My Private Life II
Author: Jill Daniels
Format: 16:9 split-screen video
Duration: 25′ 24″
Published: February 2017
The research questions I address in the film, My Private Life II (2015) are:
– How may hybrid strategies deployed in an experimental documentary film engage with the cinematic representation of memory and subjectivities?
– How does the use of multiple voice-overs in different tenses add complexity of meaning to documentary film discourse?
My Private Life II (25 minutes) is a shorter, split-screen version of my autobiographical feature documentary My Private Life (2014), an exploration of subjectivities within my dysfunctional Jewish family. My aim was to excavate a buried past, to bring to the surface uncomfortable secrets around my father’s unacknowledged sexuality. The films tell the story of my parents’ early lives, their marriage and divorce, my mother’s remarriage and violence at the hands of my stepfather and my parents’ decision to live together again.
In My Private Life II I experimented with hybrid strategies and techniques, including realist techniques, metaphors and the imagined, and the use of split screens. Hybrid strategies have value in terms of the effect on the spectator where the filmmaker delivers a hybridization of documentary modes in a clearly fabricated way so as to retain referentiality which work together to suggest and not argue a message by drawing from the viewer – not for the viewer (Little 2007: 25). However, the enactments in My Private Life II do not overshadow the film’s reference to the historical world. The past elides with the present through voice-overs which recall and comment on events in the past; home movies; old family photographs; and enactments. These are interwoven with observational footage of the mundane routines that mark the patterns of my parents’ daily lives.
An elliptical approach was carried out in the film’s construction to afford space for spectatorial reflection. An elliptical approach creates a space for the spectator to reflect on the meaning of what has been shown thus far. Ruptures in the diegesis punctuate the rhythmic visual patterns of shots and frames; images of the characters are shown in different frames, often cutting to black, suggesting the characters’ inability to cross emotional and physical divides. My stepfather’s violence is evoked through off-screen shouting and smashing of glass, edited over a shot of a closed door which opens slowly then slams shut. This approach builds on my previous film practice, for example in my earlier autobiographical film, The Border Crossing (2011). It explores my traumatic memories of a violent experience which continue to haunt me and lead to its non-assimilation through direct recall. The diegesis is punctuated with repeated shots of a man driving a car at night towards an unknown destination, voice-overs of me and a surrogate character who represents my younger self. The violent event itself is evoked through its absence in the narrative.
An elliptical approach is carried through to the interviews. It is generally assumed that interviews, although they may be subjective, serve to provide narrative authentication. In the mediation of a dysfunctional family where each member may be concealing long-held secrets, such interviews may be misleading. Interviewees may continue to evade and to conceal secrets. In My Private Life II my father’s friend reveals that my father is gay. After describing how my father got a job at the Houses of Parliament, the friends asks: “Did he tell you why they pushed him out, was it because he was gay or something?” I reply hesitantly: “Actually, he never really said.” “Hmm. Hmm” says the friend. In a further sequence it is my father, not my mother who reveals she was the victim of abuse. After my mother dies, it is the handy-man who acknowledges the existence of family secrets by saying: “Your mum, how can I put it, was very secretive to herself and maybe to a lot of other people”. These revelations may afford the spectator a greater sense of empathy with my parents while they also underline identities fixed by secrets.
In My Private Life II I adopted an auto-ethnographic approach which Catherine Russell describes as “a form of ‘self fashioning’ where the ethnographer comes to represent themselves within the film as a fiction, inscribing a doubleness within the ethnographic text”. Russell points out that in this approach “a common feature is the first person voice-over that is intensely and unambiguously subjective” (Russell 1999: 277). The extensive voice-overs describing memories of the past, mingle, not in conversation since my parents talk in the past tense and my own voice is generally in the present tense, as I search their narratives for clues that would reorder their fixed narratives. My memories are often voiced in a present tensed “you” addressed to my mother, over old photographs, such as one of my much younger mother with her children: “You have the life you say you dreamed of. Marriage, a house, three children but still you’re bored, so you open a coffee bar. Barely a year later we move to London.” The film cuts to a photograph of my mother holding in her arms a sulky-looking young child and my voice says: “No, I say, I don’t want to.” The narrative is punctuated by my voiced observations: “It occurs to me for the first time – maybe you married my father for the security of his money rather than his looks.” Later, my voice, over shots of my mother putting on make-up with a shaky hand addresses her directly: “If you married my father for security how disappointing it must be and how lonely. You say nothing.” After several shots of my bed-ridden mother, the film cuts to a wide shot of orchids in all three frames and then to the empty bedroom. As though I have finally given up on the search for clues on the death of my mother, my voice addresses the empty room: “Secrets are best buried, you say.” At the end of the film, my voice-over comes closer to the present narrative of the film: “Last night he told me he loved Rodrigo. I don’t know, I can’t say what their relationship was …. I have never heard my father say he loved anybody. Not us, not my mother, not anyone. And it’s not gonna happen.”
