A Portrait of Judith Buckrich

Sightlines Journal, issue 2, 2017

Name: Catherine Gough-Brady
Film: A Portrait of Judith Buckrich
Length: 5 minutes

Research Statement

Catherine submitted the video Exploring Craft as her research statement:

Exploring Craft, Length: 5:40

Peer Review 1 (Kath Dooley)

Catherine Gough-Brady’s A Portrait of Judith Buckrich is an engaging 5-minute documentary that explores the way visual and audio elements combine to create a complex narrative and character study. The visual element is restricted to a single, static wide-shot of Buckrich, a historian and activist with a Hungarian-Jewish background, resting in her home study. This 5-minute long take is the basis of a work that Gough-Brady describes as ‘the almost still wide portrait’. The subject rests in an armchair, reading, and is surrounded by personal objects (artworks, books and knick knacks) that represent a lifetime of work, travel and experience. After a moment she lowers the book and sits in a state of silence and reflection, which is maintained for the majority of the documentary. A tabby cat saunters into the cozy room and rubs against Buckrich’s legs. She pats her pet, throwing a contented smile towards the camera.

The soundtrack reveals Buckrich’s life story through a mix of voice over narration and ambient sound effects. The subject recalls her difficult early childhood in Australia following relocation from Hungary. The recognizable sounds of a Melbourne tram and the recreation of a school teacher offering English lessons are layered over her narration, adding weight to the emotional aspects of her story. This combination of narration and soundscape continues as Buckrich describes her return to Hungary, early working life and eventual return to Australia as a wife and mother. One comes to the end of the documentary with an impression that hers is a life well lived, but one that has involved the overcoming of significant challenges and obstacles. The combination of the single wide-shot and non-sync sound creates an interesting and complex portrait, the visuals allowing the viewer time to study the subject and her home in detail, while the audio provides context and insight into her life journey.

A separate short audiovisual work that explores Gough-Brady’s research goals accompanies the 5-minute documentary. In this companion piece the author refers to the work of late 19th/early 20th century stereographic photographer George Rose, who is noted for capturing images of people and place in wide shot. Central to Rose’s work is the idea that people exist in a landscape, in relation to other people and objects. Gough-Brady’s central research question concerns the way that Rose’s use of the wide shot can be used to inspire the ‘almost still’ video portrait. The portrayal of Buckrich is still in that she rests in frame as if waiting to be captured by still photography or as the subject of a painting. By not relying on her direct address to camera as a means of communicating information, the audience is presented with the time and space to draw meaning from her body language and the mise en scene, whilst also gathering information from the audio overlay. This is an innovative and effective alternative to the traditional interview-based documentary, and one that subverts trends associated with contemporary television production. Gough-Brady explores these areas in her research statement, making reference to a number of filmmakers, such as Chantal Akerman, who also explore the use of the long-take wide-shot. The short video that outlines the author’s research goals is an effective means to provide context within the these artistic fields, and allows for the new knowledge contained in A Portrait of Judith Buckrich to be articulated and understood. I would suggest that the two videos (documentary and research statement) be presented side by side as a successful model for the dissemination of knowledge generated through creative research.

One idea that that is not explicitly explored by Gough-Brady in her research statement, but that I nonetheless found of interest in the work, is the camera’s ability to capture insights into a subject’s character and personality through the filming of moments when no action occurs onscreen. The image of Buckrich sitting quietly in her armchair recalls the brief but poignant portraits of suburban Australians captured in their home environments by director David Caesar in Living Room (1988). In this short experimental documentary Caesar presents footage of his framed interview subjects waiting for action in a state that is intimate, self-conscious and awkward, making and breaking eye contact with the camera. Like Caesar’s subjects, Buckrich also appears somewhat vulnerable and self-conscious on screen. She looks at the camera on several occasions, as if wanting to connect with the audience but unsure of herself. By placing her in front of the camera for an extended period of time, without specific actions to perform, Gough-Brady captures insights into the essence of her character, moving beyond a simple retelling of life events. As such, A Portrait of Judith Buckrich stands as an innovative example of creative research that offers insights into the portrayal of character in documentary.

Peer Review 2 (Kenta McGrath)

A Portrait of Judith Buckrich is presented as a “test” for filming portraits, where non-sync sound would be placed over a static wide shot of a subject, posing as if for a still portrait – the latter inspired by George Rose’s stereography as well as recent documentaries such as Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie (2015) and Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (2016). The work merges two distinct approaches to filming character portraits, one which privileges sound and one which privileges the image.

The first approach is conventional and ubiquitous: an audio “portrait” on the soundtrack crafted from interviews with the subject, interspersed with a sound design that “illustrates” the spoken story (sometimes literally, sometimes abstractedly). It’s an approach that doesn’t require images – it has a similar structure to many radio documentaries, and removing the image here would still allow a coherent portrait of the subject through voice and sound alone. This approach is also used in countless film/TV documentaries, whereby the voice of the subject becomes detached from its source, and any number of visual approaches – re-enactments, archival footage, photographs, etc. – may be used to accompany the narration on the soundtrack.

The second approach is a moving-image portrait of the subject in her own environment (a study), filmed as a static wide shot that lasts the entire length of the work (five minutes). Whereas the first approach reveals information about the character’s life through an audio interview, the second approach creates an impression of the character through visual observation – for example, through the physical setting, her actions and mannerisms, and her interactions with her environment (in this case, mostly through reading a book and playing with her cat). This approach is far more unusual but has precedents in art cinema, experimental film and documentary (the portrait segments from a film which straddles all three traditions – Akerman’s 1993 film D’Est – spring to mind). As with the first approach, the nondiegetic audio could be removed entirely here and the viewer would still be left with a self-contained visual portrait of the subject (of a different sort).

