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.

On Food Inc. and Individual Accountability for Change

In the 2008 documentary Food Inc., director and producer Robert Kenner explores the workings of the United States’ domestic industrial agriculture sector in order to uncloak the intricacies of one of the most secrecy-shrouded industries in the United States. Combining heart wrenching, vérité footage of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) with interviews from nutrition, environment, and agriculture experts, and narration from Michael Pollan, a leading author on food sustainability, Food Inc. is emotionally riveting and scientifically grounded. One of the highest budget and best received films of its kind, Food Inc. stands out in a sea of consciousness-raising documentaries about different parts of American agribusiness as a film-festival and box office success and a true inspiration for change in the diets of Americans everywhere.

Food Inc. is broken into three parts: one that explores animal confinement and the inhumane practices used to raise meat and dairy animals en masse, a second that documents the environmental and economic damage inflicted by subsidizing commodity crops like corn and soy for animal feed, and a final segment that investigates the legal and political apparatuses that enable the industry to grow unchecked by public or political restraint and oversight. It is in its detailed and broad-reaching perspective that Food Inc. finds its voice; its exposé is well-rounded, supported by data and expert testimony, and thorough in its review. It is both academically diligent and emotionally charged. Food Inc. is in every sense an excellent documentary.

Yet, like so many documentaries, Food Inc. falls prey to the perils of consciousness-raising as a political strategy, which becomes particularly apparent in the film’s exploration into agribusiness as an industry that thrives off of its ability to displace the burden of choice and responsibility onto consumers. As Food Inc. dives deeper and deeper into the multifaceted and well-crafted social and political contraptions that enable agribusiness to succeed, industry experts and interviewed farmers alike explain that the agriculture industry’s control over American diets is cemented by its ability to displace blame and shield itself from criticism. By promoting social messaging through advertising and the manipulation of federal and state laws and guidelines, the agriculture industry has created a trap for consumers. Government policies constantly lessen and deny the industry’s responsibility for the obesity epidemic and climate change while increasing costs and burdens on consumers through taxes and misdirected subsidies. With the additional promotion of salient social narratives that fault individuals for not making healthier choices, the food industry derives much of its power from its ability to constrict individuals’ choices by making unhealthy food the most cost competitive option and then blame those individuals for making “bad” decisions. It is in this process of shifting blame onto consumers that agribusiness turns critical eyes away from its practices and towards the dietary habits of the public, suggesting that things would be better and the world would be healthier and safer if only people chose differently.

These narratives that fault consumers for mass environmental and health-related damage are toxic. Not only do they place the social burden of public health and environmental crises on low income and minority populations who are the least likely to be able to afford to use their limited purchasing power to “make healthy choices” in revolt against agribusiness, they also divert attention from the unsustainable and inhuman practices of the ever-growing agriculture industry itself. It is at the ends of such conclusions, that Food Inc.’s consumer focused approach to change seems misplaced. After a 94 minute testament to the danger inherent in investing the power of social change into a constricted and largely uninformed public (despite the film’s attempt to shed light on the secrecy that surrounds factory farming), Food Inc.’s final call for people to “vote three times a day” to change the system by making different consumption choices rings out uncannily similar to agribusinesses direction for consumers to do the same. Food Inc., ironically, pushes viewers further into the trap laid by factory farming in directing them to assert more agency of their choices, all the while acknowledging that those choices are limited and predetermined by agribusiness. Food Inc.’s call to action is nothing more than an impetus for grassroots efforts to work harder for demand-side reform of the food market, a market so large and politically protected that demand seems to have little to do with it.

While this dilemma is easily identified in Food Inc. and its associated impact campaign, similar complications in documentary’s efficacy as a tool for social change writ large are intrinsic to the medium’s form. Documentary can be powerful, moving, informative, and stimulating. But its power cannot stretch beyond its ability to move audiences. And while a vast, public audience may be a filmmaker’s dream and a necessary ingredient for broader change, it is ultimately insufficient if documentary cannot direct that audience’s efforts towards the heart of problems. While film may motivate people to act, to act in what way is an often unanswered or poorly answered question. In the case of Food Inc., the film paints the picture of a problem fraught with political protection, yet fails to answer the questions it raises about how to change the subsidy system, alter laws that restrict people from reporting on factory farm practices, or lower the costs of organic and sustainable foods. Food Inc. settles for the “do what you can with what you have” approach that agriculture relies – the very structure of demotivating the public that many exploitative and oversized industries like fossil fuel markets and pharmaceutical practices rely on.