In documenting and placing my self at the heart of the film through performed roles I created distinct selves which correspond to my role as filmmaker and interlocutor and subject. As filmmaker and interlocutor I am heard and sometimes seen; as a subject I am present through my own voiced memories, in old photographs and in home movie footage. There is a distinction between my selves which are represented in the film and what we may consider to be the so-called ‘real’ person, the person who is in a constant process of forming her identity. The entities created as my selves in the film embody the artistic designs of the filmmaker, the one who creates the narrative structure, the characters and the filmic choices of camera angles, duration of shots, the split screens, and the omniscient, partial or multiple perspectives that the guiding filmmaker’s voice assumes in relation to the narrative. The inclusion of my embodied self in the film as the ‘daughter’ may serve to remind spectators that my ‘real’ authorial self may also convey a fabricated point of view, a mask that both disguises and reveals (Sayad 2013: 4). My created multiple selves do not serve to provide an authentic mediation of familial relationships but uncertainty; a dispersion of meaning that may allow the spectator to speculate on what has been seen and heard. The multiplicity of ‘voices’ moving through different tenses, questioning what is seen and heard allows the film to offer itself to differing spectatorial interpretations of my own contested identity and that of my parents.
The different possibilities of spectatorial interpretations and lack of narrative resolution are reinforced by the use of split screens. The images appear and disappear in one or more frames, often punctuated by black; at times this creates strongly abstract patterns whose visual impact provide little direct reference to the narrative. At other times, for example in the wide shots of orchids and the empty bedroom, the images, identical in all three frames evoke a powerful sensation of loss. Addressing the camera and spectator directly from the central frame positions me in my dual role as filmmaker and daughter and the repeated images of different houses, poetic enactments, home movie footage, and unidentified hands constructing the model of a terraced house throughout the film, deepens the sensation of temporal and spatial dislocation. As the film unfolds, the earlier single screen film may also be remembered in fragments or pieces. The overall impact is a powerful and poetic evocation of memory and contested identities.
Many experimental documentary films, created for film festivals or theatrical distribution as well as works created as gallery installations, explore the same terrain as My Private Life II. In using my earlier version of the film as found footage with the express intention of creating a trilogy of films (with the third in the trilogy to be an installation piece for the gallery), I built on the work of other filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman. In her autobiographical installation film Maniac Shadows (2013), Akerman constructed a three-screen installation of intimate images from her own life juxtaposed with noisy street scenes in New York and newsreel footage of Obama’s election night. In using a similar methodology to Akerman, the extraction and rearranging of images into a split screen version of my original film, immediately rearranged its process of signification.
My Private Life II is the latest of several films where I have used multiple voices to explore memory and subjectivities. They include my autobiographical film The Border Crossing (2011), and Not Reconciled (2009), where I created the fictional voices of ghosts evoked from the Spanish Civil War to tell the history of Belchite, a town in Northern Spain ruined by a 3-week battle in August 1937. Both films were created for my practice-led PhD which I completed in 2014 at the University of East London. I also built on the films of Marguerite Duras’ who made extensive use of voice-overs to create narratives, most usefully in her film India Song (1975).
I also referenced autobiographical films which take an elliptical approach in their use of filmic strategies, such as Carol Morley’s The Alcohol Years (2000), an autobiographical film. She is the subject of the film where her character is represented through a surrogate and absence. Even though the interviewees address her directly she does not speak. Michelle Citron’s sem-fictionalised autobiographical film Daughter Rite (1980) also influenced me in her exploration of troubled relationships between mothers and daughters; Rea Tajiri’s autobiographical film History and Memory (1991) which looks at family relationships affected by traumatic memories from WWII was another influence. I am influenced by the films of Yasujirô Ozu, in particular in the use of static camera, symmetrical framing and exploration of space inside and outside the frame. I also built on his explorations of human relationships, in particular Tokyo Story (1953), a deeply moving mediation of old age.
My theoretical context is influenced by the work of Catherine Russell on auto-ethnography; Michael Renov on the subject in the autobiographical film and Jim Lane who argues that “autobiographical documentaries use reflexivity not to eradicate the real as much as to complicate referential claims” (Lane 2002:5). Autobiography brings one a step closer to an acknowledgement that subjectivity and self-reflexivity may provide richer possibilities for the cultural exploration of the social world. Alisa Lebow argues that first person filmmaking always carries with it a challenge to the notion of the possibility of a unified subject (Lebow, 2012). She observes that where the filmmaker is both the subject and the object of the gaze she is necessarily divided but it is that very division which “makes first person filmmaking so complex, co-implicated and, indeed, so compelling” (Lebow, 2012: 5).
