Sightlines Journal, Issue 1, 2015
Author: Aaron Burton
Kurrajong Films Pty Ltd
International DVD distribution through RONIN FILMS
For contractual reasons, this production cannot be shown in full.
My Mother’s Village is a 95 minute video essay that combines material from Sharon Bell’s 1980 Sri Lanka Series of three anthropological documentaries filmed by cinematographer Geoff Burton with footage captured 33 years later by their son, visual artist/photographer, Aaron Burton. The video explores ideas of provenance and inheritance by comparing perspectives that are separated in time and intention and contextualising both within a reflective voice over narration. The juxtaposition of sounds and images across time that are united by the Sri Lankan locations, Sharon Bell’s inquiry and Geoff Burton’s lens, permit Aaron Burton to consider the throughlines and divergences that emerge from considering cultural experience through the frame of family and heredity. Where Bell’s original films operated within a framework of deep and immersive visual anthropology, Burton’s project appears to be sited between artistic motivations, that privilege the evocative and metaphorical potential of the moving image and more recent developments in sensory ethnography.
I find My Mother’s Village to be a compelling and thought provoking film that is engaging, stimulating and a real pleasure to watch. The footage is beautifully captured, conjuring a multidimensional presentation of the film’s subjects and the places where they live and work. It is an accessible video where the more abstract ideas being explored through the creative practice are alluded to in the voice over narration so that they complement the pleasures associated with watching the lush visuals, the finding of connections and musing over narrative fragments. In this regard, the work strongly fits in the tradition of audiovisual essay where the potentials of sound and image are exploited to stimulate thought that is only imperfectly enabled through words. My Mother’s Village is a fine example of how comparisons and resonances between moving image footage are best shown through seeing the material in juxtaposition on screen, revealing nonverbal understandings and prompting alternative trajectories of thought.
At the same time, the project is also engaging with traditions of visual anthropology that seek to better understand humankind by examining recordings and observations about other cultures. In the short text that is posted under the video on Vimeo, Burton states, “My Mother’s Village explores how they, like me, are navigating heredity and inheritance”. This statement frames the project as anthropological/cultural research that uses the personal experiences of the filmmaker as a way to provide insights into the experiences of participants and his own. In addition the work engages with a visual anthropology method of recording participant responses to video material that has been collected about them. These reflective approaches to practice stimulate a questioning of process and of the understandings that may be gained both as filmmaker and audience.
The subject matter of the submission is explored on multiple levels. At one level it is an examination of the lives of a set of Sri Lankan villagers, re interviewing past participants or the descendants of past participants from Bell’s Sri Lanka series to get a sense of what has changed over time and what, if anything has remained the same. Surrounding this is what appears like a quest for Aaron Burton to better understand his own family stories – where he wishes at one point that “some curious observer had made a film about you two” (referring to his parents), where the practice of “cutting and pasting stories” is viewed as part of an effort to “better understand our own” stories.
The voice over text contains many poetic phrases and insightful observations that fit with the dominant aesthetic tone of much of the footage. There is a style of non sequitur in the voice over text that can tend to be ambiguous and conveys ambivalence about what the piece is revealing. As a consequence, I am not always able to follow the intentions or make the connections that the sequencing of words seems to imply is present. For example, the last two sentences of the voice over… “It seems to no longer be about the ways things are but contingency and encounter – an ongoing transformation of stories. Rather than at the distance of a shout, perhaps now when we visit our mother’s villages, we can meet at the distance of a whisper.” I can thoroughly enjoy the poetry of these words but, as is frequently the case with poetic expression, the meaning appears shifting and I am uncertain of how the words sit in the context of the video as a piece of research and there being no accompanying written statement.
Good research should be generative of further thought, inciting new connections to be made and potentials to be opened up and this work is undoubtedly successfully in achieving and surpassing those aims. It is interesting that the filmmaker has chosen not to submit a written statement, implying that they wish for the work to stand on its own merits and I think in respect of it as a work of screen production it does. While I am fully supportive of the value of screen production as research, I nonetheless do believe that there are benefits in framing the moving image artefact within a particular theoretical context in order to consider its research merits. On those grounds I believe there is scope for the author to be more rigorous in his expression of the creative practice research.
