The Sister

Sightlines Journal, Issue 1, 2015


Author: Kath Dooley

Research statement

This 28‐minute short film project is the result of the author’s practice‐led research into portrayals of the body by French directors Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis and Marina de Van. Following on from traditional research into the three filmmakers’ thematic, stylistic and practical concerns, the project examines the impact of these concerns when adopted by an Australian filmmaker working in a local context.

Key points of exploration include areas such as the portrayal of bodily transitions, trauma and foreignness. This project furthers an analysis of the work of these directors in relation to the early 21st century French ‘Cinema of the Body’ trend. This involves disturbing and sometimes horrific films that explore stark portrayals of the human body, sexual debasement, and transgressive urges.

By writing and directing a short film informed by work of the three French filmmakers, the author produces an artefact that creates new knowledge about their approaches to the portrayal of the body, and the value of these approaches when emulated in an Australian context.

Review 1

The Sister is an impressive film about the aftermath of a girl’s death on people close to her, particularly her sister (Olivia) and boyfriend (Victor, who Olivia blames for what happened). However, its success as a film is not well conveyed through a simple account of the plot. Unlike many Australian films, there is a strong shift in The Sister away from dialogue as a means of telling the story (virtually nothing is said in the first eight minutes). The narrative is primarily communicated through looks, gestures, movements and the actions of the characters. Stylistically, there is an emphasis on big close­ups of faces and hands, as well as frequent shots of the backs of characters’ heads as they stare at something (set up as a key image at the start and then used as a continuing visual theme). These visual strategies are in the service of a story that is not about explaining anything to the viewer. The film is more interested in the distance between people and the isolation they feel as they struggle to deal with trauma and grief, conveyed through moving images and sounds. To a greater extent than usual, the audience is left to make sense of what they view on their own.

This submission includes the film and a short research statement, which talks about the film emerging from research into the work of French female directors such as Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis and Marina de Van. Considering the range of possibilities for screen production as research, it strikes me that the approach taken in this case is a particularly productive and useful one ­ doing detailed research on the work of significant filmmakers and then applying that to your own production. Many filmmakers would do this work informally but doing it systematically and rigorously with a view to developing future practice is an approach to research with the potential to demonstrate its value and usefulness. There is a danger with this approach in producing a work that seems overly derivative but in this case what is impressive is that the adaptation of the French influences to a local Australian context seems quite sophisticated and seamless.

In considering the film as research, my key reaction was a desire to know more about the process. The film was satisfying to watch as a creative work and, on its own, it did seem sufficient as a research project. With cues from the research statement, it was not difficult to identify a clear, well­ defined aesthetic being applied to the film, to recognise the distinctiveness of this aesthetic in a local Australian context and to accept a degree of innovation within the constraints of mainstream fiction filmmaking practices. However, I felt there was greater potential in the research than was revealed by the film and short statement. Knowing more about the research process in this case could be of great value to other screen production researchers and practitioners and it is a pity for this potential not to be realised. In relation to this, one area where the submission differs from research in other fields is the issue of citation. In my view, the submission would have been improved by reference to specific film works by the French directors, earlier films by the filmmaker and any written work that discusses the process in more detail. This would be a fairly simple way to give a much richer context with which to appreciate the research, particularly for viewers not familiar with the work of the French female directors cited in the research statement.

In considering how the submission exposes practice as research, I thought there were two other issues worth commenting on.

1. To what extent is the film practice-­led research or a creative practice response to traditional research?

The statement says the film emerged following ‘traditional research into the three filmmakers’ thematic, stylistic and practical concerns’. On the face of it, this might better be described as research­led practice. The further research that occurs through the practice of making the film might be in applying conclusions drawn from the first stage of research, although the extent to which this can be judged from the submission depends on the degree of familiarity with the work of the three directors concerned. With the guidance of the research statement, the influence of Denis etc. can be identified in the way The Sister is produced. However, for the practice-­led research to be more visible, some documentation on the production process and how it differed from the filmmaker’s earlier methods or common industry practice would have helped.

2. To what extent is the film a contribution to research on the works of the relevant French directors?

This submission prompts questions about whether writing about the works of other directors based on analysis and research is different from making a film with the same objective. Because making a film requires the practical application of aesthetic strategies and the adaptation of these strategies to a new context, I would argue it is a related but different undertaking. I have little doubt, however, that when executed as skilfully as it is in this case, the film is a contribution to knowledge within the field, by effectively applying a distinctive and defined cinematic style to a new context.

One of the interesting things about this film-­as-­research is the extent to which it can be seen to be cinematically commenting on the earlier French works and deepening our understanding of this cinematic style as a consequence. The Sister convincingly demonstrates the potential of an approach to practice informed by traditional research. In my view, based on this submission (film and research statement), the practice-­led research that occurred through the process of making the film is also apparent but would have more impact through greater contextual information being made available.