These two approaches can function independently of each other. As suggested above, it would be possible to detach the image and sound in this work and present two completely separate portraits of Judith Buckrich. However, this work demonstrates that the two approaches also create effects and meanings made possible only by their pairing. The audio here is constant, dense, and relatively quick in pace (due to the style of the subject’s verbal delivery, the sound design, and the pace of the editing which condenses years of the subject’s life into a few minutes), while the image has a strong quality of stasis and slowness (due to its duration, stillness of the frame, domestic setting, and the relative lack of movement and action). Consequently, the shot/film is neither quick nor slow, is equally rooted in the past and the present, and creates an interesting tension between the two approaches. Occasionally it seems that the subject is thinking about what is spoken on the soundtrack – as if it were her thought bubbles being verbalised – and there are some lovely, possibly accidental, interactions between image and sound (the cat strolls in just as Buckrich says, “she decided that we were going to come here too”).

I think that the visual strategy of this piece has a much longer and wider lineage in cinema than is suggested in the accompanying video statement. It can also, for example, be situated within the recent discourse surrounding “slow cinema”, structural film (the experimental film tradition which inspired Akerman’s work), as well as the aesthetic of depth and duration theorised by André Bazin. Filmmaker Peter Watkins has also written persuasively on the need for duration and contemplative space to counter the negative effects of the rapid cutting and dense soundtracks so often seen and heard in contemporary films, documentaries and TV (which he calls the “Monoform”).

There are also a couple of strategies mentioned in the video statement that perhaps need elaboration. Firstly, I think that the inclusion of the cat plays a much more important role than is suggested. It’s unclear whether the cat simply strolled into the shot mid-take or if its entry was choreographed – it doesn’t matter either way because the result is the same – but it’s a vital element of the film; something which gives the scene life, movement and visual interest, as well as allowing the subject to reveal her character through her interactions with it. It also provides a chance element within the otherwise rigid composition – Judith Buckrich can be expected to sit still and behave according to the filmmaker’s wishes, but the cat cannot! – and again, creates an interesting tension between performance and observation, movement and stillness, control and lack of control. (A similar chance element doesn’t seem to be included in the portraits of the two photographers shown in the video statement; they sit and pose like in a traditional portrait.) Further elaboration may also be required for why the setting was left “as it was found”. A portrait, by definition, is a staged representation by an artist, and the setup here is already highly artificial: the subject has been asked to sit in a chair and pretend, for the most part, that the camera and filmmaker are not present (this also sets it apart from most portraits where the subject acknowledges the artist’s gaze).

In the end, the results of merging these two distinct approaches – one associated with radio and commercial filmmaking, the other aligned with experimental and art cinema traditions – are effective. The work successfully avoids the trappings of the tired and conventional methods of scene coverage in film and TV (as outlined in the video statement), while it is in no way a difficult viewing experience that shots of extreme duration can often be. It meets the two approaches halfway: it’s rich with information, but provides plenty of space for reflection.

Filmmaker’s Response

Firstly, thank you. You were both very kind and it is interesting to read your responses. I had put this project aside to work on other things, but now I am inspired to return to it.

Reviewer 2 talked about how the portrait was two things, an audio documentary and a visual work. In many ways I agree. I’ve made audio documentaries, and so I cut the audio more like an audio work than a filmic piece, for instance the way SFX tended towards being abstracted or becoming metaphorical. Sound in my vision documentaries tends to remain far more literal and diegetic. But once I had a rough cut of the audio, I then looked at how it sat against the vision and made adjustments so that the small actions within the frame seemingly interacted with the audio, eg the movement of the cat, the closure of the book. The vision was rigidly linear, and so the sound had to be manipulated around that. This means the cat was not choreographed in the filming, but he was, in a sense, choreographed in the edit.

Both reviewers talk about the interaction with the cat as being a moment where Judith was revealed as a person. I agree that watching people interact with others is how we can know them. It is an issue of the premise of these works that the subject is isolated, and I cannot expect another being to enter the frame.

The sense of awkwardness that Reviewer 1 talks about is interesting, and I shall seek out a copy of Caesars “Living Room” (1988). No-one sits in a room with a visitor for 15 minutes saying nothing to them (this is how long I filmed her in the still shot). Fifteen minutes when you are not doing anything is a very long time. I’ve been watching some Herzog documentaries recently and I really enjoy the way he makes his characters feel and look awkward in their frame, I don’t yet understand why I like it, but that slightly awkward feel is something I will probably keep in the future portraits.

What I take away from this experiment is that less should take place in the audio. I don’t want to entirely rid it of sound, but, my feeling is that the audio can play out more like memory than it does in the current version: more fragmented, more evocative, rather than retelling a linear story. I am also interested in experimenting with the shot, still using a wide lens, but in different situations. There is a shot in Rouch’s “Chronicle of Sumer” (1961) where a woman walks towards the camera, but it moves back faster than she walks forward, changing her from a mid-shot into a very-long-shot. I found what that shift did to the person, fascinating, and if I can find the right setting, I would like to create a portrait that replicates that feel, of both seeing them, and then seeing them alone in their setting. Admittedly the camera is no longer still, but I am happy for the experiment to take the idea in various directions.

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