Sightlines Journal, Issue 1, 2015
Author: Bettina Frankham
The short experimental documentary film How many ways to say you? explores aspects of a poetic approach to screen based documentary. In particular it investigates elements of formal discomfort, rhetorical strategies and the creation of aesthetic experiences as part of a multifaceted and interlinked approach to audience engagement with documentary content.
The key question of this practice based research was what happens when the creation of a poetic aesthetic experience is the primary method of promoting audience engagement with screen based documentary? The creative work was a central component of a larger research project considering the unique possibilities that a mixing of rationality, perception and poetic expression could create. Such an emphasis on the effect of audiovisual style and modes of exhibition requires an expansion of our understanding of how rhetoric can manifest in documentary as we consider what is at issue in a shift from an evidentiary approach to an evocation of an aesthetic experience.
As such, this is a project that is quite deliberately situated at the intersection of documentary and artistic practice and provides a practical demonstration of the impact of formal discomfort on documentary representation. The concept of formal discomfort is not meant to imply that these are displeasing forms but that there is an unexpected foregrounding of the shape of the work that sits strangely with the evidentiary expectations associated with documentary. So while How many ways to say you? is documentary in its fidelity to experience and attention to the accuracy of the information conveyed, it is also essayistic in its exploration of networks of connection, and artistic in its foregrounding of medium and technique. From the outset, techniques of de-familiarisation are applied to disrupt any expectations of a direct and unmediated representation of reality. The visual approach mixes realist observational material with sequences that have been motion effected, layered and abstracted with the intention of evoking an experience of the material over the transmission of straightforward facts.
Through using a frame within the frame, motion effected video (slow motion and timelapse), filters to create different visual textures, long dissolves and text onscreen the constructed nature of the work is made apparent. The aesthetic treatment is part of a conceptual approach that seeks to address what has yet to be thought through images, their appearance and combination. In embracing a Deleuzian notion of the “cinematic thought machine”(Huygens 2007), I am working to draw out aspects of intuitive and perceptual knowledge through the very particular aesthetic approach of this video. This is not an attempt to duplicate reality but to create an experience of the video in itself.
The video is structured around a range of Khmer words that are used in place of the pronoun you, and engages with a form of image driven, essayistic reflection on ideas of interpersonal relationship, history, memory and representation. With its focus on words denoting relationship, the thematic structure of How many ways to say you? has made it possible to investigate the unspoken conditions of human interactions that are visible in gesture, facial expression and the arc of a look held for too long. This is mute knowledge that we feel and remember but often do not express through words.
Operating to a logic of associational form, connections between shots are kept deliberately loose, but by being included in the assemblage the elements accumulate “properties in order to bring about new relationships between distant things” (Eco 2009, p. 327). Qualities of provisionality are emphasised as I work to negate any impression that this is a definitive account. Much like holiday snapshots, it is only a limited and incomplete glimpse, wholly enclosed by my subjective viewpoint. This is implied through the partial style of each section that present as fragments rather than complete narratives. The work resists the finitude of narrative structure and seeks to create a conversation. This resistance occurs at both the cellular level of individual sections and at the overall, macro level of the completed work.
While there is an array of visual and audio material presented as evidence, the work accentuates an exploration of experience and subjectivity. At times this has been achieved through the holding of brief moments that otherwise may have only lasted a few frames. In the film Sans soleil (1983) Chris Marker extends a brief glance to camera by onscreen subjects through a freeze frame of the look. I have employed a similar device in slowing down, holding and layering similarly brief instants. One of the challenges of using a listlike or associational form is to find ways to represent humanness and engage the audience in a relationship with the subjects onscreen. Ordinarily, affective connections might be generated through classic narrative structure that addresses the audience through familiar story forms. However, in the context of the open, poetic approach another means for connection needed to be established. The direct address by onscreen participants became one of the key methods for drawing the audience in to a sense of relationship with the subjects. As Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen describe it: “When represented participants look at the viewer, vectors, formed by participants’ eyelines, connect the participants with the viewer. Contact is established, even if it is only on an imaginary level” (2006, p. 117). Using the looks to camera was a strategy that had twofold benefits. Firstly, the direct gaze by participants down the barrel of the camera implicates the audience in the exchange process of the film. The action of the image is to directly acknowledge the audience and in a way they also become participants. Secondly, it meant that filmed subjects were aware of the camera’s presence and were therefore responding to camera and to me.
