The song we sing

This was an accompanying statement I had to write for the assessed creative project element of an M.A. module in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths entitled Transcultural Memory. The short video work being described was shown at an exhibition entitled Overwriting which ran at Archive Gallery, Haggerston from 25-27.05.2018.

Deborah Stratman _Village, Silenced_

ygancanwn.mov is a remix, a reply and an interrogation of a 1975 Hungarian documentary film, The Song We Sing is About Freedom, using that film’s images as its sole visual source. It is a short video work which explores numerous themes that have struck me as being particularly pertinent to the role of memory in the contemporary moment – namely the afterlives of documentary images and technology’s capacity to constantly reframe and rework images in what can often feel like an infinite loop. Combining these interests with an interrogation of how Welsh internationalist histories are narrated and remembered, ygancanwn.mov is a timely and suggestive look at how memory travels across technologies and cultures, as well as across generations.

My strategy in creating the work took inspiration from Deborah Stratman’s 2009 experimental short film, Village, silenced. Stratman’s film is itself a reflexive re-working of the World War II British propaganda film The Silent Village, in which filmmaker Humphrey Jennings depicts the imagined fascist invasion and occupation of a South Wales Valleys coal-mining community as an eerie apocalyptic event, prefiguring something like The Twilight Zone in the How Green Was My Valley era. Stratman’s film, made 65 years later, is composed entirely of appropriated images from Jennings’ film, but she adds a subtly modern, dronelike soundtrack and alters the linearity of The Silent Village. As a result, the work’s distance from its source material is emphasised, and there is a strong tension created between the original intention of the images and our status today as viewers of them in a modern work removed entirely from any wartime or propagandistic context. Though her changes to the original materials are subtle, the whole meaning and emphasis of Jennings’ images are altered, and we are provoked by Stratman’s strategy to consider a host of very different ideas. We think about sound as a war-like technology and as a didactic force on par with image. We think about the ideologies which are embedded in any screen media and their bonds with viewers. And we think, perhaps most unavoidably, about the fluency with which we are able to gain dominance and control over images from eras past, about how easily memory can be complicated by even the most subtle and straightforward use of digital editing technologies.

While The Silent Village was a work of state-commissioned speculative fiction, by our contemporary standards the film might additionally be considered a work of experimental documentary, whose impact is grounded in its geographical specificity and realist approach. (It is easy to imagine 1940s audiences being terrified of Jennings’ film’s realism like the audiences of the Lumieres’ trains.) This understanding is also upended and problematised by Stratman’s repurposing of the images, suggesting a confusion across temporal lines between realism and reality as well as art and propaganda.

Shaken by my viewing of Stratman’s film late last year, I couldn’t stop thinking about the potentiality and originality of her approach, and what kind of new dynamics can be created from the most subtle alterations to contentious historical documentary media. A part of this excitement, and the dynamism I personally found in the film’s strategies, was its setting in Wales. As a Welsh person who counts contemporary documentary aesthetics and the different ways in which Welsh visual culture is made invisible by state subjugation as two of my main interests, Village, silenced spoke to one of the core foundations of my sensibility in an entirely new way, by emphasising the untapped potentialities of pre-existing images in making visible parts of your culture that have been made invisible.

In ygancanwn.mov, I apply a similar approach to Stratman’s treatment of The Silent Village to the 1975 documentary film The Song We Sing About is Freedom, directed by Paulus Alaios. The Song We Sing… is a depiction of a transnational exchange between male voice choirs from Soviet Hungary and rural Welsh-speaking North Wales in the mid-1970s, an encounter intended to cool Cold War tensions in a celebration both of cultural difference and (masculine) camaraderie. Though the work was commissioned by a Hungarian state film company and is narrated from the perspective of the Hungarian choir’s journey (the original work starting with their stop at Karl Marx’s grave at Highgate Cemetery in London) its setting predominantly in North Wales, and the strong amount of Welsh spoken in the film, belie its status as a truly transnational work, particularly considering the scarcity of Welsh-speaking representation throughout cinema history.

I was interested in interrogating the work as a historical artefact using the medium of video itself. The Silent Village and The Song We Sing… are both, in their own ways, archival texts, and part of the fabric of Welsh visual history. In my edit, therefore, a double- or triple-play with archival reflexivity is enacted, as the work incorporates elements in different ways from three difference moving-image works (Jennings’ propaganda film, Stratman’s reworking of it, and the the 1975 documentary film). The soundtrack of my film veers in and out of legibility, thus probing the role of sound technology as an ideological device similar to Stratman’s film but in re-appropriating this work of appropriation heightening its themes of reworking historical images, to expose the complicated role of historical documentary images in shaping collective memory ever further.

