In Plain English—images of students at the University of Oregon, accompanied by their words. Their names were not given till the end of the tape.

I was salutatorian of my class but when I went to my counselor, he told me I should think of applying to community college. He thought a university would be too challenging for me.

My mom and dad used to tell me, ďYouíre a GI baby." .. For a long time I was really proud of that.

Iíd rather be called Klamath or Payute, but you donít know that from meeting me. Other native people could tell.

When your family has been here for four generations, you feel pretty American.

Even when I tell them Iím Guatemalan, they think Guatemala is Mexico.

We are U.S. citizens except we donít have the power to vote.

Because Iím the color that I am, I looked very ďnaturalĒ there. Everyone assumed that I was Kuwaiti or Palestinian.

I myself am not yellow.

In each of our families, thereís someone very blonde and blue-eyed and thereís someone very dark.

If youíre black, youíre black.

Because Iím the color that I am, people donít think twice that Iím not going to agree with what they are saying Ö and so they say it.

I look ďnormal,Ē whatever that means, and so thatís why I feel itís really important to be out.

When my grandmother was very young, she was sent to a boarding school in Riverside, California, and she was beaten for speaking her language.

My parents very much speak Navaho and they donít let us forget it either.

Because you have an accent, they donít let you enter to this society.

And then, after they took a polaroid picture of him, they asked if he ever thought about joining the Eugene Police Department.

Itís funny because I never look at a white person and ask them to speak for their whole race nor do I judge their whole race by them.


Perpetual subversion

by Julia Lesage

The following essay is an expanded version of a plenary lecture I gave at the conference, Quiet Revolution: Politically Subversive Cinema, sponsored by the graduate students in the Film Department at San Francisco State University, October, 2014.  Since many of the students at SF State are engaged in both media criticism and production, a background similar to my own, my remarks are especially addressed to those who know this pleasure of combining theory and craft.


Phenomenologist Martin Heidegger argues that humans do not just have being [Sein] but being-there or being-in-some-place [Dasein]. He says we are thrown into a world not of our choosing at birth and have to learn how to navigate in it. This makes the encounter with physical and social conditions, learning about them, and shaping them while not usually controlling them a part of every human life. The “da” of Dasein, the there-ness, means we gain our identity from social relations, participating in social groupings all differently placed in relation to history, institutions, money, ideology, class—the large-scale structures that Marxists study and political activists seek to change.

Existentially, as individual people we relate to each other through mediated representations, including ongoing communication through language and narrative, and we each do so in unique ways. We inherit a structured physical/cultural world. As Louis Althusser would say, we are “interpellated” or incorporated from birth into state and social institutions. But we also make something of the world into which we are born. Each generation re-creates, partially innovatively, partially conservatively, the social conditions that structure their lives—and different groups understand very differently the need, often urgent, to do this.

What I would like to focus on here is an approach to art that contrasts with my usual writing about film, which often analyzes particular films in relation to social structure. In this case, I’d like to start from a contrasting place, to emphasize artists’ interest in people’s unique ways of acting and feeling in the world, and to look especially at the practice of the filmmaker as “located” in a socially specific way. For me, it is also an occasion to reflect on my own past documentary videomaking practice.

Romantic aesthetics

Even though I understand its limitations, I have long been drawn to a vision of artistic practice that has its origins in the 19th century Romantic Movement in Europe, the idea of art as creation and expression. Even today, the Romantic aesthetic legacy persists. For example, in any contemporary arts college or film school, you will find many young people, like 19th century bohemians, drawn to the arts with a vision of themselves as outsiders rebelling against stifling bourgeois respectability. From the 19th century to the present, in terms of the narrative arts, a broad cultural assumption persists that we need artists to dip into their deepest selves and articulate or give form to emotion and also to previously unexpressed, perhaps inexpressible perceptions. For the artist, this means expressing and shaping both what was previously hidden from oneself and what's been unnoticed or taken for granted in society, including what may have been repressed or suppressed. Such an act of exploration and expression includes articulating the darker aspects of human action and the complexity and ambivalence of human consciousness.

