Between the Tides

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 4 2022

 

Dr Aaron Burton and Madeline Goddard: Co-producers, Researchers
Title of work: Between the Tides
Year: 2020
Length: 11 minutes 53 seconds

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Between the Tides contributes to three contemporary production research themes: (i) documentary as science communication; (ii) unmanned imaging of environmental crises; and (iii) bricolage media production during a pandemic. This statement provides a brief introduction to these themes and outlines the contribution of the practice-based research.

Between the Tides is a short documentary film that follows recreational fisherman Hiroaki Nakamura in the lead up to catching his 1000th barramundi from waters around Darwin in the Northern Territory. Wild fish stocks depend on healthy vegetation and Darwin Harbour has some of the most extensive and diverse mangrove forests in the world. Featured in the documentary, environmental scientist Madeline Goddard provides an outline of mangrove forest ecosystem functions and imminent threats to their future.

The project was spurred by a small grant from Inspired NT to produce a science communication video for National Science Week in August 2020. National Science Week events typically involve colloquial presentations and activities at public venues. Due to COVID-19 restrictions events were limited to online media and there was a call for science-themed video content. Co-producer Madeline Goddard and I saw this as an opportunity to collaborate with our respective disciplines in environmental science and documentary media in order to tell a story about mangrove forests.

Science Communication

In his eloquent account of the demise of storytelling in modern society, Walter Benjamin lays blame on the rise of information dissemination – arriving as pre-packaged explanations in the form of daily news or similar, stripped of experiential wisdom and artistry (1936). This distinction between information versus experience informs our hypothesis that science communication should not attempt to explain scientific knowledge. Instead, the story should draw from the unique experiences and wisdom of the scientist to counsel the audience. Between the Tides resists detailed explanations of scientific methods. Conversely, we have layered personal accounts with poetic imagery and visual tropes.

The two voices in the film – the fisherman and the scientist – can furthermore be interpreted as representative of Benjamin’s two groups of storytellers, the ’tiller of the soil’ and the ‘trading seaman’. In order to highlight this distinction, the film collides two modes of documentary representation (Nichols 2017). Hiroaki’s narrative is told through a participatory mode with observational imagery and continuity sequencing. In contrast, Madeline’s scenes embrace the expositional mode characterised by illustrative imagery, dis-continuity editing, emotive music, and factual narration. The stark juxtaposition of these modes foregrounds divergent ontologies or world views that configure the challenge of science communication.

Unmanned Imagery  

Between the Tides explores the divergent meaning of images produced by a traditional handheld camera, providing a corporeal presence and human perspective, against imagery from unmanned cameras – drones, action cameras, and satellites. Hiroaki’s story is predominately told through a personal camera (Rascaroli 2009) until he reveals his concerns of the changing environment, at which point a drone perspective reveals the fragility of the landscape and the human within it, sharing the same existential plane (Burton 2020). Action cameras are similarly used to provide a non-human illustration of Madeline’s scientific accounts. The intention here is to reveal a tension between the dominant anthropomorphised perspective of conventional camerawork against the levelling effect of seeing the human as part of the natural environment from an ‘unmanned’ perspective.

Bricolage Media

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our response to the creative brief was restricted to what we could produce in lockdown. Lacking access to the Darwin locations, we were forced to make the most of what was at hand. Hiroaki’s narrative was compiled from media recorded in 2016 for an incomplete project while additional mangrove footage was shot at local NSW south coast locations to illustrate Madeline’s dialogue. This kind of media production is best described as ‘bricolage’, combining and repurposing disparate media while maintaining traces of its original provenance (Burton 2020). Bricolage media production had already reached unprecedented levels prior to the pandemic, such as director Asif Kapadia’s acclaimed found footage films Senna (2010), Amy (2015), and Diego Maradona (2019); Todd Douglas Miller’s revelatory Apollo 11 (2019); and the Adam Goodes story told through news media excerpts in Ian Darling’s The Final Quarter (2019). Lockdown conditions exaggerated the found footage trend across screen industries, as seen in the split-screen Nike ‘You Can’t Stop Us’ advertisement, the music clip for Kanye West’s ‘Wash Us In The Blood’, and an abundance of user-generated content migrating to broadcast television. Ongoing threats to public health and physical environments may lead to screen production industries increasingly facing scenarios that inhibit primary production. On the other hand, consecutive decades of exhaustive audio-visual recording have compiled an abundance of existing media that can be re-purposed and re-composed for a sustainable vision of the future.