The meaning of “freedom” to the Welsh and Hungarian milieus depicted, then and now, was perhaps the main impetus for my specific use of The Song We Sing About is Freedom as a case study in my exploration of archival, cultural and digital memory. I was interested in placing these source images in our contemporary context, due to the extraordinary and not uncomplimentary paths the two countries have taken since 1975. The climate in Hungary today is primarily characterised by the anti-immigrant paranoia exemplified by the figure of Viktor Orban, whose re-election coincided with my video’s editing process. Wales, on the other hand, is undergoing a long and slow period of depression and stagnation, with large parts of the country among Europe’s most impoverished and least developed areas and the anticlimactic promise of devolved government, established in 1997, having intensified the hopelessness which is the main characteristic of Wales’ political climate. The prevalent role played by class, then as now, in these dynamics, was something I was eager to communicate, as the original 1975 film is a beautiful and authentic example of truly transnational working-class solidarity.

I was also keen to engage with the hint of homoeroticism we see in The Song We Sing is About Freedom in the relationships depicted between the Welsh and Hungarian choir singers, not least considering Orban’s extremist attitudes towards homosexuality (or “faggotry”) as pervading all sense of morality. By looking back on the encounter depicted in The Song We Sing is About Freedom in this moment in ygancanwn.mov in a way which foregrounds its own constructedness and historical distance to its source material, I hope to suggest that the work’s strategies put into praxis the necessity of remembering in order to progress.

I have been very conscious in creating the work of its status as a DIY digital object, created using free editing software from images all sourced from an unrestored, blurry internet copy of a barely-seen documentary. As I could not find a way to download the video from the BFI Player, where I first encountered it as a free-to-view part of its BFI National Archive, to gain the access I needed to its images to re-edit it I had to film The Song We Sing is About Freedom on my iPhone from my laptop screen. As a result the work is choppily edited and very low-res. This strategy (which is intentionally made visible in the finished film) ultimately hugely complemented and elucidated my work’s themes of copying and remixing as a way of interrogating transcultural memory. I am interested in Hito Steyerl’s ideas about how “poor images” circulate in her influential text ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’ and elsewhere, where she argues, convincingly, that contemporary visual culture is largely characterised by a “visual economy of the blurred and raw” and by “the rags of imagery that crowd the digital realms;” of which this documentary film from the 1970s is now inescapably a part.

An understanding of the poor-image regime which largely dictates the visual grammar of contemporary image-making is integral to how my video approaches memory, as something we can only gain access to using the apparatus of our present moment, even as we encounter images from eras past. My video is called ygancanwn.mov – that is, the first part of the 1975 film’s title (“the song we sing”) translated into Welsh and turned into a file name. This was a way of highlighting the tension between the images’ forgotten historical status and the contemporary context of my ‘remixed’ version, thus foregrounding the historicity of the images themselves and our distance from them today as a way of making explicit the forgotten nature of the 1975 work, the encounter it portrays and the different things that encounter might signify to different audiences.

Late in the film, one of the Welsh singers says: “When they are grandparents, and somebody mentions 1975, they will say: ah! That is the year that the Hungarian choir came to Ffestiniog.” This is a quintessential example of how an awareness of memory, and of the subjects’ own places in history (looking to a post-Cold War scenario) is prevalent even in the original film. Ultimately, I hope my work can be both a generative investigation into and example of the digital repurposing of historical images as a means of exploring what we mean when we talk of ‘transcultural memory’ – as something situated inescapably in the regimes of the present, informed by a rigorous understanding of the past.

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the last 458 words of my essay on networks in The Human Surge

This was the first thing I wrote for my M.A. and I had no idea what I was doing (I titled it OK. OK. OK.), but I had a lot of fun with it

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In much of his theoretical writing, Latour premises his theories of agency and subjectivity upon a distinction between actors and actants. All ‘actors’ can do is act; ‘actant’ shifts that subjectivity to a more useful definition of the assemblages of factors which play a role in those acts. The characters – rather, figures – in an Eduardo Williams film are not actants in his narrative; they talk and they hang out, but never at any point are they driving whatever loose ‘narrative’ there might be, or guiding the movement of the camera. The humans in Williams’ films are aimless subject-objects, native to a world in which notions of human mastery over our environment have been eradicated in some senses and hyper-accelerated in others. It is telling that critics ascribe to Williams’ casually peopled landscapes not overtones of apocalypse (for this is what his scenes often superficially resemble), but a sense of permanent and partly abstract ruination. This is the contemporaneity Williams’ films depict. The planet cannot fathomably do anything other than deteriorate, labour cannot be anything but cheap and precarious, sex too-easy and loveless, and so on.