While Food Inc. is an important contribution to the discussion about how to reform the food supply chain, it must be taken in critically, and with a cautious refusal to simplify the solution to a growingly complex problem down to “making better choices.” Until governments and markets start demanding differently subsidy and regulatory frameworks, agriculture corporations will maintain a monopoly over political power, even while consumers fight them with the full might of their spending power. Thus, in light of Food Inc., the public should reconsider not what the film demands of them, but what they should demand of those with agency over the supply chain. It is not enough to just ask the right questions to viewers. In response to Food Inc. and other documentaries that encourage us to change, we should ask ourselves the important question of what is within our power to affect and what is not. And with the knowledge that many decisions have been removed from our hands, we should be motivated to ask the right questions of the right people, forcing accountability onto those who should bear it, refusing to accept blame for a problem individuals alone did not cause.

Insider Status Outside of Formal Research — A reaction to “Power and Positionality”

 

“What does it mean to be an insider or an outsider to a particular group under study?” Merriam et. al pose this question at the opening of their piece “Power and Positionality: negotiating insider/outsider status within and across cultures,” in which they explore the power dynamics at play in the interactions between researchers and the subjects of their observations. According to Merriam, power and positionality are not fixed concepts that create static and cleanly delineated divisions in subjects, but rather fluid and relational constructs that must be constantly navigated and renegotiated in anthropological research.

“During fieldwork the researcher’s power is negotiated, not given.”

Being inside a community, Merriam suggests, is far more complex than just having a claim to a specific shared national, ethnic, or geographic origin. Rather, insider status is established by members of communities who coalesce around aligned individual qualities that span components of peoples’ ideas reaching from race, to gender, to educational backgrounds. As such, Merriam states that “positionality is thus determined by where one stands in relation to ‘the other'” and more importantly, “these positions can shift: ‘The loci along which we are aligned with or set apart form those whom we study are multiple and in flux. Factors such as education, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, or sheer frustration of contacts may at different times outweigh the cultural identity we association with insider or outsider status.”

Yet while Merriam’s analysis offers critical insight into the dynamics that exist between researchers and their subjects, it also offers a more broadly salient and culturally significant understanding of insider/outsider dynamics that may inform our interactions outside of specific research contexts. Most of us traverse precarious insider/outsider dynamics on a daily basis, passing in and out of our contingent identities as students, friends, children, leaders, and members of separate (although often overlapping) social spheres. Yet, while most of us can identify with a sense of existing as an outsider or oscillating between feeling like an insider and an outsider as we phase through our different identities, many of us do so without ever questioning how our everyday insider/outsider statuses may affect our knowledge production.

While the step to interrogate the veracity of representation in formal research seems natural, the necessity of doing so in the mundane contexts of our daily lives may feel less relevant. Yet knowledge production is not an activity confined to formal research, nor are community dynamics informed solely by the power dynamics created between observers and observees. And just like race, educational background, gender, class, and nationality may affect our interpretations of other communities and our ability to observe and understand others, so too does our ability to recognize actively the position from which build the foundations of our knowledge about our community and others.

The relational exchanges that inform our own identities are constantly at work, and as such the knowledge that informs our observations is constantly in formation and under reconstruction. How we interpret our own communities and cultures cannot be divorced from our sense of insider status, and how we relate to communities which we feel foreign to cannot be divorced from our social sense out outsider-ship. Thus, perhaps most in Meriam’s analysis is its pertinence in our daily formation of relationships and ideologies. While we may not all go on to do research with communities, we all constitute our own ideas about the world based on relationships that we formulate every day. Being able to recognize how our opinions and observations are informed by the power dynamics that we engage with is critical — as much as it is in research — to valuing earnestly the opinions of those outside of our communities.