REFERENCES

Benjamin, Walter. 1968 [1936]. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, 83-109. New York: Schocken Books.

Burton, Aaron. 2020. “New shows tell our isolation stories on screen – making the most of what’s at hand,” The Conversation, 22 May
https://theconversation.com/new-shows-tell-our-isolation-stories-on-screen-making-the-most-of-whats-at-hand-138112

Burton, Aaron. 2020, “Unmanned Imaging of the Anthropocene,” in Shifting Interfaces: An Anthology of Presence, Empathy, and Agency in 21st Century, edited by Hava Aldouby. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

Nichols, Bill. 2017. Introduction to Documentary, Third Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rascaroli, Laura. 2009. The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film. London: Wallflower Press.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

I reviewed the submission in the following way: I first watched the film and took notes on my experience. I then read the research statement and re-watched the film.

The submission uses Walter Benjamin’s distinction between storytelling and information as a theoretical framework to discuss science communication. To me, this is the main contribution of the work, exposing the potential of practice-as-research to raise questions and create new insights. I would encourage the authors to focus on this aspect of their research more clearly in order for the submission to fully live up to its potential.

When I first watched the documentary, I must admit that I initially related more to the scientist – I suspect that this had to do with the fact that expository voiceovers present information in a very clear way, asking the audience to do very little work by themselves. But as the film progressed, I warmed more towards the fisherman and started doubting whether I learned anything new from the scientist. I even questioned whether the scientist was needed in the film at all. While the fisherman provided emotional learning, the scientist provided information.

This last sentence is important. I would counter the authors’ claim that ‘Between the Tides resists detailed explanations of scientific method’ and argue that this is the role of Madeline, the scientist. She provides information on climate change and the mangrove ecosystem, while the fisherman provides a personal experience – a story. The authors write: ‘This distinction between information versus experience informs our hypothesis that science communication should not attempt to explain scientific knowledge. Instead, the story should draw from the unique experiences and wisdom of the scientist to counsel the audience. Between the Tides resists detailed explanations of scientific methods. Conversely, we have layered personal accounts with poetic imagery and visual tropes’.

Upon re-watching the film, I feel that the above statement is not true to the documentary. The scientist, Madeline, has two voice over sequences in the film. In both, she provides information, explanation and scientific knowledge. This is acknowledged, in-between the lines, in the authors’ next paragraph: ‘In contrast, Madeline’s scenes embrace the expositional mode characterised by illustrative imagery, dis-continuity editing, emotive music, and factual narration’. I do feel that the research statement would benefit from positioning these contradictions more clearly, rather than attempting to write Madeline into one of Benjamin’s storytellers.

For instance, the statement ‘The two voices in the film – the fisherman and the scientist – can furthermore be interpreted as representative of Benjamin’s two groups of storytellers, the ’tiller of the soil’ and the ‘trading seaman’ feels confusing. Firstly, the two groups would need explaining by the authors. But even then, I suspect that the scientist fits the category of information better than that of storytelling (whether as a tiller of the soil or trading seaman).

The discussion of traditional versus unmanned camera work is an intriguing side note, which deserves a little more attention. Madeline, the scientist, has two sequences (both voice over sequences). In the first one, the film uses unmanned imagery (except for one shot of Madeline herself), while in the second sequence, the film uses traditional camerawork with the exception of two shots from an unmanned camera. Is this intentional? It seems to break the premise of juxtaposing two different ways of communicating.

We then see two unmanned drone shots with the fisherman in the final sequence of the film. Those two shots receive ample discussion in the research statement and do an admirable job in, as the authors write, ‘seeing the human as part of the natural environment’, with both ‘sharing the same existential plane’.

I strongly feel that the main contribution to knowledge by the documentary is the contrasting of story and information, and their two roles in science communication. If the research statement focussed more clearly on this distinction, we could (a) experience through the film how both ways of communication appeal to an audience in a different way, and (b) how they can be used (either separately or interwoven) in science communication.