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.

Review 2

The Sister is a film about loss and trauma. It is about alienation and physical and emotional connectedness. The proposition articulated by the author is an intriguing one: examining tropes from the French ‘cinema of the body’ trend, and applying them to the Australian context.

The film is situated deftly in the Australian context through use of cultural references (such as the block of flats and laundromat; the pub culture; the beach­side culture). It  captures a familiar early-­20­-something rhythm of life and preoccupations, including the night­ scene and first encounters with drugs.

On the surface one can identify some of the tropes of the French ‘cinema of the body’: such as the scene in the bath, or the shots following behind a walking character. The filmmaker’s statement says that the intention was to explore the convergence between these tropes and the Australian context. This reviewer could not see evidence of the result of this on screen, and this was not discussed in any detail in the statement. Whilst the idea is very provocative and interesting to this reviewer, it is difficult to say what effect this preoccupation has had on the film itself or on a future approach to filmmaking or subject matter. There may be more than these surface allusions to French cinema, but in that case they are too hidden for this reviewer to be able to ascertain and therefore comment that the research intentions were met. The filmmaker states: ‘the project examines the impact of these concerns when adopted by an Australian filmmaker’. As I cannot evidence this examination or its effects or consequences in the film, I would be interested in more material that does approach a more explicit communication of this, and what impacts it has had on the filmmaker’s practice. As it is it is difficult for a peer to be able to trace these effects from simply watching the film, contextualised as it is by the current artist statement. In this way, I feel the film is only one part of a much bigger work, and that there is much ‘outside’ the film that would prove to be a valuable part of the filmmaker’s overall research contribution.

Without a more detailed contextualising statement I am left to evaluate the film within established cinematic frameworks of evaluation (ie industry standards). In this sense I was distracted by the poor performances in the film which were not helped by a sometimes self-­conscious dialogue. The film is episodic which feels expository, rather than exploratory. This aspect was jarring in the context of the ‘cinema of the body’ which has obvious phenomenological concerns. The episodic and expository nature of The Sister negated the opportunity to explore the phenomenological dimensions in depth. The timing and pacing did not give this viewer enough time to really explore the visceral potential of moments such as the bath scene or the dancing scene, for example. This particular reviewer does not generally think that academic films should be evaluated upon industry standards, however, without a stronger guiding statement or support material, one does not have enough of an evaluation framework outside these industry standards. If the film was contextualised differently, more specifically, more explicitly, this would offer another kind of frame and would allow a reviewer to abandon the industry frames of evaluation (ie, this would allow me to be more forgiving of things like clunky performances or script). In the context of the ‘disturbing and sometimes horrific films that explore stark portrayals of the human body, sexual debasement, and transgressive urges’, I found this film benign in its approach. The filmmaker does not make claims for these things in her own film, but rather the films she is referencing. In that case, I would be interested in the relationship she is setting up here between these much more violent and visceral pursuits, and her own moderate treatment.

The submission (taken to mean the statement and the film together) do expose practice as research in that certain stylistic and thematic notions were adopted by the author to extend her practice and engagement with these notions. The proposition for the research is there, however the conclusions drawn from the outcome of the research are absent. The film seems to me to stand as the ‘experiment’, where this particular reviewer needs another work to expose what then happened as a result of the experiment. The film itself does not clearly open on to any further knowledge or insight.

In her statement the author says: ‘the author produces an artefact that creates new knowledge about their approaches to the portrayal of the body, and the value of these approaches when emulated in an Australian context.’ The author may well have produced new knowledge, but the value is not evidenced in the film itself. This  work needs a much greater discussion on what the value of these approaches has been, and discuss explicitly her interest in these approaches specifically in the Australian context. I imagine this kind of discussion was part of the exegetical component of this work, in the context of the PhD. This seems to me not only necessary, but also something I would very much like to engage with, as I find the premise of this research project having potential for great insight. (Note, in this context, outside of the PhD, I am not necessarily calling for a written exegetical text. This exposition could, for example, take the form of a kind of visual annotation of the film, which references the films of the French directors.)

Author response to the review

I would like to thank the two peer reviewers who took the time to consider my film The Sister.

It is clear that both reviewers experienced varying levels of frustration when faced with the task of commenting on the value of The Sister as a creative research artefact. This is the result of my decision to include only a short written research statement, a decision driven by my personal dislike of large amounts of text accompanying creative works. However, I can see now that some of the questions that the reviewers were asked to respond to were rather challenging in the absence of more contextual information. For this reason I’ll elaborate on my original research statement in this response.