In my exploration of my family’s secrets I drew upon the work of Annette Kuhn who observes that most families have secrets but “sometimes family secrets are so deeply buried […] they elude the conscious awareness even of those most closely involved. From the involuntary amnesia of repression to the wilful forgetting of matters it might be less than convenient to recall, secrets inhabit the borderlands of memory” (Kuhn 2002: 2). As a child I knew that as Kuhn puts it: “something in the family was not right, conflicts were afoot, conflicts a little girl could not really understand, but at some level knew about and wanted to resolve” (ibid: 22).
Akerman, Chantal (1975) Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles. Paradise Films & Criterion Collection. Belgium/France.
______ (2013) Maniac Shadows. New York: The Kitchen.
Citron, Michelle (1980) Daughter Rite. US.
Daniels, Jill (2014) My Private Life. UK. https://vimeo.com/104385249
______ (2014) PhD. Memory, Place and Subjectivity: Experiments in Independent Documentary Filmmaking. University of East London. Available at: http://roar.uel.ac.uk/3929/
______ (2011) The Border Crossing. UK. Available at: https://vimeo.com/93590375
______ (2009) Not Reconciled. UK. Available at: http://screenworks.org.uk/archive/volume-3/not-reconciled
Duras, Marguerite (1975) India Song. France.
Annette Kuhn (2002) Family Secrets: Acts of Memory & Imagination. London: Verso.
Lane, Jim (2002) The Autobiographical Documentary in America. University of Wisconsin Press.
Lebow, Alisa (ed.) (2012) The Cinema of Me: the Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary. London: Wallflower Press.
Little, J. A. (2007) The Power and Potential of Performative Documentary Film. [Online] Available from:
http://scholarworks.montana.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1/1741/LittleJ0507.pdf?sequence=1 [Accessed: 23 October 2016].
Morley, Carol (2000) The Alcohol Years. C. Cannon & Morley Productions. UK.
Ozu, Yasujirô. Tokyo Story/ Tōkyō Monogatari (1953) BFI. Japan.
Renov, Michael. (2004) The Subject of Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Russell, Catherine (1999) Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sayad, Cecilia (2013) Performing Authorship: Self-inscription and corporeality in the cinema. London: I.B Taurus.
Tajiri, Rea (1991) History and Memory. US.
My practice methods derive from independent experimental documentary filmmaking, Fine Art, Video art.
This research is experimental. Its aim is to expand the language of experimental documentary films away from the constraints and limitations of the industrial TV documentary and embeds film theory dialectically into the work. It embraces the language of philosophy, poetry, visual and aural art to expand and extend the boundaries of cinematic language into new terrain. It aims to create a fruitful dialogue with other practitioners in this field through conferences, screenings and written articles.
I received a research grant from the University of East London to make My Private Life. This film provided all the footage for My Private Life II which was self-funded.
(2016) Visible Evidence XXIII International Documentary Conference at Montana State University, USA.
(2016) ‘Filming the Personal’ as part of a collection of autobiographical films about fathers and grandfathers, co-curated with Sally Waterman.
(2016) Future Screens at Journal of Media Practice/MeCCSA Practice Symposium at University of London South Bank.
(2016) Forthcoming – Sightlines Conference, Melbourne, Australia.
Conference presentations referencing the film:
2016 – Paper: Expanding Boundaries in Experimental Documentary Film at Visible Evidence XXIII, Documentary Conference, Montana State University.
Paper: Fluid Boundaries and the Democratization of Screening Spaces at MeCCSA Annual Conference, Christchurch, University of Canterbury.
Paper: Blurred Boundaries: Remediation of Found Footage in Experimental Documentary Filmmaking in the plenary session on Future Screens at Journal of Media Practice/MeCCSA Practice Symposium.
Paper: Reflections on the Remediation of Found Footage Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Commons at York University, York.
Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Film Awards – Nomination in the Innovation Category.
A clip is on my website www.jilldanielsfilms.com.
I intend to create an installation piece of this film, My Private Life III, in an empty shop in a high street empty shop situation to attract passers-by and members of the local community to enter. The film will be projected on three separate screens. Two armchairs, tea and a newspaper and some knitting will be provided. Spectators may sit, knit and drink tea while watching the characters in the film.
 There are ethical considerations in the choice of direct interviews when the filmmaker perceives that the interviewees do not wish to be confronted.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows.
