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Letterbox Populi

Miranda Wilson: Writer, Director, Camera, Editor, Researcher

Affiliation: University of Auckland
Title of work: Letterbox Populi 
Year: 2020
Length: 10 minutes and 58 seconds

RESEARCH STATEMENT

 

DEMOCRATISING STRATEGIES OF REPRESENTATION OR SCREEN SPACE AS COMMON SPACE 

 

“Exhausted Montage” (2019), the unsettlingly enervating title of Sarah Hamblin’s interrogation of the decline of the radical aesthetic imagination, conjures up ideas of political cinema in need of a cup of tea and a lie down. Hamblin locates the origins of this state of fatigue in the insatiable, agnostic appetites of capitalism that has been able to “absorb revolutionary energies into itself” (2019, 367). Hamblin’s suggested corrective, a reengagement with “micropolitical sites of struggle” (2019, 368), aligns closely with the interests of this creative practice research project, Letterbox Populi. Of further relevance is a shift toward “multiplicities” evident in the terms “micro-revolutions,” “micro-ecologies,” and “micro-local” used by Dale Hudson and Patricia Zimmerman to articulate emerging strategies of documentary discourses with “space rather than time as the organising principle” (Watson 2019a, 258). Sharon Daniel likewise calls for a move toward documentary organised around “multiple voices” and away from the single protagonist narrative (Watson 2019b, 284). 

 

Letterbox Populi (the title is a playful reworking of the term vox populi) works to demarcate screen space as common space and constitutes a distinctive record of voter engagement in a very specific and highly unusual set of circumstances in New Zealand’s electoral history –2020’s ‘COVID election’. The documentary’s cast of Auckland Central Electorate voters, identifiable only by the letterbox intercoms from which their voices emerge and by their political allegiances (or lack thereof), engage in a lively ‘debate’ in the run-up to the election. This debate is also intercut with fleeting images of the election hoardings of the main political contenders: Labour, National and the Greens. The project works to transcend COVID restrictions and creates a screen space that evokes the everyday connectedness of the village square. 

 

Inherent to the film’s methodology are questions regarding the unintended use of technologies and the blurring of boundaries between the social and technological. The letterbox intercom is repurposed as a site of political engagement and as a conduit to community connection in a pandemic lockdown. Additionally, the documentary invites consideration of the increasingly widespread domestic use of surveillance technology in the form of the letterbox intercom. The enthusiastic engagement of the documentary’s participants with the film project and with the issues of the day suggests a yearning for connection that is paradoxical, given this technology, now commonly installed in city dwellings, is tasked to ward off such intrusions. The unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic had removed opportunities for everyday interaction that were perhaps previously taken for granted. Suddenly there seemed to be a recognition of the importance of this connection.


The relationship between media technologies is fundamental to the project’s methodology and underpins the documentary’s interrogation of the vox populi form as an arguably “exhausted” filmmaking convention. The relationship in this instance, between the iPhone camera and the letterbox intercom camera, gave rise to an unconventional interview dynamic: the participants could see me, the filmmaker, via their intercom cameras but were able to withhold their own image from the camera’s gaze. In retaining control over their image, the participants also retain a degree of autonomy and privacy in the interview process. This is a reversal of the usual filmmaker/participant power dynamic and was perhaps also instrumental in facilitating the good-humoured ease and candour of the participants’ engagement in the filmmaking process. This unusual mode of interview speaks to the value of the democratising playfulness and invention achievable with small-scale mobile filmmaking that can work to re-energise the documentary form.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

