Characters, Interrupted

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 4 2022


Catherine Gough-Brady: Director, Producer, Researcher
Title of work: Characters, Interrupted
Year: 2020
Length: 11 minutes

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Research Background

Non-representational theorist Phillip Vannini suggests that ‘life arises from the entanglement of actors—human and non-human animals, organic matter, and material objects’ (2015, 16). Depicting this entanglement in a linear narrative is tricky. As a result, I often reduce the complexity of the world by reducing the characters and the storylines I depict in the film. This digital paper explores the decisions I make to include characters, or to exclude them, and what aspects of a particular character I reveal, including the character of the filmmaker themselves.

Contribution

In this digital paper Characters, Interrupted (2020) [1], screen theorist Stella Bruzzi says documentary is the ‘triangular relationship between the subject, the filmmaker and also the audience’ (6:07), and that ‘a documentary comes into being when it is being made’ (5:58). I agree with Bruzzi that documentaries can be viewed as being created, and when they are viewed in this relational way that it becomes important to understand more about the relationships that contribute to the creation of the work.

Roland Barthes provides a useful starting point for this discussion. He finds that his character is an entanglement of relationships when he is being photographed: ‘In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am’ (2000, 13). This is a complexity of character that Bekti Andari, a woman I have been filming, speaks about in the digital paper. Just as I, as the filmmaker, feel a responsibility towards how Bekti is portrayed in a documentary film, she also feels a responsibility towards how she portrays herself. For Bekti this is about creating an authentic depiction of herself that others who know her can recognise. Sara Ahmed notes that this is character as ‘an idea of consistency’ and that ‘Not to fulfill an expectation of character is to be out of character’ (2011, 231). This expectation of character is one driven by an awareness that there will be an audience for the film. The character consistency includes who the person would like to be, who others think they are, and who the filmmaker thinks they are.

How a filmmaker depicts a person as a character is dependent upon who the filmmaker is. In the digital paper, filmmaker Helen Gaynor talks about how this affects the style of the documentary, but I wonder if the effect can also be found at the level of how a character is depicted. I am the type of filmmaker who finds it easier to create works which are somewhat constructed, and yet I also film elements in ways that are observational (where I have little control). I enjoy the tension between those two sides of myself, the love of control and the fascination with allowing space for the unknown. The question I am left with at the end of this digital paper is: do I seek this tension in others and choose to depict it?

Significance

Characters, Interrupted explores the way an aspect of craft functions during the production process, and how that can integrate with theory to generate a greater understanding of what takes place. I see the digital papers as opening up discussion and posing new research questions rather than closing down discussion by merely answering research questions. This is because every answer leads to a new question, and in my search for answers I inevitably raise new questions.

[1] I discuss the nature of digital papers in ‘The Methodology behind Digital Papers’ (2019).

REFERENCES

Ahmed, Sara. 2011. “Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character.” New Literary History 42 (2): 231-253. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23012542.

Barthes, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Vintage Books.

Gough-Brady, Catherine. 2019. “The Methodology behind Digital Papers.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (17): 179-187. https://doi.org/10.33178/alpha.17.12.

Vannini, Phillip. 2015. Non-Representational Methodologies: Re-Envisioning Research. Routledge Advances in Research Methods. New York: Routledge.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

This video essay offers an insightful and poignant reflection on the tensions associated with portraying character in a documentary film. It is well paced and easy to follow, with engaging visuals and use of text. The author explores her own thought processes as a filmmaker who decides on the character material that will and will not be included in a completed film, this relating to expectations of the subject and audience (as anticipated by the filmmaker).

The author states that she wants to dig into stereotypes, and certainly, the moments in the film where characters addressing the camera are interrupted by various means provides a means to achieve this. At these moments characters ‘transition’ before the eyes of the viewer, a point underlined by the inclusion of a quote by David McDougall. The opening of the film, a scene that is craftily edited to expose the material construction of character through techniques of cutting alone, sets the scene for a thoughtful reflection on the filmmaker’s practice.