 

Reactions to Sontag’s “Looking at War”

In Susan Sontag’s “Looking at War,” Sontag describes the way in which photography allows us to observe, consume, and relate to the pain of others. Photos, she tells us, provide powerful and moving sources points of connection through which we might better represent pain that is foreign and removed. However, even more importantly, Sontag reminds us that photos carve out exception impressions of suffering in our mind, offering neither comprehension nor identification. Photographs create visual spaces of exception in which viewers can witness atrocity in a way that is meaningful but still removed, perhaps missing entirely the way in which war causes banal, prolonged pain.

This week in class as we looked at war photographs, I was struck by one photo in particular as exemplary of the way in which photos might move us emotionally without providing narrative understanding to help us better untangle the causes and experiences of suffering through war. Eddie Adams’ photo of a Southern Vietnamese general killing a Viet Kong suspect exemplify’s much of what Sontag discusses. While the photo is gripping, portraying a man in palpable agony, seemingly living out his last seconds, it also offers no means to better understand the Vietnam War or why he was dying. While it catalyzes an emotional response, that emotional stimulation absent narrative guidance, offers sheer, raw opportunity to mobilize ideologies. Years after the photo was taken, Adams’ ended up apologizing the the general’s family, insisting that even if what he did was not right, it is important for us to put ourselves in his situation.

Eddie Adam’s Photo of a General and Viet Kong Subject

Adams’ words illustrate a critical reminder for our society as it consumes photos of war and suffering: that for those of us who observe the visual rendering of conflict, we ultimately cannot identify with the lived experience of war. While it is easy to criminalize men like the General in Adam’s photograph, his suffering in a war-torn state is unintelligible to us, as we relate to him through this iconic, frozen moment alone, not as a human living out a narrative existence. His pain, his life story, and his relationship to this moment are unknown to us. Adam’s photo serves to mobilize our own preconceptions of the war in Vietnam, but offers no means for understanding the general or the man murdered. As Sontag suggests, “harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. but they don’t help us much to understand.”

When thinking about photographs and the power they have to draw on human sympathies, Sontag clearly suggests that it is crucial to remember that photos do not offer us honest understanding into the experiences of wartime. They offer isolated and often exceptionalized representations of conflict that for the people immersed in them are far from exceptional or isolated. Thus, while me may see pain and suffering in a way that stirs us personally, it does not offer us any means through which we can truly identify with the experience of that suffering. And while our sympathies might be rallied, they are often rallied in accordance with our own preexisting beliefs, rather than in empathetic identification with subjects and places we cannot truly understand.

Keeping Hope: Reaction to “The Crossing”

Image

It takes little effort to search the world and find suffering. It presents itself in plain sight and in bold fonts on the front pages of newspapers and magazines across the world and in flashes across t.v. screens nightly. Images of war-torn towns, footage of grotesque police misconduct, and symbols of extreme malnutrition and illness riddle our collective lines of sight daily, even for those of us who live far from and free of the worlds’ most gratuitous forms of suffering.

But in hidden pockets of the hills in Northern Morocco, African refugees (or legally, migrants until they are granted their desired recognized status of “refugee”) suffer in places far beyond the gaze and protection of the consciences of Western populations and laws. Congregated in hopes of overwhelming the force of the militarized Spanish guard that polices the twenty-foot fences that stand between migrants in Morocco and potential asylum within the European Union with sheer volume, these refugees from throughout Africa experience an unintelligible and unrecognized suffering. It is viscerally more than just the burden of homelessness, fear of physical and emotional violence, and heightened risks of illness, starvation, and death. Beyond that, what remains most striking about the suffering experienced in the enclaves of refugees hoping to cross the Moroccan border is its cohabitation with hope and vibrant expressions of human spirit – how in sites of absolute despair and loss, it is hope (and maybe hope alone) that fuels groups of people to band together and invest in a shared dream of someone, anyone, finding their way to something better.

