Getting Around—images of students with disability at the University of Oregon in their daily routines.

Dave Maloney and his assist dog.

Paul Triantafiloís family lived downwind from a nuclear test site.

Ph.D. student Kathleen Capps (left) is severely vision and hearing impaired. She teaches English composition with a sign translator (left).

Jacquelyn King has an invisible disability, epilepsy, that consists of seizures and many after effects. She is the assistant producer on Getting Around. Jacquelyn loves to cook for and entertain friends, especially from her Christian fellowship.

Blind grad student Fred Gauble planting his garden.

Kelly Wickham drives a van, adapted for a person using a chair.

Las Nicas—excerpts from interviews and conversations with Nicaraguan women in 1981 and 1982; photographic images of people, daily life, and public art not tied to the people speaking except poetically in the editing.

Before the revolution, I went to Catholic school and was a little middle class doll. I just wanted to be well dressed and buy records from the United States. Iím ashamed how removed from reality I was.

People who never fought behind the barricades in the revolution call themselves Christians and Sandinistas. Where were they when we women went through the street picking up hands and arms and eyes off the ground?

My husband says heís a Marxist, but he still spends his salary on $100 Jordache jeans.

I wouldnít be afraid to fall in love with a conservative man. It is our job to raise peopleís consciousness, so Iíd work on convincing him too.

Women who are politically active teach men a lot. Itís like pairing an experienced ox with an inexperienced one. At first, the oxen pull in opposite directions. It looks ridiculous. But then they learn to pull together. Thatís how it is here with women and men.


Locating people in their own lives

Performance theory, exemplified in queer theory in the writings of Judith Butler, tells us that people are always in the process of producing their own selves. In film, a contrasting perspective is implied in the documentary tradition of cinema verité. And although I would critique that aspect of it, I still appreciate that documentary tradition for its depiction of the idiosyncratic milieux in which people live out their daily lives. Sometimes these documentaries have been made with a political intent, as with the films by Frederick Weisman; other times, they serve as portraits, often of eccentrics, such as in the work of the Maysels brothers. More generally, cinema verite falls within a larger literary and cinematic narrative tradition, naturalism, which sees environment as overwhelmingly shaping people’s lives. Although I reject this political philosophy, the art deriving from it is still gripping because of its plethora of environmental detail.

For those of us who are social documentarists, we do well to enrich the depiction of our witnesses, especially showing how they create their lives day by day. We may need to incorporate more detail about the environments of the people we film, their roles, daily rituals, and regular interactions with others. We may also want to show how they or we misrecognize ourselves, misunderstand our own identity or social roles. We have many contradictory aspects to our lives, in our motives for filming and in what we choose to put in or leave out of a work. This can also be material “told” in a film.

It has long been a tradition in photography and film for the artist to select details from ordinary life and invest them with emotion and suggested meaning, both in terms of the material photographed and in terms of aesthetic choices such as framing, composition, and lighting. Objects and environments always have a story to tell about social relations, about what’s unique and what’s typical. For me, great viewing pleasure comes when a film/videomaker structures a vision of everyday spaces for me so that I can attend to urban and domestic locales in ever new ways, and I return to the such films to re-experience their expressive perspectives. I especially find this pleasure in the works of the lyrical avant-garde—for example, in works by Bruce Baillie, Leighton Pierce, Gunvor Nelson, and Midi Onodera.[open references in new window] The surprise in what they select to show and the style of their framing and editing make their art fresh although viewed many times.

Especially as interpreted by the visual artist, things and places give us a glimpse into social relations. The photographer and filmmaker’s interest in the physical environment often derives from his/her interest in what social geographer Doreen Massey would call “geographies of power,” that is, how in any given location people are differently placed in relation to larger social forces. A place, according to Massey, is constituted by a multiplicity of overlapping, reciprocal social relations and a meeting up of multiple stories. As a filmmaker I find that she offers a suggestive perspective on place that is useful in expanding our perspectives about what to look for and shoot when we go out in everyday environments to film.

Again, by necessity, photographed space is necessarily reductive—a quick slice through time, selected and framed with the artist’s singular intuition about what makes the image significant and impactful. This is what Roland Barthes calls a photograph’s “punctum.” At best, such representation invests locale with new meaning for the viewer, letting us see new relations within it, re-imagine the familiar, or think in fresh ways about how people enact their daily lives. In longer works, the filmmaker faces choices whether or not to rely on traditional (ideologically inflected) connotations in the mise-en-scene or to suggest whether a place might be the site of conflict, negotiation, and historical process. A social documentary might represent an environment that is the “turf” familiar to a social minority, who see and use it in a way that differs from dominant perspectives and use. This is the structuring tactic, for example, in Louis Hock’s 1986 The Mexican Tapes, which is about his Mexican neighbors living in southern California—four families who lived in his housing complex and whom he films over a number of years. In the process, Hock’s life and that of his wife, photographer Elizabeth Sisco, became intermeshed with that of these illegal immigrants from Mexico, particularly as the Mexican families face the ever-present threat of deportation by U.S. agents or “La Migra.” By focusing on social relations over a length of several years in one circumscribed space, Hock also explores the meeting of two cultures and very different histories and class positions in that place.

