Working notes and reflections
Watching ‘51 Birch Street’ (2005) directed by Doug Block had so many resonances for me. It made me feel very sad that my mother had died and I could never make a film about her in the way that Block did about his mother and the intriguing story he was able to tell after she died. But ‘51 Birch Street’ also inspired me to think about my own life. Early in my career, I had made a film in Wales in the 1980s which looked at Welsh culture and how the Welsh language had begun to reassert itself after years of decline. I was drawn to this story because I was a second generation Welsh person. And I began to think that in my film for ‘the Story and I’ project, I could trace my history through the family house we have in Wales. A house featured in another film I saw, Elspeth Kidd’s film ‘Stone Street’ (2012). It focused on a house in Trinidad. In the film Kidd says “I am looking for something, I am looking for somewhere – a place of belonging.” The story of the house in Trinidad brought back many memories of our house in Wales. But when I began to think more about this, I realised that I wouldn’t find my story there. I think I felt this partly because I had recently left the BBC and was feeling unsure about my own future direction and where my life was heading.
I began to think more about my own life. A very large part of it has been about the films I have produced and directed over the past thirty years. I realised that that this is the story that I wanted to tell.
I had stored away an enormous amount of material – programme files, note-books, papers, air tickets, pay slips and hadn’t looked at any of it since I had put it all into boxes. I decided to go through some of the boxes and look at some of the material to see what I could find. One of the first things I found was a shoe box with some of my old recce DV tapes in it. I had totally forgotten about them and I had not seen them since I had filmed them. Looking through some of the tapes, they were a revelation. I was there – holding the camera. This was my story. I realised the DV tapes I had shot would give me the opportunity to include me in the story – something I had never been able to do in the television programmes I had made.
There were several tapes from different stages of my career. My early programmes were shot on 16 mm film so all I have are the programmes themselves and some photographs. In the box, I found five tapes from Moscow – these were for a recce for a programme I made in Moscow in 1994. The idea of the television programme was to look at how Moscow had changed since 1991 following the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the programme, I had told the story from the point of view of four Muscovites from different generations. There were more DV tapes in the shoe box from other programmes I had made in Mexico and other places but I decided Moscow would be a good focus for ‘the Story and I’ project film. I had been in Moscow at a crucial time when people were still grappling with what the end of the Soviet era would mean to their lives.
The programme was called ‘Moscow: a city in transition’ and it was broadcast on BBC 2 for an Open University course called ‘Cities’. It was a fairly conventional documentary but I had found some very insightful people during the recce. My approach to film making has always been to find people to tell their own stories rather than using a journalist or celebrity travelling to a location and tell their story. And this was the first time I had been able to use a light weight portable video camera to record the recce.
Watching the DV recce footage allowed me to look back and reflect on what I had done. I reflected that I always used the ‘we’ pronoun about my films. We did this – we did that. This is because I usually worked with an academic consultant on the programme, working out creative ways to tell the academic story in the programme. But this time I had some DV footage I could now explore which I had shot. It wasn’t for use in the final programme but seeing it again in the context of looking for my story was very thought provoking and I was able to use it as the central pivot of my project film.
Another inspiration for ‘the Story and I’ project film was Trinh T Minh- ha. I had seen two of her films at the ICA retrospective in December 2017. It had included a Q and A with Minh-ha and screening of the Fourth Dimension (2001), and Shoot for the Contents (1991). At the Q and A, she spoke about the concept of ‘speaking nearby’ rather than ‘speaking about’. In an interview with Minh-ha by Nancy Chen in the Visual Anthropology review volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1992, Minh-ha clarifies what she means by speaking nearby. It “is a speaking that does not objectify, does not point to an object as if it is distant from the speaking subject or absent from the speaking place. A speaking that reflects on itself and can come very close to a subject without, however, seizing or claiming it.”
This was an important idea for how I then developed ‘my Story and I Project film’. I chose two extracts including Alexandra – an older lady who lives in one of the old apartment blocks of Moscow. The first sequence I shot on the recce – I am developing my relationship with the family. The second sequence is filmed with Alexandra going into her apartment block with subtitles – this is used in the final TV programme. The sequence I shot on the recce with Alexandra and her family is more interactive and personal. My voice can be heard. Not that the final programme isn’t revealing of how the changes in Moscow have not benefitted the older poorer people but the recce sequence does so in a more personal reflective way.
In one of my readings on the essay film from the Cinema and Me (edited by Alisa Lebow 2012), there is a discussion about ‘I’ and ‘We’. In a review of the book by Mary Moylan (2012), she notes that the “I” inheres the “we” – I found this very interesting, given my comments earlier. Moylan tells us that Lebow shares some of her inspiration from film theorist Jean Luc Nancy. Pointing to the formulation of the “singular plural,” Nancy clarifies that the “‘I’ does not exist alone, but always with ‘another.’ I understood this more as I looked at the DV footage. I felt that not only had I captured the lived experience of the characters but also that there was an aspect of me there as well.
