Owls and Parrots
Author: Robert Greens
Format: Digital Video
Duration: 5′ 29″
Published: February 2020
The aim of the work was to find the story in the filmmaking process and how that exploratory process challenged the author in depicting the ‘subjective’ aspects of dyslexia. I want to ask how and to what effect viable versions of the self came to be constructed through the notion of the voice and how does the notion of the voice have to be understood beyond obvious and simple effects and linear processes? As such, one useful criterion might be to what extent the role of voice in filmmaking work contributes to and challenges the idea of the ‘cinematic’ form.
Preferably use headphones when you watch. Note: the film is “live”, it is not an image and the background sound of the children in the playground is diegetic and was recorded along with the image. Differences in the light and subtle movements in the picture are more noticeable when the film is watched on a big screen.
The research questions that informed Owls and Parrots are:
- How does the aesthetics of short filmmaking synchronise a sense of story but with an openness to story?
- How can filmic techniques be employed to create a sense of storytelling that is separate from the omnipresence of the director?
- How can subjective aspects of dyslexia be communicated through film?
How and to what effect viable versions of the self came to be constructed through the notion of the voice?
This work extends from my journal article ‘Character Over Concept: Writing dialogue in search of story’ (Greens 2017) published in the Journal of Screenwriting. In that article I argued that an exploratory approach to screenwriting, specifically the benefits of allowing a screenplay to develop through writing dialogue in search of scenes, characters and story, can enhance the quality of the individual character’s voice – rather than using a ‘concept’ or a logline. Owls and Parrots began in this unrestricted manner, whereby I followed my inquisitiveness and curiosity about the way dyslexics can muddle words, develop ‘new’ words, and how this is rarely depicted in cinema accurately and truthfully.
The film may appear ‘simple’ but the process to develop its final version was rigorous and carefully considered. I invited a colleague (who is also dyslexic) to interview me about my experience, thoughts and feelings about the learning disability. I did not ask her to prepare questions, neither did I set any questions, apart from the topic of being dyslexic. I transcribed the entire interview and selected content. I then broke the transcription into smaller sections to make it easier for my 7-year old nephew to read. In post-production, the narration was cut, sentences were reordered, and sections or sentences were re-recorded by my nephew for clarity, and, to highlight what I had learned, I wanted to communicate via this exploratory filmmaking process.
As Jim Lane expresses in The Autobiographical Documentary in America, the aim of producing an autobiographical documentary is more to ‘strive to construct subjective representations while making reference to the historical world of events’ (2002: 5), and less to present events veraciously. A historical and scientific objective account of past events was not the aim of Owls and Parrots. A documentary tends to edit images in an order to recourse ‘facts’, to debate arguments, with the aim to ‘to produce something like “verifiable knowledge”’ (Renov 2008: 40). Whereas autobiography is:
life construction through “text” construction’, the building blocks of a filmic life construction can be not words (rich with connotation) or brushstrokes but indexical signs bearing the stamp of the real. (Renov 2008: 41)
The decision to detail my experiences of being at school with undiagnosed dyslexia and how it affects me today cinematically rather than say a written form, was that the autobiographical documentary provided a ‘physical connection to the real thing that they represent’ (Lane 2002: 5). The narrator in Owls and Parrots stumbles over expressions, accidentally inventing new words, symbolising difficulties in expressing thoughts and feelings. Making the voice indistinct and occasionally mispronouncing words (and possibly not always clearly expressing the point), the viewer has to actively reframe mispronounced words (“easy” instead of essay; “dislexius” instead of dyslexia), and, as the film continues forward, the viewer has to search for meaning, guess, or possibly miss meaning. This challenge for myself with forming the story in an exploratory fashion was to balance comprehension of the narrator’s story while allowing miscommunications.
The filmmaking process also functioned as ‘a vehicle for self-examination, a means through which to construct self-knowledge through recourse to the familial other’ (Renov 2004). By constructing and reordering sentence and topics in post-production, I too discovered themes between my past and present educational experience and connections to current working practices.
