Author: Catherine Gough-Brady
Format: Digital Paper
Duration: 13’ 41”
Published: March 2019
I find that form and content are linked in my research, and so my research questions relate to both aspects of the work.
Is it possible to create a digital paper where my voice over does not dominate the work, even though this will reduce the explication?
What effect does the overt presence of the TV presenter have on the public intellectual performing that role, and on the documentarian who is hidden from view? Is there a way of understanding the filmmaking process that avoids the mistake of ascribing all authorial creativity to the visible presence of the presenter?
Stella Bruzzi wrote that the documentarian as presenter has an “overt intrusion” into the narrative of their documentary (2013, 50). In my own work the “overt intrusion” of the presenter is performed by a public intellectual, not myself. So I started to think about what effect the overt intrusion of a presenter has when the documentarian remains behind the camera.
The presenter’s “overt intrusion” leads to the viewer often perceiving them as the author of the documentary. As a result, the work (and self) of the documentary director can be forgotten because it lacks the visibility of the presenter. The director can experience a Kierkegaardian ‘despair’, a loss of self.
To unpack this despair of the loss of self requires returning to the work of the 20th century film critic Alexandre Astruc, one of the fathers of auteur theory. Alexandre Astruc famously wrote about the “age of camera-stylo” in his 1948 article. He was excited that cinema could become an art form with a unique language. What is interesting is that he compared cinema to the novel, which is created by an individual, not to an art form like theatre, which is more collaborative:
- From today onwards, it will be possible for the cinema to produce works which are equivalent, in their profundity and meaning, to the novels of Faulkner and Malraux, to the essays of Sartre and Camus. (1948)
Astruc’s camera-stylo reflects his desire to identify a creative individual as the author of the film work, who is communicating with the audience using the art form. But this is not always the case as film, like theatre, is often created by a group of people. For instance, a startling difference can be seen between part one and the other two films in the The Highlands Trilogy (1983-1992). It is true that directors Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly were seeking to create a different style of documentary in the second instalment of that trilogy, but it is also true that Ray Thomas edited parts two and three, but he did not edit the first film. Unlike a novel which is generally written by a single person, documentaries tend to be made by small teams of people, each of whom affect what we see on the screen. Attempting to find the single author in a film blinds the viewer to the roles that other creators played in the construction of the film.
There is a perception that because the presenter is a public intellectual who embodies the knowledge that they know everything in the series, and even made all the key creative decisions. Using Astruc’s camero-stylo and the auteur to understand the construction of a presenter-driven documentary leads to an over-ascription of the author to the presenter, and the apparent disappearance of the director’s, and production team’s, work in creating the documentary. As much as I am calling out the ‘single author’ idea as a flawed way to analyse presenter-driven documentaries, I am also guilty of using it as a way of focusing audience attention onto the presenter, to encourage the audience to embrace the ideas in the programme. This attribution of authorship to the presenter is not an accident of their overt intrusion, it is something that has been knowingly constructed by the creative team. As Dan Halliday said in “Presenters”, “The audience member was supposed to be feeling that I was just chatting to them one-on-one”.
There is another way to understand the presenter-driven documentary, and that is using Agnes Varda’s cinécriture:
- Cinécriture isn’t the scenario, it’s the ensemble of exploratory walks, the choices, the inspiration, the words one writes, the shooting, the editing: the film is the product of all of these different moments. (2014, 124)
Varda shifts the focus from the author communicating with the audience, to the author communicating with the film itself. It is a practitioner’s perspective rather than a spectator’s. While Varda’s description of cinécriture still implies an author (herself), by panning the lens to face the production processes she shifts our gaze to that part of the filmmaking. It becomes easier to notice that there is in fact more than one person involved in creating the film and that documentary film as an art form is akin to other collaborative art forms. Cinécriture is an approach to understanding the creation of a documentary that can be inclusive of the various selves involved in its production. It is a useful tool to take us behind the construct of the author, to truly evaluate the role of the people involved in the creation of the documentary.