There is one more radical break in setting in The Human Surge, which takes place in its very last shot. There is no elaborate linkage as with the cam-sex show or the five-minute journey into the abyss via one man’s urinal stream. We simply see a factory, bright and artificially lit. In it are human workers, covered in white and moving robotically, appearing as if they might as well be machines. They are assembling phones, and on the soundtrack we hear a droning “OK. OK. OK.” The camera lingers on the insides of the phones like a surgeon examining organs. Here we have networks of labour, technology, transcultural exchange, capital, machinic agency, all encompassed in one shot, intersecting.

Williams’ ecologically-obsessed cinema exemplifies the very contemporary notion of irresolution as artistic praxis, and as such might be described as a cinematic manifestation of the goals of ecological thinkers such as Latour. The ultimate project of Latour, Williams and others cited here might be described as their grand refusal of finality, their outright rejection of totality, as a mode of being in the world in which articulation and process are emphasised over explanation or outcome. Irmgard Emmelhainz wrote that “the image of the Anthropocene” – which for the purpose of this essay we might extend to mean simply an ecological understanding of contemporaneity – “is yet to come. The Anthropocene is “the age of man” that announces its own extinction.” Williams’ work rehearses, performs and characterises this extinction. In its cogent visualisation of a world tangled up in its networks, we arrive finally at a form of cinema which meets the demands of our epoch.

Iris 2017 (translation)

This is a Welsh-English translation of a piece I had published last year – a festival report from the Iris Prize International Film Festival, for the online edition of the literary journal O’r Pedwar Gwynt.

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In his influential 2010 text, Cruising Utopia, the theorist José Esteban Muñoz calls for an understanding of queerness which centres an utopian drive. His vision, borrowing from Heidegger, performance art and historical approaches to utopia, uses gay cruising as a metaphor for how we might draw potential from queer co-existence, away from the blinding glare of normative society. Without a collective utopian imagination, Muñoz argues – in art as in sex as in night life and beyond – there is always a deficiency in how far we can think possible futures for minoritised communities.

For a while now, I have been curious about how Munoz’ connection between cruising and utopianism might be applied to film festivals – which are always cruising sites. They are, at their best, spaces for discovery, for drawing connections and for loss of innocence, psycho-geographies where you are constantly aching for that unanticipated encounter with something new and transformative. If any film festival fits this description, it is the Iris Prize, whose latest, tenth edition came to a close this past Sunday in Cardiff. The Iris Prize is one of the world’s most prominent LGBTQ+ film festivals, and it prizes the close-knit, familial, unpretentious atmosphere it fosters as much as its reliable programme of international excellence in contemporary queer-oriented filmmaking.

Among Iris’ notable characteristics, in addition to its lively nightlife element and focus on community, is that it privileges short films over features. The festival does, however, offer a significant platform for a handful of the year’s most notable queer features. In my view, Inxeba, or The Wound, about a scarring ritual within a South African tribe, is among the year’s most affecting films of any kind, as is Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, which narrates an aimless New York teenager’s discovery of tenderness and empathy via encounters with men he meets on camsex sites. But even these remarkable and highly acclaimed films, receiving their Welsh premiers, take a backseat at the Iris Prize compared to the competitive short-film strands. There is good reason for that: the festival’s titular Prize, for a new LGBT-themed short from anywhere in the world, is the world’s largest monetary prize for a short film, LGBT+ or not, at £30,000.

The somewhat surprising victor of this year’s international prize was Mamma Vet Bäst, or Mother Knows Best, by Mikael Bunsden, the award’s first Danish recipient. It is a film shaped upon one conversation – almost its entire quarter-hour runtime is composed of one shot – between a mother and teenage son in a car, after she meets his boyfriend for the first time. The simplicity of this plot and stylistic approach disguises a twisty, artful portrait of a relationship of seemingly infinite complexity. It is a film with much to say (without ever resting on polemic) about the limits and hypocrisies of liberal tolerance today, and its power was only slowly revealed to me across the course of repeated viewings during Iris’ last weekend.