Letterbox Populi displays compelling and creative use of mobile media to provoke socialised interaction through cinematically framed space. The work builds on a series of interviews about the 2020 general elections in New Zealand. The interviews are conducted on letterbox intercom machines as Auckland was under Covid-19 lockdown during the election time. Letterbox Populi illustrates how the ease of operability of mobile media including such features as portability, immediacy and adaptability for such public emergencies as the pandemic, serves in devising innovative modes of socio-political interaction. The interviewees/respondents offer comments and perspectives spontaneously and conversationally, enriching the work with a diversity not only of voices but also tones. It is evident that the filmmaker commands strong skills for devising relaxed and meaningful interactions with their subjects. Further, the interviews highlight that though mediated data and information permeate our environments, users partake in mediatised practices through different, even competing ways thus the film productively enhances understandings of how we use technologies in everyday lives. As the film brings out how technologies of everyday use can be mobilised for particular forms of socio-political and public discourse, it makes for a good example of creative practice as research.

 

Letterbox Populi references the visual cultures of political campaigns by intermixing fleeting images of political hoardings in some of its sequences. Practice as research necessitates articulation of the wider media ecologies within which practitioners work and situate their practice. The references to political campaign imagery in Letterbox Populi gives insight into the wider visual ecologies that the film sits in conversation with. The film can be understood as a kind of critical montage that juxtaposes informed, intimate, and easy interviews, with political campaign hoardings that are highly constructed and target audiences with quite pointed (and limited) meanings. Such montage construction is refreshing and politically engaging. While the filmmaker references “exhausted montage” in their accompanying research statement, the limitation in Letterbox Populi is that the duration of the political campaign hoardings on screen is quite short, with the result that the film’s juxtapositions risk being compromised if not fully lost to an audience. Perhaps in their future work the filmmaker can address the wider visual ecologies that their practice sits in dialogue with by developing clearer and more sustained montage sequences.

 

Through its very aesthetic, Letterbox Populi embodies a commentary on the interaction between media technologies. While the work situates the use of technologies such as the intercom within the immediate political context of New Zealand during the Covid-19 pandemic, it leaves out a fuller, more robust articulation of the connections between the media technologies that it uses. I point to this not in the spirit of a dismissive critique, but to highlight that inseparable from the film’s attempt at creating a “screen space” that evokes the “everyday connectedness of the village square,” are the very connections between the technologies that are key to the film’s making. In many ways the social engagement that the film is provoking is dependent upon the technologies of its production. This aspect merits a fuller discussion in the research statement.

 

Last, I encourage the filmmaker to consider and articulate more rigorously the social dimensions of the technologies they use both in their research statement as well as their future practice.

PEER REVIEW 2

Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?

In this creative practice work, Wilson films intercoms to interrogate the political views of locals in the New Zealand electorate of Auckland Central, during the national election of 2020. The work engages with the fraught question of how do you film interviews for a political vox populi documentary when you can’t meet face to face due to a COVID lockdown? Unprecedented, indeed.

 

I very much enjoyed the use of intercoms as the structuring visual motif. There was such variety in them, and it made me try to match up political beliefs with the look of each intercom. I’m intrigued by the idea of micro-stories, and of using “space rather than time as the organising principle.” It caused me to consider the idea of space, and how each individual dwelling may be located within a wider unseen suburban space. 

 

Does the submission live up to its potential?

Wilson states that the work is an effort to engage with “micropolitical sites of struggles” as posited by Sarah Hamblin, and I appreciated being able to listen to the political opinions held within one electorate. The problem I do have with it is the problem that I think emerges with vox populi documentaries in general; the interviews tend to just skim the surface of the subjects’ opinions and positions and are thus a little superficial. I was curious to know why each person held their opinions, and what their hopes were in our post-pandemic world. This may well be outside the brief of this short film, but it would be an interesting issue for the filmmaker to follow up in a more expansive work. Conversely, I found the small scaleness of the film compelling, and enjoyed the idea of people being represented by their intercoms.

There is also not much sense of a narrative shape. By this I mean what is the journey the filmmaker is taking the viewer on as we listen to each micro-story? It’s not a film that works by building a narrative, but rather by the juxtaposition of small episodes, which is completely valid but also misses some of the pleasures of traditional narrative. 