However, setting those issues of making the research more explicit aside, this is a work of considerable value and makes an important contribution to a recognised body of work in the area of personal, reflective video essay. There is high level evidence of skill and talent in the conception and execution of the work and I look forward to seeing further projects by the artist that are equally revelatory, insightful and considered.
Burton’s film creates a space for a kind of dialog between past and present both at an individual level as well as within a broader historical context in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan film subjects and the filmmaker are all engaged in examining the Sri Lanka presented in Sharon Bell’s and Geoff Burton’s—the filmmaker’s parents’—films from the late 1970s. Specifically, they engage in examining the film versions of their past selves or their parents’/predecessors’ past selves. The intercutting of film subjects’ past and present testimonies and reflections forms the basis of this dialog between past and present, but Burton builds on the theme visually and aurally through superimposition and parallel editing of past and present footage. The result is a film that is both technically and thematically very effective. Careful shot composition and organization ensures that the viewer does not become disoriented as the film moves between past and present and despite the fact that there are numerous people and locations. Further, the viewers are invited to notice parallels as well as disjunctures between people, their work, events and landscapes past and present. The filmmaker’s decision to use his own voice narrating as well as the style and content of his narration further strengthen the theme of dialog between past and present. From a stylistic perspective, his narration in My Mother’s Village echoes that of his mother’s in her films—though hers is more anthropologist’s diary and his more like a letter in which he speaks directly to his mother. Yet, his narration also contrasts sharply with his mother’s to the extent that it is reflexive and scrutinizes the ethnographic filmmaking process.
In making My Mother’s Village, Burton is following in his parents’ footsteps professionally—just as some of the Sri Lankan film subjects have followed paths similar to their parents’. In both cases, however, there are also examples of divergence from the paths taken by the previous generation. This parallel between film subjects and filmmaker allows Burton some kind of common ground with film subjects, but it works very well not just as a relational tool but also thematically and as a means of facilitating reflexivity in such a way that it does not feel forced but naturally arises in harmony with the film’s themes.
Burton’s work lives up to its potential to the extent that—as he states in his short film synopsis— he set out to explore the question of how the Sri Lankan film subjects, like him, “are navigating heredity and inheritance”. Yet, as he acknowledges in his film narration, there are limits to the level of depth at which a film can explore the many other potential stories and details that arise in the process of filmmaking. Burton also addresses this issue very beautifully and compellingly via montages of unnamed “significant others”—people and things he has decided are outside of the scope of this film to focus on. For now, they are “frozen in fragments from behind the scenes”, he laments, in order not to “confuse the narrative”. One of these “significant others” appears to be his mother in her present day form; the viewer is left to assume that this is, in fact, his mother and wonder about her role in his film and why this present day version of her is not more present in his film. In fact, Burton does much more than explore the theme of navigating heredity and inheritance. After watching My Mother’s Village, the film synopsis seems a bit lacking. Perhaps it is outside of the scope of a brief film synopsis to summarize the important themes in his work, and this would be more appropriately done in a research/artist’s statement—where he could also expand and contextualize his work a bit more.
The film certainly can stand on its own as a work of art and documentary; however—from the perspective of a peer reviewer examining Burton’s work in an academic context—a more developed statement would be very useful. How does Burton situate his work in terms of disciplinary field(s), theoretical and methodological context, and other filmmaking practice? These kinds of details are difficult, if not inappropriate, to fully address within the film itself. The viewer understands that Burton’s mother’s films were made in an anthropology context and that his work deviates from hers in many ways. He seems to situate his work somewhere between his mother’s anthropology and his father’s cinematography. Yet, he worries—as he mentions in his narration—that his work may fall short of theirs in “depth and integrity”. Perhaps it is not that his work falls short but simply that it operates in different ways and can be considered according to a different framework. Burton might consider using a research statement as a means of exploring this further; he could also expand a bit more on some of his story (or stories) of making the film. Desmond Bell, in his writing about creative practice as research1, argues that the main focus of the artistresearcher should be on the “generative act” and the “knowledge object” rather than on the “art object” alone. Burton, in his deft employment of reflexive filmmaking, has made great strides in this direction. The artist/filmmaker working within academia is in a unique position to use both the film and the written form in combination to examine the creative process in depth. As he mentions in his narration that he is conducting a PhD, I assume that there is still more Burton could share with us in a corresponding written form.
