Thoughts on Callahan’s “American Moderate” and “Janey Makes a Play”

Screencap of "American Moderate" by Jared Callahan.

Screencap of “American Moderate” by Jared Callahan.

I don’t want to speak for everybody in class when I say this, but the energy that filmmaker Jared Callahan brought to class when he visited was both refreshing and endearing, especially in comparison to the personalities we had become accustomed to in our guests. Although I didn’t get a chance to ask this in class, I was really curious about the greatest length of production for any of his films. This question came to mind because the other filmmakers who have visited our class thus far have all worked on projects for years at a time, so I wonder if perhaps they were simply more jaded and have experienced more of the filmmaking process that may unintentionally mask their passion for the field.

I think my favorite of the three films was “American Moderate” on the sole basis that the content was so relevant. Upon watching it, I immediately wanted to share the film with friends, especially those back home in Palo Alto, CA who have most likely never been exposed to American citizens like Liz and her family. The film did a particularly good job at inspiring a greater understanding of the logic used by Trump supporters, which in turn allowed the viewer to perceive these individuals as more than “deplorables.” I especially liked the fact that Jared pointed out that a viewer’s perception of Liz speaks more to the viewer’s opinions and values than it does Liz’s. This film also felt very authentic in that it gave off a “homemade” vibe, which I hope isn’t perceived as an insult. For example, when Liz says that she has never perceived herself to be a Democrat, the camera awkwardly pans to her quiz results which indicate that she sides with Democrats on most issues. As jerky and unfocused as this moment was, it added a spontaneous comical spin on a film that was laced with ironies. Jared indirectly addressed this when he said that people tend to excuse quality issues in documentaries, and I think that’s the case because the messiness adds an element of rawness that invokes a sense of reality we expect to observe in documentary film.

Promotional material for "Janey Makes a Play."

Promotional material for “Janey Makes a Play.”

I also really enjoyed “Janey Makes a Play” because my first official foray into film was through a mini documentary about the making of/behind-the-scenes of my high school’s spring play that I created for the online component of my school’s newspaper. Throughout the film, I was wondering where Jared found such a peculiar woman, and for a reason I can’t explain, I was a little disappointed when he revealed that Janey is his grandmother. I think we tend to fantasize the hunt for a story because of the perceived expenditure of effort that comes with exploration into unfamiliar realms, but as Jared proved, often times it’s advantageous to delve further into areas in which we feel comfortable because we may be granted greater access.

Response to Sontag’s “Looking at War”

The purpose of photography is interesting in that, initially, it appeared to have answered a call for greater objectivity in recording and sharing history; that said, although we are often quick to compare photography to paintings or writing, photos have just as much potential for subjectivity, which Sontag explains may be attributed to a number of sources. For instance, “it is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.” Cottingley FairiesNowadays, the objectivity of photography is more often questioned due to the increasing reliance on tools such as Photoshop in creating the images to which mass media is constantly exposing us. In other words, it’s difficult nowadays for us to determine what is even real. However, back when photography was still considered a novel innovation, I think a photograph was more readily equated to a fair representation of reality. This is evidenced by the controversy that the truth behind “Cottingley Fairies” invoked in people.

I’ve always considered this initial lack of cynicism to be problematic because it brings into question the breadth of coverage we have of the past, especially since we began using photography as a tool for record-keeping. For instance, if you didn’t have the means to own a camera, your experiences wouldn’t have been represented, ultimately raising an SES/class issue. And even if another individual photographed you, their interpretation of your situation may completely misrepresent reality. Sontag touches on this when she writes:

The problem is in the pictures themselves, not the way they are exhibited: in their focus on the powerless, reduced to their powerlessness. It is significant that the powerless are not named in the captions. A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit, if inadvertently, in the cult of celebrity that has fueled an insatiable appetite for the opposite sort of photograph: to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights.

In a painting, for instance, we rarely ask for the names of the subjects depicted, and instead, focus on the overall scene. What exactly this says about art, I’m not sure, but I’ve observed that we tend to react to photographs in the same way despite the increased realness and therefore relatability of the subjects. My initial thought is that the stillness of a photo is enough to distance ourselves, to dichotomize “us” versus “them.” Kevin Carter’s photo of a vulture stalking a child.In my opinion, by allowing a single individual, such as in Kevin Carter’s photo of a vulture stalking a child, to be representative of an issue, photography inherently moves beyond the role of “generating documents” to that of “creating works of visual art.” Before reading this article, I had never considered the possibility that even early photographers staged their photographs, but thinking about it now, if photography was initially considered a rival to traditional art, then it’s logical that photography’s journalistic nature would have only been an afterthought.

“The Crossing” — Reaction

Before I read “The Crossing,” I was reading another article—“The Good Doctor,” a New Yorker feature story published in 2000 about physician and medical anthropologist Paul Farmer—for my Foundations of Global Health class. In this piece, Farmer is quoted for sharing a distinct memory in which he watched a patient die because she simply could not afford a blood transfusion. What Farmer remembers most vividly from that encounter was the patient’s sister, who repeatedly cried, “We’re all human beings.”