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
This is a thoughtful, nuanced piece of experimental documentary practice that utilises the split screen and disparate documentary modalities to bring to the fore the fractured, ephemeral and fraught aspects of family memories and subjectivities. There is something deeply affective about the way in which everyday domestic encounters and exchanges with the filmmaker’s parents are integrated with family archive, while the filmmaker’s voice-over questions the integrity of their memories and confronts unspoken secrets.
While there is nothing necessarily new in formal terms in the use of split screen or hybrid strategies to address the underlying themes, what is particularly unique and interesting is the filmed construction of a model house appearing throughout, and its intersection with familial documentary material including home movies, interview and observational filming across screens. What emerges from this intersection is hard to precisely pin down but some of what comes through appears to interrogate notions of home and belonging. This is particularly pertinent given the various exteriors of houses and aspects of everyday domestic life that exist throughout and in line with the stated intentions (in ‘additional information’) of exhibiting the film within an interactive installation that is constructed around a homely environment of sitting, knitting and drinking tea while watching the film.
There is no mention of the purpose or function of the house build footage. One of the research questions locates the work as an inquiry into hybrid strategies in documentary overall and their role in representing memory and subjectivity. To that extent, the film does offer a useful practical response to those questions. The film also achieves the stated intention of adopting an elliptical approach to ‘afford space for spectatorial reflection’ through the interaction of the various modes and the separate screens. There is here a correspondence between the borders dividing the screens, the fragmented images across space and time and the differing tenses and modes of address with which we are presented and the issues of secrecy, omission and absence that pervade family lives.
The second research question frames the inquiry into the ways in which differing tenses through multiple interacting voice-overs can allow for a layered complexity of meaning. To this end, this question is most clearly addressed, as the statement claims, through the various roles the filmmaker adopts, as filmmaker, interlocutor, subject and kin.
Given the deeply personal familial nature of the work and the issues around the secrecy of the filmmaker’s father’s sexuality, the discussion on how the film represents multiple selves and distinct identities in the final paragraph of the statement might have benefited from reference to Michael Renov’s notion of ‘domestic ethnography’ in Domestic ethnography and the Construction of the ‘Other’ Self (2004) and the unique intersubjectivity these kinds of films elicits. This is where My Private Lives II, and its use of hybrid strategies, could make a significant contribution. Alisa Lebow’s Cinema of Me (2012) and First Person Jewish (2008) and Annette Kuhn’s Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (1995) also appear relevant to the issues explored here as do the films of Su Friedrich, Lizzie Thynne, Elspeth kydd, Sandi DuBowski and Mindi Faber. There is some evidence of this in the ‘context’ section which situates the work within Catherine Russell’s work on autoethnography and the films of Chantal Akerman, Michelle Citron and Rea Tajiri, but some greater clarity on where the film develops or sits in relation to this knowledge and lineage of practice would be helpful.
In summary, the film is a very good, original contribution, whereas the statement does not appear to do full justice to the contribution made. My recommendation therefore is to accept the practical work without alternations but to refine the statement to address some of the issues I have raised in order to situate the work where it can make its most useful intervention. That is, to include a brief consideration as to the function of the model house build in the film and some reference to the literature on documentaries that engage family members / material, and identifying where the work sits in relation to this work.
Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
The film, My Private Life II, is a split screen version of an earlier film, My Private Life (2014), a linear documentary on the filmmaker’s two aging parents. Re-editing across three screens some of that film’s material with the addition of new footage and new sounds presents another way of engaging with the main characters for filmmaker and viewer. The intimate story of the couple’s lives, recorded in their home environs, with the daughter/filmmaker using voice over (contemporary and in post-production) to question and comment on their relationship forms the narrative backbone. Family photographs, portraits of the many homes they inhabited, and occasional enactments, e.g. the girl on the swing, add layers of meaning. The main difference in impact of this ‘hybrid’ version is to allow more time and opportunity for viewer reflection, as the images and sounds complement and contrast, double, triple and fade or cut.
The statement is clearly written, highlighting the main differences with the earlier work, providing good references in both text and film, offering context for the content and form of the film. Key elements of the film are highlighted, such as multiple voices, past and present tenses, and changing subjectivities. While there are sufficient references for most aspects of the project, I think that research on split-screen films would improve the written component.
The one area that could be developed is the purpose and impact of the use of split screens in this film. While referred to, it appears under-written, given that this is the key difference with the earlier film. I suggest that one example of how the new film differs from the previous film in this regard is undertaken, with a view to illustrating the potential of this key structural issue. This would foreground the new approach and strengthen the claim to originality, which undoubtedly underlies the project.