Author: Zem Moffat
Format: Single-screen narrative
Mirror Mirror is the practice-led element of my doctoral thesis ‘Queer Giving: an audio-visual shared ethnography of The Wotever Vision, London 2003-2006’. It is a 58min single-screen narrative film located within the documentary tradition, and the academies of Visual Anthropology, Queer Theory and Cultural Studies. The initial research question came from personal and theoretical knowledge of contemporary radical queer practices. I wanted to know if I could somehow make the two ideas that ‘gender is drag’ and that ‘documentary film is a drag of reality’ mutually inform and comment upon each other.
In the written component of my thesis I argue that hospitality is central to contemporary queer bodies and places. Unlike essentialist identities that are defined by exclusivity (ie gay, straight, man or woman), the queer identity rests upon inclusivity. All desires, sexed and gendered positions are acknowledged, legitimated and accommodated. In the autumn of 2003 a club night called Club Wotever opened in London: ‘a club for drag kings, butches, trannifags, FTM’s [female to male transsexuals], femme fatales, transgendered grrlz, queer bois and … With happenings, performances, music and a chilled atmosphere, where friends, lovers and flirt objects can meet’ (www.worldwotever.com). From gay women and men, to the transgendered, transsexual and the intersexed person, to feminine heterosexual men and masculine heterosexual women, Club Wotever was an open invitation to all those who in some way could not, or would not, conform to heteronormativity. For the following two years I worked to make a film, with the club’s promoter Ingo Andersson and several of its performers, that would embody and convey the hospitable and creative potential instilled Wotever’s radical queer vision.My methodology was long-term participant-observation using a small DV camera (Sony PD170). It was an audio-visual ethnography that incorporated the audio-visual not simply as a way of gathering ethnographic data, but as a device that captured and documented the process of capturing. I sought to mirror the hospitality, corporeality, reflexivity and the active creation of identity I saw within my field. In Female Masculinity (1998) Judith Halberstam proposed a queer methodology, that is “a scavenger methodology that uses different methods to collect and produce information” one that combines, “methods that are often cast as being at odds with each other”, and “refuses the academic compulsion toward disciplinary coherence” (1998: 13). But, I was not convinced that this was really queer. Such a pick-and-mix, anything goes approach did not to me see to really embrace queer’s critical and radical potential. The radical nature of queer is that power is shared, as people switch between positions of dominance and submission. I wanted to reflect this both in the methodology and form of my film, and for this I turned to the early history of Visual Anthropology.
“The observer is finally coming down from his ivory tower … his work is not being judged by a thesis committee but by the very people he came to observe,” so said ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch (1974 : p 95-96). In the new transportable audio and visual recording devices and portable projectors, of the early 1960’s, Rouch saw a way of feeding back to his subjects and this praxis of audio-visual feedback was named Shared Anthropology. His films Moi un Noir (1958), Jaguar (1957-67), La Pyramide Humaine (1961), and Chronique d’un Éte (1960-1) formally incorporate this feedback into their final text, the first two through audio commentary by the protagonists, and the latter two incorporating group screenbacks within their narratives. Although originally embraced and pursued by social-scientists in various forms, this participatory practice of shared anthropology was latterly dismissed as “leading to a confusion of perspectives” (MacDougall 1995 : 129), and of little use to scholarly debate. Visual anthropologists Patsy and Timothy Asch argued for feedback as being “one of the most significant contributions film could make to ethnographic research” and regretted that, “to date, few ethnographies have used film in this way” (1988, re-published 1995  Hockings ed: 349). In my thesis I suggested that audio-visual feedback failed to make its mark, not simply because academia struggles with digesting av-media, but because feedback essentially queers the pitch of engagement. Both the observer and the subject alternate between positions of dominance and submission, switch between the centre and the margin, as they aim to engage in a mutually beneficial dialogue of knowledge formation. This practice is something which contemporary radical queers are highly skilled at.
Seeking to reflect my radical queer field, I adopted Rouch’s shared-anthropology as my contemporary queer methodology. I sought to revive his praxis and push it onwards, harnessing the new technologies of my era that enabled me to make copies and return it to my subjects within the day. When I set out to make Mirror Mirror, I signed a contract with my subjects that gave them full and first control over the material they saw. Through subsequent individual and group screen-backs the film and its content developed and changed shape. Rather than simply rejecting disciplinary coherence, I found that the methodology disrupted subject and author coherence, as myself and my subjects became indistinct, and the knowledge it generated found a new coherence within the relationship between myself and my subjects. Mirror Mirror is a reflection of contemporary queer identities that resist exogamous definitions, and find meaning through basic human feedback.
