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Aliens Among Us

Liz Burke: Director, Producer, Researcher

Affiliation: Swinburne University of Technology
Title of work: Aliens Among Us
Year: 2022
Length: 1 hour, 11 minutes and 56 seconds

RESEARCH STATEMENT

LINK TO FILM

http://www.aliensamongusdogfilm.com/ 

Aliens Among Us – a Film About People and their Dogs is a creative-practice research project generating new knowledge about the affordances of the non-linear film, which also functions as a personal essay film, and has been filmed mainly using a mobile cameraphone. It uses Korsakow software as its building block, which uses word based tagging to build its narrative world.

A problem I confronted when beginning this research, and the practical issues of investigating Korsakow was how could the idea of ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ function in the context of a non-linear film? Adrian Miles (2016) writes, in regard to the Korsakow system, that it “produces a visual and architectural flatness that literally avoids the peaks and valleys of narrative, and is closer to the list than it is to story or even database.” However, an argument I wanted to explore is that a Korsakow film can carry the weight of a strong essayistic narrative, or story, albeit in a fragmented, and disrupted form. My film, in part, tells the story of my two dogs Agnes and Zelda and my relationship to them. These relationships have presented themselves in the form of an irresistible story. My film has a beginning, middle and an end, in that order, which is inherently dramatic with the high stakes of life, death, love, and grief.

When thinking about how I might create a narrative within the confines of working with the Korsakow software, the issue of the “glue” as described by David Clark (quoted in Coover 2019, 14) became a crucial one for me to consider. By this, I mean how can I make my film ‘sticky’ enough to keep a viewer watching through a disrupted narrative, a form of which they might be unfamiliar. I worked to do this by creating a narrative spine that runs through my fragmented film, with other stories, images, and sounds extending out from this spine.

I decided I wanted to work with a mobile cameraphone because of its convenience, which I deemed important in my work of filming my relationships with my dogs. The film also has a participative element in that I asked several friends to film their dogs with their mobile cameraphones, giving them the instruction that they could film in any way which described their human/canine relationship. 

In working with a mobile cameraphone, I was very much influenced by writers such as Dean Keep (2015), Marsha Berry (2016), and Larissa Hjorth and Sarah Pink (2014). In particular,  Keep’s description of working with a mobile cameraphone as a way of creating a new form of documentary; the evocative documentary, which “invites a poetic turn, whereby I find myself asking, not what a documentary is, but rather what a documentary might be in an age of the smartphone” (2015).

In these ways, weaving together disparate fragments created with a mobile cameraphone, I have built a non-linear, interactive film which allows the user/viewer to make their own connections, and bring their own experience to the subject matter of the precious human/canine relationship.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

The most interesting aspect of the film for me is its experimentation with a non-linear form of narrative using Korsakow software. This project is an interesting critical reflection on the creative potential of the essay film, because any “essay” is by definition a linear narrative text. Essays are usually told from the author’s point of view, often in the form of a series of recollections and reflections by the author, as is the case here.

I personally experienced Liz Burke’s film as a series of notes and thoughts that have not yet been “massaged” or “messaged” into a coherent linear audio-visual composition, which in writing and filmmaking would be the next logical step: editing the material into a linear form (in film editing represented by the timeline of any editing software).

The strange thing is that the film nevertheless has a beginning, middle and end, and is experienced as a linear story. The series of observations by the author of daily life with her dogs takes us on a journey that represents different events presented un-chronologically (as can be the case in any film) and confronts us with different moods and emotions (as any personal documentary would do). But in the viewer’s mind (or at least mine) these events get automatically linked to each other to form a linear story (no matter how much I tried not to fall into that trap).

The story of the dog Agnes is by far the best example, as we witness her from being a still lively dog to one that is clearly at the end of life and ultimately passing away. That is the basic story of life, any life, which is very difficult to avoid reading as a linear story, as life simply can’t be lived backwards or in a different order.

I suspect that the filmmaker tried to avoid that we would fall into the trap of linearity, by mixing in other people’s observations about their lives with their dogs, but because Agnes is such a strong character, I found myself avoiding these other stories whenever I could, and just wanting to find out what happened next in Agnes’ and Liz’s life, including the arrival of the new dog, Zelda.

I did not read the author’s statement before seeing the film as I wanted to experience it first, therefore it is all the more interesting to see that we both come to the same conclusion.

