U Know Them by Their Fruit
Author: Shannon Magness
Format: Digital Video
Published: May 2013
My main research question asks whether a filmmaker can make a film about an ‘extreme other’ that avoids the reduction of the subject and allows him (or her) to remain unfinalizable, and what implications such a goal may have for the filmmaking process and the resulting shape of the film. The second question asks how far a subjective approach, including self-reflexivity and even performativity, might enable less finalizedrepresentations of subjects, including the filmmaker in auto/biographical film. The third question seeks to understand the effect in a cross-national context of Renov’s designation of domestic ethnography for films about family members: firstly, might this designation, with its connotations of the domestic and the ethnographic, contribute to the finalization of both subjects and authors—especially female authors? Secondly, what measures might the author take, such as performative editing, to reduce the finalizing effects of this label? And thirdly, how might these measures affect the shape and style of the film?
My research explores the documentary filmmaking encounter between the filmmaker and a familial subject who is politically opposite, or what I term an ‘extreme other’. The subject of my film is my cousin from the USA who used to work as a high school principal, but who over the past decade has adopted what Manuel Castells termsethno-religious nationalist views—including the view that only white males should be allowed to vote in the USA. Castells notes that such views are on the rise internationally, due to the pressures of globalisation on national identity and related issues such as the waning of patriarchy (Castells: 1997: 23).
Though I am a female filmmaker, my aim was to create a representation of my politically ‘far right’ subject which would be, to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s term, unfinalizable. My film and writing focus on navigating the possible obstacles to unfinalization, such as the fact that my views may be considered oppositional to my cousin’s, my subaltern authorial status both as a woman and as an American ‘national other’ living in England, and the implications of theorist Michael Renov’s designation of family film as domestic ethnography—a type of film which he writes is so highly intersubjective due to blood relations that the familial subject “refracts” (2004: xiii) the filmmaker and the film becomes an “autobiographical” self-portrait (ibid.).
Several factors complicate the designation domestic ethnography for my film: firstly, the family connection with my cousin is not close, because we hardly met before I began making this film; secondly, if his envisioned political utopia were possible, he would disenfranchise me as a female, yet my goal was to unfinalize him; thirdly, I am officially resident in the UK and made the film for a British audience, but Americans are national others here in England, therefore my subjects may be ‘othered’ based on national identity (Kristeva in Caputi: 1996: 692-683, 686, Billig 1995: 65). Furthermore, as a female author, I have reasons to avoid the labelautobiographical for my work, as it may also be labelled confessional, and thereby emptied of political meaning (Michelle Citron in Waldman and Walker: 1999: 272).
I began the film as a way of defending my cousin’s right to criticize the US Government, in 2004 when the ‘War on Terror’ was rapidly shaping the zeitgeist. However, I soon found myself in opposition to my cousin’s ethno-religious nationalist views. Given the radical intersubjectivity between family members indicated by Renov’sdomestic ethnography, I brought critical concepts of intersubjectivity to bear on my filmmaking practice in order to negotiate my goal of unfinalizing my cousin whilst maintaining my own political views which are radically different from his—and I did this while testing the degree to which this film about him was also about me. Furthermore, I carried out this research to find out how such a conceptual exploration could make an integral and visible impact on the film.
Thinking through the implications of Renov’s domestic ethnography, and the field of auto/biography to which it points, has been very productive, leading me to experiment with the style and shape of the film. Before I decided to problematise my film as a case of Renov’s domestic ethnography, I was already emphasizing the encounter, to share the burden of being represented with my cousin and to reveal the subjective constructedness of my film. From the start, I often let my voice be heard from behind the camera, I used jump cuts and other playful edits to signify that the representation had been ‘tampered with’, and I was already using an unusual musical score . However, as I experimented with emphasizing my authorship, I pushed my choices more into the unconventional: for example, I allowed the musical selection to become wilder (by including a ‘clownish’ song I had earlier chosen to leave out) and my video editing became less conservative too (as I became more adventurous with cutaways).
More specifically, I responded to my quandary of representing radical intersubjectivity between myself and a familial ‘extreme other’ by experimenting with narrative, thematic, and montage strategies deeply influenced by concepts from life-writing, documentary theory, psychoanalytic literary criticism and ethnography. Through the process of integrating critical exploration with filmmaking practice, I invented a form and style for the film to approach my goal of unfinalizing, while leaving traces of my ethical and aesthetic choices, and of my grappling with the problematic nature of representing opposing political views. I chose what I term a ‘spiritual’ (rather than entirely rational) research design to represent the supposedly radically intersubjective auto/biographical relationship between Jay and myself. Moreover, I focused on my responsibility to try and learn from Jay or to “be taught” (Levinas: 1961: 51) based on Levinas’s concept of the I-Thou relation. Furthermore, I figured my cousin and myself as ‘doppelgängers’, partly inspired by Rouch’s concept of ciné-trance—wherein the encounter between filmmakers and those filmed is so radically intersubjective that a filmmaker can become “possessed” while filming possession rituals (Cholodenko in Rothman: 2009: 158).