In my graduate study I was introduced to a useful exposition of the Romantic aesthetic, articulated in 1938 by philosopher R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art.[open reference page in new window] According to Collingwood, art’s raw material encompasses feelings, emotions, impressions, and experiences raised to level of consciousness. In most people, an ordinary aesthetic sensibility moves from sensuous to imaginative and conscious levels, and each higher level of articulation reorganizes the original sensory, now memorial, experience through thoughtful reflection. Artists use this aesthetic capacity in a more self-conscious and elaborate process. They learn craft skills within an artistic tradition, usually from teachers, and use that skill, in their artistic technique, to expresses the particulars of their experience and imagination in their own unique way. For artists, creating something entails a process of discovery—finding out the dimensions of an emotion, perception, or event. Although artists usually start from a certain insight or problematic, the very act of working on the art piece leads to further insights and refinements, and so the process of artistic creation advances without a precise preconception of where it will end. Artistic creation is not only a self-conscious articulation of aesthetic insights, it is also intended as an act of communication. Audiences often have a sensuous or emotional reaction or gain some new awareness upon experiencing some work of art; their response has been shaped by the artist’s consciousness that has organized the material for them. (Clearly some people don’t “get” a work of art while other people do, but even then there is no single or obvious fit between artistic conception and audience response).

The value of such a Romantic aesthetic can be seen when we understand the necessity for a perpetually subversive art. Restatements of the particularities and nuances of historical existence will always be needed since people constantly experience the flattening out and reduction of meaning attendant upon representation. In our efforts at communication, we create and experience a certain degree of miscommunication. Language, the putting into words, reduces the multifarious aspects of anything spoken or written about, and no one understands all the dimensions of what someone else tells them. The artist will always have the task of naming, of drawing attention to previously unrecognized or misrecognized realities. It is a process that has to go on over and over, and particularly from one generation to the next, and from those out of power to and about those in control.


The Dasein that Heidegger postulates also implies that each generation is born into power relations that inflect all the material conditions of existence. For example, in our own times the social institutions at the center of power have control over what is ordinarily communicated and how broadly things are communicated. Such institutions include science, economics, law, politics, government, education, religion, the medical profession, the business world, and media institutions. As Bill Nichols puts it, such institutions express relatively uncontested truths backed up by law; these Nichols calls the discourses of sobriety.

By discourse, I mean a whole complex structure of representation with multiple forms of expression that work together to provide a way of seeing the world; usually that discourse is conveyed through language, but it could be nonverbal, as in many sciences, and it could be visual and verbal as with the mass media. Family imposes a discourse, and Art is also a discourse. According to Nichols, the discourses of sobriety have instrumental power and are socially delegated to alter or control the world. Through discourse/s things are made to happen. In particular, the discourses of sobriety “regard their relation to the real as direct, immediate and transparent,”(4) and people usually take their presuppositions for granted. Now I think we understand what kind of people govern at the centers of power—what class, what race, and what gender. What we may not attend to is the way that any discourse leaves something unsaid, unspeakable.

I mentioned before that language is a filter on the world, but having the language to define the world also enables us to change things. As Nichols indicates, ordinarily the discourses of sobriety abrogate to themselves the rights of definition over things and persons and social process. They presume to decide what the truth is, who may tell it, and what things are worthy of notice and discussion. Thus, to depict things in film and to allow ordinary people to name their experience and their world is to assert what is in ever new and fresh ways. And another strategy of resistant art is always needed, that is, to say to these controlling institutions and their ways of defining the world, “the Emperor has no clothes.”

