copyright 2019, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 59, fall 2019

Mediating memory, self and screen

review by Gail Vanstone

Memory, Place and Autobiography: Experiments in Documentary Filmmaking. Jill Daniels (Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2019)

Jill Daniels’ primary focus in Memory, Place and Autobiography is a close examination of the autobiographical experimental film, offering a closely wrought case study of a set of important theoretical and philosophic considerations. In this study, autobiography offers an ideal domain for taking up the complex question of subjectivity and mediation of memory, particularly in the arena of trauma. To these, Daniels adds considerations of place which she sees functioning as triggers to memory, sites of metaphor and metonymy. All this, in the service of proposing that the filmic image is valuable, not just as data for analysis, but in conveying knowledge (2).

The book details Daniels’ process meticulously. Combining filmic tropes of realism and fictional enactment, the filmmaker takes up the question of how to ‘mediate memory through cinematic means' (130). Interviews, remediation of found footage, archival material, images of objects and photos from the past, she argues, become fodder in the hands of the experimental filmmaker to create ‘uncertain and unreliable’ (131) narratives, memetic, evocative, even poetic in nature. With this methodology in hand, Daniels, inhabiting the dual role of maker and subject (implicated or actual), becomes cultural guide in an exploration of the social world.   

One of the strengths of the book is its account of British independent filmmaking from the seventies onward, drawn directly from the filmmaker’s experience.  While a number of scholars have examined radical and experimental filmmaking during this period, the received history of British documentary, the analysis of mainstream, largely TV-based work, outweighs these voices. Daniels’ first-person account, as a member of the nationally organized movement of independent film activists, speaks with the authority of an insider, one who has remained steadfastly within the ranks of independent filmmaking although she argues that, today, the term has been drained of its early oppositional stance. The book, then, presents as a memoire of this movement, valuable since it comes from a woman who is, at once, scholar, filmmaker, former activist in socialist feminist politics, steadfastly dedicated to maintaining her stance.

Daniel’s book joins recent literature on the autobiographical film, namely, Alisa Lebow’s edited collection The Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary (Wallflower Press, 2012)and Laura Rascaroli’s The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film (Wallflower Press, 2009).  Memory, Place and Autobiography’s elaboration on subjectivity, implicating filmmaker and her subject(s) resonates with Lebow’s point that the ‘I’ is always social and in relation, but ontologically speaking is always, in effect, the first person plural ‘we’ (Lebow, 3).  As a case study, Daniels' book illuminates Rascaroli’s notion that the socially constructed self is, likewise, ‘decentred, split, liquid, protean, displaced, multiple, schizophrenic’ (Rascaroli, 10) and, saddled with the unreliability of memory, inhabits her films (in Bordwell’s terms) as “real empirical persons, enunciating subjects, structured absences, fictive structure, or a combination of [all] these’ (Bordwell, Making Meaning 35).

Split into five sections, including one on new media, Memory, Place and Autobiography presents as a welcome guide to how personal vision can be articulated in experimental form.