwhile.  These accomplishments, Jared says, are baby steps to changing the world.

 

Fan-girling

Honestly, I want to use this post to fan-girl over Jared Callahan for a quick second. He was, by far, the best guest that we’ve had in class this semester – and I don’t mean this out of disrespect for any of our others guests, because they were all awesome, but Jared just went above and beyond. His enthusiasm and energy was vibrant and contagious. Honestly, I enjoyed his films but I loved them even more after hearing him talk about them and his passion for helping individual people and allowing the world to look at someone specifically and view their story while he tries to make you “fall in love” with them.

Jared’s enthusiastic personality about his work and what he does was just so refreshing and inspiring. I think I talked about this a little bit in a previous post but this semester has really opened up my eyes. I’ve never known what I wanted to do with my life and finally I’m starting to see a clearer path or at least a direction that I would like to pursue. I’ve never even thought about doing documentaries before but this class in particular has provided me with a newfound interest in social practice art and specifically in documentaries. Honestly, Jared is someone I can see myself wanting to be like – he is just so passionate about what he does and expresses that through his words, actions, and films. I just want to find my passion and I want to be able to discover myself and the complexities of the world in which I live in.

I’ve never been a super materialistic individual but this course has made me even less of one. Everyone talks about how important it is to have a good job and make a good living and be able to provide for yourself and your family. While I don’t disagree with that statement, I do disagree with the extent to which people take it. I’m never going to be the person that needs the latest iPhone or next model of sports car; that’s just not who I am. I’ve come to realize that all I really want to do in my life is make a difference, and maybe that’s an idealistic way to think, maybe I should be focused on making a living and being able to send my kids to college but at the end of the day, I just don’t believe that. Is it important to make enough money to live comfortably? Yeah I would say so. Is it important to save for your kids’ future and your own future? Yes of course. But is it really important to make more money than you need, buy things out of desire, and spend money like it’s your job? To that I’d say no.

I know that this post is kind of all over the place but I just needed to express how much I love this class and am so grateful for the opportunities, insight, and perspective that it has given me.

Jared Callahan Comes to Class

When Jared Callahan came to speak to us about his pieces, I found him to be the most relatable guest we have had thus far… at least in my personal opinion. He was very realistic about funding, where to begin projects, etc… and I also liked the fact that he told us which classes he took in college, such as production, and how they have been helpful… or not helpful… for him today. I think learning from him really put into perspective my goals in the near future, and what I should strive for as a senior at Emory.

I really appreciated Callahan’s sense of positivity that he implements in the films he creates, or at least the ones we have viewed. The fact that he always attempts to put his subjects in a good light is refreshing to see in documentaries, rather than just showing the audiences what all is wrong with the world. Like he said,

“the camera is a source of compassion.”

That really resonated with me, and I hope that I can use that idea in films that I create myself.

While watching Janey Makes a Play, it was easy to see that the filmmaker was emotionally connected to central subject, Janey. I feel like otherwise the documentary as a whole would have never been created.

Callahan at the Lone Star Film Festival

While watching, I admired Janey and found her entire story to be entertaining. However, I did feel a sense of a disconnect. It might have been because I have never met this woman, or simply because this community theater is a place I have never been to. I’m not entirely sure of the cause, but I did feel a lack of connection to this documentary, and found my eyes glazing over at times, maybe just because I do not know those people, and have no personal connection. I also wonder if because Callahan knows her and always wants to put a great face on his characters, if that this created a sense of falsity within the movie as well.

I think my favorite films of the three was definitely American Moderate. Being from Texas, a state that has a VERY large Republican background, I found myself relating to Liz’s character. My father is a die-hard conservative Republican, and my mother is socially Democratic. At times dinner had some heated conversations haha. Regardless, I think that Liz’s story is one that we can all relate to. This presidential campaign has had the most media involvement in history, and this fact definitely effects the polls, along with family, friends, etc…

In the documentary, I liked how we never found out who Liz voted for. This ultimate question is then sort of asked to the audience– who do THEY want to vote for? I also think that not having her say in the film who she voted for was interesting because it also expresses the idea that media (including films) should not effect one’s own personal ideas and political opinions.

However, after finding Liz’s twitter account that she spoke of so much, it is clear to me that she has indeed voted for a particular candidate, and I think her saying so on Twitter sort of diminished my delight while watching. I wish I didn’t know, because then the mystery question would have been for the audience to decide.

I found The Many Friends of Sommer Caffarella to be the most uplifting for any audience to watch. It could easily touch anyone’s heart and reach to a broader audience. I think it was a good decision of Callahan’s to not have a tone that just basically says “feel sorry for those with disabilities,” but rather shows them as people, in this case Sommer. In this way, Callahan was able to go into a much larger issue in society through Sommer’s personal life, and how she dreams of being a star.