Adrian Miles concluded that the Korsakow system “produces a visual and architectural flatness that literally avoids the peaks and valleys of narrative and is closer to the list than it is to story or even database” (Miles 2016). But in this case, he is right only at the surface, as our minds are so trained to find a story, that we as the audience simply do the rest of the work in our minds and turn it into a story that does have the “peaks and valleys of a narrative” and appears to be linear – even though the events are presented to us in a scrambled form.

I suspect this has a lot to do with the subject matter, people and their dogs, as this is a subject most of us are familiar with. This story-building or story-searching effect of our own brains (based on our own experiences as viewers) might be less effective in cases of more unfamiliar subject matter.

One element that for me is missing, is a stronger explanation of the role of painting in the film. Content-wise, the material has the potential (in the video clips, but also on the website for example) to explore more the relationship between painting and the processes of non-linear filmmaking, and/or between smartphone filming and sketching (making/taking visual notes), as well as between portraiture in painting and in film.

I would also be interested to see how well this project works without the side-stories about other people and their dogs. Has the author considered this possibility? Only, in that case the film would lose its participatory character, so it depends how important this element is for the maker.

In terms of research-creation, the project does contribute to a deeper understanding of the possibilities (and limitations) of the Korsakow system for personal documentary. But I would have liked to see more theory integrated about the possibilities of smartphone filmmaking and how that contributed to the project, as it is not entirely clear to me how this is different from using any other point-and-shoot camera (except for the mention of vertical images).

PEER REVIEW 2

The Korsakow film Aliens Among Us - a Film About People and their Dogs is a very simple Korsakow film with only one interface and no added features like custom previews, preview-texts, background-sound, click-sound, or any other embellishments. The production quality of the video and audio is relatively low. More emphasis has been placed on the structure of the film. The main story is about the two dogs of the owner, who appears to be the maker of the film, and there are several side stories of other people and their feeling and thinking about dogs that intertwine elegantly with the main story and contextualises the author’s perspective.

As a viewer who is not particularly interested in dogs, it takes a bit of discipline or perseverance to overcome the initial resistance and endure the seemingly insignificant dog impressions at the beginning. A feeling of boredom, which is not uncommon with Korsakow films, may set in for a viewer who is not also the author. However, something very powerful happens that’s perhaps aided by the simplicity and roughness of the film and the radical subjective perspective of dog lovers: the dogs, which seem to be the main focus, become increasingly uninteresting and transparent, allowing the background to be seen where humans openly reflect their feelings (towards dogs), and therefore lay open complex human feelings that probably every (human) viewer knows, but most likely does not fully understand and probably has never looked at in such detail from this particular perspective (of dog lovers).

The title of the film suggests that this film is about dogs, which I find misleading. This film is about the feelings of people. The fact that these feelings are directed at dogs seems to me to be almost insignificant.

Once the viewer has learned to see not the dogs, but the humans behind the dogs, there is much to learn about "life, death, love, and grief" (quote from the statement that came with the film) and how (we) humans experience these feelings. In that sense, this film is not about dogs, where I would look at it more as an ethnographic and autoethnographic study of human emotions.

This film started to resonate with me one day after I originally watched it. It still resonates with me, and I think it will stay with me for a long time.

I think the film could be improved by changing the title, spending more energy on “screen design” which might help people to stay on it, but on the other hand the viewer might need to have to go through the frustration to unsee the dogs, and to experience the flipping of the image that turns the background into the foreground.

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

Firstly, I wish to thank the two peer reviewers for taking the time to review my work so thoughtfully. Both reviews are very useful to me, and I have slightly altered my research statement in response to them. 

I am particularly interested in the review which stated;  “This film is about the feelings of people. The fact that these feelings are directed at dogs seems to me to be almost insignificant.” I have always felt concerned about how people who are uninterested in dogs would respond to the film. I am aware that I am asking a great deal from viewers to stick with the small, quotidian events that make up a great deal of the film, and which feel resolutely undramatic. Structurally, I think these almost boring details of everyday life are important as they make up the warp and weft of any relationship. My feeling was that the major stakes would not resonate with viewers unless the everydayness of life was built, and thus the viewer could feel what was being lost in death. I am particularly humbled that the reviewer felt the film would resonate with them for a long time.

One of my next film projects is to develop this content into a linear essay film that would more explicitly talk about grief through the lens of our relationship with dogs, but could work in a way that would enable viewers to apply it more generally to their lives, whether dogs matter or not. In this iteration, I think I will be losing the “side-stories” that are in the non-linear version, as suggested by one of the reviewers.