 

PEER REVIEW 2

Overall the documentary is well produced, shot, and edited. The cinematography is very beautiful, and the audio tracks work well with the subject matter. Technically it is very well put together with the exception of two out-of-place moments. At approximately 4:11 minutes, while the camera is moving steadily and smoothly across the mangrove floor it bumps into a mangrove tree trunk and tips over, simulating a crash. This is quite out-of-place compared with the rest of the video and is almost comical. Similarly, at approximately 10:49, after a gradual increase in the volume of the music, there is a very abrupt audio cut, that matches the vision cut, and cuts off the music and vocals midway through the word ‘chuck’em’. Again, stylistically this brutal audio editing is not repeated anywhere else and is counter to the overall style of the documentary. It is unclear why these two instances are different to the rest of the film as they do not add anything stylistically other than disrupting the viewer’s engagement and taking them out of the film. It is recommended that they are corrected.

Given the pandemic lockdown, adopting a bricolage production methodology makes good sense. Using material that is at hand and readily purposed, or easily acquired without breaching the lockdown regulations, is a creative solution to a challenging problem. But at a time when the world is becoming more and more distrustful of media and images, it is unwise not to make clear both in the documentary itself, and reinforced in the credits, that almost half the documentary was shot in New South Wales and intercut with footage shot in Darwin. A general audience watching the film on Vimeo, or via some other means, would automatically believe that the mangrove footage was also shot in and around Darwin, which is clearly not the case. Failure to correctly credit the location of the footage, especially when it was filmed thousands of kilometres from Darwin, causes the film’s message to become unstable and problematic. Especially, with regard to the rubbish and litter that is shown around 8:04 minutes, as these images lead the audience to believe that that rubbish and litter was found in mangroves around Darwin, which in this instance is clearly not the case.

This is even more surprising, considering that the researchers state, ‘This kind of media production is best described as “bricolage”, combining and repurposing disparate media while maintaining traces of its original provenance’ (Burton 2020). It seems that they have not maintained ‘traces of its original provenance’. I would recommend that they clearly ascribe the footage that is shot in Darwin and the footage that is shot in NSW, so that the audience is fully aware of what they are watching from the very beginning.

Similarly, the occasional slip into emotional language in the narration does not help the film maintain its position as a work of scientific communication. At 4:06 the narration uses the phrase, “rapidly rising sea levels,” but a quick glance at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s website for Darwin tide levels from 1959 to 2020 show that indeed sea levels are rising, but not ‘rapidly’. Stating that sea levels are rising rapidly, when in actual fact they are rising gradually, undermines the scientific merit of the documentary. It is recommended that the word ‘rapidly’ be removed.

Overall, however, the documentary does demonstrate practice as research. It does mix camera techniques and storytelling techniques to visually underpin its thesis. It does raise a research question about the nature of experiential-based scientific communication and its place in the media world. In terms of innovation, it is apparent, but not extensive. However, the researchers have contextualised their film within the artistic theoretical field of bricolage media and drawn that material together quite well to produce a visually engaging documentary that seeks to communicate important scientific experiences to an audience.

 

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

I would like to first express my gratitude to the Sightlines Journal editorial committee for facilitating this dialogue and to the reviewers for their insightful contributions. In the context of evaluating practice-as-research, this is a valuable and innovative forum for exchanging disciplinary knowledge and affirming contemporary academic standards. The value of non-traditional research outputs to the Academy is an ongoing project and the adaptation of traditional review processes can reveal productive points of tension. The innovative framework offered by the Sightlines Journal opens a dialogue between practitioners and reviewers around research potential, sites for improvement, points of interest, and evidence of new knowledge.

The two reviews have offered, in different ways, suggestions to render the accompanying research statement and documentary film more accurate or truthful. The first review has recommended elaborating on distinctions between information and story in the use of documentary as science communication. The second review has listed a range of suggested changes to the film which I will start by addressing directly.

Firstly, the two “out-of-place” moments identified in the second review – the drone crashing into the tree and an abrupt cut to the music track in the final scene – are intentionally disruptive and aim to provoke the audience to shift their engagement with the text. These intentionally disruptive cuts are in keeping with the style of the documentary, featuring multiple oscillations between points-of-view and modes representation.