Equally superficially simple, but with ultimately much less to hold onto, was The Mess He Made, a somewhat one-note American short about a young father killing time while he waits for results from a sexual-health clinic. In truth, I’m unsure how much else I have to say about this film. Nevertheless, I’m fond of how Iris gradually slims its shortlists, showing the top three films of its two main competitive strands on what it refers to as its Super Saturday, offering an insightful look at the dynamics of its juries’ tastes before the announcement of the winners. In the case of the international prize’s top three this year, it’s clear that this jury, chaired by Brian Robinson, formerly of the BFI, favours films driven by one strong idea and a confident, direct narrative style.

This was certainly true of Odd Job Man, directed by Marianne Bilcher, about a middle-aged straight man who, upon losing both his job and his wife, discovers a new lease of life as an ‘odd job man’ at a drag club. This was probably the main competition’s most formally sophisticated film. But personally – and this seemed to be a consensus among those I spoke to – I was glad the jury opted not to award a film with so familiar a perspective (i.e. that of a non-descript elder straight white man) considering Iris’ genuine commitment to underrepresented stories.

There was a little more variety, of several kinds, to be found in the top three of the Iris’ British Short strand. Été was the most lyrical, sensual and subtle short I saw at this year’s festival. It narrates a boy’s silent crush on his friend one Summer of sheep-shearing and lakeside relaxation in Herefordshire – a plot description which didn’t exactly set my imagination alight. But its director, Greg Oke, frames this ordinary-enough scenario with a stunning amount of detail and humour, for example in the ample amount of screentime dedicated to its protagonist’s effort to learn French, and his obsession with the singer Jacques Dutronc, who plays over long stretches of the twenty-minute film’s soundtrack. I had the opportunity to ask the director, in one of the many Iris parties I attended, if there was a specific connection between the film’s different strands which I may have missed, and he assured me Été’s disparate registers came together more or less randomly. The film is much richer and more suggestive as a result of this restlessness – a deeply satisfying and intuitive work.

It would be hard to argue, however, that We Love Moses, this U.K. section’s winner, was undeserving. We follow the blooming of a twelve-year-old girl’s obsession with her older brother’s close relationship with his male friend. It is the narrative’s specificity which sets this film apart; its themes of sexual ambiguity and the societal pressures upon young girls take place in an urban school environment, with an all-black cast. Its humour and sense of wonder make this one of the most impressive films at this year’s Iris Prize.

It was pleasing, too, to see a sensitive documentary short – of the kind that could easily fall through the cracks at another festival – reaching the top three of this section. Where Are We Now, directed by Lucie Rachel, portrays the relationship between a Scottish father and daughter follows their respective coming-outs, the father as a trans woman and the daughter as a lesbian. Rachel’s film entirely avoids overemphasis and preachiness, favouring an observational approach which allows this fascinating (in its mundanity as much as anything else) relationship’s nuances to shine through.

In Cruising Utopia’s closing pages, Muñoz calls on us to search for utopic potentialities in aesthetic works and communal situations; for strategies of escape from society’s “narrow version of the here and now,” to demand better for communities underserved by normative regimes and to step “out of this place and time to something fuller, vaster, more sensual, and brighter.” My brief period spent at this year’s Iris Prize – the quality of the films, the drinks and the dancing, the hours of conversation had – suggested a taste of this fuller-vaster-brighter future. Several of the festival’s films served as reminders that, in our corner of the world, we as queer people have come an incredibly long way. But why not demand better yet for people all along the gender spectrum everywhere in the world? Why not demand utopia?

Berlinale: MAKE OUR MEN AS FIT AS OUR MACHINES

My first screening proper of the 68th Berlinale, and I’m sat behind a middle-aged hetero couple. The guy falls asleep ten minutes into the three-film programme. The woman spends more time looking over at him than at the screen. When the lights come up and the film-makers are introduced for the Q&A, she starts taking iPhone photos of the auditorium’s ceiling. When she’s done he starts doing the same. (It was an unremarkable ceiling to my eyes.) Before the end of the first director’s first Q&A answer, they leave.

