09 May 2013

Challenging the Norms of Documentary Filmmaking

'Two Laws/Kanymarda Yuma' is a film made by the Borroloola Aboriginal Community, who live in the Northern Territory of Australia. The film was shot by two Sydney filmmakers, Alessandro Cavadini and Carolyn Strachan, but because of the Borroloola community decisions over the choice of subject matter and methods of filming 'Two Laws' is described by its distributors as 'an epic story told by the Borroloola people.' The film is in four parts, each dealing with different moments in the history of white Australian institutional attempts to coerce the Aboriginal people into the acceptance of white law and white custom. Part One--Police Times--re-enacts a round-up and forced march which took place in 1933; Part Two--Welfare Times--deals with the process of settlement and the imposition of government policies of assimilation during the 1950s; Part Three--Struggle for Our Land--is concerned with more recent fights for the recognition of Aboriginal land and law in the Land Claims courts; and Part Four--Living with Two Laws--describes the movement back to traditional Aboriginal lands. The film therefore represents an attempt by the Borroloola people not only to talk of their own history, but also to decide how that history would be represented. It is a directly political project, as its title suggests, in its efforts to reconstruct and remember white institutional coercion and Aboriginal struggles against it.

Because of its concentration on history and political campaigns, Two Laws can in no way be described as a piece of ethnographic cinema. Ethnographic information about the Borroloola people is systematically underplayed in the film-text. Yet, paradoxically, the film's aesthetic strategies, which are 'unconventional' in relation to dominant documentary forms, are adopted because of the Borroloola social structure--a social structure which the film is unable to present without the risk of reinstating the community as an object of white anthropological enquiry. So before describing the textual strategies of Two Laws in more details it is necessary to take a short detour throughout the assumptions of ethnographic filmmkaking.

In an article on 'The Needs of Ethnographic Film' published in a 1977 special issue of Cambridge Anthropology, Jerry W. Leach distilled 'a rough set of guidelines for making ethnographic films' from papers given at an international conference on visual anthropology. Since the journal does not have wide currency in film circles, it is worth reprinting these in full:
1. Seek cooperation from the film subjects.
2. Avoid large or alien crews.
3. Be prepared to spend a lot of time, i.e. not just a few weeks.
4. Acclimatise people to the camera.
5. Use participant, i.e. hand-held and mobile, camerawork.
6. Do not rate exotic subject matter more highly than normal everyday behaviour.
7. Let informants speak for themselves on film.
8. Avoid staging, reconstructing, or directing as much as possible, but if unavoidable then identify such material in the film or in print.
9. Use synchronous sound.
10. Avoid music, i.e. non-indigenous music, in the soundtrack.
11. Let viewers really see the subject matter, i.e. avoid persistent choppiness.
12. Do not think of a film as a kind of lecture, i.e. avoid overpowering narrators.
13. Artistry and technical excellence come second to conveying the subject matter well.
14. Admit the presence of the camera and the filmmakers in the film.
15. Try to see that subjects and participants get to view the finished product if appropriate.
These guidelines, synthesised from the practices of the most culturally respected filmmaking within the discourse of scientific anthropology, can be seen first of all as a reaction against the way in which tribal peoples have been used on the one hand as exotic fodder in innumerable travelogues and documentaries, and on the other as an unspecified and unpredictable threat in narrative cinema since the 1890s. These points (particularly 1-4, 6-7, 9, and 14-15) indicate how to minimise the disruption caused by entering a community to film it. But at the same time they serve to construct an aesthetic (notably 5-14) aimed towards an adequate representation of 'real life.' The guidelines conventionalise aesthetic strategies which cover the whole range of the filmmaking process from preproduction through filming itself to editing, strategies which say to an audience: this is how it is, this is real. It is no surprise that the aesthetic which emerges from them comes very close to that valorised by realist critics of narrative fiction cinema.

