The Feminist Narrative: Analysing the Location of Action

Creator's Statement

This short video essay explores my experience of recutting an observational documentary into an ABC TV (Australian Broadcasting Commission) documentary. The broadcast documentary is called The Communicator (2022). As the film was being restructured for the broadcaster, following their notes, I found that the scenes filmed in non-working environments diminished in value.

In this new cut, action was confined to the workplace of the central character, Bekti Andari. While the domestic sphere was used to provide insight into Bekti’s character, it was not considered to be a site of action. The placement of action in a particular type of location (the workplace) meant that the narrative drive was focused upon Bekti’s workplace self and what she did in that space. Her job working for a group of scientists attempting to reduce dengue infections became the driving force of the film. The broadcaster notes also required that a traditional narrative structure be used, essentially one in which there is an obstacle that needs to be overcome. In the new cut, Bekti’s obstacle was communicating complex science to busy women in the local communities. 

The new edit for the broadcast raises two key issues which can be linked: firstly, the confinement of action to the workplace; and secondly the use of the classic hero narrative in which the hero must overcome an obstacle.

Workplace valued as a site of action

There are interesting parallels between the broadcaster’s notes and the work of economist Mariana Mazzucato, who analyses the value boundaries that we establish in society with regards to productivity.[1] I contend that what is valued as productive in economics and action in a narrative are aligned. For Mazzucato, value is subjective and 'has not been fixed' and the boundary’s 'shape and size have shifted with social and economic forces' (2019: 9). Mazzucato explains that the 'care given by parents to children or by the healthy to the unwell' (2019: 11) have only recently been considered as of productive value, e.g. been placed within the production boundary. Those actions that occur in the domestic space are traditionally considered not to be of productive (or narrative action) value.

I suggest that the broadcaster’s preferencing of the workplace as a site of action over the domestic sphere adheres to these wider societal notions of what is of productive value, as outlined by Mazzucato. The broadcaster was asking me to create a story where the narrative aligns with dominant ideas of social productive value. I also suggest that the previous cut I created of the film, in which action was considered to be of equal value in all sites, and where there was not a clear obstacle to overcome, adheres to a feminist critique of dominant narrative structures as outlined by Ursula K. Le Guin (2019) and Donna Haraway (2016).

Challenging the hero narrative

In her 1986 essay 'The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction', Le Guin states that the type of narrative where there is a significant obstacle to overcome by the lead character who brings about change is 'the story that hid my humanity from me' (2019: 33). Le Guin sought to create stories that can be perceived of as unheroic, where 'and then next day you probably do much the same again—if to do that is human' (2019, p. 32). These are not stories about a unique challenge that is overcome, instead the mostly small and daily obstacles are what the character/s face on a regular basis. Le Guin challenges the primacy of the heroic narrative form, instead wanting to write about 'what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else' (2019: 37). I suggest, as does Le Guin, that this includes actions that occur in domestic spaces.

If we give equal narrative value to the domestic as well as the work sphere as sites of action, that narrative can easily shift from a linear heroic story to a ‘carrier bag’ story. Of course, an heroic story can unfold in a domestic space; for instance, stories about royal families often do this, but the inclusion of the non-workspace can open up a different understanding of what action is, and where the narrative is heading. Including the domestic place as a site of action can challenge the linearity of storytelling and encourage the creation of narratives that possess iterative qualities. Instead of the character gaining a deeper understanding through overcoming obstacles, and changing their world, maybe all the character must do is live their daily life in what Le Guin calls 'the life story' (2019: 33).

Effect on the viewer?

The non-heroic story can inspire the viewer to act and undergo change, even though the central character does not necessarily create change themselves. Merely seeing another way of existing in the world as a human can be enough to inspire the viewer to question their current life choices. This inspiration can take place through giving value in the narrative to the domestic sphere as being of equal importance in the character’s experiences.


Works Cited

Gough-Brady, Catherine. 2022. The Communicator Snodger Media; ABC TV.

Haraway, Donna. J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble : Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press. 

Le Guin, Ursula. K. 2019. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Ignota. 

Mazzucato, Mariana. 2019. The Value of Everything: Making and taking in the global economy. Penguin. 

[1] For instance, in her 2019 book The Value of Everything: Making and taking in the global economy



Catherine Gough-Brady is an award-winning documentary producer and director who publishes on the emergent use of video as a method of academic discourse, and the relational nature of documentary production processes in journals including Media Practice and Education, Screenworks, [in]Transition, The International Journal of Creative Media Research, and Cultural Geographies. She is currently co-editing a book of essays on the intersection between creative practice and theory. Catherine produced and directed six ABC TV documentary series, including Legal Briefs (2016) and Ethics Matters (2017). She created 11 radio features for ABC Radio National. She is currently in post-production on a TV half-hour for ABC TV called The Communicator. Catherine is Head of Postgraduate Studies at JMC Academy in Australia and is an associate editor of Screenworks

Catherine Gough Brady’s short and thoughtful rumination on the process of re-cutting her observational documentary to better conform to the imperatives of broadcast television, offers some detail and analytical specificity to what most non-fiction filmmakers know all too well: character is king and story rules the day. What Gough-Brady offers here is an analysis of the ‘stakes’ of this situation, beginning as she does with this quote from Ursula Le Guin, on the consequences of the ubiquitous force of the ‘hero narrative’: 'it’s a story that hid my humanity from me'. 