Central to the work are interviews with Stella Bruzzi and Helen Gaynor, both of which are interrupted for differing reasons. The innovation of the essay is to use these moments as a means to explore the role of filmmaker as character, alongside the subject. Furthermore, the essay is able to assemble a range of ‘out takes’ in order to explore the construction of character, and the filmmaker’s role in this. For example, in one of the film’s final scenes, we see the minor staging of two subjects who meet on camera, which is rehearsed to make a certain impression. Here, we see clear evidence of a filmmaker and subject anticipating an audience and therefore shaping a ‘performance’.

The research statement outlines the thoughts of a number of theorists who have relevance for the author’s creative exploration of character. There is some repetition of these quotes as titles within the video itself, which serves to clarify the overall message of the work.

A statement in the end credits of the film suggests that it is part of a PhD project conducted at RMIT. If this video is part of a larger project on documentary practice, it would be useful to hear about this in the ‘background’ section of the research statement. In the ‘research significance’ section, the author might further outline the way that the video essay could further impact on her work, and that of other practitioners.

Overall, this is an important and engaging personal reflection on the problem of character representation in documentary.

 

PEER REVIEW 2

Characters, Interrupted provides an interesting, and at times playful, creative exploration of the relationship between narrative, character and the filmmaker in documentary filmmaking. Gough-Brady draws on the work of Bruzzi and Barthes, amongst others, to tease out ideas relating to the complex ‘entanglement’ of character to performance and filmmaker to character. Specifically, she looks at the authorship filmmakers yield in deciding what to include, what to hold on to in the edit, and how this in turn shapes the viewers’ reading of the subject’s ‘character’. For me, these sections of the film, where the filmmaker interjects and speaks to her creative process whilst the camera keeps rolling, provides some of the most insightful and interesting linkages between practice as research.

There is perhaps room in the written statement to provide examples of how some of the statements/ideas are explored and/or articulated in the film work – for example, adding a sentence at the end of the first paragraph in the contribution section of how ‘documentaries can be viewed as being created’ is evidenced in the film? Additionally, in the significance section, although this makes an interesting claim, it does read as rather vague. For instance, what aspect of craft and how is the theory integrated? Finally, I wonder if there is a need to articulate how this research defines ‘character’.  As I note, for instance, there is a difference between how fiction and documentary filmmakers and theorists use the term ‘character’ to describe the subject of the film. This could also provide an additional layer and/or tension to be explored in this research project.

 

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

My peer reviewers indicated that I should splice the changes into the existing statement, and so I have done that. I have used italics to indicate these changes. This is in keeping with the film theme, as now the original text is interrupted by the additions.

REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT

Research Background

Non-representational theorist Phillip Vannini suggests that ‘life arises from the entanglement of actors—human and non-human animals, organic matter, and material objects’ (2015, 16). Depicting this entanglement in a linear narrative is tricky. As a result I often reduce the complexity of the world by reducing the characters and the storylines I depict in the film. This essay film explores the decisions I make to include characters, or to exclude them, and what aspects of a particular character I reveal, including the character of the filmmaker themselves.

The film is one in a series of essay-style films I created as part of my PhD exploration into the relational nature of documentary filmmaking. I find that I think differently when using film as a way of exploring theoretical ideas. I think this ‘difference’ is that I am in the act of creating at the same time as the act of explication. The combination provides a grounded insight into research questions about film processes.

Contribution 

In this digital paper, Characters, Interrupted (2020), screen theorist Stella Bruzzi says documentary is the ‘triangular relationship between the subject, the filmmaker and also the audience’ (6:07), and that ‘a documentary comes into being when it is being made’ (5:58). I agree with Bruzzi that documentaries can be viewed as being created, and when they are viewed in this relational way, it becomes important to understand more about the relationships that contribute to the creation of the work. This film is a work which examines aspects of that process of a documentary character being created. The audience is made aware of the processes of creation through interruptions in the subject’s world, which disrupt the construction of their filmic character.

