copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

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 references 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.[click to see video] 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.

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. 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.

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.


This essay is dedicated to the memory of Carole Isaacs.


Bruce Baillie. Films distributed via streaming on Fandor.

R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938. [return to text]

Louis Hock, The Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of Life Outside the Law, 1986, distr. Video Data Bank.

Julia Lesage. Collected video works available on Vimeo.

Doreen Massey, “Geographies of Responsibility,”

Doreen Massey, Space, Place, Gender, Minneapolis: University of MN Press, 1994.

Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Gunvor Nelson. Film work at Canyon Cinema. DVD is out of stock.

Midi Onodera.

Leighton Pierce. Collected video work available on Vimeo.

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