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.

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 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.

Jared Callahan

Truthfully, I fell in love with Jared’s documentaries as well as his personality. I admired his strong enthusiasm, open curiosity, and the positive energy he presented when visiting our class. You could tell he truly has a passion for filmmaking, and he had a genuine interest in our own creative ideas and endeavors. He also displayed an admiration for his films’ subjects and a desire to convey simply who they are as people rather than primarily focus on a certain issue. I felt this was different from what we’ve experienced with previous films and filmmakers in this class, particularly Imba Means Sing and Homemade. For Jared, from what I understand, his main mission is to make the audience fall in love with the character(s), and then by doing so, he can shed light on a certain issue. From my personal experience watching his films, I felt this was an effective approach. In Jared’s own words, “by understanding the subject(s), you understand the concept.” This also tied into his last piece of advice given to us at the end of class, which was to “tell a big story through a small window.” Jared found this to be an important concept in filmmaking and storytelling, offering this message to us as we embark upon our own film projects. That being said, I also appreciated Jared’s advice on filmmaking itself. He tapped into what’s important in making/directing a film and delved into the creative process, giving us insight and advice on how to go about our own projects. There was something about the way Jared explained ideas and concepts that really made me feel exposed to the mind of a creative filmmaker. Other points of advice he mentioned were to tap into how films affect a wider audience, to spend time in the messiness of things, and to always have multiple ways to write ideas. I think Jared’s visit, at least for me, helped inspire the importance of creativity and how we can develop and grow as artists and creative thinkers.

“The Mapping Journey Project” by Bouchra Khalili

tumblr_no4w98fnde1utnggjo1_400Artist Bouchra Khalili was born in Casablanca and studied Film at Sorbonne Nouvelle and Visual Arts at the Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy but now lives and works in Berlin. She works with various mediums such as film, video, photography and print, exploring language and subjectivity but most importantly geographical explorations.

Her artwork “Mapping Journeys” Video Art Installation is what could be described as a mixed-media installation that combines eight videos and a printed map. Yet, as simple as that might sound, the project has much deeper meaning behind it and falls under social practice art. Interestingly enought, the project also challenges the audience to go against the normativity of cartography and really look into the hidden geographies.

1415620383-bouchra_khalili_the_mapping_journey_project_exhibition_view_1While allowing individuals to tell the stories of their crossings, in their own voice, Khalili uses art as a means for social activism for increasing awareness of the migrant crisis. She offers the audience a different perspective on the notions of space, borders, mobility and the greater political ideologies that play part in this constant power struggle.These people’s journeys show how lives today cannot be defined but cartographic contours also known as boarders. By using the experiences of the storytellers as a starting point and not seeing them as exceptions, Khalili challenges the audience to look at maps differently and reflect on the reality of migration and global movement.

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My Take on the History of Visual Anthropology Films

The various excerpts watched in class today really helped me get a better understanding of the actual transition and evolution underwent in the process of film and its relation to anthropology, more specifically the changes that underwent the creation of visual anthropology. One really important thing that I thought was kind of an overarching theme was this idea of converting from written ethnography to visual as a means to better expose the masses to anthropology through the use of visual media. There was also the use of maps and long introductory text within the films at the very beginning that served as an indicator as to the visual medium being an anthropological film.

nanook-of-the-north-poster The first film or excerpt that we watched by Robert Flaherty entitled “Nook of the North” was actually really compelling. I enjoyed watching it and part of the reason why would definitely be the fact that it was like a picture book, with text then the video. The boat scene in particular was very amusing and the fact that there was no talking or sound but just the music kind of reminded me of a Charley Chaplin movie and again was amusing and compelling to watch. Yet one has to keep in mind that he did in fact have staged events and scripted scenes but they were that of the Eskimo’s everyday lives.

Another film that struck out to me was the one by Margret Mead called “Bathing Babies in 3 cultures”, which I thought was a great concept to compare 3 different cultures with regards to one single act. I really enjoyed the comparative approach between cultures and the way in whichmargaretmead she used her voice to give analysis and observation especially with regards to the treatment of babies and the connection to their mothers. It clearly emphasizes the strong cultural differences. Yet, I feel like there seemed to be a little bias in the way in which she referred to other cultures as opposed to the American, especially in the African case.

 

The other piece that really stood out to me was the “Reassemblage” by Trinh T Minh Ha in which she uses sound and cuts in an exaggerated manner which made the entire piece feel more like a sort of collage or art piece as opposed to a documentary. It gave off a minhhamore artistic vibe like “poetry on screen” with the disoriented scenes that she intentionally wanted to do in order to criticize documentaries. It really guided the focus on her as the creator as opposed to the entire film, which was greatly due to the fact that the audience was not presented to a linear narrative but rather chunks with her voice over.

My Reaction to “Imba means to Sing”

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From an artistic perspective, the movie in terms of visuals was amazing. The quality was just great and the colors as well but not only that but the sound definition was off the charts and this added to the entire experience of watching the documentary. Another important thing that I realized in terms of film choices was the stark contrast between housing and living conditions in the US and in Uganda which we see much of in the very beginning of the movie. You have the typical American houses side by side with the white picket fences and perfectly clean front yards just juxtaposed by the slums of Uganda and that really stood out to me. The first thing that I thought of was this idea of the American dream and the ideal perfect American house. This notion is then strongly emphasized and believed as the parents of those children constantly refer to going abroad to going to America and see America as the land of opportunity and freedom.

