JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Fix: The Story of an Addicted City (Nettie Wild, Canada, 2002)

Sisters in Law (Kim Longinotto, Florence Ayisi, Cameroon/UK, 2005): Vera Ngassa, state prosecutor

Sisters in Law: Beatrice Ntuba, court president

Rize (David LaChapelle, USA/UK, 2005)

Poster for Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (Gough Lewis, USA, 1999)

Attica (Cinda Firestone, USA, 1973)

The Weather Underground (Sam Green, Bill Siegel, USA, 2002). Todd Gitlin:

“They picked up the apparatus of the organisation, and the name of the organization, and they walked away with it. I mean it was organizational piracy.”

The Weather Underground. Brian Flanagan:

“The Vietnam War had made us crazy. It was sort of a mass mania, driven by the United States bombing of Vietnam among other things, and it just fed on itself. And you know when you feel that you have right on your side you can do some horrific things.”

Underground (Emile de Antonio, Mary Lampson, Haskell Wexler, USA, 1976)

 

Belinda Smaill teaches at Monash University in Melbourne. She has published previously on nonfiction film and her book The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture incorporates several pieces which have appeared elsewhere, including a study of the pornography documentary in Jump Cut. Like Cowie, she engages with a range of cultural theorists, but here the film criticism is foregrounded. Moving on from Bill Nichols’s characterization of documentary as one of the “discourses of sobriety,” she defines her project as

“an investigation into how individuals are positioned by documentary representation as subjects that are entrenched in the emotions.”

Her choice of case studies is wide ranging. She writes of British filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s work in Iran and Africa; of “dissent documentaries” (such as The Corporation [2003], an analysis of the workings of capitalism) from the United States; of Fix (shot in Vancouver), Rize (Los Angeles) and Born into Brothels (2004, Kolkata); of Asian Australian documentaries, and more. It is a pity that her last example is the Australian Idol television series. Here the book loses its concentration on documentary and veers off into the new direction of reality TV.

Often Smaill’s writing is lucid and penetrating. She studies Fix: The Story of an Addicted City (Nettie Wild, 2002), for example, in relation to Wendy Brown’s concept of “wounded attachments.” By that Brown refers to the way people from an under-class often define their self-identity in terms of their exclusion from and subordination to the dominant social structure. Here the addicted inhabitants of a poor section of Vancouver are the subjects of a documentary which through its techniques transcends empathy for the suffering victim and becomes the catalyst for political action. In fact, as Smaill recounts, soon after the film’s release, a council was elected which authorized North America’s first safe injection site. 

Smaill also explores the representation of pain in four documentaries by Kim Longinotto (usually in collaboration with a local co-director): Divorce Iranian Style (1998) and Runaway (2001) made in Iran, The Day I Will Never Forget (2002) made in Kenya, and Sisters in Law (2005) made in Cameroon. In the Iranian films, she argues, “pain and anguish becomes visible as performance” when the female subjects plead their case in the divorce court or at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. In the African films, on the other hand, “the affect of physical pain” is to the forefront, whether it is the excruciating agony of female genital cutting or the wounds inflicted by an aunt on a six-year-old girl with a coat hanger. Smaill’s insightful analysis focuses on the depiction of women who in “negotiating the intersection of modernity and traditional or religious law” become political subjects, and as in Fix the narrative is directed away from empathetic identification towards social action. Here Longinotto’s observational style and collaborative method of working are, Smaill convincingly argues, crucial to the functioning of the documentaries as activist interventions.       

Yet the discussion of “pain” in these analyses at times feels forced, and one has the sense that Smaill is struggling to fit her material into the mould she has cast for it. The main figures in Sisters in Law, for example, are not the victims of violence she concentrates on, but the highly proficient and professional female state prosecutor and court president, who are by no means constituted as emotional subjects. The straining for sustained coherence becomes even clearer in Smaill’s treatment of Rize (David LaChapelle, 2005), a film discussed alongside Fix in terms of its depiction of the figure of the injured subject. The protagonists of the documentary are disadvantaged youth from African American neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, yet the film pays much more attention to the frenetic style of dance, “krumping,” that they have created than it does to their social deprivation. Occasionally pain is evoked, as in the recounted incident of a 15-year-old girl being gunned down by gang members on her way to the corner shop, but it is utterly washed out by the exhilaration, astonishment and sheer joy generated by the dancing, not to mention desire for the beautiful bodies on display. Attention to these emotions – and earlier Smaill does in fact reference Richard Dyer’s work on the utopian sensibility in musicals – would be more apposite than stretching a parallel with the social-problem documentary Fix.