Asch, Patsy and Timothy. (2003) Film in Ethnographic Research (1988). In Hockings, P. (Ed.) Principles of Visual Anthropology. 3rd ed. Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter 2003.
Halberstam, Judith. (1998) Female masculinity, Durham [N.C.]; London, Duke University Press.
MacDougall, David. (2003) Beyond Observational Cinema. In Hockings, P. (Ed.) Principles of Visual Anthropology. 3rd ed. Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter 2003.
Rouch, Jean. (1957-67) Jaguar. France.
Rouch, Jean. (1958) Moi, un Noir. France.
Rouch, Jean. (1961) La Pyramide Humaine.
Rouch, Jean. and Edgar Morin. (1960/1) Chronique d’un Ete
Rouch, Jean. (2003) Ciné–ethnography, Minneapolis, MN; London, University of Minnesota Press.
Mirror Mirror has been shown widely within the local queer field where it was made, and it is being used by Club Wotever to promote the Wotever Vision. It has also been screened at the following festivals and papers have been presented on it at the following conferences.
• Uppsala Pride, Slottsbiografen, Sweden (25 May 2008)
• Right to the City, Berlin (12 April 2008)
• Wotever Glasgow Weekend, Scotland (27 March 2008)
• 15th Festival MixBrasil, São Paolo, Brazil (14 and 15 November 2007)
• Regnbågsfestival Malmö, Sweden (25 October 2007)
• Sex/life/politics, Loughborough University (4 September 2007)
• 21st London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, National Film Theatre, London (27 March 2007)
• Kultur Feminist Festival, Stockholm University, Sweden (12 March 2007)
• LGBT History Month, Camden and Swiss Cottage Library, London (5 February 2007)
• AVPhD3, Birkbeck College, London (27 October 2006)
• Queer in Europe, University of Exeter (13-15 September 2008)
• Lesgaicinevox International Film Festival, Centro Cultural Parque España, Rosario, Argentina (10-12 October 2008)
• Beyond Text? Synaesthetic and Sensory Practices in Anthropology, Manchester University (1 July 2007)
• Lesbian and Gay Issues in Art and Design Education, Institute of Education, University of London (23 March 2007)
• Research Methods, Royal College of Art (31 January 2007)
• Anthropology and Cinema, Sussex University (6 May 2006)
• DocNow, Birkbeck College (10-11 October 2008)
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows
Review 1: Accept subject to re-write of the statement
The film to some extent achieves the researcher’s aims of creating a dialogue between the film-maker and her subjects which echoes Rouch’s ‘shared anthropology’. This is especially evident in the reflexive discussions between the ‘author’ and the people in the film which is placed towards the end of the film where we see their critical feedback on the product and the process and at this point gain a better sense of the relationship between all the participants, including the director. I would therefore recommend that if an extract is to be used then the section from 33.41 to 43.13 best exemplifies the researcher’s intentions as expressed the accompanying statement. The section she proposes as an extract ‘Trevor’ Big day out’ does not clearly show a feedback process but merely documents a performance.
Overall before further distribution, I feel the film as a whole would benefit from further editing, particularly that the film-maker’s intentions in attempting to create mutual dialogue with the contributors is foregrounded earlier in the film and that the ways in which the author and subjects, as she claims, become ‘indistinct’ are made more apparent. This is not really achieved through the piece to camera by her or voice-over by her as they stand – it would help for instance if she were to appear earlier and her relationship to the characters were more firmly established. She mentions in the piece to camera that she is having some issues with Ingo, but we don’t really see this; nor do we see much of Josephine Wilson except dancing and mentioning that her tits are popping out before she is interviewed about her reactions to her representation. There are rather a lot of characters and therefore we don’t gain enough insight into each of them. In this sense film currently has a number of unresolved narrative problems and feels like a work in progress.
Since the film is about performance one would also expect more exploration of the difference between performance on the stage, on film and in everyday life – especially from the contributors.
The research statement requires some editing. In particular, the concept of ‘ identity’ is used somewhat problematically and the statements about the nature of ‘queer’ (and its radicalism) tend to assert rather than argue giving the text a proselytizing air as for instance in: ‘The radical nature of queer that power is shared, as people switch between positions of dominance and submission’ and ‘..the mutually beneficial dialogue of knowledge formation…is something which contemporary radical queers are highly skilled at’. The statement in the opening paragraph that ‘documentary is a drag of reality’ needs clarifying or else seems too glib. The text also begs a number of questions about the degree to which the author of a film can or does actually give up control of is structure/direction – issues which one would expect to see some reflection on.