This then got me to thinking how the entire trip that focuses on going to America and preforming in front of predominantly white Americans to get sponsors had some underlying tones of exposing the children to the beauty of the western world and just how great it is. It got me to thinking about this possible notion of “Americanization” and how I also have somewhat fallen into that trap growing up and always wanting to come to America and constantly exposed to American culture and such.

Another thing with regards to those children that I thought about while watching the movie was the culture shock that they must have experienced, especially when coming home. You go from living in great conditions to going back to your country where everything is different, yet granted it is home and it will always be home, regardless of all the negatives. That I could strongly related to!

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The documentary brought about many interesting points among which I thought the most important had to do with the ideas of cultural appropriation with regards to “African-ness”. This somewhat angered me while watching the movie as it really portrays this idea of how African children need your help and especially need the West’s help in order to educate themselves. It promotes the notion of Africans being so dependent on others. Moreover, it depicts only one aspect of Africa, that being the Ugandan culture, which to many of the audiences might come to include all of Africa. It is problematic but I get the point of the African’s children choir and they are truly trying to make a difference and help those children, with good intentions. Also what better way to cross over barriers than through music, it is indeed a common language to as all!

The Power of Photography

This week in class, it was interesting getting to see how we react and receive information when given to us in different forms and mediums. Furthermore, the techniques and methods used by each of these mediums, particularly photography and film, that make us feel a certain way or draw our attention to something in particular. For example, when we discussed the filming strategies used in Saving Private Ryan or talked about what stood out to us most in the iconic Vietnam War photo.

Answering questions about photography allowed us to open up to these new ways of thinking and interpretation. I have also come to realize, by examining and reading about war photography, how truly powerful photography can be. Reading Susan Sontag’s “Looking at War” made me think about an argument made by critic Roland Barthes on a certain photograph taken in 1865. The photo is of Lewis Payne, who was involved in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, as he sits on death row awaiting his execution. The photographer is Alexander Gardner.

Lewis Thornton Powell, or Lewis Payne, awaiting his execution (Alexander Gardner, 1865)

What fascinated Barthes was that this photograph was a representation of both the past and the future. It reveals something that has already happened yet at the moment it was taken, Payne’s death had not yet happened. Barthes resents the fact, however, that all photos are essentially a representation of the sitter’s impending death. In other words, a photograph is a past presence of a future death, whether the sitter is still alive or not. I think photographs (those that are not staged) provide such an accurate representation and authentic depiction of something that it allows us to place ourselves in that context, making them so powerful. We imagine ourselves in that moment and can feel completely transported. I think many of us felt this way when watching Saving Private Ryan or observing the Vietnam War photo.

I was also intrigued by Sontag’s comment about photography’s ability to turn something tragic and devastating into something beautiful. Why do we find images of ruins—for example, the remains of the World Trade Center after 9/11—so beautiful? As Sontag says, it seems almost “frivolous, sacrilegious,” but photographs following the 9/11 attack were, in fact, quite beautiful. As Sontag continues, “Photographs tend to transform, whatever their subject; and as an image something may be beautiful—or terrifying, or unbearable, or quite bearable—as it is not in real life.” Perhaps it is not the photograph itself, but a photograph’s ability to transport, transform, and create a certain sensation within us that makes it so powerful.

How to convey ideas?

This week in visual anthropology, I felt that the overarching thematic idea was how to read media through a variety of platforms. What are the uses, efficacy, and limitations of different methodologies in conveying ideas? After listening to Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee radio segment, we were able to compare the written style of The Crossing to the auditory style of radio. It was fascinating to consider the merits of each in conveying research. It was apparent that the introduction of voices, or multiple perspectives resonated with many of the listener’s in our class and that hearing directly from both the researcher and subjects humanized the entire situation. Every image, every word, every voice aims to convey a version of truth as its creator sees it. To hear the subject’s voice, in their space “made real” the entire event and lessened the divide between us and them. It is this ability to bridge the socio-cultural gap between the observed and observers in anthropological research through interactive media that is crucial to building understanding and empathy.

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/593/dont-have-to-live-like-a-refugee

When we see images, it makes what we are seeing real. A certain objectivity is at least presumed.   Our discussion of photography and the moving image deepened our discussion of this concept. Photographs, in essence, freeze time, depicting one impactful moment. Their reading is very different from that of the written word or even film because of this unique ability to pause and force their viewer to focus on whatever is captured. Film provides a more visceral experience for the viewer, but with it’s more complex nature, gives the viewer more freedom to focus or be moved by different aspects of the art form. Beyond differences in aesthetics and form, however, the question of which medium is more effective in communication remains.

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In looking at our recent discussion of war depicted through media, it is interesting to compare iconic imagery of war with a film such as Saving Private Ryan. When reading media it is important to consider the creator’s intention and as Susan Sontag in her piece Looking at War contends, images of war could mobilize war and act as an impetus for violence or can be seen as atrocious acts of violence that war has brought us. Sontag reminds us that any image is left up to interpretation of the viewer. A piece like The Crossing, I would argue, lets its readers know exactly what information is trying to be conveyed with no room for manipulation or interpretation. Captions are placed on photos and the story is told warmheartedly but in a matter of fact manner. When bringing awareness to social issues with the intention of impacting change, it is critical to manage how one’s content is being read.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82RTzi5Vt7w