However there is a more fundamental conceptual difficulty. Attempting to apprehend a documentary in terms of singular “emotions,” as Smaill does (in addition to pain, she examines “pleasure and disgust,” “loss and care,” “civic love,” “futurity and hope,” and “nostalgia”) neglects the dynamic ebb and flow of feelings that characterizes viewers’ experiences of films as they unfold. In fact, one could argue that a constant flux is vital to achieving the satisfaction of spectatorial desires that Smaill refers to in her introduction. And there is, too, a vagueness about certain emotions that Smaill pins her analyses to, such as the nebulous “civic love,” as well as about whose emotions are being discussed. Smaill writes, “The individuals [entrenched in the emotions] I am referring to are, in some instances, film-makers, and in others, those who are featured in the documentary” – but it is also frequently viewers who are clearly being referenced.

Uncertainty surfaces again in Smaill’s discussion of Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (Gough Lewis, 2000), which she considers along with two other pornography documentaries. Smaill argues that Chong is positioned as a female desiring subject, but that her performance of sexuality is ambivalent. Furthermore, Smaill asserts, “The endeavour to render subjectivity in the documentary narrative ... is constantly troubled by the body’s status as sexual and cinematic object,” evoking feelings of disgust as well as pleasure. This is a persuasive reading, but it is a partial one. It ignores the many other ways in which Chong (real name Grace Quek) is portrayed as an emotional subject in the course of the film: the shame she exhibits when her middle-class Singaporean mother learns of her occupation as a porn star, her despair when she self-mutilates, her muted anger in returning to the site where she was raped, and so on. A full consideration of subjectivity in the film would also need to extend to the question of authorship. The director Lewis was Quek’s boyfriend at the time of filming, which helps to explain the intimacy of some of the footage as well as the film’s reluctance to explore the impact of her work on Quek’s personal relationships. Quek has in fact insisted in interviews that directorial decisions were entirely Lewis’s and that there are aspects of the representation of herself she disagrees with.[5] [open endnotes in new window]

Overall Smaill has made a bold move in attempting to draw the question of emotion into documentary studies, but her methodology is flawed and the concept remains elusive. The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture is best seen as a collection of individual studies, some of them very fine, and as the first stabs towards expanding the notion of documentary beyond seeing it as primarily a discourse of sobriety.

*******

Jonathan Kahana, associate professor at the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, has previously published essays on documentary, the avant-garde, and U.S. film culture. In Intelligence Work, a sprawling and often dense treatise, he ambitiously surveys a wide range of U.S. political filmmaking and its cultural contexts from the days of the New Deal welfare state (“partly defined by the documentary forms that made it seem necessary”) to the current era of its “decisive abandonment.” Kahana notes that documentary has appealed “to both state and capitalist institutions and their critics.” But once he moves past the brief New Deal period of government-sponsored production, the films he examines are chiefly oppositional, mirroring the shift in public attitude from trust in to suspicion of the state.

Kahana devotes major sections of the book to different periods and purposes for documentary:

  • Depression-decade documentary (People of the Cumberland [1938], Power and the Land [1940]),
  • New Left filmmaking (Newsreel, Winter Soldier [1972], Underground [1976]),
  • prison documentaries (Titicut Follies [1967], Attica [1973]),
  • presidential representations (Primary [1960], Feed [1992]), and the
  • current proliferation of political nonfiction of different forms and tendencies.

His approach veers, almost bewilderingly at times, from the broadly contextual to the minutely textual. Thus in Chapter 2 he examines at some length the books You Have Seen Their Faces by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, Land of the Free by Archibald MacLeish, and Our Government by James M. Cain before homing in on a tracking shot in Joris Ivens’s Power and the Land in which farmers are framed in profile to emphasize their ears.  

The title of the book derives from Walter Lippmann’s identification, in Public Opinion (1922), of a group of intellectuals who mediated between state institutions and ordinary Americans. Documentary, whether mainstream or marginal, can be said to perform, Kahana argues, similar “intelligence work.” He draws on Lippmann (as pioneering documentary theorist John Grierson did) as well as on the ideas of Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas in conceptualizing the public sphere and the role that documentary (“a practice of knowledge unto itself”) plays within it. He also utilizes James Clifford’s notion of allegory, a mode that

“allows the local or particular to retain its specificity and authenticity while serving as the medium for a lesson of general significance for others.”