Refugees climbing over fence

Refugees Climb Fence to Spain (thestar.com)

When we first spoke in class about the refugee crossings in Morocco, I was struck by the sparseness of cause for hope. When reading “The Crossing,” the reality of that hopelessness became more apparent. Not only do refugees face the ubiquitous threat of violence, discrimination, and physical illness and exhaustion, they also face the foreclosure of all imaginable possibilities for situational improvement. Incapable of finding work or shelter within Morocco, and unable to either return home or move forwards in the absence of the financial means to do so, these refugees inhabit a state that appears hardly transitory at all. Morocco, a supposed sight of crossing, seems more than anything to be an irrefutable dead end.

Yet with little hope for finding legal protection under any domestic or international code of law, a source of compassionate aid from any local or international body, or just a bout of honest luck from the universe, it is hope that somehow still seems to eclipse the overwhelmingly visible suffering of these refugees to propel a shared dream of crossing into somewhere “better.”  What I find most remarkable about these young boys who constitute Morocco’s migrant population is not the weight of the aggregate pain they have experienced, but the resilience of their belief in something better. How, when such little evidence exists that better things will come, is it that people who have nothing to ground their hope in still summon the strength to believe there is an end to their pain. Or perhaps more pressingly, what happens if that hope is lost? In the absence of material aid or sustenance, hope appears to be the most valuable possession these boys have. For people who have lost their communities, families, livelihoods, identities, and sense of security, it is morale – not food or shelter – that seems most vital to survival.

 

Robert Gardner

Robert Gardner, founder and director of the Film Study Center at Harvard University, is a renowned anthropologist and filmmaker who has been praised for his work in visual anthropology. While Gardner is known for many of his films, Dead Birds and Forest of Bliss stand out as two drastically different films that contributed to Gardner’s enduring impact on visual anthropology.

In Dead Birds, Gardner gathered footage of the Dani people of Netherlands New Guinea (now Indonesia) to explore how Dani people engaged in ritualized warfare. Breaking boundaries in the way sound editing was used to create continuity in film, Gardner used post-synchronized sound throughout the entire film in order to tie together shots of film that were taken separately into cohesive battle scenes. A now acclaimed and often considered controversial film, Dead Birds is renowned for its use of sound techniques to capture the story of violent ritual and its “unsentimental yet compassionate chronicle of a radically un-Western worldview.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BzqwOBneC4

However, in Forest of Bliss, Gardner pushed deeper into uncharted filmmaking territory, embracing avant-garde stylistic choices such as omitting dialogue and narration entirely. In Forest of Bliss, Gardner ventured out to document the lives of people in Benares, Varanasi, where Gardner took intimate footage of people’s lives and pieced together an artistic film that occurs over a single day. The film, unlike Dead Birds, is noticeable for its rejection of narration or use of linear narrative: Forest of Bliss takes film from a singular day and uses visual imagery to create meaning instead of reliance on a protagonist’s narrative or interviews and narration. Gardner used visual imagery and symbolism to drive forward the meaning of the film and create a portrait of a population using a language that was entirely visual. Nevertheless, Forest of Bliss also demonstrates Gardner’s thoughtful use of sound, as in the absence of narration, Gardner placed an emphasis on certain foregrounded sounds in order to highlight the meaning of particular events. Holistically, Gardner’s stylistic choices advanced the field of visual anthropology by forwarding new and compelling ideas as to how meaning was created in film and how people were represented.

Still, some of Gardner’s techniques are controversial. In the creation of Dead Birds, Gardner realized that in encountering people who did not understand how his camera worked, he had an opportunity to hide the intention behind his presence in order to document the war rituals of the Dani people without them sensing that they were being observed. Gardner intentionally hid photos, magazines, and other artifacts that might raise questions about visual documentation, a practice that has raised questions about the ethics that went into the film’s production, and its ability to honestly represent other populations. Yet Gardner made no claim to honest and accurate representation. Placing a strong emphasis on humanism as central to his film-making practice, Gardner attempted to create artistic representations of small parts of the human experience, not objective or comprehensive accounts of particular cultures. It is this focus on humanism that has sparked much criticism of Gardner’s work.