However, the look to camera is a quite complicated construct. In actuality the subjects in this case possibly are not aware of the audience that they will eventually address. While there were occasions when the people did look directly at me through the prosthetic of the camera lens, their looks to camera are frequently illusory as they in fact are looking at themselves on the camera’s flip out LCD screen. So a kind of doubling of space is occurring as the subjects create a mirror space in looking at themselves onscreen, but the audience imagine a space of conversation as they feel themselves directly addressed by the onscreen participants. In between all this, as Scott Krzych points out in reference to similar sequences from Kiarostami’s ABC Africa:
[t]he participants onscreen are no more or less spectators than those who eventually view the documentary on DVD. Here, spatial metaphors (i.e., the camera is too close and invasive, or the camera is too detached or distant) find no application. (Krzych 2010, p. 32)
A deliberately performative attitude is evident in sections of How many ways to say you?, particularly on the part of the children when they mug for the camera. Although at times there may be a sense of awkwardness or dismissal in the looks, there is also an awareness of the profilmic event that is augmented by a simultaneous assessment of their own onscreen presence that results from watching themselves on the LCD screen. In deliberately selecting images that demonstrate this profilmic awareness, the intention is to take the representations beyond mere ciphers and give the impression of lives that extend beyond the captured moment.
The structure of How many ways to say you? becomes a manifestation of the relational perspective “that conceives of the human subject as a complex organism enmeshed in a dense web of relationships that includes other sentient beings, nonhuman animals, and the material environment itself” (Grimshaw & Ravetz 2009, p. 550). In foregrounding these relationships through the titles of each section and the sketches that they herald, attention is drawn to the specificities of each version of the relationship within an otherwise fragmentary and limited representation.
How many ways to say you? is also an examination of how the past can impact on the present as an underlying background to everyday life and how this might shape the way we relate to and engage with each other. These questions, while underwriting the logic of the whole work are not expressed until the very end of the piece and then in a way that is still somewhat oblique and indirect. The work emphasises the aesthetic experience as the primary means for exploring these questions. However, the full character of this experience only emerges from spending time with the work, by dwelling in the spaces it creates and contemplating the shape of relation that is revealed and altered by time and the circumstances of history. As a consequence the argument of the film accretes over the duration of the work and the questions at the end are then considered in light of all that has preceded that point.
Considerable time and effort has been expended in the development and production of this video to create a flowing and cohesive aesthetic experience with a consistency of tone, space and approach. In order to negotiate the twin demands of an open structure that permits a greater space for dialogue and the need to engage the audience with the material, this emphasis upon the pleasures of the audiovisual experience has emerged as a method that may accommodate both requirements.
At the time of filming there were constant questions raised for me about the impact of recent Cambodian history upon both locals and visitors, their interactions with each other and ways of understanding their world. My approach to and treatment of the raw footage has been an attempt to explore these ideas. Through a methodology that applies notions of photogénie as a way to provide insights “that words only imperfectly explain” (Nichols 2010, p. 130), the piece works to convey a sense of the affective impact that the place and people encountered had on me.
While at some points I have wished for the smooth beauty of high-definition capture devices, I have found something quite compelling in the partial, lower resolution textures of my standard definition source material. Indeed, I pushed this even further by taking the standard definition material into a high definition screen space to accentuate the imperfections and representational inadequacies. My aim was to use the pixilation, noise, grain, colour banding and other unashamedly digital qualities as part of an overall poetic and reflexive aesthetic that draws attention to the highly subjective nature of the work. My hope is that these qualities will, as Nicholas Rombes writes, “reveal and flaunt the seams that bind together reality and the representation of that reality” and “assert a human presence in the face of smooth, invisible digital data” (2009, p. 27). As the often unsteady framing of a handheld camera is magnified through zooming into distant details, so too are the poignant human moments and frailties emphasised as they are stretched and scrutinised in a high resolution space that is hungry for more data.