People suck; their loss. They missed a great Q&A with Deborah Stratman, who to my mind is one of the century’s major-major filmmakers, and also a genius at making non-explanations of her work utterly compelling. Her new one Optimism is showing for the first time in the festival’s Forum Expanded section, it’s a quarter of an hour long and I can’t quite shake its bright, grainy loveliness. It’s a miniature study of a town in Canada’s far-north which was built on a gold rush, which Stratman initially visited for a joint sculptural project with her husband. But she grew fascinated with the warmth of the town’s spirit, the uncanny energy of this tight community founded on mineral wealth. Some of that project’s light sculptures appear in the film, used almost as visual punctuation; a shining mirrored ball appears at different points, cut among some of the most ethnographic scenes I’ve seen from her. These moments of eerie beauty peppered in this tender, joyous town portrait are emblematic of Stratman films’ best quality, how they slyly weave disparate threads not to construct arguments but to sculpt ideas.

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In this town formed on gold, we eventually meet its miners. Some of the images of blocks of gold being sculpted and set aflame feel like they’ve been seared into my brain – I’m a total cheerleader for digital, but these Super-8 images pop. While she was filming, the price of gold shot up again, causing the town’s inhabitants to feel as if their community would become mega-rich again. In the scenes which feature the delicate process of gold treatment, the score of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is placed into the soundtrack. It’s very funny, in a meta-mischievous sort of way, and the audience laughter in these moments attest to Stratman’s awe-inspiring command of her viewers.

As I often am, I’m reminded of Village silenced, an experiment in cinematic appropriation she made pre-Illinois Parables. It’s a three-minute study in sound and historical notions of control in which Stratman re-works images from Humphrey Jennings’ WWII propaganda film, The Silent Village, itself a startling proto-Twilight Zone nightmare depicting a fascist invasion in a romanticised South Wales Valleys community. The longer I linger on Village silenced, the more I think of it as a major shift in the way I think about sound in cinema and in the twenty-first century. All she does is alter parts of the Jennings film’s soundtrack, but it’s suggestive in a billion different ways, terrifying and provocative and brutal. Sound is less obviously foregrounded in Optimism, but is arguably equally integral to the work.

(By the way, if anyone reading this is in Berlin or knows someone who is, be sure to get a copy of the little Forum Expanded catalogue, which contains a bunch of Guy Maddin illustrations and a few great pieces from Forum’s returning filmmakers on what they’ve done since their last time in Berlin and how they feel to be back. Stratman’s is one of the best: “It’s good to watch films shot in places I don’t know, in a city I don’t belong to. I like the stack of disorientation. But cinema orients me too.”)

I saw Optimism in the fourth of Forum Expanded’s screening programmes, which are separate from the section’s main exhibition space but curated alongside. Its two accompanying films, though longer, paled in relation to Stratman’s film in rigor, originality and visual appeal. They were grouped together for their complementary thematic approaches towards  excavation as physical labour, as metaphor and as gateway into micro and macro histories. It goes without saying that all three are thus also films about the processes of their own creation, about image-construction as archive, essay as archaeology. Stratman mentioned after the screening how Optimism somewhat accidentally became a film about cinema’s relationship to things which will inevitably outlive it (rocks, minerals, mountains). She shot it, she said, on a Super-8 camera clothed in a little winter coat, the only camera that could weather the snowy conditions.

In the Ruins of Baalbeck Studios turns an exploration of a fascinating chapter of Arab film history into a dully fetishistic polemic about celluloid and preservation. Its director, Siska, has apparently been celebrated as a (former?) graffiti artist, and claimed to cry every time he sees the film. I’ll just say that his Q&A answers did little to convince me of the film’s artistic merit, although they did give us the amazing description of contemporary Lebanese politics as “a big bucket of political salad.”

Jan Peter Hammer’s Dug, the third film in the programme, was… fine. Again, an interesting history, conceptually a little stiff, all around a little uninspiring. And if you’re going to lean that much on on-screen text as your expository strategy, the least you can do is opt for a less ugly font.

Though I’m glad I saw it on a big screen, in a near-full-capacity audience, I wish I could revisit Optimism like I did a few Expanded exhibition favourites. With Strange Meetings, Danish-Korean artist Jane Jin Kaisen uses various documentary media to essay a site in South Korea where a U.S. military STD treatment centre once sat. Its video component starts off as a forensic exploration of the decomposing site, its dusty corners and empty window-frames, all slow pans and lingering close-ups. Pairing the video with archival materials from the treatment centre lends the work a historical integrity, but the work gleefully eschews oppressive seriousness. The pamphlets, postcards and letters shown are a little surreal and sometimes darkly funny. FIGHT… syphillis and gonorrhea; He “PICKED UP” more than a girl…; Make our men as fit as our machines! Maybe I have a strange sense of humour. These old warnings are placed alongside more recent documents referencing the resurfacing of the political legacy of Korean comfort women.

