Sightlines Journal, issue 2, 2017
Name: Jill Daniels
Film: My Private Life II
Length: 25 minutes
My Private Life II (2015) was conceived as an experimental documentary film to form the second iteration in a film trilogy. Cinematic strategies deployed in experimental documentary films vary and this offers a flexibility that may open a window onto distinctive and original ways of mediating historical events. My experiments in documentary filmmaking do not aim to provide the last word on a particular subject but make a contribution to its exploration. In the construction of My Private Life II I created a shorter split-screen version edited from the footage in my earlier 63-minute film, My Private Life (2014). In the third and final iteration, not yet created, My Private Life III will be an immersive installation piece located in an empty shop in a city high street. The research questions I addressed are:
• How may hybrid strategies deployed in an experimental documentary film engage with the cinematic representation of memory and subjectivities?
• How does the use of multiple voice-overs in different tenses add complexity of meaning to documentary film discourse?
• How may using past films as found footage benefit the documentary filmmaker in the production of experimental films?
The film and accompanying statement exploring the first two research questions in slightly different form are published in the peer-reviewed journal, Screenworks (Feb 2017), available at http://screenworks.org.uk/archive/volume-7/my-private-life-ii.
My aim in the trilogy was to excavate a buried past; uncomfortable family secrets around my father’s unacknowledged sexuality. The films tell the story of my Jewish parents’ early lives, their marriage and divorce, my mother’s remarriage and violence at the hands of my stepfather and my parents’ decision to live together again. In the exploration of my family’s secrets I drew upon the work of Annette Kuhn who observes that most families have secrets but if these are buried and unspoken for years they may sometimes escape conscious awareness and create a form of amnesia in some family members (Kuhn 2002: 2).
In the mediation of my complicated family history I experimented with narrative structure and with hybrid strategies and techniques, including realism, the use of metaphors and the imagined through fictional enactments and the use of split screens. Hybrid strategies have value in terms of the effect on the spectator where the filmmaker delivers a hybridization of documentary modes in a clearly fabricated way so as to retain referentiality which work together to suggest and not argue a message by drawing from the viewer – not for the viewer (Little 2007: 25). However, the fictional enactments I created in My Private Life II do not overshadow the film’s reference to the historical world. The past elides with the present through voice-overs which recall and comment on events in the past; home movies; old family photographs; and enactments. These are interwoven with observational footage of the mundane routines that mark the patterns of my parents’ daily lives. I used an elliptical approach in the film’s construction to afford space for spectatorial reflection. This approach creates a space for the spectator to reflect on the meaning of what has been shown thus far. Ruptures in the diegesis punctuate the rhythmic visual patterns of shots and frames; images of the characters are shown in different frames, often cutting to black, suggesting the characters’ inability to cross emotional and physical divides. My stepfather’s violence for example, is evoked through off-screen shouting and smashing of glass, edited over a shot of a closed door which opens slowly then slams shut.
I carried the elliptical approach through to the interviews with my parents. It is generally assumed that interviews, although they may be subjective, serve to provide narrative authentication. In the mediation of a dysfunctional family where each member may be concealing long-held secrets, such interviews may be misleading. There are also significant ethical considerations in choosing to carry out interviews when the filmmaker believes that the interviewees do not wish to be confronted. This is complicated further by the ease of access to one’s family. However, I decided not to confront my parents directly about anything I thought was a secret ─ my father’s sexuality; my stepfather’s violence; my mother’s knowledge that my stepfather had sexually abused me. (This latter was enacted through images of an unidentified woman in a bath and a close-up of an eye looking through a keyhole). I asked them very few questions, generally asking about a specific period in their lives and letting the camera run to see if this would prompt them to reveal their secrets. This did not happen. Interviewees may continue to evade and to conceal secrets or to share their secrets through others. In My Private Life II a friend of my father reveals that my father is gay. After describing how my father got a job at the Houses of Parliament, the friend asks me: “Did he tell you why they pushed him out, was it because he was gay or something?” I reply after a pause: “Actually, he never really said.” “Hmm. Hmm” says the friend. The sequence ends. In a further sequence, my father reveals that my stepfather had physically abused my mother. After my mother dies, another, unidentified man, acknowledges the existence of family secrets: “Your mum, how can I put it, was very secretive to herself and maybe to a lot of other people.” These revelations may afford the spectator a greater sense of empathy with my parents but they also underline identities which are fixed by secrets.
