Chalk and Cheese: Notes on the Digital Paper
Film is both chalk and cheese.
For the creative practitioner film is a piece of chalk, something that can be used to create. For the spectator theorist it is a piece of cheese: made by another for you to consume. Susanna Helke correctly describes this as: “Maker’s theory is not theory on art but theory within art, rethinking praxis in order to catalyse new poetics” (2009, 210). “Empathy with the Masses” is not attempting to convey dubious objective truths, or be an explainer about style, it is an account of the phenomenal experiences of a documentary filmmaker. I would like to stress those words ‘documentary filmmaker’ – my investigations of practice do not include fiction films because I do not make them.
My digital papers create meaning along the lines of Laura Rascaroli’s idea of the essay film:
The essayist does not pretend to discover truths to which he holds the key but allows the answers to emerge somewhere else, precisely in the position occupied by the embodied spectator. (2009, 36)
I explore this in detail in "The Methodology behind Digital Papers" in Alphaville. But briefly, this means that I am interested in opening up space for the viewer to find meaning, rather than my own voiced character always providing the answers. It means that not everything in the digital paper is explored, or examined, some ideas are left hanging, just out of reach, whereas other ideas are low hanging fruit, easy to pick. This is done intentionally because it allows space for different meanings to be derived from the work. For instance, when I have played this piece at conferences around the world, a writer, a photographer and a documentary practitioner (at separate conferences) came up to talk to me about the idea of avoiding the central character as a possible solution to a piece they are currently creating. We spoke practitioner to practitioner. Whereas those who are interested, but not creators, tend to focus more on the implied post-humanist debates that emerge from decentring the character in Expect Delays, or in discussions on the nature of empathy. Raising ideas without necessarily resolving them all in a neat argument allows for these different readings. To quote Umberto Eco, “A text can foresee a Model Reader entitled to try infinite conjectures” (1992, 281).
In this digital paper I reflect on my attempt to create a film that avoids using a central heroic character. This was inspired by documentary filmmaker John Grierson’s film Drifters (1929) and his writings from that time, especially his essay “First Principles of Documentary” (reprinted in 1946, 79-89). Grierson wrote:
Indeed you may feel that in individualism is a yahoo tradition largely responsible for our present anarchy, and deny at once both the hero of decent heroics (Flaherty) and the hero of indecent ones (studio). In this case, you will feel that you want your drama in terms of some cross-section of reality which will reveal the essential co-operative or mass nature of society: leaving the individual to find his honours in the swoop of creative social forces. In other words, you are liable to abandon the story form, and seek like the modem exponent of poetry and painting and prose, a matter and method more satisfactory to the mind and spirit of the time. (82)
Grierson was reacting to the central heroic character found in North American fiction films and in Robert Flaherty’s documentary work. At the time, Grierson was aware of other narrative models, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s films (his own film Drifters premiered as a short alongside a screening of Battleship Potemkin (1925) in London. But in terms of documentary works, he had not seen Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and as far as I am aware, had not written about Vertov’s manifestos. Grierson’s knowledge of European documentary did include symphonic films such as Walter Ruttmann‘s Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) , which he did not view as an example of his co-operative character (1946, 85).
There is an energy to Grierson’s call to action that inspired me to explore what he meant, via the creation of a film. It is important to note that his plea to avoid the central heroic character did not included creating co-operation between the filmed people and the filmmaker, it was concerned with filming the co-operation between characters in front of the lens.
I chose night roadworks as the setting for the co-operative characters because it involved elements that I associate with Grierson from the 20-30s: men at work using machines. I filmed without any audio, another nod to 1920s filmmaking, but also to force me into avoiding the creation of characters once I was on location. I’m a short blonde female and I present as unthreatening, this means that people talk to me. With a mic I feared that I would encourage those conversations, and in the process discover a central protagonist who would become the storyteller. Filming without audio was a mechanism to help me break my existing habit of locating a central character. The audio in the film was entirely created by Mitchell Waters and Kyle Barbour-Hoffman in post-production.
In trying to follow Grierson’s model (no central characters and no audio), I had unintentionally created a symphonic film. The humans in the shots were extremely limited in their ability to express inner self and so their narrative importance was equivalent to, or even less than, the machines they tended. I tested the film on audiences who found very limited, or no, characters in the work. What most interested me was that I discovered that characters do not just form a point of empathy for the audience, they guide the documentarian in how to edit the work: which shots to include and which ones to discard, where to cut quickly and where to allow room. Characters claim narrative time and make it their own, without characters to guide me in the edit I created a chronologically linear film. Nearly all the shots in the timeline of Expect Delays are in the same order in which they were filmed. This is highly unusual in a documentary edit, where, for instance, the exterior shot to establish the location for a scene might be shot at the end of that shoot, but placed, in the edit, at the beginning of the scene. Or, where significant screen time is spent on a scene that explores how a central character reacts to an event, even though that event did not take the same amount of relative time in the pro-filmic world.
It occurred to me that there are other solutions to creating a contemporary work without a central heroic character, for instance talking-head documentaries such as Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016). Films like 13thdo not focus on an exploration of the inner, or social, self of the characters being interviewed. Carl Plantinga wrote that DuVernay’s 13thdoes not contain what he calls ‘rounded characters’: “What is interesting is the degree to which DuVernay resists representing the interviewees as subjectively oriented voices or as idiosyncratic, unique people” (2018, 121). When I was reading Plantinga I realised that in fact 13th had profoundly affected me and I had reacted emotionally to it. Characters do not need to express inner or social self, or stand out as a central heroic character for a viewer to emotionally engage with the work. As viewers we can engage with a group of people who care deeply about a topic, and glean from their words (combined with editing and music), both an intellectual and emotional understanding of, for instance, the oppression that they face. In fact, this form of narrative highlights the systemic rather than individual experience of the oppression and is a storytelling mode often used by documentarians who wish to discuss and reveal a complex systemic oppression or injustice.
As a result of creating the experimental film, and reflecting on it in this digital paper, I came to the conclusion that while I find characters to be an important part of my creative process, they are not necessary for an audience to feel an emotional connection with the subject of the documentary, especially when that documentary is examining systemic issues.
Barad, Karen. 2003. "Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter." Signs 28 (3):801-831.
DuVernay, Ava. 13th. 2016, 100 mins.
Eco, Umberto. 1992. "Reading My Readers." MLN 107 (5):819-827.
Eisenstein, Sergei. Battleship Potemkin. 1925.
Gough-Brady, Catherine. Expect Delays. 2018, 9 mins.
Gough-Brady, Catherine. 2019. "The Methodology behind Digital Papers." Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (17):179-187.
Grierson, John. Drifters 1929, 61 mins.
Grierson, John. "First Principles of Documentary." Grierson on Documentary, edited by Forsyth Hardy, Collins, 1946, pp. 78-89.
Helke, Susanna. 2019. "Encountering the Invisible." Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (17):209-214.
Plantinga, Carl. "Characterization and Character Engagement in the Documentary." Cognitive Theory and Documentary Film, edited by Catalin Brylla and Mette Kramer, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 115-134.
Rascaroli, Laura. 2009. The Personal Camera: subjective cinema and the essay film. New York: Wallflower Press.
Ruttmann, Walter. Berlin: Symphony of a City. 1927, 62 mins.
Vertov, Dziga. Man with a Movie Camera. 1929, 68 mins.
 For documentation of this screening please see The John Grierson Archive, especially G2-24-7 “Press review of Drifters”, and G7A5-04 “Grierson on premiere of Drifters (with Battleship Potemkin) and contrast of montage techniques”.