In Plain English

To take a specific example, for many college students and professors, the students’ lived experience as well as the structure and ideology of higher education goes unanalyzed. But that may be less so for students of color, whose experience and history are often left out of the curriculum, or relegated to specific classes such as Asian American or African American literature and not taken into consideration elsewhere in their studies. In my own video work, I found that making a film with underrepresented groups on campus is a very effective way to counter that neglect. Consider here these words from a tape I made with students of color at the University of Oregon, In Plain English. Eric Ward analyzes his role at the university from a perspective that’s often ignored:

“Tokenism is like being at this university because they want us here; they get federal funding if we’re here. It makes the university diverse and they learn a hell of a lot from us. I mean they get a lot from us, much more than they give back because we end up having to teach them a lot. And it costs us. What happens though is that they want us here but they don’t really want us to say anything, at least don’t say anything that’s going to force them to stretch to do something.”

I would like to describe the process of making In Plain English, since I think making film/video from and about your own environment is one of the most satisfying ways to make subversive media. I made this video at my own university, and later another, with students with disabilities, called Getting Around. Both are in the University of Oregon library and have had a lot of classroom use. If you are interested in making resistant media, you will find that many groups in struggle want a "video about their group," and it was on that level that the ethnic student unions first approved of this project's existence and goals. The student leaders had developed their own cogent analyses of the educational system, which were articulated in the tape; and each of the student unions consequently used the tape and promoted it after it was completed. Even more important, a staff person who had worked years organizing anti-discrimination workshops also wanted to make such a tape with students of color. Dianna Kale, a Native American academic staff person in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, joined me in making the tape. Kale’s ongoing work with students of color meant that her analysis informed the interview process. Her familiarity with the student as individuals meant they felt comfortable talking about a whole range of issues with her that they might not have discussed in the same intimate way with me.

In Plain English is a talking heads tape. Visually, I framed the students as authorities, as intellectuals who’ve though a lot about the university structure, and I placed a primacy on their voices. They were given the chance to prepare what they wanted to say and how they wanted to dress. They and I saw their performance in this tape as a public event. In their verbal style, the students are authoritative and articulate. They are what Antonio Gramsci would call organic intellectuals or what we might call more colloquially “grassroots” intellectuals. In their families or among students of color on campus circulate meanings and ways of articulating historical reality that are excluded from dominant discourse. As they speak with insights gained from their multiple “locations,” the students in the tape provide alternative cognitive maps with which to interpret something which might have been thought about in a more reductive way— "the college experience."

In terms of editing style, I do not reveal either the students' names or ethnicity until the end of the tape. I edit segments from various interviews related to a given theme up against each other, so that the argument or perhaps contrapuntal voices flow into each other as a whole. Often students disagree or do not have similar experiences. Sometimes their experiences are related to skin color, sometimes to gender (for example, the darker skinned men are harassed by police; the fairer-skinned women of color are treated as exotic). However, with a unified voice, the students denounce Eurocentrism in the curriculum and the expectations they face to represent their race.

In terms of the visual style, we see is a rapid procession of faces, of a variety of ethnicities and colors. Inside what each student narrates about their life are numerous contradictions or frictions against social expectations. Here are a few examples. One man who looks very Anglo discusses Latino issues as a Latino. A Black woman says because she looks "normal," she thinks it is important to be out as lesbian. A Chicana says people mistake her for Italian. Color is interrogated both by the students in the tape and by the viewer. The use of close ups and a neutral background reduces connotation. Because of the primacy of the verbal argument, the voice-face relation invites fantasy. We are confronted with what we guess about the students and what they tell us about themselves. And when the end credits come up, we are confronted again with some of our previous projections, especially about race, mixed race background, immigrants, and color. Although the students’ anecdotes are lively and imagistic, and the students seem cohesive "subjects" whose image invites projection, what they say presents a conflict of discourses. Their subjectivities navigate a world unacknowledged by hegemonic notions of "reality." They contest the structures of knowledge proposed in the classroom, the behavior of fellow students, and the reduction of their identity to issues of race.

In Plain English’s production process was about as far from that of a “fly on the wall” documentary as you could get. To prepare, Kale and I talked to a number of students about their background and educational experiences. Some of them had directly expressed interest in the project, others were people whom teachers suggested to us, and even others Kale recruited. We taped audio interviews with each of these students and had the interviews transcribed. After we selected students for the final filming, we told each interviewee approximately what areas we would be asking them to discuss on video. Finally, after the editing, we transcribed the tape’s sound track and invited participants to veto anything they said that they did not want to be in the final version.