I found that I could not completely unfinalize my cousin due to several reasons. The interviews in which he appears in front of an American flag tend to incarcerate him in his national identity, especially in a cross-national US/UK context: though I include several statements from him to the effect that he rejects mainstream American patriotism, this visual trope is a powerful one. Moreover, my cousin stumbles on linguistic tropes (De Man: 1979: 920): my editing emphasizes the tragic comedy of such linguistic pitfalls, but this does not, I think, lessen their affect. More finalization is caused, I think, by my being a female filmmaker, as I probably challenge my cousin more on the topic of female liberty than a male filmmaker would have. As for the cross-national context generally, I took steps to encourage British viewers to establish identification with my cousin (at least initially) by for example pairing video footage of a London anti-war protest with audio from an ‘anti-American’ monologue by my cousin, recorded in the USA.
Moreover, when editing, I sometimes let the narrative digress to prioritise the banal, in an effort to avoid finalizing Jay through a ‘typical far right extremist’ narrative. Furthermore, I used performative devices such as a ‘smoking narrator’ to render the film’s point of view as somewhat unreliable, in hopes that my opposition to Jay, and indeed my sympathy for him, may be questioned by audiences. I think these unfinalizing strategies are appropriate for the viewers I had in mind, a British protestor/anarchist audience, who, firstly, would not want to be told what to think (but would want to make their own judgement) and secondly would be suspicious of a slick, or ‘corporate format’ style of storytelling. Moreover, a British protestor/anarchist audience would sympathise with Jay’s monologue about American militarism and his criticism of mainstream patriotism.
While I came to realize that part of my motivation for articulating my cousin’s criticisms against the US Government was indeed autobiographical—especially regarding my personal desire to escape what I perceived as the American stereotype in England—I also developed the view that designating family films as ‘domestic ethnography’ can serve to obscure the political messages in such films by overemphasizing the importance of the domestic milieu. However, as the director and editor of U Know Them By Their Fruit, my persistent experimentation with autobiographicality and radical intersubjectivity eventually led me to further emphasize the public and political aspects of my film. Though my subjective and performative authorial strategies may disappoint some viewers who would like a quieter author—or ethno-religious nationalists who would be against females in an authorial role (Castells: 1997: 136)—I think my cousin would appear more finalized without these efforts.
My work seeks to encourage the exploration of the political in the familial, and to design strategies to enable ethical or unfinalizable documentary encounters between ‘extreme others’ to demonstrate and encourage tolerance in an era of a growing political polarisation and rhetoric that only seems to encourage misunderstanding and lead to further wars. It also seeks to understand the role of national identity in the relationship between Britons and Americans, and to open up a dialogue about the various pressures on film authorship—pressures from the academy, national identity pressures and gender hierarchies, as well as polarising political pressures. Over the next year I will enter the film into festivals, write scholarly articles about various facets of the film and the research process, and present at conferences about aspects of my research.
The film was self-funded, and has not yet appeared in any film festivals, but it was recently screened at the University of Roehampton conference “Theorising Practice, Practicing Theory”.
Billig, M. (1995) Banal Nationalism SAGE Publications. London
Caputi, Mary ‘National Identity in Contemporary Theory’ Political Psychology Volume 17, No. 4: 1996: 683-694
Castells, Manuel (1997) The Power of Identity Blackwell Publishing. London
De Man, Paul (1979)‘Autobiography as De-facement’ MLN Volume 94, No. 5, Comparative Literature. Dec., 1979: 919-930 . Online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/2906560. Last accessed 30 April 2011
Levinas, Emmanuel (1961) Totality and Infinity: an essay on exteriority Duquesne University Press. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Morson, Gary Saul and Emerson, Caryl (1990) Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics Stanford University Press. Stanford
Renov, Michael (2004) The Subject of Documentary University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis
Renov, Michael(2008) ‘Family Secrets: ‘Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business and the (American) Jewish Autobiographical Film’ Framework Volume 49, No. 1, Spring 2008: 55-56.
Rothman, William, Ed.(2009) Three Documentary Filmmakers: Errol Morris, Ross McElwee, Jean Rouch Suny Press. Albany, New York
Rouch, Jean and Steven Feld (2003) Cine-Ethnography University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis
Waldman, Diane and Janet Walker (1999) Feminism and Documentary University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis and London
White, Hayden (1973) Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe John Hopkins University Press
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows
Review 1: Accept work and statement for DVD and/or web publication with no alternations
U Know Them By Their Fruit is a partially self- reflexive documentary, in which she, the filmmaker, attempts to connect with her cousin, Jay. He is a fresh-faced American whose far right political beliefs are in contrast to the filmmaker’s own. Dismissed from his post as the Principle of a school, in the State of Missouri, because of his anti-government stance, Jay does not appear too troubled by the outcome of his actions. He speaks with conviction about his views on race, the state and God. His wife firmly supports him whilst Jay’s brother-in-law challenges him on this attitude to state regulations. Other family members recall stories of Jay’s ‘anti-American’ behaviour. When asked by the filmmaker where women fit into his vision of a responsible society, Jay answers predictably and unflinchingly. The filmmaker’s subjectivity is playfully expressed in the use of repeated point-of-view shots of smoking a cigarette; mirrored in the interview sequence of two smoking aunts.