Varda’s cinécriture also opens up an understanding of the myriad of influences on the creation of a documentary, and its combination of malleability and certainty. The presenters in my documentaries seem to be certain of what they are saying and doing, but that hides the reality of the filming process. Choices like framing, lighting, even who is in the film, are partly made as a result of careful consideration by skilled professionals, but sometimes they are a result of chance. For instance, a protest took place on a location where we needed to film, so we adapted to incorporate it. Or, the shot of me under Varda’s quotation in the film “Presenters” is the result of dust interfering in the record button function, I thought I had ‘buttoned off’. Cinécriture includes the surprise and wonder of filmmaking.
In “Presenters” Alison Carroll uses the word ‘rivers’ to describe the elements that need to flow together to form the episode. Using Varda’s cinécriture, or Carroll’s ‘rivers’, gives the scholar an analytical tool to become aware of the web of people, and choices, that are a part of creating documentary TV.
My methods derive from a combination of documentary, essay film, and academic explication. I attempt to find a meeting point for all of these modes of communication in the digital paper. In this particular digital paper, I have reduced my voice over presence, but by reducing my voice over I am also reducing the opportunity for explication. As a result, I do not have enough screen time to dominate the narrative and force a single argument upon the film. This is reflective of my non-visible role in presenter-driven documentaries under discussion.
This digital paper is opened up to allow multiple perspectives to co-exist: the three presenters and the director express different points of view and reveal different experiences. In doing this I am exploring what Laura Rascaroli defines as the embodied spectator: “The essayist does not pretend to discover truths to which he holds the key but allows the answers to emerge somewhere else, precisely in the position occupied by the embodied spectator” (2009, 36). For Rascaroli meaning is not delivered to the viewer, it can also be discovered and formed by them. What interests me is how much formation of meaning the filmmaker can hand over to the viewer before it no longer becomes a digital paper. After all, the idea of explication implies that meaning is formed by the author and delivered to the viewer, not created in an embodied space. I am asking in this work; does explication rely upon authorial control over the narrative? Because I am using Rascaroli’s method, the answer to that question lies with the viewer.
As a director/producer working in presenter-driven documentary form my reaction to my public invisibility is a shrug, it is accepted as part of how it is. I publicly promote the presenter as the embodiment of the documentary, and they are the face for the press. To put myself forward in the public arena and explain what I do would confuse things, and detract from audience engagement with the presenter. I allow the presenter to be perceived as having the authorial role.
However, my reaction is a shrug because I am highly visible within my industry: the TV commissioning editors and grant bodies, the world that matters to me. In this world people are keenly aware of what I do and that is why they recommission me. My despair about my public invisibility did not present itself until I started to move in academic circles, and saw just how invisible I am. My hope is that this digital paper creates some awareness that the presenter is not the sole author, this is a myth that we in the documentary industry have created.
When I use the term ‘despair’, I am using it in a Kierkegaardian sense to mean the tension between the finite and infinite self, and the loss of self. As an atheist documentarian my infinity is not found in a god, but in my creative works, so the tension is between my creative work and my mortal self.
I also hope to draw attention to the despair of the presenter, who is so completely visible in the documentary, and whose body becomes a representation of the ideas. Humans do not usually focus so keenly on their physicality, but a presenter must. They exist in a space somewhere between an actor and filmed subject and their performance draws the viewer into the subject matter, they embody the knowledge. The self that is visible in the documentary is a self that is created to fit the ideal of what a presenter is. As visible as they are, they too can lose themselves.
Pierre Bourdieu identified various forms of capital, and embodied capital is “in the form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body” (1986, 243). The on-screen character of each presenter is a modification of their own personality blended with audience expectation of what a presenter should be, e.g. friendly, passionate, knowledgeable, fair, trustworthy. The presenter displays the ‘dispositions’ of the embodied capital of a presenter, but also has a unique quality which is their own personality, what Bourdieu calls their “outstandingness“ (252). The outstandingness allows them to be perceived as symbolic by the viewing public. I suggest that the process of becoming a symbol is also a process of losing the self, a type of despair.
Finally, I hope that this work adds to the growing discussion about digital papers and what they might be. “Presenters” takes a different form than my first digital paper “Filming” (2017). I think “Presenters” pushes the boundaries of what is possible within the form of the digital paper, and explores where those edges start to blur into a more documentary style of work.