1 Bell, D. 2006. “Creative film and media practice as research: In pursuit of that obscure object of knowledge”. Journal of Media Practice, 7(2), 85100.
Author response to the review
I want to start by thanking Sightlines for initiating and moderating this invaluable process. I also wish to thank the two peer reviewers for their generous responses to My Mother’s Village. Visual research, by nature, is open to subjective and often divergent interpretations, so I am somewhat relieved and encouraged to receive consistent feedback. I feel both reviewers “got” the film, their criticisms are extremely helpful, and the only point I wish to address directly is the lack of a research statement in my submission.
Firstly, I completely agree with the corresponding observations made by my peers:
“[…] there are benefits in framing the moving image artefact within a particular theoretical context in order to consider its
research merits. On those grounds I believe there is scope for the author to be more rigorous in his expression of the
creative practice research.”
“The film certainly can stand on its own as a work of art and documentary; however—from the perspective of a peer reviewer examining Burton’s work in an academic context—a more developed statement would be very useful. How does Burton situate his work in terms of disciplinary field(s), theoretical and methodological context, and other filmmaking practice? These kinds of details are difficult, if not inappropriate, to fully address within the film itself.”
To put the Sightlines review process into context, My Mother’s Village was the major component of my PhD in Media Arts at COFA UNSW. Coinciding with the film I developed what is, I believe, a comprehensive thesis titled ‘Provenance in Personal Documentary: My Mother’s Village’ (2014). This written component of my research is a personal account of my experiences surrounding the production and a conceptual framework around ‘provenance’ to assist the critical interpretation and creative development of personal documentary projects. I think like most PhD candidates I believed my research was significant to the field and hoped the finished product would act as a “launching pad” to a “successful career” or at least stimulate enough interest to continue filmmaking. It is fair to say my dreams where shattered when My Mother’s Village failed to get picked up by any of the national or international film festivals with no feedback as to why. Furthermore, within the academic context, I experienced an unfortunately bitter examination process in which one examiner was inappropriately vindictive in their response. So at the end of this process I felt the written text provided too much semantic ammunition for unconstructive feedback and I also wanted to know why the film failed to generate interest within conventional cinematic terms perhaps simply because “the synopsis is a bit lacking.”
To reiterate, I am heartened by these peer responses and I have come to appreciate what a rare privilege it is to receive honest and informed feedback. I agree with the remarks that within academic filmmaking, and particularly when tasked with having to compose a review, the written statement is extremely helpful for providing a critical context for the production. I have decided to finish with an excerpt from my thesis attempting to explain the concept of provenance. One of the interesting revelations of the concept is the way contemporary audiences (or participants) are informed by material exterior to the film artefact. The ‘narrative’ expands beyond the film to incorporate social media, websites, articles, and in the academic context this might include academia profile and online publications (perhaps in this instance the digital repository of my PhD). Moreover, in regards to the current project of considering filmmaking within the Academy, the question of conventions to scholarly viewing (i.e. does it require a statement of some sort, of what nature, and length?) deserves further consideration.
The following is an excerpt from the introductory chapter of my PhD paper: Burton, A 2014, Provenance in Personal Documentary: My Mother’s Village, PhD thesis, University of New South Whales, Sydney.
In my praxis, and for My Mother’s Village, I am operating within an alignment of documentary film, documentary photography, and visual ethnography in the context of contemporary art. What I believe is shared by these disciplines is the individual storyteller negotiating reality in order to formulate an experientially informed story. As an art form, in Walter Benjamin’s political sense, I am conferring the notion of authenticity to the passage of the story.
The technological means are now available to craft, interact, and distribute the story from one perspective, mirroring the singular perspective of the motion- camera eye, the ‘roaming’ still photographer, or the isolated ethnographer or artist in their ‘field’.