Mediating the ‘I’
In My Private Life II I adopted an auto-ethnographic approach using a first person subjective voice-over as a form of ‘self fashioning’ where the ethnographer comes to represent themselves within the film as a fiction, inscribing a doubleness within the ethnographic text (Russell 1999: 277). In documenting and placing my self at the heart of the film through performed roles I created distinct selves which correspond to my role as filmmaker and interlocutor and subject. As filmmaker and interlocutor I am heard and sometimes seen; as a subject I am present through my own voiced memories, in old photographs and in home movie footage. There is a distinction between my selves that are represented in the film and what we may consider to be the so-called ‘real’ person, the person who is in a constant process of forming her identity. The entities created as my selves in the film embody the artistic designs of the filmmaker, the one who creates the narrative structure, the characters and the filmic choices of camera angles, duration of shots, the split screens, and the omniscient, partial or multiple perspectives that the guiding filmmaker’s voice assumes in relation to the narrative. The inclusion of my embodied self in the film as the ‘daughter’ may serve to remind spectators that my ‘real’ authorial self may also convey a fabricated point of view, a mask that both disguises and reveals (Sayad 2013: 4). My created multiple selves do not serve to provide an authentic mediation of familial relationships but uncertainty; a dispersion of meaning that may allow the spectator to speculate on what has been seen and heard.
Split Screens and Multiple Screens
The different possibilities of spectatorial interpretations and lack of narrative resolution are reinforced by the use of split screens. The images appear and disappear in one or more frames, often punctuated by black; at times this creates strongly abstract patterns whose
visual impact provide little direct reference to the narrative. At other times, for example in the wide shots of orchids and the empty bedroom, the images, identical in all three frames evoke a powerful sensation of loss. Addressing the camera and spectator directly from the central frame positions me in my dual role as filmmaker and daughter and the repeated images of different houses, poetic enactments, home movie footage, and unidentified hands constructing the model of a terraced house throughout the film, deepens the sensation of temporal and spatial dislocation. As the film unfolds, the earlier single screen film may also be remembered in fragments or pieces. In the installation piece each of the three frames will be projected on to three screens to form a semi-circle around a ‘set’, re- creating the domestic space of a living room. Spectators will be invited to wander around the ‘set’ to view the film, to knit, read a newspaper, drink tea, mirroring the actions performed by the characters in the film. The overall impact of the trilogy of films is a powerful and poetic evocation of memory and contested identities.
The extensive voice-overs describing memories of the past, mingle, not in conversation since my parents talk in the past tense and my own voice is generally in the present tense, as I search their narratives for clues that would reorder their fixed narratives. My memories are often voiced in a present tensed “you” addressed to my mother, over old photographs, such as one of my much younger mother with her children and my voice says: “You have the life you say you dreamed of. Marriage, a house, three children but still you’re bored, so you open a coffee bar. Barely a year later we move to London.” The film then cuts to a photograph of my mother holding in her arms a sulky-looking young child and my voice- over says: “No, I say, I don’t want to.” The narrative is punctuated by my voiced observations: “It occurs to me for the first time – maybe you married my father for the security of his money rather than his looks.” Later, my voice, over shots of my mother putting on make-up with a shaky hand addresses her directly: “If you married my father for security how disappointing it must be and how lonely. You say nothing.” After several shots of my bed-ridden mother, the film cuts to a wide shot of orchids in all three frames and then to the empty bedroom. As though I have finally given up on the search for clues on the death of my mother, my voice addresses the empty room: “Secrets are best buried, you say.” The film moves through past and present but at the end my voice-over comes closer to the present narrative of the film as though I am finally giving up the search for resolution: “Last night he told me he loved Rodrigo. I don’t know, I can’t say what their relationship was …. I have never heard my father say he loved anybody. Not us, not my mother, not anyone. And it’s not gonna happen.” The multiplicity of ‘voices’ moving through different tenses, questioning what is seen and heard affords the possibility of different spectatorial interpretations of my contested identity and that of my parents.
 My parents’ voices were recorded during the filming process while my voice was recorded, changed and re- recorded multiple times and cut over the images as the editing progressed and the film took shape.
Using Past Films As Found Footage
In using my earlier film as ‘found footage’ my aim was to reflect on the different possibilities of format and editing choices; to expand the idea of uncertainty and lack of closure since the text may always continue in new forms to create new meanings. At the heart of this methodology is the use of repetition, of images, gesture and sound to allow a reconsideration of the film’s discourse. Repetition has the force of emphasis and enables reconsideration of what has been explored so far. It is not a return to the identical (Agamben, 2002). The ease with which digital images may be obtained and replicated means that documentary filmmakers may rework their past films with ease to experiment with stylistic forms to create new meanings and a range of viewing experiences; to evoke uncertainty not closure. This deepens spectatorial participation rather than identification in the reading of images and allows the possibility of new mediations, new aesthetic possibilities and new rhetoric.