Roland Barthes provides a useful starting point for this discussion. He finds that his character is an entanglement of relationships when he is being photographed: ‘In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am’ (2000, 13). This is a complexity of character that Bekti Andari, a woman I have been filming, speaks about in the digital paper. Just as I, as the filmmaker, feel a responsibility towards how Bekti is portrayed in a documentary film, she also feels a responsibility towards how she portrays herself. For Bekti this is about creating an authentic depiction of herself that others who know her can recognise. Sara Ahmed notes that this is character as ‘an idea of consistency’ and that ‘Not to fulfil an expectation of character is to be out of character’ (2011, 231). This expectation of character is one driven by an awareness that there will be an audience for the film. The character consistency includes who the person would like to be, who others think they are, and who the filmmaker thinks they are.

How a filmmaker depicts a person as a character is dependent upon who the filmmaker is. In the digital paper, filmmaker Helen Gaynor talks about how this affects the style of the documentary, but I wonder if the effect can also be found at the level of how a character is depicted. I am the type of filmmaker who finds it easier to create works that are somewhat constructed, and yet I also film elements in ways that are observational (where I have little control). I enjoy the tension between those two sides of myself, the love of control and the fascination with allowing space for the unknown. The question I am left with at the end of this film is: do I seek this tension in others and choose to depict it?

Significance

Take one

Characters, Interrupted explores the way an aspect of craft functions during the production process, and how that can integrate with theory to generate a greater understanding of what takes place. I see this film as opening up discussion and posing new research questions rather than closing down discussion by merely answering research questions. This is because every answer leads to a new question, and in my search for answers I inevitably raise new questions.

Inter-take discussion

I am learning how to outline the significance of my work. It is an aspect of the process that I tend to notice as it emerges through relationships with viewers, rather than possessing a skill in mapping it out in advance. So, here is take two….

Take two

In this film I allow space for the ’embodied spectator’ (Rascaroli 2009, 36) to finish the construction of meaning. I thought I was constructing the film to allow diverse readings, but both reviewers (admittedly they are from the same audience which is a creative practitioner researcher) reacted in a remarkably similar manner to the film. I wonder if a more precise quality of these films is that they allow multiple audiences with different levels of knowledge to arrive at the same sense of meaning? I have anecdotally noticed that people outside of filmmaking and academia enjoy and are intrigued by these films. In my experience, the films inspire non-filmmakers to be thoughtful about filmmaking. The significance of this type of film is that it can be part of the toolkit of the activist academic and used to reach diverse audiences. 

In terms of the subject matter of the film, this film contributes to the debates around narrative and character in non-fiction filmmaking. Narrative structures and character are often linked when either is being critiqued (Zimmermann 2020; Juhasz and Lebow 2018). But the nature of how they are linked is less frequently examined in these critiques. This film explores that linkage using Sara Ahmed’s concept of character as an expression of consistency and then proposes that the narrative determines the nature of the consistency. David MacDougall noticed that ‘there is always the risk that people in ethnographic films will be reduced simply to their social roles’ (1998, 169). Here MacDougall is aware that ethnography forms an underlying narrative principle for those films, and this provides the guide for what is consistent – namely the social being. Films are unable to tell everything about a person or situation, and that act of focusing through story-telling informs the character consistency.

REFERENCES

Ahmed, Sara. 2011. “Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character.” New Literary History 42 (2): 231-253  http://www.jstor.org/stable/23012542

Barthes, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Vintage Books.

Gough-Brady, Catherine. 2019. “The Methodology behind Digital Papers.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (17): 179-187  https://doi.org/10.33178/alpha.17.12

Juhasz, Alexandra, and Alisa Lebow. 2018. “Beyond Story: an Online, Community-Based Manifesto.” World Recordshttps://vols.worldrecordsjournal.org/#/02/03

MacDougall, David. 1998. Transcultural Cinema. edited by Lucien Taylor. Princeton: University of Princeton Press.

Rascaroli, Laura. 2009. The Personal Camera: subjective cinema and the essay film. New York: Wallflower Press.

Vannini, Phillip. 2015. Non-Representational Methodologies : Re-Envisioning Research. Book. Routledge Advances in Research Methods. New York: Routledge.

Zimmermann, Patricia R. 2020. “Polyphony and the Emerging Collaborative Ecologies of Documentary Media Exhibition.” Afterimage 47 (1): 61-66. https://doi.org/10.1525/aft.2020.471011  https://doi.org/10.1525/aft.2020.471011

Return to list of worksNext work

Jump to top