“Presenters” has been presented at two conferences:
Screenwriting Research Network (SRN) 2018 (Milan, Italy)
Screen Studies Association of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand (SSAAANZ) 2018 (Melbourne, Australia)
“Presenters” was created as part of my PhD. I am a recipient of a RMIT Research Stipend Scholarship. My presentation at SRN was funded by Higher Degree by Research Travel Grant from RMIT.
Astruc, Alexandre. “The Birth of a New Avant-Guarde: La Camera-Stylo.” L’Écran Française, 30 March 1948 1948.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by J.G. Richardson, Greenwoood Press, 1986, pp. 241-258.
Bruzzi, Stella. “The Performing Film-Maker and the Acting Subject.” The Documentary Film Book, edited by Brian Winston, BFI Publishing, 2013, pp. 48-58.
Connolly, Bob and Robin Anderson. The Highlands Trilogy 1983-1992, 1x 92 mins, 92 x 120 mins.
Rascaroli. The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film. Wallflower Press, 2009.
Varda, Agnès and T. Jefferson Kline. Agnes Varda : Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2014. Conversations with Filmmakers Series.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept work and statement for publication with no alterations.
In “Presenters”, Catherine Gough-Brady scrutinizes the concept of authority in documentary, it’s sly displacement in the pincer movement of presenter and director. Three presenters are interviewed as ‘presenters’ with authority intact, and then asked to reflect on how they perform expertise. Is authority knowledge? Is expertise how we convince an audience that this is in fact knowledge? Is expertise performed closer to marketing than it is to knowledge?
Her aim in the ‘digital paper’ (a term coined to reflect methodologies taken from documentary, essay film, and academic explication) is to allow multiple perspectives to co-exist: the three presenters and the director express different points of view and reveal different experiences. This is a development of her previous work, “Filming”, which analyzed her social and authorial presence as director, and disappearance in her own films. This film allows her to muse further on the role of the audience as the embodied spectator, who must then take cognitive responsibility to discriminate between views of presenters and director.
If the director allows the viewer to discriminate between competing claims to truth – the visible and declarative opinions of the presenter; the essayist marshaling of words and images; the puncturing of the presenter’s certainties by their confessional anxieties, then, Gough-Brady asks, has she as the director failed to deliver “explication”?
This idea of explication can bear deeper analysis. How does this relate to knowledge, specifically, the sort of knowledge that documentary can produce? Haseman (2009, 220) illuminates the author’s questions with his articulation of research by practice:
- “The creative work is one research output but creative research itself is something that works with the creative component to establish something other, some critical or technological finding for example… research outcomes have to be thought of differently given that the ‘findings’ are an amalgam of contrasting documentation and media forms. This begins to shift what we consider knowledge to actually be and has epistemological implications for each study and the field.”
I find his observation of the process apt for the author’s Kierkegaardian description of the loss of self – experienced by both director and presenter: the presenter who performs a version of themselves that fits the audience’s demands of an approachable expert, and the director whose choices and thought processes have become invisible behind the “overt intrusion” of the presenter. As Haseman notes, her enquiry throws up “extremes of interpretive anxiety for the reflexive research. It is this way because it is deeply emergent in nature and the need to tolerate the ambiguity and make it sensible through heightened reflexivity is a part of what it is to be a successful practice-led researcher in the creative arts.”
Presenters has opened the way to a debate about epistemology: what is the status of the ‘expert’ knowledge performed by the on-screen authority, and how does it sit with the sorts of understanding an audience will achieve, understanding which is the result of a hidden set of manipulations of structure, of image, as much as of spoken word. It may benefit from a deeper understanding of the poetics, as well as the social significance of documentary, which would allow the author to muse more deeply on what sorts of connection a documentary can make with its audience.
Haseman, Brad and Mafe, Daniel (2009) ‘Acquiring Know-How: Research Training for Practice-Led Researchers’, in H. Smith and R. Dean (eds), Practice- Led Research, Research-Led Practice in the Creative Arts (Research Methods for the Arts and Humanities). Edinburgh University Press, 211–28.
Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
This project is structured around two sets of research questions. One pertaining to the form of the “digital paper” or video essay and the other to its content. In her research questions, Catherine Gough-Brady asks:
- “Is it possible to create a digital paper where my voice over does not dominate the work, even though this will reduce the explication?”
- “Is there a way of understanding the filmmaking process that avoids the mistake of ascribing all authorial creativity to the visible presence of the presenter?”
When read side-by-side, these questions reveal a tension underlying this project. How does a filmmaker deal with their simultaneous visibility and invisibility to the viewer? How do they negotiate between their presence and the presenter’s—the body performing as the face and voice of a particular project. Gough-Brady’s written statement and her video essay each address these questions in their own way. The video focusing more on the presenter’s experience and the written statement on the filmmaker’s theories.
The video opens with presenter number one, Alison Carroll. She is positioned with her back to the viewer, a mirror held in her hand. Our only glimpse of her face comes from the reflection in this mirror. Everything about this shot creates interest and mystery around the presenter. Who is this person? Will more of her be revealed? These mysteries set the tone for the video to come. It forefronts the presenters, their experiences, and heightens the viewer’s curiosity about who these people really are.
The video that follows is focused on exploring these questions. We meet three different presenters that Gough-Brady has worked with. Each is introduced with their back to us, a partial reflection, and an invitation to learn more. Gough-Brady asks each presenter connected questions: What was it like, physically, to be in front of the camera? Who are you on camera and who are you in real life? How did it feel to be directed by me?
This is a compelling and engaging exploration of a presenter’s experience. However, Gough-Brady’s written statement hints at other questions. In particular, her own concern about her invisibility within her own work and “despair” at her disappearance. There are glimpses of these concerns in the video itself. At the start of the video, it begins with Gough-Brady’s voice and a momentary glimpse of her behind the camera, filling the mirror and replacing our glimpse of Alison Carroll. Later, there are two important beats where Gough-Brady’s voice returns and she introduces the words of Alexandre Astruc and Agnes Varda. Each time, she discusses her role as the director in relation to Astruc’s notion of the auteur or Varda’s cinécriture.
What fascinates me about this is that the project seems to be replicating the despair and loss of presence that Gough-Brady wants to explore. Her first research question sets a goal to not let her voice dominate. In the process, the video has shifted our focus, again, on the experiences of the presenters, rather than balancing between the experience of the presenter and the experience of the director. Instead, the written statement is where Gough-Brady’s voice feels loudest and where thoughts regarding the role and visibility of the filmmaker seem to come through more clearly.
I’m not sure I want to fully rectify this tension, because it is so wonderful to watch it play out. On one level, it enacts Gough-Brady’s research question: “Is there a way of understanding the filmmaking process that avoids… ascribing all authorial creativity to the visible presence of the presenter?” As currently structured, the video tells the presenters’ stories and asks the viewer to connect with them more than any others. Thus, in the process, we are inclined to minimize Gough-Brady’s experience and privilege the presenters.
I see two potential paths for revision here: One would be to recognize that being present in the video is not the same as dominating the video. If the struggle here is to have the viewer recognize all the parties involved and to place these experiences in dialog with each other, then each of these parties needs to have an equal voice in the process. That entails a common mode of address and a visible presence on the screen. An alternative approach would be to lean into the tension between the author’s written voice and video’s visual emphasis on the presenter’s presence/experience.
In either case, I would suggest reworking the written statement so that it draws clear connections between Gough-Brady’s experience working with these presenters and Astruc or Varda’s frameworks. For example, I would love to hear how the example of The Highlands Trilogy does or does not mirror Gough-Brady’s experiences. Or, when walking us through Astruc and Varda’s views, how do these frameworks connect with Gough-Brady’s lived experiences? At what point does Astruc’s approach begin to fall short and why? At what point does Varda’s become more useful?
It may not be possible for Gough-Brady to find a comfortable balance between her voice and the presenters in the video. That, in and of itself, is compelling. I would love to hear Gough-Brady reflect further on this specific negotiation and what she’s learned from her own efforts to explore these conflicting project goals.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.