 

I was interested in the way it used quick cuts of billboards of each candidate. It was an effective way to give the viewer just a bit of extra information about the stakes at play. Given that this is a film interested in playing with space, I wonder what it would be like if some images of Auckland Central had also been used. That context may have said something about who the subjects of the film are and why they held their particular views. 

 

How does the submission expose practice as research?

  • The film certainly engages with issues of the use of montage and special storytelling. I think it’s particularly astute in its approach to documentary during COVID times, and I applaud the resourcefulness of the filmmaker for working out her methodology. 

  • I don’t think the film is particularly innovative, but I think it’s rare for a film to be truly innovative, and I don’t think there should be pressure for every film to fulfil this criterion. 

  • The work is contextualised well within its context of micro-storytelling and special storytelling

  • I think new knowledge has been generated in the context of documentary production, and representation within the confines of the pandemic. This makes it a very worthwhile film.

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

Response to Peer Review 1

The reviewer made some interesting observations about the film as an example of the unintended use of technology, in this case the letterbox intercom as a site of political engagement and as a conduit to community connection in a pandemic lockdown. I have adjusted my research statement to address this. 

 

The reviewer also called for an articulation of the connection between media technologies that enable the film, that is, the relationship between the intercom camera and the iPhone camera. This is inherent in the unconventional viewer/viewed position of the filmmaker and participant in the film and I have reworked my research statement to include a discussion of this aspect of the film’s methodology.

 

Response to Peer Review 2

The reviewer commented on the risk of superficiality inherent in vox populi documentaries. The intention with Letterbox Populi was to create a sense of everyday democracy in action. In the run-up to elections in New Zealand media attention is heavily focussed on the predictions of pollsters and political pundits. Letterbox Populi instead documents citizens engaged both with the issues of the day and with their civic responsibility as electors, not a superficial endeavour. The film ‘sounds out’ the mood of the electorate, a mood which was borne out in the eventual national election result – an historic landslide for the Labour government. 

 

While the length of the documentary does limit the depth and detail of the participants’ contribution, what further transcends the potential risk of superficiality is the sense of connection among the voters, that is, the common themes that emerge in terms of their concerns and their shared sense of social responsibility and investment in the greater good. 

 

In response to the questions raised over narrative shape, the film has a purposeful three-part structure: in the first segment the voters attempt to name the electorate candidates (with varying degrees of success); in the second segment they identify what they consider to be the pressing issues of the day; in the final segment they predict the outcome of the election. The election result provided at the end of the film offers a form of narrative closure.

 

In terms of suggestions to supplement the sense of place in the film with images of the city, I experimented with this in the later stages of the edit but found that it detracted from the sense of intimacy and informality evoked by the letterbox “characters,” their primacy within the screen space and the film’s focus on the sonic colour, texture, and variety of their voices.  

 

The film was also conceived very much as a local work for local audiences who would be familiar both with the particularities of this electorate and with the eventual win of Chloe Swarbrick, a Green Party candidate who is well-known to New Zealanders. Local audiences would also be thoroughly familiar with the political party hoardings, hence the fleeting nature of these images. Addressing a local audience is a purposeful political act which asserts the value of micro-ecologies and may also act to encourage those outside this particular milieu to become a more active audience, to seek out contextual detail regarding other places, and other lives. 


REFERENCES

 

Hamblin, Sarah. 2019. “Exhausted Montage: Radical Cinema Post ’68.” Cultural Politics 15 (3): 358-371.

 

Watson, Ryan. 2019a. “Interview with Dale Hudson and Patricia R. Zimmerman.” Studies in Documentary Film 13 (3): 250-267. https://doi.org/10.1080/17503280.2019.1672920.


Watson, Ryan. 2019b. “Interview with Sharon Daniel.” Studies in Documentary Film 13 (3): 283-289. https://doi.org/10.1080/17503280.2019.1672924.

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