My Private Life II is the latest of several films where I have used multiple voice-overs to explore memory and subjectivities. They include my autobiographical film The Border Crossing (2011), which mediates memories of a traumatic event and Not Reconciled (2009), where I created the fictional voices of ghosts evoked from the Spanish Civil War to tell the history of Belchite, a town in Northern Spain ruined by a 3-week battle in August 1937. I built on the films of Marguerite Duras’ who made extensive use of voice-overs to create narratives, most usefully in her film India Song (1975). I also referenced autobiographical films which take an elliptical approach in their use of filmic strategies, such as Carol Morley’s The Alcohol Years (2000), an autobiographical film. She is the central subject of the film and
is present through her physical absence, her character represented through brief glimpses of a surrogate. Even though the interviewees address her directly she does not speak. Michelle Citron’s semi-fictionalised autobiographical film Daughter Rite (1980) influenced me in her exploration of troubled relationships between mothers and daughters; Rea Tajiri’s autobiographical film History and Memory (1991) which looks at family relationships affected by traumatic memories from WWII was another influence. I also referenced the films of Yasujirô Ozu, in my use of static camera, symmetrical framing and exploration of space inside and outside the frame and explorations of human relationships, in particular Tokyo Story (1953), a deeply moving mediation of old age. My theoretical context is influenced by the work of Michael Renov on the subject in the autobiographical film, Alisa Lebow, Catherine Russell and Cecilia Sayed on first-person filmmaking, Eli Horwatt on found footage filmmaking and Chantal Akerman’s extensive use of her own earlier films to create installation works for the gallery.
Agamben, G. 2002. ‘Difference and Repetition: on Guy Debord’s Films’ in Guy Debord and the Situationist International, Ed. McDonough, T. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Akerman, C. Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce,1080, Bruxelles (1975) Paradise Films & Criterion Collection. Belgium/France.
Citron, M. (1980) Daughter Rite. US.
Daniels, J. (2014) My Private Life. UK. https://vimeo.com/104385249
___________. (2011) The Border Crossing. UK. Available at: https://vimeo.com/93590375 ___________. (2009) Not Reconciled. UK. Available at: http://screenworks.org.uk/archive/volume-3/not-reconciled
Duras, M. (1975) India Song. France.
Horwatt, E. 2009. ‘A Taxonomy of Digital Video Remixing: Contemporary Found Footage Practice on the Internet’ in Cultural Borrowings: Appropriation, Reworking, Transformation. Ed. Smith, I. A. Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies.
Kuhn, A. (2002 ) Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. London: Verso. Lebow, A. (ed.) (2012) The Cinema of Me: the Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary. London: Wallflower Press
Little, J. A. (2007). The Power and Potential of Performative Documentary Film. [Online]
Available from: http://scholarworks.montana.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1/1741/LittleJ0507.pdf?sequenc e=1 [Accessed: 23 October 2016]
Morley, C. (2000) The Alcohol Years. C. Cannon & Morley Productions. UK.
Ozu, Y. (1953) Tokyo Story/ Tōkyō Monogatari BFI. Japan.
Renov, M. (2004) The Subject of Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Russell, C. (1999) Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Art in the Age of Video. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sayad, C. (2013) Performing Authorship: Self-inscription and Corporeality in the Cinema. London: I.B Taurus.
Tajiri, R. (1991) History and Memory. USA.
Peer Review 1 (Dominique Webb)
The film My Private Life II is a 25 minute experimental documentary exploring themes of memory, family life and subjectivities. The film evolved from a previous feature length documentary film, (which I haven’t seen) and the filmmaker addresses an interesting research question for experimental development in the use of past films as found footage. The choice to use multiple screens, with random blackout (instead of the more common, split into two), complements the experimental approach, generating diversity and causal factors in often non-dynamic footage. Furthermore, the artistic connotations with three, suggest the filmmaker is bravely applying a directorial presence as well as an awareness of the process, to engage audiences with the same material, in new forms. The creative use and interpretation of the found footage in this film contributes to an emerging interrogation of the research question as she presents the footage in an original and intriguing manner. The film weaves experimental techniques in postproduction of documentary footage, whilst drawing upon fictional storytelling techniques as narrator in one of the ‘selves’, seemingly as a use in searching for identity and the possibility of discovering answers.
The use of split screen as a device for storytelling is more often associated with fiction filmmaking for either stylistic reasons or for specific narrative purposes, so it is a particularly interesting choice for presenting My Private Life II. As a device, it clearly works to immerse the audience in this study of buried family secrets and to connect with the main themes of the film. The use of archive footage combined with contemporary voice over, are effective in creating a reflective, multi-layered tone and leads the audience to critically engage with the chosen material.
The pace of voice over delivery contributes to the reflective nature of the film which complements the themes and is appropriate to the personal content made up of family imagery, living mainly within their own environment. The filmmaker’s voice is clear, with choice of words and emotion in delivery, successfully drawing the audience to pensive reflection, both on this particular portrayal, but also on the subject more widely. Our intention as filmmakers of all genres is to touch our audience, leaving them with more lasting memories of the work. Therefore, this is an intriguing film that successfully explores the underlying themes through use of found footage content combined with experimental forms of presentation.