The Sister is a film that formed part of a PhD study examining portrayals of the body in the films of contemporary French directors Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat and Marina de Van. My 55,000­word thesis integrated formal film analysis and exploration of practical approaches (several chapters identifying thematic, stylistic and practical concerns of the filmmakers), which enabled practice (the making of The  Sister), and the writing of a final exegetical chapter.

My research was therefore two­-pronged: I focused on a selection of films produced by the three directors between the years 1999 and 2009, exploring areas such as bodily transitions, trauma and foreignness as outlined by theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Laura Marks and Vivian Sobchack. The second prong of my study involved the research-­led film production undertaken as a means to shed new light on the three directors’ concerns. This is film production practice as research, enabling a thorough investigation of identified concerns through the writing, pre-production, production and postproduction of a short film work. An analysis of the creative process and of the final creative artifact produced conclusions from the vantage point  of practitioner. In undertaking this work I considered: how could a study of these filmmakers’ thematic, stylistic and practical concerns inform my own practice as an Australian writer/director?

My initial research located the works of Denis, de Van and Breillat within the confronting early twenty­first century French cinema trend known as the cinéma du  corps. As I mentioned previously, these are films that explore stark portrayals of the  human body, sexual debasement, and trangressive urges in a fashion that is frequently disturbing and often horrific. Looking beyond the extreme subject matter, I highlighted a number of points of focus in regards to the portrayal of the body in the three filmmakers’ works. For example: I isolated overlapping thematic concerns that saw the body represented as a holder of trauma and memory, and/or as a foreign object. By analyzing the function of the body within each film’s narrative, I created a list of possible themes for exploration in my own film project.

I noted a use of close­up and extreme close­up shots of the body to encourage a haptic viewing experience. The use of tight camera framing, as well as low lighting, and textural mise-­en­-scene elements, created a situation where the details of the image, and the specifics of the body, was sometimes difficult to decipher. I concluded that lacking a wider, more objective view of the body in context, the audience is asked to be an active viewer, and draw on their own bodily experience in order to make sense of the images. This leaves them in a vulnerable position when disturbing subject matter and visceral imagery is presented.

I unpacked the screenwriting approach of Claire Denis, identifying a focus on the physicality of the body (rather than character psychology) as a driver of narrative. This approach sees the use of set of questions to frame character action that are notably different from those that I had previously used in the development of my screenplays. Looks and bodily gestures, rather than dialogue, becomes a means to tell story and a driver of plot. Denis’ narratives focus on bodies in space, rather then a chain of causes and effects, as is typical of the Hollywood conflict/resolution model of narrative. More information about my investigation of Denis’ approach to the screenplay can be found in a 2014 article published in TEXT journal. I examined the pre­production and production practices of the three directors, noting their techniques of casting, rehearsal and shooting, and questioned the affect of these on the bodies captured on film.

All of these elements (and several more) were then further explored through the making of The Sister when I attempted to emulate certain approaches in an Australian context. What would an adoption of these themes and strategies teach me about my established ways of working (strengths/limitations)? What would they reveal about the difficulty of breaking away from learned habits and approaches? How would the portrayal of bodies on screen offer a specific type of viewing experience to the audience (as bodies)? Lastly, what further discoveries about the work of the three French directors could be made through this process? The answer to these questions is explored in the exegetical section of my thesis. I detail the difficulty with which I was able to break away from established habits and adopt a set of thematic, stylistic and practical concerns in the various stages of pre-production, production and post production. I consider the impact of certain approaches to writing, rehearsal and production techniques on the bodies that were filmed. In doing so I create new knowledge about three the French filmmakers’ portrayals of the body and expose the causality of their work. I also consider the impact that working with student actors and crew had on my project. These practical concerns and implications are not self evident upon viewing of the film.

However, considering thematic and aesthetic approaches to portrayals of the body, I believe that the answer to my central question (how a study of the three filmmakers’ concerns can inform my practice as an Australian writer/director) can be found within The Sister, itself, as a research artifact. In this respect my opinion differs from that of one of my reviewers who comments that ‘The film seems to me to stand as the ‘experiment’, where this particular reviewer needs another work to expose what then happened as a result of the experiment. The film itself does not clearly open on to any further knowledge or insight’. By contrast, I consider the making of the film to have been ‘the experiment’ (the practice), whereas the completed film exposes what happened as a result of that experiment. In this sense, certain conclusions can be drawn from the work itself, as a creative artifact that reflects the application of certain cinematic concerns and styles in a specific research context. I believe that this difference of opinion is one that is worthy of much more lengthy debate as it gets to heart of the problem of defining where creative research and new knowledge is located. My fault was to provide too little information about the cinematic concerns that I explored in the making of The Sister, with the hope that at least some of these would be evident on the screen. Certainly, I hope that the film is one that raises more questions than it answers, and I look forward to any debate that the Sightlines forum might allow.

 

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