Our goal in all this was to delegate as much authority as possible to the student participants. What I understand in retrospect is how much their participating in the video and its having a public presence in the university meant to each student. When we watch documentaries, or even when me make them, we often do not think much about what agreeing to appear in a documentary means to those in it.  In fact, those filmed are committing to tell their experience and to perform their self in an act of public communication, and this has extended consequences for them. They become witnesses, with heightened self-consciousness and self-awareness as social actors.


I’d like to now move to a consideration of the broader implications of using witnesses in documentary film. For instance, filmmakers interested in social documentary often use characters or witnesses who have a foot in more than one social world. On film, those figures can then translate from one world to another. In fact, all of us participate in various discourse communities. We belong to overlapping social groups, each of which pursues certain goals or shares a common situation and has certain forms of expression—language, dress, characteristic actions—in common. We attend to each of our discourse communities with varying intensity at different moments of our life: we may be a college student, teacher or potential teacher, family member, salaried worker, perhaps a member of a religion or an ethnic group, perhaps a media maker. We all learned early about discourse, noticing as children the key differences between the worlds of adults and ourselves, often parodying or making fun of adult worries and admonitions. We learned further at school that identifiable groups are regulatory, normative, and disciplinary. If you do not meet the norms of a group you are in, you are criticized, isolated, and even shunned. For this reason filmmakers often focus on the advantages and limits of one of the discourse communities or “worlds” we live in. We cannot live outside discourse, but as media makers we can utilize our specific social and material “locations” and that of our witnesses to give nuance and an authoritative tone to the film we want to make.

As someone who has worked in both film criticism and video production, in this case as a social documentarist, I am particularly interested in the power of the witness’ first-person voice naming not only her history but, as placed in a documentary, the history of a group. What is fascinating about this voice, listened to from the ground up, is that is it offers insights into how power works, speaks from a position of authority on the topic, and if used well in the film, it potentially contains all the quirkiness and contradictions that characterize each of us as human.

At the same time, I am also concerned about how in both the filming and editing stages, a documentarist narrows down a witness' voice to the goals of the film project at hand. Both in choosing whom to film and which footage to include in the final project, the filmmaker is using people as characters in a story or argument, as figures within a narrative trajectory. Each person who appears as a “figure” in the media was at the time of being filmed someone with a peculiarity and specificity of experience, someone shaped by multiple causes, linked to innumerable social relations, and complexly placed in history. For the filmmaker, those human figures, what they said, their visual presence—all these become reduced to material that the filmmaker shapes in a new act of communication.

To ameliorate this reductiveness, or at least to take responsibility for it, the documentarist may place him or herself as a figure within a film, either in a documentary or a self-reflexive film, which includes footage about the very process of representation. In both kinds of films, using the first-person voice as a witness inside an argument, or in an autobiography, the real-life person behind that speaker in film exceeds her representation. That is, this is a dynamic person with many facets, with an identity shifting across time, shaped by changing environments, and with memories that are also malleable across time. In addition, with shifts in both personal and social history, what witnesses will want to speak to publicly, out of social need, will also change over time.

I watch and appreciate many documentaries where witnesses’ voices speak to an argument or where their presence is used to paint a kind if portrait, but I also understand that there is a sleight of hand here in representing people that characterizes the documentary genre as a mode of discourse. It is important to remember that another kind of subversive filmmaking may consist of going back and looking at what other things these people may have been up to or what else may have been going on in similar environments, aspects overlooked or ignored. Place, person, and moment exceed representation. In terms of people or places or historical events, there’s always another story to be told. In relation to my own work, for example, a biracial student gave me a valuable critique of In Plain English; she said I filmed just student leaders and not ordinary students of color trying to get through college who were perhaps more content to fit in or lead their own lives and not get involved with social issues. She was right. There were other stories in these students’ lives and they were not as focused on race.

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