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.

W.E.J.

The Fall of Communism As Seen in Gay Pornography (1998)Tearoom (1962/2007)

Despite the efforts of a century of narrative cinema to make us believe otherwise, individuals rarely make history; we generally experience historical change as dislocation and confusion.” W.E.J.

The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998)

vlcsnap-2018-01-23-22h44m13s241

(screenshots from The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography, 1999 and Tearoom, 1962/2007, both dir. William E. Jones)

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.