The research questions are compellingly contextualised in the supporting research statement. A key question posed by the filmmaker is: is it possible to make a film about ‘the extreme other’, without reducing the subject to a ‘finalised’ representation? One strategy the filmmaker argues she originated, in order to avoid ‘finalisation’ of the subject, was to include scenes of domestic banality. These scenes do function as intended, cooling the intensity of Jay’s polemic, and the viewer’s attention shifts away from responding to Jay’s arguments to concerns for the family’s future survival without a household income. Another strategy the filmmaker adopts to facilitate the research aims is to attempt to connect to her cousin spiritually, rather than confront him politically, a very interesting approach to take. The voice of the filmmaker quoting bible texts over shots of cloud-filled skies inventively creates moments of inter-subjectivity. The filmmaker’s self-reflexivity contributes a textual strand to the film, which re-directs attention away from ‘finalising ’ the subject.
The top and tailing of the film with footage of political protesters on the streets of London seems redundant in terms of the research aims of the film. The explanation offered in the statement for introducing and closing the film with this material isn’t entirely clear. The film would lose little of its power and coherence were these scenes to be cut, especially as the film feels a little too long as it is.
U Know Them by Their Fruit delicately and playfully constructs a representation of a subject who possesses views many would struggle to take seriously. There is rich potential for further exploration of formal possibilities with such theoretical research aims in mind. The ubiquity of ‘talking head’ shots, particularly the interview shots of Jay, in some respects undermine the ambition of the work as repeatedly Jay is filmed in close-up isolation, unblinkingly spouting his rhetoric. His expressionless face, though handsome, becomes over-familiar, and the camera could turn its gaze elsewhere either to underscore what Jay says or counter his words. Maybe in simply separating the audio elements of a shot alternative ways of constructing an ‘unfinalised’ representation of an ‘extreme other’ might be productively explored.
Review 2: Invite re-submission with re-edit of film and statementThis was a well-grounded and questioning piece of work. I read the statement before watching it, and felt rather dubious, however after watching, and re-reading the statement, I was reassured that this had been deeply considered and was effective.
My main concerns were over the internal logic of the piece which seemed to fail sometimes, notwithstanding the desire for unfinalizing. I enjoyed the ambition of making a film based on family, and therein also could lie another problem, the difficulty of distance. All in all this was mostly achieved. There are a number of aesthetic/ design choices that I think could benefit from a second look, although I understand re-editing at this stage may feel too much.
I very much enjoyed the ominous beginning, using the UK demo was a very good choice, and a neat way of introducing the UK/US relationship. The man on stilts was a very powerful image, and connected to other slightly macabre elements in the images. The smoking aunts reminded me very much of Patty and Selma in the Simpsons. They were great characters, but could perhaps be cut slightly. The hand with the dollar for me didn’t work – the effects around the hand seemed unnecessary and did not feed information for what followed. The cigarette smoker who was first person did work for me, again because it felt uncanny and linked to the family. In fact, the strength of the piece for me, was when the strangeness of the situation prevailed. From UK eyes, all the characters were larger than life, the wife was terrifying, and the cousin strangely sympathetic.
To return to the internal logic – I wasn’t sure how you controlled your structure. When you used black spacing, there didn’t appear to be any logic in the length of how much black you used, it didn’t increase or decrease to create any dynamic, or disruption, so it became a superficial device. I thought many of the black spaces were too long, but the shorter ones fading to black worked well. I wasn’t sure if it was my machine, but there were freeze frames. If they were unintentional, I’m sorry for my inadequate equipment, if they were meant to be in there, I think they distracted. There was also a burst of exposure at the car section. Again, maybe it was my machine, but it felt like a mistake and distracted from the main theme. Sometimes there were strange cuts, when a woman says she’s going to cry, it then cuts to the shelf behind. This seemed to give importance to the shelf.
Towards the end, I was pleased you asked about women and made your presence felt as a member of this family. I enjoyed the skies, they were a welcome point between the bizarreness of the thoughts from your cousin. There were a couple of superimpositions, baby shoes and then a box on the road. For me, these didn’t further your point, although the Yankee Doodle music was strong. The final credits were interesting and the pan was very nice.
I’m probably being rather attentive to the detail rather than appreciating your overall themes. The ideas, revealing your strange cousin’s family and allowing the audience to build an impression, worked well and it felt like you were in control. The use of many technical styles and devices didn’t always help you. Sometimes it was distracting to deal with different sized screen ratios and positions. When it worked, it worked beautifully, but it was disruptive when it felt like too much was going on.
I found it interesting to be invited in to observe the extremist ideas. When the rationale for some of those ideas was expressed, I was repelled. And this left a question. How did the duplicitous claim for the birthright, from Esau to Jacob, link to all of it? It seemed to have no relevance to the situation you were revealing. Did I miss the point completely?
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response