Provenance offers a critical method for establishing authenticity in a mode of storytelling tied to both aesthetics and social intervention. In other words, as personal documentary and ethnographic modes or storytelling are increasingly conceptualised within a contemporary art context, the journey or passage of the work becomes a constituent of the work of art, a process of emergence as opposed to an exclusive artefact. Provenance questions how the artist or storyteller incorporates the passage of their experience and ‘creative treatment’ into the meaning of the work itself, and connects notions of authenticity with the idiosyncratic associations and stages of creative production. Jill Bennett recently outlined a similar method for embracing ‘practical aesthetics’ by way of casuistry:
Instead of working from a body of principles or rules, it derives its theory of the case inductively, taking account of ‘presumptions’ about the thing in question. In contradistinction, to applied ethics, then, casuistry brings experience to bear rather than subsuming experience under a general theory imported from outside. (2012:14) Bennett argues that the contemporary interface between real events and aesthetics demands the ‘case’ and the ‘event’ be treated as a problematic in itself, in other words, being responsive and adaptive to the formation of an indeterminate story (2012: 27). Provenance similarly functions inductively, concerning itself with the idiosyncratic experience and passage of the work in question, which might have emerged from diverse disciplines, locations, or politically motivated instigations, but presents itself as an ‘event’, which I am equating to storytelling. Within a creative documentary paradigm, dependent on the indexical nature of photography, I am arguing that an individual provenance in the storyteller, is not only inherent and symptomatic of interpreting film and photography, as anticipated by auteur theory or Vertov’s ‘Kino Glaz’ ‘Camera Eye’, but with current technology a truly individual provenance is not only made possible but potentially offers creative and ethical pathways through the production and storytelling process. In other words, provenance becomes the creative process. The uniqueness of the process the encounters, contingencies, and instigations establish the authenticity of the production.
In order to clarify the nature and scope of provenance as a guiding concept, I have identified five potential dimensions of provenance pertinent to my project: (i) intellectual provenance encompasses the theories and concepts that have influenced my praxis and the work itself; (ii) creative provenance calls attention to the genre(s) in which the work is situated and the influence of other art works and traditions; (iii) personal provenance incorporates family and social background in addition to psychological or emotional motivations; (iv) political provenance highlights significant ideologies at play, in this instance the humanitarian documentary tradition, contemporary politics, and postcolonial geopolitics; lastly, (v) material provenance comprises the production technology and phenomenological passage of the creative artefact.
As a creative and ethically motivated project, provenance necessitates experimentation and contingencies unique to the storyteller and the story. For My Mother’s Village provenance opens up my family history, my parents’ films, my creative practice, postcolonial negotiations across the NorthSouth divide, my fieldwork experiences in Sri Lanka, inspirations and motivations, creative decisions including exhibition and display events, in addition to auxiliary instigations such as academic presentations, publications, and Internet presence through online publishing and social media. Provenance encompasses factors beyond the construction of a textual object to highlight the meaning of the actual interactions and mimetic transactions of this process. As suggested by Michael Taussig in Mimesis and Alterity (1993), ultimately acts of documentary or ethnography become so intricate and unique that they are perhaps more appropriately defined as witchcraft or shamanism. Recently, Taussig has turned his attentions to the ‘imaginative logic of discovery’ and in reframing his ethnographic fieldwork notebooks as art, he observes, ‘[…] the notebook offers you this invitation so long as you are prepared to kindle the mystique pertaining to documents that blend inner and outer worlds’ (2011: xi). In this era of reality testing and truth seeking, perhaps we ought to take Taussig’s lead and embrace a degree of mysticism and uncertainty to the nature of our storytelling. Nevertheless, the question of ‘beingintime’ and the nature of ‘fieldwork’ demand a direction: a location, intention, and temporality.
Dr Aaron Burton
Bennett, J 2012, Practical Aesthetics: Events, Affects and Art after 9/11, I.B.Taurus & Co Ltd, London.
Taussig, M 1993, Mimesis and Alterity: a particular history of the senses, Routledge, New York.
Taussig, M 2011, I Swear I Saw This, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.