I am also pleased that the film works as a narrative, and not so much as a database. I am intrigued that the reviewer states that this may be because of the subject matter, and that our brains may have a predilection for story creation, so we create stories even when the form works against this.

I agree that there is potentially more room for an exploration of the role of painting. I am currently researching a paper about how we look at dogs, in terms of filming and portraiture. This research also includes investigation of how dogs look back at us. However, as the status of this film is that of a Ph.D. by research artefact, there was not room for a great deal of investigation of this issue, at the time. Therefore, the issue of the “look,” and how it operates between human and non-human, is one I will be taking up in the future.

 

REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT

Aliens Among Us – a Film About People and their Dogs is a creative-practice research project generating new knowledge about the affordances of the non-linear film, which also functions as a personal essay film, and has been filmed mainly using a mobile cameraphone. It uses the Korsakow software as its building block, which uses word based tagging to build its narrative world.

A problem I confronted when beginning this research, and the practical issues of investigating Korsakow was how could the idea of ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ function in the context of a non-linear film? Adrian Miles (2016) writes, in regard to the Korsakow system, that it “produces a visual and architectural flatness that literally avoids the peaks and valleys of narrative, and is closer to the list than it is to story or even database.” However, an argument I wanted to explore is that a Korsakow film can carry the weight of a strong essayistic narrative, or story, albeit in a fragmented, and disrupted form. My film, in part, tells the story of my two dogs Agnes and Zelda and my relationship to them. These relationships have presented themselves in the form of an irresistible story. My film has a beginning, middle and an end, in that order, which is inherently dramatic with the high stakes of life, death, love, and grief.

In making this film, I was aware that it may have limited interest for people who do not have a strong bond with dogs. However, my hope is that those high stakes mentioned in the paragraph above will assist with the film resonating with a wider audience. We all have experience of those emotions and I think the film can function as an exploration of them, regardless of peoples’ attitudes towards our canine companions.

When thinking about how I might create a narrative within the confines of working with Korsakow software, the issue of the “glue” as described by David Clark (quoted in Coover 2019, 14) became a crucial one for me to consider. By this, I mean how can I make my film ‘sticky’ enough to keep a viewer watching through a disrupted narrative, a form with which they might be unfamiliar. I worked to do this by creating a narrative spine that runs through my fragmented film, with other stories, images, and sounds extending out from this spine.

I decided I wanted to work with a mobile cameraphone because of its convenience, which I deemed important in my work of filming my relationships with my dogs. The film also has a participative element in that I asked several friends to film their dogs with their mobile cameraphones, giving them the instruction that they could film in any way which described their human/canine relationship.

In working with a mobile cameraphone, I was very much influenced by writers such as Dean Keep (2015), Marsha Berry (2016), and Larissa Hjorth and Sarah Pink (2014). In particular,  Keep’s (2015) description of working with a mobile cameraphone as a way of creating a new form of documentary; the evocative documentary, which “invites a poetic turn, whereby I find myself asking, not what is a documentary is, but rather what a documentary might be in an age of the smartphone.”

In these ways, weaving together disparate fragments created with a mobile cameraphone, I have built a non-linear, interactive film which allows the user/viewer to make their own connections, and bring their own experience to the subject matter of the precious human/canine relationship. 

 

REFERENCES

Berry, Marsha. 2016. “Evocative Moments with Smartphone Cameras.” Annual Conference Refereed Proceedings 2016. http://www.aspera.org.au/research/evocative-moments-with-smartphone-cameras/.

Coover, Roderick. 2019. “Interview: Connections and Coincidences in The End: Death in Seven Colours: A Conversation with David Clark.” In The Digital Imaginary: Literature and Cinema of the Database, edited by Roderick Coover, 11-28. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Hjorth, Larissa, and Sarah Pink. 2014. “New Visualities and the Digital Wayfarer: Reconceptualizing Cameraphone Practices in an Age of Locative Media.” Mobile Media and Communications 2 (1): 40-57. https://doi.org/10.1177/2050157913505257.

Keep, Dean. 2015. “New Media/New Films: Smartphones and Evocative Documentary Practices.” The Asian Conference on Film & Documentary, Official Conference Proceedings. https://www.academia.edu/19527496/New_Media_New_Films_Smartphones_and_Evocative_Documentary_Practices.

Miles, Adrian. 2016. “I’m Sorry I Don’t Have a Story: An Essay Involving Documentary, Bristol and Hypertext.” View: Journal of European Television, History & Culture 5 (10). https://www.viewjournal.eu/articles/10.18146/2213-0969.2016.jethc113/.

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