In Their Own Words

Curator's Note

In the 2013 HBO documentary Beyoncé: Life Is But A Dream, credited as “A Film by Beyoncé Knowles,” Beyoncé compares her stardom to the artistry of Nina Simone, the singer and civil rights activist who was known for her political engagement and race-conscious repertoire. Following Beyoncé’s lead, I have compared and contrasted Beyoncé’s autobiographical documentary to the 2015 Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? (directed by Liz Garbus). Although not literally autobiographical, What Happened, Miss Simone? makes extensive use of fragments of Simone’s personal diary and of her recorded spoken voice as voice-over, suggesting that the documentary does present Simone’s story in her own words. The two documentaries share the dominant themes of independence and motherhood, albeit in significantly different ways. Whereas Beyoncé speaks of artistic independence within the multibillion entertainment industry of the 2000s, Nina Simone speaks of Black political independence within white oppressive society of the 1960s and 1970s; whereas Beyoncé: Life Is But A Dream presents motherhood as the ultimate goal of happiness, What Happened, Miss Simone? highlights Simone’s troubled relationship with her daughter.

Instead of making an audiovisual essay to be published, I made “In Their Own Words” as an audiovisual research exercise to see if working directly with the source material would change my perspective on the documentaries and on how the two stars relate to each other. I took an audio fragment featuring the star’s voice of one documentary and combined it with a visual fragment of the other, and vice versa. No editing or alterations were made within each fragment, although I did cheat with one visual fragment of Nina Simone that was intercut several times with talking head interviews (which I cut out). While I had expected that the exercise would reinforce my initial perspective that the glamorous superstar Beyoncé stands in juxtaposition to the political activist singer Nina Simone, combining them turned out to expose the similarities rather than the differences between the two stars. Selecting the fragments and bringing them together forced me to recognize the connection between Beyoncé and Nina Simone. I presented the video as part of a presentation at the annual NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies) conference in Paris, July 2017.


Unfortunately, yesterday Vimeo has removed my “In Their Own Words” video “in response to a takedown notice submitted by Netflix, Inc. pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act”—hence, the “Sorry. This video does not exist” notification. Not without irony, I initially hesitated to make the video public, for different reasons. First, as explained above, this particular video was intended as an audiovisual research exercise rather than a publishable essay. Second, the documentaries are recent and popular commodities, produced by major media companies (HBO and Netflix, respectively). Although the legal discussion about copyright is extremely relevant, the main aim of this post was to highlight the added value of the audiovisual essay as research practice.

The takedown here is very frustrating, but it does us the inadvertent favor of highlighting an issue that should be addressed in discussions of videographic criticism right now, and that's Fair Use. Writing out a description of what you saw in the works can't bring the point across as effectively as the visualization of it, yet you wouldn't have to worry about being asked to take down a text. This has been an issue in print scholarship when it comes to the use of images and screen grabs, but the use of video clips brings it to another, more complex level, whether it's the technology you need to make workable clips, the right to manipulate the original images, or the ability to distribute the finished work on public and scholarly platforms. (I wonder where the Critical Commons website might fit into this?) There's also a fascinating larger theoretical question here that is well illustrated by this post's findings: How can manipulating an original work or juxtaposing it with another potentially change the meaning of it, and how might original copyright holders and creators feel about that in aesthetic, not just economic, terms?

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