Two Laws shares the assumptions of participant-ethnographic cinema with regard to the responsibilities of filmmakers towards the people they are filming. But, interestingly enough, although the film's aesthetic strategies are continent on priorities of Aboriginal custom and social relationships, these strategies also happen to accord with those of realist cinema. The most striking example of this is the use throughout the film of a wide-angle lens. In an interview with the filmmakers conducted by Tina Kaufman and published in a dossier accompanying the film, this is explained as follows:
…traditional Aboriginal people find it insulting to go in on a closeup of a face or hand. They do not like the body dissected… When looking at other films of Aboriginal places the people always discussed the land, the mountains and the rivers, whether is twas good country for hunting. The wide-angle lens allows people to be placed in the country. Further, the use of the wide-angle lens was in keeping with the complex structures of kinship and the strong notions of the group. For example, on person might be talking for older people who are sitting behind them. Because men and women always sit separately a wide-angle lens was necessary to show this, as often in other films, the camera focuses on one or other group and ignores the fact that both groups are participating in the discussion or action. Moreover, the wide angle destroys the notion of truth spoken through an individual representative of the group. With the use of the wide-angle in group discussions, contradictions are revealed within the frame.
The Borroloola people seem to have come to the same aesthetic conclusions as Andre Bazin. But these questions about cinematic space arise from ideas of social space which appear to be of crucial importance in Borroloola ideology. Since the filmmakers were also given 'skin' relationships (that is, a spatial position within the social structure) and since the people themselves were involved in operating technical equipment, the position of the camera and sound recorder in relation to what was being filmed was highly constrained, and subordinated to social structural determinations. Clearly, this is very different from the kind of decision making about camera angling that takes place in the production of most films, documentary or fiction, where decision are usually based on informational or narrative content combined with the filmmakers's notions of 'what makes a good shot.' Given this radical departure from conventional film practice, which confers on the film a similarity of 'style' throughout, it is unfortunate that the reasons behind it could not have been inscribed within the film-text itself. We have to resort to extra-textual sources--interviews with the filmmakers, for example--to explain why the film looks the way it does.

Kinship and social structures have always been a problem for ethnographic film. Although they are the fundamental basis of written anthropological discourse, and crucial determinants of individual and group activity, they are simply not photogenic. Obviously the makers of Two Laws were wary of minimising the historical and political impact of their film by reinscribing the Borroloola people as exotic natives with strange ideas about who sits where. But this is a film in which those concerned insist on the difference of their own laws, insist that social structural issues are the idiom for arguing land rights. The extent to which the filmmakers respected those laws fundamentally determines what we as an audience are allowed to see. Equally, though, the audience should have been respected enough to have been told why.

The wide-angle lens, though able to show spatial connections between individual and groups, is in many respects no more adequate to the representation of real space than the most elaborate continuity cutting. The distortion produced by the wide-angle lens is particularly apparent in this film, not only in panning shots, but also when characters approach the camera or point at it (an aspect of mise-en-scene which, incidentally, also 'dissects' the body). This was apparently not regarded as a matter of concern by the Borroloola. The point was to represent the social context from which a person speaks: visual effects of lens technology were of no importance to them. But these effects nevertheless produce a level of meaning in the film, and pose a problem for any audience struggling to make meaning from a film which is probably one of the most important experiments in historical/ethnographic/political filmmaking up until the time of its making. Was it therefore absolutely necessary for the white filmmakers to omit the ethnographic information about Borroloola social structure that could have explained the choice of this aesthetic?

Similar questions can be posed about the use of acting and the reconstruction of historical events, although these devises are much more successfully integrated into the film-text. Two Laws was shot chronologically, and this is communicated by the way the people seem, as the film proceeds, to gain greater confidence as actors. In the first part, Police Times, the story of the roundup and forced march is told both through the memories of old people and also through a dramatisation in which the young men of the community take on the role of their forebears. This dramatisation is observed with the same wide-angle lens and eschews the conventions of continuity cutting: inserts, reverse shots, etc. Consequently, the film never allows this process of remembering to fictionalise the incident being recalled. On the contrary, it documents the learning process as the old women instruct the younger people, including the white man playing the police constable, Stott, who carried out the wishes of the cattle barons by evicting Aborigines from their tribal lands.