It’s unexpected, considering the loadedness of its setting, that Strange Meetings was the most purely life-affirming work featured in the Expanded exhibition. After a few minutes of studious buildup, the video pans to a thin crowd assembled outside the building. The bulk of the video then focuses on a performance which takes place on the disused site every weekend, in which a cross-dressed, garishly face-painted man dances, plays drums, sings and breathes fire to a rapt audience of locals. It’s pretty nuts.

I returned to the work a few times. Its images are electric and confounding and kind of joyous, and most of that joy, I think comes from Strange Meetings‘ refusal of didacticism. We are invited to think about bodies, and contamination, and movement, and how all those things interact with military-industrial, neo-colonial, geo-sexual memory – I guess – but it’s such a generous, slyly impactful work that really it was most pleasing just as a sensory experience, images to look at and find pleasure in. In this sense it’s of a piece with the Stratman film. Here are two filmmakers who know restraint, who know that muscular images and an intelligently conceived starting point are often all you need. What a pleasure (almost disconcerting!) to see a work in this kind of setting that feels both intellectually satisfying and alive.

Sanghee Song Come Back Alive Baby satisfies a similar desire, but is even barer and simpler and more purely driven by suggestion than Stratman’s and Kaisen’s new works. It’s a three-channel installation which adapts the ancient Korean folktale of the Mighty Baby, in which an infant from a poor family is repeatedly killed and keeps resurrecting. The images we see, however, form an abstract collage of desolation, contamination and catastrophe, including footage from Chernobyl, various famines, natural disasters. They’re cut amongst each other so as to be basically incomprehensible on a linear level, but they’re fascinating to watch. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not that my standouts from the Expanded exhibition have a non-video component, in this case a cabinet displaying seemingly comprehensive reference sheets for the sources and sites included in the work, almost like a shot-list. In a less clever filmmaker’s hands, such a diagrammatic accompaniment would rob the work of some of its richness, but like I said, its register is so purely suggestive and its rhythm so seemingly instinctive that it adds to the work.

I’ve seen Come Back Alive Baby described as “apocalyptic,” a descriptor which feels a little unimaginative. Its basic materials are dark, but I’d hesitate to call Song’s synthesis of them pessimistic. It’s an inquisition into regeneration, myth-making and survival – even narrative itself – which gets the mind racing. Its shifting and transposing of registers and media never comes off as restless or ill-managed; every layer and micro-history introduced in the work adds a mystery rather than a frustration. You come out of it (and into The Otolith Group’s The Third Part of the Third Measure, which closes the exhibition like a tonic, which I hope to write about on here another time) with the sensation of having seen something pretty revelatory, even if you’re not sure how or why.

Come Back Alive Baby is about as joyful as its title suggests. But a few minutes into my first sit-down with it I had one of those film-viewing moments which are so totally mundane but so memorable in a very specific way as to seem something like a moment of transcendence. A real-life baby (with a hot dad!) crawled from its mother’s arms across the dark room towards one of the screens playing Song’s film. The baby tries to reach up and touch the screen, which is playing images of nuclear-decimated land while subtitles narrate the legend of the infinitely resurrected baby. The baby’s there for maybe three seconds before its mother goes to collect it.

And I found it incredibly touching, for some reason. It was a nothing moment that seemed to capture something very something. A lighthearted moment of relief for everyone in the room which opened up new ways of thinking, maybe. I like to think I’m approaching this Berlinale a little like that baby, absorbant and wide-eyed, trying to go up to the screen and touch it, to go into films with all the naive curiosity of an infant. I wonder if that might be something similar to the “stack of disorientation” Stratman talked about in her catalogue feature. Anyway. Films are good sometimes. As you were. x

The Third Way

There aren’t many thing more satisfying than stumbling upon a film that absolutely blows your brains out on Vimeo.

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These images are from Peggy Ahwesh’s The Third Waya creepy, restless seven-minute exploration of 1990s virtual-reality imaginaries, which comes off a little like Level Five meets Fruit of Paradise, stripped down to their barest elements. It was made when I was a year old. It’s fire.

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It is the excess of reality that puts an end to reality

This is the introduction to the dissertation I wrote as an undergrad at the Department of Film Studies at King’s College London, submitted 02.May.2017, which I (somewhat clumsily?) called The excess of reality: Media convergence and the post-cinematic documentary. Only posting the intro for now because I like intros.