The statement is detailed and focuses on the key elements such as auto-enthrongraphic approach, film context, use of split and multiple screens and voice-over. I was keen to read the filmmaker’s intentions and interpretation of focusing on the use of split and multiple screen. I agree that for the audience, this is a powerful device, that works in both abstract form or to reinforce specific emotion by repeating the same footage in all screens. I would be interested to read more about the split / multiple screen in relation to the filmmaker’s intentions and decision-making process in terms of what she considers dictated the chosen material, structurally, and in terms of how it influences shaping the emotional story.
Peer Review 2 (Name withheld)
Jill Daniels has created an experimental and personal documentary which is screened in a triptych format, and an accompanying text statement.
Daniels outlined three key research questions in her text statement. She adapted these questions after a peer review in Screenworks (Feb 2017) http://screenworks.org.uk/archive/volume-7/my-private-life-ii. I will address the first two of her research questions, but do not have enough knowledge of her film work to address the third, which is “How may using past films as found footage benefit the documentary filmmaker in the production of experimental films?”
How may hybrid strategies deployed in an experimental documentary film engage with the cinematic representation of memory and subjectivities?
The interplay of the triptych of images added to the experience of watching the film. As the viewer I was forming meaning through creating links between the images. This is similar to Alexander Kluge’s discussion on constellation editing:
Constellational filmmaking is a gravitational power, like the sun. It is not linked by hinges to the planets and the moons. They’re quite independent, you see, but the gravitational power brings them into Newton’s order. Complete galaxies function like this…. This is independent from direct links. It has gaps. It is a montage. (Thomas, 2016)
The mother was a fascinating character, and the scenes in which she appeared were the most powerful. So much so, that when the film used contemporary exteriors over the top of audio of the interiors, it felt like we had left this wonderful intimate space of the secret world of the family, and as a viewer I felt the desire to go back inside. I would have liked to spend more time inside with the mother, rather than wander outside looking at the buildings.
In the statement it was clear, but as a viewer of the film, independent of that statement, I had difficulty understanding who is the man living with the mother? Is he the father? I thought they divorced and he took a male lover? On closer watching hints were given that he might well be the father, but as a viewer I was a little confused. Script doctor Stephen Cleary is interesting on this tension created when the viewer is not sure of something. He says that a viewer asks questions about every new scene they see, and Cleary even orders those questions (though I don’t agree with the order), his questions begin with ‘What time are we in?’, and end with ‘How do I feel?’ (Apocalypse Films, 2015). Because the question of identity was somewhat unresolved for me, I sometimes had difficulty drilling deeper into the subject matter of memory. It would be interesting to know if others experienced this confusion, and if they did, how this effected their interaction with the work, it could be a useful tool for obscuring memory. Eventually I decided it was not important that I uncovered his identity and for ease of moving on, I decided he was the step-father which was, it turns out, incorrect.
How does the use of multiple voice-overs in different tenses add complexity of meaning to documentary film discourse?
The use of multiple frames within the frame was reflected in the audio through the use of multiple voices, namely, from the field recordings and the mixed voice over styles. Daniels wrote in her statement about how she used various tenses in her voice over to add complexity to the meaning. What is interesting is that she was so skilled in the use of the various tenses that I rarely noticed it when I watched the film the first time. Instead I instinctively read the ‘you’ as her talking to her mother (or herself), and then the first person talking to me as a viewer. When ‘you’ also applied to the father I did notice, because I had assigned ‘you’ for the mother and interestingly it felt odd to also give it to the father.
I would recommend listening to Jens Jarisch’s radio feature “Children of Sodom and Gomorrah” (2011). His work often uses multiple tenses, and in “Children” Jarisch changes the tense depending on how far removed the interviewee is from the boys trying to escape to Europe. For the European border official, who is the farthest removed, tense disappears altogether, and random words pepper the audioscape.
I recommend that this work be included in Sightlines. It is exploring storytelling techniques in documentary and how they affect the viewer.
Other works referred to in the review:
Apocalypse Films (2015) Stephen Cleary – What an audience feels Retrieved June 27, 2017, From http://www.apocalypsefilms.com/stephen-cleary/
Jarisch, J. (2011) Children of Sodom and Gomorrah. Adapted into English by Sharon Davis. Retrieved June 27, 2017, from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/children-of-sodom-and-gomorrah/2956122
Thomas, J. (2016). “Alexander Kluge.” The Third Rail Issue 10. Retrieved June 27, 2017, from http://thirdrailquarterly.org/alexander-kluge/