In Part Two there is a similar documentation of the assimilation process of the 1950s, in which the Borroloola women direct a white woman taking the role of a welfare coordinator in what to say: 'You go wash that child and I'll give you a new dress.' The difficulty with these scenes lies not in the role of the camera as witness to this process of memory and learning in operation, nor in the way we as audience witness the growth of confidence of people in front of the camera. The problem is that a distinct impression is created at the beginning of the film that acting--pretending to be somebody else--is not a Borroloola mode of storytelling. Apart from the films they had been shown by Strachen and Cavadini, the actors had very little experience of television or film, as they noted in their interview with Tina Kaufman:
There had been some John Wayne westerns and Kung Fu films that had come to Borroloola. There is no radio, newspapers or television. The films had been seen by the younger people but the old people had never bothered to go. Apart from the school kids, most people hadn't liked the films.
To what extent is this process of remembering through drama an imposition of the white filmmakers?

These scenes stand next to others in which people retell their own memories of the events concerned. Here the participants seem to perform more readily to camera and, like exponents of the oral tradition everywhere, flesh out their stories with moments of acting; a man tells how a policeman beat him, and for a moment he is that policeman hitting a tree with a baton and shouting. But the film wishes to distance itself from these memories by juxtaposing them with the reconstructed scenes. There is here an implicit criticism of the way the memories of individuals are frequently used in documentary cinema, both as 'evidence'--a guarantee of truth--and as a ploy to draw an audience into an easy identification with the oppressed. At the same time, however, the film seems to fear the possibility of emotional response to these memories. 'Distanciation devices' may have become an intolerable orthodoxy among independent filmmakers. Perhaps we should recognise, as Brecht did in his poem 'On Everyday Theatre,' that the oral tradition contains quite enough distanciation devices of its own. In 1929, when he wrote that poem, Brecht was calling for an aesthetic which allowed the audience to be distanced from the drawing-room conventions of bourgeois theatre. Are filmmakers not involved in a different set of imperatives when dealing with the conventions of a kind of documentary filmmaking which issues for its subject matter people's memories of oppression?

These are the questions that Two Laws raised for me, question which can be asked of many films made during the last few years which, commendably, try to work against the grain of documentary film conventions. To what extent should the reasons why, and the methods whereby, those conventions are attacked be inscribed into a film with as much clarity and precision as possible? If an audience begins to wonder whether it has been treated less responsibly than the filmmakers treated their subjects, does this not lessen the potential of a films as an interrogation of established convention?

This, of course, raises the question of the intended audience for Two Laws, a question also prompted by the fact that much of the film's dialogue is in English, an unfamiliar language to most of the participants and not the one in which their tribal laws are formulated. The filmmakers give a very interesting and somewhat surprising answer to this question:
Many of the films that we screened to the community during the first few months were films in the language of other Aboriginal communities, American Indians, or Africans. The people were pleased that they spoke their own language and were aware that the subtitles were a good idea for a European audience but they were making Two Laws for other Aboriginal communities as well as Europeans. As traditional communities are unskilled in reading, subtitles are inappropriate. The people chose to speak in English which for some is a very new and difficult language. It was quite a struggle at times but the people are very committed to developing communication between different Aboriginal communities.
Ironically, the language of imperialism becomes the lingua franca of the Aboriginal communities. So two audiences are inscribed into the film with two different cultures and two laws. It is a tribute to the endurance of the Borroloola people that, as far as can be judged from this film, their traditional laws and legal institutions seem far more appropriate for every sector of the community--young and old, male and female--than our laws and legal institutions are for us. It remains to be seen how the film will be used by other Aboriginal groups in their fight against the most powerful sections of white society, to recover rights to their lands. Perhaps for them the aesthetic strategies of the film will not seem as difficult as they probably will for a European audience. But Two Laws deserves to be seen and discussed by that audience not only as a model of collaborative filmmaking, but also as an attempt to challenge the conventions of documentary cinema.

[This review was written by Mick Eaton and originally published under the title 'Another Angle on Anthropological Film' in the journal Screen, Vol. 24, No. 4, March/April 1983, pp. 55-59. The film is now available on DVD from Facets media. Articles about the film can be found in the journal Studies in Documentary Film. The dossier noted above, from which quotes are taken, is no longer available.]

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