The Flower-Seller of Aleppo

The current century has seen the category of documentary cinema experience numerous interconnected upheavals. Twentieth-century conceptions of the documentary film as unobtrusively observing and presenting ‘reality’ have been obliterated by formal innovations in the field, the changing meaning of the ‘document’ in the smartphone age and the increasing critical, popular and scholarly attention afforded documentary cinema. Describing the state of the discipline, scholars Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg state that in this “time of global emergency, contemporary documentary practices reach across media and across disciplines to form a rich site marked by imperatives at once aesthetic and political.”[1] This conception of contemporary documentary as being undefinable and “across media” by nature is taken by this thesis to be a dominant characteristic of the field.

What unites most shifts in contemporary documentary is that they signal an ever-increasing convergence. Convergence of different genres, different media, of fiction and non-fiction; the documentary is a category that is far from homogenous. What is often underplayed – or perhaps merely taken for granted – is that this is as true of their reception, that is, the channels through which we view and discuss them, as their form. The internet – particularly social media networks, streaming services and sites of online political discourse, which in this thesis I will address using the loose umbrella term “the social internet,” after Zeynep Tufekci[2] – has, I argue, been a key instigator of many of these convergences and blurs.

The social media network is a space in which all forms of audio-visual representation are flatly incorporated into a single vast sphere. Not only might a feature-length documentary film appear on a news feed, but on that site the film might be no more privileged in the user’s eye than a news report, a viral comedy video, ten-second Snapchat story or seven-second Vine. With more and more creators and distributors of non-fiction opting to make their work directly for online consumption, we encounter fascinating generic blurs. What are the repercussions here for documentary ‘cinema’ as a category, as it is popularly perceived? In a world where our conceptions of ‘documentary’ are vaster than ever, where then do its limitations lie?

This dissertation examines the ways in which this happened; or rather the ways in which it is currently happening, as the practical developments in technology and the ecology of the internet which I describe as creating these convergences in documentary media are recent and constant. Three key fields will be examined in which the generic limitations of ‘documentary cinema’ are called into question and expanded due to the social internet. They are: the Netflix distributive model, and the role of prestige documentary on this platform; the migration of T.V. documentarians onto streaming-exclusive models; and recent developments in the convergence of news journalism and short-form documentary in the emergent medium of Facebook Video.  The main characteristic of the kind of social-internet documentary examined here is its hyper-accessibility. As such, my focus will be not on the vanguard of experimental or necessarily formally audacious non-fiction cinema which is centred by most contemporary documentary scholarship, including Balsom and Peleg, but on forms of documentary which are, by definition, intended for a mass viewership.

In the first chapter, I apply ongoing debates regarding Netflix and similar streaming services’ aggressive ventures into feature-length film distribution to my wider questions about the changes that occur in documentary cinema as a generic category as a result of the evolving ecology of documentary content on the internet. Looking at Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016), a much-discussed documentary about the legacy of slavery in the modern U.S. prison-industrial-complex, which was made “exclusively” for Netflix, I examine how this mode of distribution both offers unprecedented reach for an activist-minded film-maker such as DuVernay, and raises questions about changing forms of consumer capitalism and the limitations of the ‘activist documentary’ in such an eco-system. Integral to this analysis are social media networks, and particularly how the logic of Netflix consumption combined with the director’s social-media celebrity helped certain clips from 13th to ‘go viral’, pushing the work to become unprecedentedly widely-seen – even if not in the feature-length scope it was intended for. I argue that the Netflix model, and its intimate relationship to other online means of advertising and reception, holds both positive and negative potentiality for politically urgent films such as 13th.

The second chapter utilises the ideas introduced here and in Chapter 1 to examine how ‘legacy’ media outlets – that is, purveyors of audio-visual content who predate the internet, in this case the BBC – are adapting to accommodate new online modes of documentary reception. Adam Curtis is a much-lauded documentarian who has been making feature-length works which marry journalism and the essay-film tradition for BBC television since the 1980s. His most recent films, Bitter Lake (2015) and HyperNormalisation (2016), however, were made for exclusive distribution on the iPlayer, the corporation’s online-only channel, where they were made available on-demand for a year or more. Not only has this had a transformative impact on the reception and reach of Curtis’ films (and thus the ideas contained within them), but producing works native to the internet has also marked a significant shift in his technique. Focusing on HyperNormalisation, I argue that the intensification of his signature style is an apt audio-visualisation of the logic of life on and alongside social media, which scholars have discussed using the framework of a ‘remix’ culture. If Netflix represents some degree of collapse between television, cinema and online video, what do we make of a ‘film-maker’ who has not only never made a film for theatrical distribution, but has now shunned even traditional TV broadcast in favour of online-native work?