In an article by Laura Rascaroli – the Essay Film: problems, definitions, textual commitments in Framework 49, No. 2, 2008, pp. 24–47, she says that ‘the essay film disrespects traditional boundaries, is transgressive both structurally and conceptually, it is self-reflective and self-reflexive.” I could see the power of this in the fragments of DV footage I had shot myself in Moscow. The DV recce sequence with Masha Filepenko and ‘Sharkey’ reveal a moment in time in Moscow in the 1990s more than any commentary could do. The freedom of being able to shoot the material myself without a film crew allowed me to develop my relationship with Alexandra and Masha which comes across in the DV recce shots that I include in ‘the story and I’ project film. The light weight camera equipment which is less obtrusive also allowed me to do this.
The development of low cost video equipment has been key to how story telling is developing. Richard Leacock was one of the first people to develop portable 16mm synchronous sound and film cameras. These cameras were at the heart of “direct cinema” – later Leacock worked with Hi 8 cameras. In ‘the Art of Home Movies’ (1993) he says “ let’s invent a new verb, the act of videoing is a delight, a pleasure, like singing or sketching with pencil on paper, capturing the essence of places, people, situations, tragedies, comedies… life as we see and hear it around us. Then to go home, not to a studio; home, and edit, creating a bridge to ones friends and yes, people you don’t even know who might be interested in this evocation of what was experienced.” I felt this watching the DV tapes again and editing them into ‘the Story and I’ project film. The energy and sense of excitement that I had experienced in Moscow comes across in the DV tapes and captures the essence of my time in Moscow.
There is no doubt that the development of low cost video and phones has democratised story telling. Two relevant readings for me were the ‘American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: the Cambridge Turn’ (2013) and ‘the Autobiographical Documentary in America’ (2002) where Jim Lane comments that ‘the proliferation of inexpensive video technology, individuals with little formal training in film technology have become documentarists.’ ‘By presenting their own lives in film and video nonfiction, documentarists have reversed the homogenizing effects of mass technology and mediation.’ Lane sees the autobiographical documentary form as ‘an alternative to the traditional postures assumed by more popular forms of documentary.’
This change of emphasis and autobiographical thinking was behind a project I developed in 2004 – nearly twenty years after Moscow – not as a TV producer but as a Project Director. In the shoe box, I had found another set of DV tapes which I had recorded in Cairo for the project called My Life. The theme was autobiographical with a question of ‘where am I now?’ and ‘where do I want to be by 2015?’ The project included young girls taking photographs of their life. I had shot some footage of the girls as they were having fun with the sound equipment and showing us the photos they had taken.
The idea of the project was to give young girls aged between 14 – 20 – some who hadn’t been to school – the opportunity to make their own digital stories with photographs and audio. We used disposable cameras – this was a time before smart phones. To do this we developed creative digital story-telling workshops with partners in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen. The digital stories were uploaded on the BBC Arabic web-site. The project provoked a very big response across the Arabic speaking world and generated huge debate with the listeners and users of the Arabic web-site.
But the interesting aspect of the project was that for the girls it was taking part in the workshops as much as seeing their stories published that was the most important thing. This was the first time they had taken photographs. I reflected on Susan Sontag’s comments in her book ‘On Photography (1977): ‘photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow…. each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.’ Looking at the work of Jacob Riis and Dorethea Lange, photographs also remind us of our history. W. Eugene Smith said ‘a photo is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, the photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought’.
In the film ‘5 broken Cameras’ (2011: Emad Burnat and Guy David) it is possible to see how quickly Emad developed a sense of empowerment by being given a camera. His camera became a way of uniting his fellow citizens, publicising their struggle and becoming a witness for posterity when the Israeli authorities sent in troops to deprive them of land to create a defensive barrier of steel and wire that later became a high concrete wall.
Looking back at the project ‘My Life’, I could see how empowered the girls were by taking their own photographs. This was the first time they had been able to take photographs and their enjoyment in the DV footage is palpable. They took photos of their own lives and were excited. They took photos of their families and sometimes of their environment touching on health and education issues.
In Susan Sontag’s words ‘Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.’ This was so true with the girls in Cairo. The project in Cairo was before the Arab Spring and the photos are a reminder of life at a different time. I am not sure we could do the same project again. Telling your own story is a powerful moment in time – as I have also discovered making ‘the Story and I’ project film. Having the opportunity to look back through my DV tapes and putting them in the context of some of the readings and other materials on ‘the Story and I’ project – I have found my story inside my work.