Getting Around

On a low budget, I made a tape with students with disabilities at the University of Oregon,Getting Around, [click to see video] which also uses as a structuring element people within their everyday places. A group of undergraduates with various kinds of disabilities had seen In Plain English in a class on the “Americans with Disabilities Act,” discussed it among themselves, and asked their teacher to find someone to make a tape with them. They were not organized in a campus “student union” as the students of color were, and their lives in general as university students required much time and effort to negotiate the processes of ordinary campus life. Thus, the making of the tape required me to follow them in the course of doing what they already had to do.

I did not see this lack of project planning as a disadvantage and instead envisioned as the tape’s structure interviewing each person briefly about their disability and then running that soundtrack alongside images of the interviewees’ daily lives, with the people in the film choosing where and how they wanted to be filmed. The result was, for me, a pleasant surprise. In the interviews as each person spoke of their disability, they each offered a complex description, not a flat “diagnosis” such as blindness or epilepsy but an unique history, tracing the interacting factors in and development of their condition. And the locations and things the students wanted depicted visually in the tape were engagingly individualized, not something I could have imagined beforehand as a mise-en-scene. I was especially impressed as blind grad student Fred Gauble asked if I wanted to film him planting his garden. I accompanied him as he walked to a city compost pile with a shovel to dig up two large buckets of decayed leaves, and then filmed as he tenderly planted flower seed in the yard outside his grad student apartment. He was beautifying his environment for others to see.

In a manner similar to what R. G. Collingwood pointed out about artistic process, what I wanted to say in Getting Around, what would shape the tape, was only something I learned as I went along. In terms of their motivation, what the students wanted to show to viewers was that they were living whole lives, complicated by disability. They were letting me as the filmmaker in on their daily life, so as to make aspects of “disability” that are relatively invisible into something distinct, something that could be publicly discussed.

Beyond my own pleasure of learning and expressing new insights gained from the students, after making both In Plain English and Getting Around, I also gained a renewed appreciation for the fact that making documentaries in and around one’s own workplace can affect that milieu, can participate in creating change there. In particular, these tapes often have been used in classrooms, usually with discussion and debate. This process of reception fascinates me, as it does all mediamakers, since people encounter my work beyond my ken, linking my perceptions to people I will never meet.

Naming and narrative in Las Nicas

In 1981, the third year of the Sandinista revolution, I had the opportunity to visit Nicaragua and teach production with the Sandinista labor union’s Super 8 Film Workshop. This was before the era of inexpensive home video equipment, so I went armed with a good cassette tape recorder, microphone and a lot of batteries. My own mediamaking goal was to document how change could occur quickly in women’s lives, something I rarely saw in my work in the women’s movement in the United States. Before I left, I contacted my circle of women friends and elicited questions to ask the Nicaraguan women, the best one of which was, “Tell me how you spend a typical day from the time you get up till you go to bed.” The invitation to teach Super 8 filmmaking felt like an exciting opportunity. Once there, I ran into some minor technical difficulties. Early in my stay, I was invited to a Sandinista labor conference for Nicaraguan women in a camp outside Managua. They did not have a mic for the sound system, so I gave up mine to the cause. As a result, I met a lot of women with whom I could do follow-up interviews but these had to be done with the tape recorder’s built-in mic and the sound quality was not good. Further versions of what women told me would have to be be elaborated and recreated from a script.

I came back with audiotapes and slides. A friend, Carole Isaacs, joined me for this then-future videotape on women in Nicaragua.  When Carole went to Nicaragua in 1982, she did more in-depth interviews with women in the Managua area and shot more slides. We wrote a script for a slide show; for that we composed short, three- or four-sentence narratives from the interviews or from what we remembered from conversations with Nicaraguan women. We organized these small narrative segments according to topics: work, sexual politics, religion, family life, children, social participation and defense, and made an audio tape for the slide show that integrated folk music, popular music, and narratives performed by actors. The slide images included portraits, scenes from daily life, and images of popular art such as murals. Later, I edited that material into two master VHS tapes, one in Spanish and one in English.

In this neighborhood some women have such short memories. Before, that had to save money to bribe the guardia to buy back their children’s lives. Now these women can only think about shortages of bread and sugar. But you can’t blame them. They saw their children die, and now they want even more than they had before.

When the guardia killed our boys, we had to bury them in the streets. But we could not just put them into the ground like that. We wrapped them up in bedsheets and soon we had no sheets left.