The frailties of representation are particularly highlighted when the lighting is low and the camera attempts to electronically boost the incoming information. In this attempt to enhance an otherwise weak signal, noise is introduced to the image that draws attention to the digital qualities of the video. The grainy texture of the video emphasises that this is after all, a collection of pixels and not the actual person whose facsimile we are seeing. Yet somehow, the realisation of this absence increases the sense of affective connection as we reach out with our eyes and ears, attempting to make contact with someone who is now remote in time and space. This separation is further underscored by the frequent contrast between the unvarnished standard definition footage in the inset frames and the more painterly style of the backgrounds. A sense of remove is also picked up in the choice to have the narration presented in text rather than in a spoken voiceover. Influenced by the use of text to represent the authorial voice and correspondence from the eponymous Ali in the documentary film, Letters to Ali (Law 2004), the onscreen text in How many ways to say you? creates a detached but not disinterested presence. The placement of the words and timing allows for close synchronisation with image and sound so that the words are closely tied to the audiovisual material while occupying a space that is particular to this documentary. The text is placed in sympathy with the underlying images so that a graphic relationship is established. I also made a very deliberate choice to treat the text with filters and different blending styles so that it appears to be semi-translucent. This technique means that while the words are coming from outside of the observational space of the images, they are nonetheless impacted by the colours, light, contrast and composition of the Cambodian footage.
Even though the overt structure of the work is based upon translations of a series of terms, expectations that might arise from seeing this as a work of definition are disrupted by the material that exceeds such explanations. In effect, it becomes an example of Deleuze’s concept of making the “major language stutter by using that major language differently” (Miles 2012). While translations of each Khmer term are offered, the audiovisual material is not a straightforward attempt to define the words. Just as the words aid in organising the complexity of the filmed fragments, each you term also becomes a point of departure for exploring an experience, a relation and a particular point of view. Through qualities of image, pace, sound and combination, the audience is offered more than is required to just understand the meaning of an abstract word. This material becomes a vehicle to create an aesthetic experience that conjures a fleeting glimpse but not a direct reproduction. Where the form of the list might produce an intellectual form of knowing, the potential for a purely cognitive engagement is short circuited by other, more experiential appeals.
Eco, U. 2009, The infinity of lists, trans. A. McEwen, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York.
Grimshaw, A. & Ravetz, A. 2009, ‘Rethinking observational cinema’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 53856.
Huygens, I. 2007, ‘Deleuze and cinema: moving images and movements of thought’, Image [&]Narrative [ejournal], no. 18, viewed 21/05/2012, <http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/thinking_pictures/huygens.htm>.
Kress, G.R. & Van Leeuwen, T. 2006, Reading images: the grammar of visual design, 2nd edn, Routledge, London; New York.
Krzych, S. 2010, ‘Automotivations: digital cinema and Kiarostami’s relational aesthetics’, The Velvet Light Trap, vol. 66, no. 1, pp. 2635.
Law, C. 2004, Letters to Ali, videorecording, Australia.
Marker, C. 1983, Sans soleil, France.
Miles, A. 2012, ‘Affect and emerging documentary practice as system’, paper presented to the Visible Evidence XIX, Australian National University, Canberra, 19 December 2012.
Nichols, B. 2010, Introduction to documentary, 2nd edn, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
Rombes, N. 2009, Cinema in the digital age, Wallflower Press, London; New York.