The second review erroneously assumes that half of the documentary was filmed in New South Wales. Roughly 50 seconds was shot on Dharawal country, Minnamurra NSW, and this underwater scene would have been dangerous to capture amid the crocodiles and murky water of Darwin Harbour. Perhaps the opening acknowledgement of country or referring to bricolage media in our project statement has misled the reviewer to interpret every image to represent the Darwin location. Our rationale for incorporating ‘creative geography’ in the narrative was not limited to bricolage production, the scenes featuring Madeline Goddard have adopted the expository mode of representation (see Nichols 2017). Unlike Hiro Nakamura’s observational narrative, which adheres to a stricter regime of time and space, Madeline Goddard’s dialogue offers an explanation of the broader ecological role of mangrove forests, which is not limited to a single location. The other location seen in the documentary is North Sulawesi, Indonesia. We cut to this scene under the dialogue ‘Scientists around the world are measuring fine scale changes…’. In light of the confusion raised in this review we have incorporated additional overlays indicating the three locations depicted.

The second review’s assertion that by not ascribing the location of the footage the media does not maintain traces of its original provenance arguably underestimates transmedial dimensions of provenance in the digital age. As outlined by Gray (2010) and others, provenance runs deeper than overt titling and can be found in paratextual media, metadata, or even dialogue like this.

The final criticism raised in the second review is perhaps the most troubling and highlights the challenges faced by science communication. The review has attempted a ‘fact-check’ on a (misquoted) excerpt from the narration: ‘We hope they [mangrove forests] can adapt to our current trajectory of rapidly rising sea levels’. The review suggests the use of the words ‘rapidly rising sea levels’ are misleading. Madeline Goddard has been studying Darwin Harbour for over 7 years as an environmental scientist. If her pedigree is not substantive enough then I suggest reviewing published literature on the current trajectory of sea-level rise such as the IPCC reports stating that, ‘the rate of rise implied by the Business-as-Usual best-estimate is 3-6 times faster than that experienced over the last 100 years’ (https://www.ipcc.ch/reports/). I am troubled by the review stating their conflicting perception is ‘in actual fact’ when they base their assertions on ‘a quick glance at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s website’. This is an extraordinary demonstration of the struggles facing scientific communication, particularly in the context of a scholarly review process.

The first review, in a more constructive approach, suggests elaborating on the distinction between storytelling and information in science communication and perhaps extending Benjamin’s framework to unmanned imagery. I agree that the research would benefit from positioning the contradictions between information and story more clearly, but I am not sure there is scope to adequately address the task here. Aligning the featured fisherman and scientist with Benjamin’s ’tiller of the soil’ and the ‘trading seaman’ is admittedly an imperfect fit, but I maintain the distinction that they are both offering divergent forms of story and knowledge. Hiro Nakamura shares his wisdom of natural ecology through his extensive experience of fishing the same location. Madeline Goddard on the other hand, shares her knowledge of international environmental research on mangrove forests.

The more nuanced distinction raised by the first review is if Madeline Goddard’s contribution to the documentary ought to be considered information or story and how the expository mode of representation might influence that determination. The review raises doubts over the veracity of the statement, ‘Between the Tides resists detailed explanations of scientific methods. Conversely, we have layered personal accounts with poetic imagery and visual tropes’. I might agree with the review if I wasn’t acutely aware of what scientific knowledge in the field looks like (for example, a recent co-authored paper by Madeline Goddard can be found here https://www.essoar.org/pdfjs/10.1002/essoar.10503988.1).

Madeline Goddard’s contribution to Between the Tides is far removed from the details of her scientific work. In other words, the ‘story’ in Madeline Goddard’s contribution to the film is manifest in the expository filmmaking tropes such as emotive music, evocative imagery, discontinuity editing, in addition to addressing us in first-person and with expressive tonality. Hence, a more comprehensive exploration of how documentary modes of storytelling align with Walter Benjamin’s storyteller might contribute to ongoing efforts in science communication.

Between the Tides was featured in the 2021 SCINEMA International Science Film Festival.

REFERENCES

Gray, Jonathon. 2010. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York University Press.

Nichols, Bill. 2017. Introduction to Documentary. Third Edition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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