The decision to base the tape Las Nicas [trans. The Nicaraguan Women; click to see video] on narrative segments not attributed to individual women but expressive of a wide range of women’s voices and experiences came both from material necessity and from our own position as enthusiastic supporters of the Nicaraguan revolution. We wanted to convey something new to U.S. audiences, but to do it in terms of the variety of individual histories that we encountered. Each small narrative segment about and from the Nicaraguan women seemed to suggest a whole story about women’s lives and to illustrate yet another facet of individual history within the context of major historical movement and change.

The women who talked to us were highly self-conscious, expressively articulating what had shaped them in the past and what they could now imagine for themselves and their children. They talked to us and among themselves about their plans and purposes, with new insights into their current situation and into history. Telling stories is a prominent feature of Latin American conversational style, but now the narratives women wanted to tell were imbued with urgency, tracing causal connections and often drawing explicit political conclusions. It was an utopian moment, irresistible to Carole and me.

Because I was largely unemployed in those years, I did not have money to complete and distribute Las Nicas as a videotape until 1986. And it did not have the impact among leftists that we had hoped for. Too many voices, too many perspectives, too much artifice with a sound track consisting of acted narrative voices, popular Nicaraguan song, and added sound effects; and an image track made from color slides. Was it real? Did we make much of it up? Whose voice is it anyway, the filmmakers or the women perhaps heard but surely not filmed? Yet even as I see the tape today, I know I could not have made it any other way. Filmmaker and distributor Freude Bartlett gently critiqued Las Nicas after seeing it in the 80s—“a love song to the revolution,” she proclaimed. And it is that, a congruence of emotion Carole and I felt with the women we met.


The Nicaraguan women we met in 1981 and 82 spoke with an energy and dynamism that expressed confidence that they could organize to effect change. They could improve their workplaces, through innovation if not through more money. They could join with other family members to reshape personal relationships at home. They could join the militias, which one woman told me she considered the most effective way to recuperate from war trauma: “I’ll meet them with a rifle in my hands.” Teachers felt the need to research and rewrite the whole curriculum, no longer interpreting their history through colonizers’ words and points of view. All of these endeavors were seen as part of collective process, as actively shaping the revolution itself.

A whole project of naming and re-naming was going on at every level of Nicaraguan society challenging taken for granted assumptions and categories. But this was not a smooth process; there were battles over what stories to tell, what meanings to impose, particularly around issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and sexual practice. I myself felt like Margaret Sanger, advocating for access to and more public promotion of birth control, particularly for girls, who often had babies in their early teens and so did not go on in school. At the same time that I felt enthusiasm for the accomplishments of the Sandinista revolution, I saw a familiar, more conservative process going on. When people decide to break with the past, they may make large-scale social and personal change, here for example in workplace organizing, schooling and childrearing, but even at a revolutionary moment, some behavioral patterns and social formations go unrecognized and unchallenged, and they continue on as before.

There is a two-fold process leading to change and it goes on continuously. Change and understanding are dialectically co-constituitive. People working together and talking with others can also articulate a shared sense of need. Acting together and forging collective narratives shapes both the individuals within a group and the trajectory of the group itself. With shared definitions of their situation, people take a step to change and their understanding increases after they create change. Furthermore, even in times that seem relatively static in political terms, communities of people removed from centers of power keep alive alternate, resistant discourses that challenge what dominant institutions might posit as “the way things are” or “natural” or “common sense.” Especially in literature, authors from minority groups often write novels that delineate subjectivities and relationships not made explicit or legitimated in the society at large.

The process of narrating one’s own experience publicly so as to contribute to collective action for change is also emotional, since those who are oppressed often feel anger, self-doubt, humiliation, and a fractured sense of identity; their subjectivities are denied within hegemonic social discourse, and they may themselves not articulate such feelings publicly out of self-defense. However, when joined with others acting to change the injustice they face and to counter the widespread, socially enforced invisibility, trivialization, or misrepresentation of their situation, people often make public the traumas they have experienced—both in the outside world and inside their own mind—so as to “turn these to some good” for themselves and others.

I found an important contemporary example of feminist media activism while doing research several years ago for an essay on “Feminist Documentary Now.” A web search on “women and documentary” reveals that one of the main topics for feminist documentary is rape, often accompanied by a web site on which women post narratives of their own experience and unite in projects to take action. Looking at those web sites shows how effective subversive cinema can be that begins with anger. Revisiting a painful experience like rape, especially as a witness in film or an activist on the Internet, becomes way to move beyond it instead of replaying it over and over. When documentary joins the web as means of communication, people together can shift from traumatic memory into socially effective action.

To conclude, within this process of creating change, the artist plays a valuable role. Everyday, people create and change the world by creating representations and isolating and patterning aspects of their experience. As the moments and places and people around us are continuously shifting, art expresses and concretizes some aspect of the location we are in. Since discourse, particularly institutional discourse is inflected by power and lends itself to omissions and suppression, the artist can choose work against some aspect of dominant discourse to express new insights in a perpetually subversive way.

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