Kath Dooley, Curtin University
How many ways to say you? is a poetic documentary that explores the way that words denote relationships in contemporary Cambodia. The filmmaker presents twelve versions of the pronoun ‘you’ in Khmer language. These various forms of address highlight the relationships between people of different age, gender, race and status in society, such as parent to child, local to European, or lay person to Monk. For example, a way of addressing Europeans was once associated with French colonisers, whereas another version of ‘you’ refers to people identified as comrades in the time of the Khmer Rouge. By taking this pronoun as a point of focus the filmmaker finds an innovative way to force reflection upon the social construction of the country, and histories of conflict and colonialism. This is an engaging, image-driven work, incorporating text and observational footage, which provides a glimpse into the daily lives of the country’s inhabitants.
The documentary opens with digital video footage of passing riverbanks, as if shot from a moving boat. This imagery is layered over blurred and abstracted footage, effectively creating a picture within a picture. Such layering, which continues throughout the work, produces a focus on the aesthetic experience of watching the documentary, and invites the spectator to engage with the work on a visceral as well as intellectual level. The active spectator must look long and hard to make links between the different types of imagery, given the techniques of de-familiarisation that have been utilised in its creation. In this sense the work is successful in exploring and encouraging a multifaceted approach to audience engagement with the material.
Observational footage of children interacting or tourists visiting landmarks is contextualised around different versions of the word ‘you’, reflecting the use of language in daily life: however, other imagery is harder to associate with a particular use of the pronoun. For example, a shot of an elderly woman staring into the camera transitions to an image of a rippling pond, and then to an image of butterflies. Sequences such as these are an interesting means to establish links between humans and the natural world, while the woman’s candid stare into the camera lens (a technique of address that is repeated several times in the documentary) creates an unsettling, direct connection with the spectator. These moments also encourage reflection on the nature of representation and the filmmakers’ interaction with the film’s subjects.
As a form of research through creative practice How many ways to say you? successfully examines the impact of the past on the present. As text from the documentary makes clear ‘thoughts take shape as words’, and these words (in this case the pronoun ‘you’) reflect interpersonal relationships, ways of remembering and identity. The filmmaker’s treatment of the raw footage, including the abstraction of imagery, use of layering and editing, creates an engaging viewing experience that encourages an active reflection on Cambodia’s recent history, it’s people and their representation on film. As a research artefact, the documentary also stands as an effective creative exploration of the poetic form.
It has been my pleasure to view ‘How many ways to say You’ and to read the associated research statement, which actually took more the form of a short essay.
This is fine work that effectively realised its aim of creating a poetic essayistic documentary with distanciation effects. I would have liked a little more explanation of how the underlying footage of this documentary had come into being whether the pro filmic events were inflected and selected by the theory that would be layered over it; or whether the concept and structure of the piece came afterwards. In either case the film came together as a satisfying exploration of different frames around observational material: the linguistic frame of different conceptions of you; the film frame; and the frame within the frame at various points. I found the documentary both aesthetically and intellectually pleasing. The editing and camera work were both fluid and lucid, and use of techniques such as timelapse and audio processing lent the material a level of abstraction that allowed for a kind of meditative viewing experience.
In the written piece Frankham demonstrated understanding of the broader field that her work operates in. She placed her work in relation to filmmakers such as Clara Law (Letters to Ali) and Chris Marker (Sans Soleil) and also drew on several cultural theorists to understand how her work might operate. I liked the narrative element, both in specific instances and in its overall circular structure. Playing with different verbs to replace ‘say’ in the final section really opened out the meaning of what we had just seen. For this viewer there were occasional roughnesses of expression in the narration (eg from the Khmer alphabet and’used under the Khmer Rouge when (until?) words denoting rank were eliminated), but I would be open to interpretation that these were not a case of rough draft, but a deliberate rupturing of linguistic clarity.
In considering this film and associated writing as research it would have been helpful to have some detail on how it was anticipated that the film might meet an audience, but I could imagine it circulating in very specific documentary, environmental and possibly linguistic sites, festivals and conferences.
I trust these brief comments are helpful. Congratulations to Bettina
Author response to the review
next Sightlines article