The erasure of those who are impoverished is a trend in society that I cannot seem to escape. For this reason, the image of sub-Saharan Africans attempting to cross over the fences that separate Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla especially affected me. And not solely on account of the absurdity in the contrast between the two groups of individuals photographed, but also due to my own guilt that I have recently come to acknowledge regarding my role in perpetuating dichotomies within shared spaces.

A group of sub-Saharan Africans attempt to cross the razor-wire fences that separate Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla. On the other side of the fences, Spaniards play golf.

A group of sub-Saharan Africans attempt to cross the razor-wire fences that separate Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla. On the other side of the fences, Spaniards play golf.

As an Oxford continuee, I experienced first-hand the “Oxford bubble” within Covington, GA. One of my classes last year required me to volunteer as a tutor in a Newton County middle school, and on my first day, I could not believe the amount of culture shock I felt despite having driven only a few minutes from where I had considered my home away from home. Even in the Silicon Valley where I grew up, it’s easy to characterize the area as a haven for opportunity, but gentrification over the past two decades has left many homeless, which the New York Times sought to explore in an Op-Doc about a 24-hour public bus line that serves as a shelter for many. Unfortunately, these stories often fail to find a place among the imagery of affluence that mass media has constructed.

This idea is reinforced throughout “The Crossing” by the descriptions of police officers burning tents and “the few possessions that boys like Beni had to their name— a blanket, a tattered pair of pants, and if they hadn’t already been burned, a photograph or two of their parents or younger siblings left back home.” The article even mentions that “police make an effort to pour any bags of salt, rice, or other food supplies out in the dirt when they raid camps.” To me, this inhumane treatment is comparable to genocide. It’s as if the goal is to ignore the issue at hand by eliminating any evidence of the existence of these migrant groups, and the consequence is a growing problem with no solution in the works. It is only when this culture of erasure is spatialized and in turn, critically observed, that “space and spatial relations yield insights into unacknowledged biases, prejudices and inequalities that frequently go unexamined (Low, 2014).” In other words, the Spanish enclaves are, unlike the two examples I provided from my own life, literal “bubbles” of freedom, and their proximity to the sub-Saharan Africans fighting for their lives serves as a microcosm for our societally ingrained tendency to separate ourselves from the problems facing others unlike us.

Landfill in La Carpio

A landfill is strategically placed in La Carpio, a slum area of Costa Rica that is primarily inhabited by migrant Nicaraguans.

While reading about the migrant crisis in Morocco, I drew many parallels to La Carpio, a slum in Costa Rica known for its Nicaraguan immigrant population. I visited this region with my Concepts and Methods in Cultural Anthropology class at Oxford, and during our week there, we observed the tensions between the predominantly “white” Costa Rican population and the migrant “dark-skinned” Nicaraguans. For instance, located on the edge of La Carpio lies a landfill, which affects the Nicaraguans on a daily basis on account of the dump trucks which block their roads and the foul stench that consumes the air. From a symbolic perspective, the landfill associates the Nicaraguans in La Carpio with trash, and as a result, parallels between the Nicaraguans and the landfill can be observed. For example, many Costa Ricans have a tendency to ignore the growing Nicaraguan population, choosing instead to maintain a certain degree of racism as opposed to developing long-term solutions and fostering a healthy relationship between the two groups.

Famous Figures: Judith & David MacDougall

EXCERPT – 0:00 to 9:06

I was unable find a free sample of Familiar Places. Photo Wallahs was the only film I could find online that was directed by both Judith and David MacDougall. The nine minute excerpt provides examples of techniques that were common in macdougall films, such as: subtitling as opposed to voice-over narration, acknowledgement of the presence of a camera (8:50), and long takes (1:49 to 3:34).

Judith and David MacDougall

Both Judith and David MacDougall graduated from the Ethnographic Film Program at UCLA and married shortly thereafter. They began producing ethnographic documentaries in the late 1960s, during which time they studied indigenous populations in Africa and Australia.

While the MacDougalls are highly regarded in the field of visual anthropology, they are less known by documentary makers as a whole. This has largely been attributed to the fact that the MacDougalls have consistently defied the mainstream conventions of documentary editing that mimic the practices of fiction filmmaking. Their goal, according to David in an interview with American Anthropologist, has always been to develop an “unprivileged camera style” that preserves, for instance, long takes and initial encounters. In this way, the viewer is able to better observe daily practices as opposed to hearing about them through scripted narration and interviews in which the subjects reflect on their experiences after-the-fact.

That said, the MacDougalls have never claimed omniscience. In fact, they have labeled their work as reflexive even before this term became popularized among anthropologists. In their films, the MacDougalls acknowledge their presence, include first-person commentary, and allow the viewer to hear both the questions they asked and the responses they received from those whom they studied. The MacDougalls have even been known for deliberately including the reactions of their subjects when they realize they are being filmed.

One practice that has been highly popularized by the MacDougalls is subtitling indigenous speech as opposed to utilizing an English voiceover. Although commonplace now, in the early 1970s, this tool was instrumental in bringing ethnographic subjects to life on screen.

Although the pair has separated, both David and Judith have continued to make ethnographic films. Currently, David’s interests lie in children’s educational institutions in India, while Judith recently published work pertaining to how the digital and cultural revolutions in China have affected one another.