Thus, in this vein, Kahana consistently demonstrates how concrete depictions of individual situations, whether an Ohio farm being wired for electricity or the bloody repression of a prison uprising in upstate New York, can be read as statements on the functioning of the U.S. political system as a whole.

Kahana’s heterogeneous methodology tends to work best when the documentaries themselves are the central focus. Thus Chapter 4 dilates upon such cultural phenomena of the time as Tom Wicker’s book A Time to Die, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, and Bob Dylan’s ballad “George Jackson,” but most attention is paid, in a series of revealing juxtapositions, to The People Versus Paul Crump (William Friedkin, 1962), Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman), Attica (Cinda Firestone), and Teach Our Children (Third World Newsreel, 1972). The shifting forms, from dramatized reenactment through cinema verité, found footage collage, and avant-garde montage are perceptively dissected in the interests of exposing the evolving political representation of U.S. prisons. Likewise the discussion of Newsreel productions – including Black Panther (1968), No Game (1968), San Francisco State: On Strike (1969), and People’s War (1969) – benefits from their being considered together as a group, in the way, for example, they audaciously challenged codes of public discourse.

Less successful is the treatment of 1930s nonfictional expression in Chapter 1, which wanders arbitrarily it seems from Dorothea Lange’s photography to Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Sherwood Anderson’s Puzzled America to Erskine Caldwell’s Some American People and Say, Is This the U.S.A., Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “The Book of the Dead” to Carl Becker’s 1931 Presidential Address to the American Historical Association, Leo Hurwitz’s fascination with montage to the 1935 American Writers’ Congress, before finally coming to rest on the Frontier Films documentary, People of the Cumberland.  

The book’s discursive style is not helped by Kahana’s disconcerting practice of approaching his subjects nonchronologically, of offering, for example, an extended examination of the work of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock before launching into an account of the “documentary front” in the New Deal, or dealing with The Weather Underground (Sam Green, Bill Siegel, 2002) before embarking on a discussion of documentaries from the 60s and 70s. But it is with his treatment of The Weather Underground and its predecessor, Underground (Emile de Antonio, Mary Lampson, Haskell Wexler) that what are perhaps more serious issues, of political interpretation and descriptive accuracy, arise.

The Weather Underground was responsible for a string of bombings of U.S. governmental and corporate targets in the 1970s. Political criticism of documentaries devoted to the group must surely interrogate how they handle the question of the legitimacy of revolutionary violence in the historical period that it took place. Yet Kahana scarcely broaches the topic. His discussion of The Weather Underground focuses on the soundtrack, which expresses, he claims,

“by its very resistance to the conventions of documentary sound, a kind of solidarity with Weatherman’s radical mission.”

He cites Kirkpatrick Sale’s criticism of the group (its “only real principle, according to Sale, was contrition, its members’ regret that they had not been born black or poor”). But he completely neglects to mention the cogent critique of the bombing campaign offered within the film both by Todd Gitlin and by former Weatherman Brian Flanagan, who remarks,

“When you feel that you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things.”

On Underground, Kahana argues that the film offers a challenge to “the bourgeois ideology of the individual” and attempts to “thwart the liberal rhetoric of democracy” through presenting a collective perspective:

“In the opening minutes, the film provides a history of the group’s origins in the guise of personal accounts by each of the members present at the meeting. But these stories are never identified with a member by name.”

This statement, however, is quite inaccurate. Cathy Wilkerson, Bernardine Dohrn, Kathy Boudin and Billy Ayers all introduce themselves vocally, while Jeff Jones is identified by a subtitle. Underground’s “formal primer on the strategies of anti-imperialist politics and their incorporation into filmmaking” is perhaps not as clear cut as Kahana would have it. And those politics themselves receive as little scrutiny from Kahana as they do from the filmmakers who are interviewing the protagonists.  

The treatment of the Weather Underground films points to a tendency in Intelligence Work towards a formalism which at times threatens to blunt the acuity of its ideological critique. But Kahana’s valiant attempt to integrate a whole swathe of U.S. political documentary into a cultural history that is as alert to parallel developments in other fields as it is to the stylistic details of individual works is welcome, and a short review cannot begin to do justice to the book’s many intricate analyses.  

*******

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