Chapter 3 takes this idea of evolving online media enacting a near-total collapse of traditional generic barriers to its next logical step, to examine the near-seamless convergence of television news and short-documentary cinema on social media. As Facebook’s algorithms evolve towards an ever-greater prioritisation of video content, both legacy and digital-native outlets are clamouring to produce shareable video content in high volume. Channel 4 News is perhaps the most significant example of this phenomenon as it pertains to documentary. I argue that the outlet’s innovations in Facebook-native video, producing sophisticated, sometimes poetic adaptations of its TV news segments to play in isolation on users’ news feeds, represent untested, potentially game-changing new directions for documentary media. I analyse the Inside Aleppo series of Facebook videos, which throughout 2016 transmitted one citizen-journalist’s dispatches from the war-torn city of Aleppo to an audience of many millions on Channel 4 News’ Facebook page. Traditional boundaries of citizen-journalism, short-form documentary and television news collapse almost entirely to suggest an entirely new mode of documentary potentiality.

This dissertation is conscious of contextualising these developments in post-cinematic documentary within the specific socio-historical conditions which characterise both their content and means of reception. According to Natalie Fenton – whose work I apply to my analysis of the case of 13th in Chapter 1 – “a narrow, decontextualised focus on the technology of the internet leads to misperceiving its impact.”[3] DuVernay’s and Curtis’ films were both released online in October 2016, in the weeks immediately preceding the U.S. Presidential election. Footage of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is in fact included in both films, and the works might function as complementary analyses of the historical conditions which enabled the rise of the eventual President Donald Trump. Their circulation as internet-native works lent both films a hyper-accessibility and a prominence in the wider discourse around the election that would have been unthinkable before the age of streaming.

In her editorial in the Spring 2017 issue of Film Quarterly, B. Ruby Rich describes how “the day-after shocks of ‘11/9’” – that is, the immediate impacts, both practical and existential, of Trump’s electoral victory – “have radically re-edited everything that was made before, diminishing some, enhancing others, changing everything in their path.”[4] She situates the uncertainty and anxiety which characterises the phenomenon for many writers, scholars and practitioners in the cinematic community as a distinct cultural moment encompassing not only the result of the election but all that falls within a few-month radius. This is the contextual lens through which I view all three of this thesis’ case studies; as works which signify shifts in documentary cinema in a technological sense, but also as key texts of a time characterised by upheaval and uncertainty, not least regarding notions of media’s truth bond. Underpinning the thesis’ ideas of the hyper-accessible social internet as a flat space where all kinds of images are afforded near-equal weight are the ideas of the late French theorist Jean Baudrillard, writing in 2000:

“If the Real is disappearing, it is not because of a lack of it—on the contrary, there is too much of it. It is the excess of reality that puts an end to reality, just as the excess of information puts an end to information.”[5]

This “excess of reality” described by Baudrillard at the turn of the century appears more prescient than ever in this age of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, in which the superabundance of audio-visual material which saturates our attention economy every day has been weaponised by political actors. With documentary cinema and its discourse migrating online at a rapid pace, the role documentary media play in this online economy must have something to contribute to these debates.

Looking to documentary’s future, I advocate a greater consideration of the shapeshifting, pluralising nature of contemporary popular documentary forms, and a recognition of the centrality of the ‘social internet’ to developments in the field. I do not proclaim that “an end to documentary” is occurring, as Baudrillard might. But certainly it is mutating in dramatic ways. Documentary on the social internet provides an important site on which the traditional dividing lines between cinema and other media have been eroded. This thesis looks hopefully towards the openings that have emerged, and will continue to emerge, from that erosion.

[1] Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg, ‘Introduction: The Documentary Attitude’ in Documentary Across Disciplines (2016: MIT Press), 13.

[2] Zeynep Tufekci, ‘The Social Internet: Frustrating, Enriching, but Not Lonely’ in Public Cultures vol.26:72 (2014), 13.

[3] Natalie Fenton, ‘Conclusion’ in Misunderstanding the Internet (2012: Routledge), 179.

[4] B. Ruby Rich, ‘When History Makes the Cut’ in Film Quarterly vol. 70, no.3 (2017), 5.

[5] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Murder of The Real’ in The Vital Illusion (2000: Columbia University Press), 66-67.