With this established, Gough Brady begins her video essay with a description of her original film, one in which ‘there was no one thing at stake. And yet many things are always at stake. In which what is being explored is being a human in our world.' Following the notes given to her by the broadcasters, Gough-Brady describes how the world of her film was re-shaped by the neoliberal ideologies present in their edit instructions: privilege work over dailyness, locate the story in the public space of the office and minimize the private realm of the family, replace observation with exposition, and foreground conflict. Gough-Brady deftly and succinctly analyzes the impulses and ideologies that animated the re-edit, specifically the enactment of a particular kind of ‘value boundary,’ one that finds value in the traditionally masculinist spaces of the workplace. She tells us that feminists contested this value boundary and, indeed, her original film seemed to dwell in a feminist aesthetic, both at the level of form and content, imaging a world that is open and emergent, contingent and enmeshed. That’s the film I, personally, would like to see.

So, why did Gough Brady re-edit her film, if the stakes of doing so are no less than the erosion of an expanded humanity? For her character? For herself? I think the answer is probably very complicated and yet, as a viewer, I am eager to learn. Why wouldn’t they broadcast the original version of the film and how extensive and specific were the re-edit notes? Was there a negotiation? The devil is, as they say, in the details. Details that point to the power of feminist critique and the difficulty of feminist intervention. This video essay, itself, is the feminist intervention that seemed impossible in the re-edit for broadcast television (and is possible inside of a context like [in]Transition). It’s a thoughtful and carefully rendered textual rumination on why different approaches to story can powerfully shape non-fiction worlds. And, also, this question hovers at the periphery of this video essay: not only why, but how do powerful institutional and financial forces shape versions of our worlds? Worlds imaged in film and worlds that filmmakers live in too. This is, of course, an unfair demand on this particular video essay but it’s also a question that tantalizingly resonates in its frames.

Catherine Gough-Brady uses the short video essay form—comprised of her own eloquent voice-over, a one-minute scene from her Australian Broadcast Commission documentary, The Communicator (2022), the first minute of her original cut which she prefers, and outtakes—to build a compelling and clear articulation of linked themes, themselves easiest seen and understood through media. In her tight but still evocative video-essay, Gough-Brady articulates how two feminist interpretations of work and media—that women’s labor at home is not considered work (Mariana Mazzucato), and that the mundane if fertile rhythms of human’s lives are neither the pulse nor focus of fiction, typically organized around heroes, battles, and generic linear beats (Ursula LeGuin)—are condensed in the broadcast documentary through hegemonic forms that seamlessly serve patriarchy and neoliberal capital. She suggests that a documentary of one woman’s life that might hold a reflection of gently unwinding temporalities and a multiplicity of locations for working and living would result in a “feminist narrative mode” with a new “locus of action” and a “relentlessly becoming with” (Haraway). This she could not do in her own documentary; this she can clearly explain in a video-essay about it: what is demanded as the inside of contemporary broadcast documentary (the workplace, a conflict, a hero who overcomes) and what is shunted to the outside (the domestic sphere, multiple stakes, people in community, and all the productive work that happens at home). A feminist analysis of labor and value aligns with a feminist theory of narrative and its values. We are left to imagine the feminist observational documentary which neoliberal worker Gough-Brady was not supported to make given the prerogatives of the broadcast documentary (although we do see a possible first minute).

Of course, feminist (and other) filmmakers have long experimented with the observational film as a solution to dominant perspectives within documentary. This leaves some exciting  questions generated by the video-essay: Would Gough-Brady name the work of Chantal Akerman or Frederick Wiseman or the Sensory Ethnography Lab as sisters in this tradition of representing the relentlessly-becoming given a shared focus on labor, daily work and life, and taking the time (and distance) to observe? Are these traditions, and so many like them, all feminist? And, what then to make of the critical take of someone like David MacDougall, whose 1995 'Beyond Observational Cinema' begins to ask ethnographic filmmakers to name their own stakes and place in the ethnographic encounter? Working from this legacy of decolonizing thinking and/as film practice, I would highlight the feminist insights of self-reflexive and situated practices (also Haraway) as also integral to feminist documentary. This raises a final question: this is an exemplary video-essay about feminist documentary practices, but not itself exactly a documentary, nor necessarily feminist. Perhaps this is a masterful video-essay in its brevity, clarity, and adept linking of form to argument, but one that begs without answering in its own form what a feminist video-essay might be. If the self is 'defined by actions at work', how do we represent and know the feminist documentarian as worker outside of neoliberal and other patriarchal imperatives and in relentless-becoming with her subject and their shared world? An exciting challenge to be sure.


Work cited

MacDougall, David. (1995) 'Beyond Observational Cinema'. In Paul Hockings (ed.), Principles of Visual Anthropology. De Gruyter. pp. 115-132.