The aim of the work was for the voice-over to be ‘the image-maker’ (Kozloff 1998: 44) rather than accompany an image. The locked-off single shot of the classroom aims to situate, and focus on, the narrator’s voice; thus the viewer is lead to imagine what has taken place in that classroom rather than being distracted by what is occurring within the frame. The role of a narrator provides a certain bias and subjectivity, in that ‘we put our faith in the voice not as created but as creator’ (Kozloff 1998: 45). The child’s voice, separate from the omnipresent of the director, is how we examine and judge the events being recounted (e.g. the teacher swearing in frustration about the narrator’s inability to understand some instructions). The narrator does not speak about the classroom on screen: the boy speaks from “nowhere.” We hear the diegetic sound of children playing outside the classroom space, and this sound forces the viewer to ‘realize that the story is itself framed by other space and other time’ (Kozloff 1998: 77); that the world depicted on screen (the now) is different from the world discussed in the narration (the past). Instead of confusing the viewer, this small but important difference allows the viewer to connect their experiences with the narrator’s. Viewers have also remarked (in correspondence and left online where the film has been posted) that the film has helped them to imagine what their dyslexic child may be going through at school.
Commonly, cinematic narrators attempt to clarify through narration, rather than distract or confuse us. They tend to speak minimally, are not consistently present, and are often assumed to be conveying a character’s physical point of view. Genette has redefined ‘point of view’ as ‘focalization’, separating who’s point of view we learn about (‘who sees?’), and who the narrator is (‘who speaks’) (1998: 161). The experiences we hear about in Owls and Parrots are, at times, incongruent to ‘who speaks’ them. Though the narration is told in the ‘first-person’, the anonymous narrator’s voice is a lot younger than the nineteen-year old student who found out he was dyslexic at university. This could distract the viewer or lead them to discount narrated events. Instead, this discrepancy and the awkward expression becomes a source of meaning, using ‘the interplay between the narrative action, the story, and the process of telling it’ (Kozloff 1998: 53). Through this difference and because of this difference from a typical enunciated narrator is one of the ways the film opens a relationship to the other, as opposed to in spite of difference or by overcoming difference. This response to alterity recalls the work of director Jay Rosenblatt, who does not comprehend, possess, or subdue difference. Rather his films:
experiment in listening and attending rather than dictating and assigning. They reach out to the other—without grasping or assimilating the other under a category or to a stereotype. They let the other speak, let the other person’s difference have a place in their sounds and images. (Bergen-Aurand 2009)
The impact of the child’s voice, the sound of their innocence, perhaps reflecting the scared child in all of us, arguably overpowers any illogic with the way the content is told.
The power of the voice creates a feeling of connection and intimacy. Allowing the viewer time to settle and study one image gives the narrator even more power. Michel Chion remarks that we analyse the voice like any other sound, to ‘localise and if possible identify the voice’ (1999: 5). Whenever a human voice is heard, viewers naturally focus towards it and try to extract meaning from what they hear. The youthfulness in the voice of the narrator at times corresponds approximately with the age the subject was when the events described in the narration occurred (e.g. having to be taken aside by a teacher to be calmed down), and, consequently, articulating thoughts and feelings that many children may be unable to do at that age.
Adopting methods of exploratory writing and filmmaking, I position myself within the field of video art and screenwriting. My filmmaking draws upon the film essay and the experimental in the way I approach the development of the script and then structure the material around ideas that grew out of the process and that would respond the most to a viewer.
Owls and Parrots explores the role of dialogue, voice, and narration in autobiographical documentaries. In this context, the work aims to contribute to the dialogue with other practitioners in this field through screenings, articles, presentations at conferences and its online presence.
Points of discussion and interest are: the exploratory process used to develop the work, the challenges to demonstrate and activate in the viewer’s mind the perspective and experiences of a dyslexic person, the double layering of discourse and story, and the role of voice to create meaning.
The film was self-funded. It was circulated in March 2018 and within 48-hours had over 1,000 views. This motivated me to submit it to festivals, but primarily I have made this film to be published on the peer-reviewed online journal Screenworks.
The film was showcased at Shorts Night at the Catford Festival in June 2018.
I was approached to write a blog post about making the film for the company Dyslexic Codebreakers.
The film was shared through online support groups for people with or supporting those who have dyslexia. The response was very positive and the film continues to be shared. At the time of writing the number of views is over 2,500.
Some of the comments to the film [names have been removed]:
“I’ve listened to Owls & Parrots about three times and cried every time. A truly powerful piece of work that resonated with my own experience of undiagnosed dyslexia.”
“Absolutely beautiful. My son is 16 and has only just been diagnosed. This made me cry. He has felt he was stupid for years. A definite parrot. […] Thank you so much for sharing. All schools should see this. Great choice to have a child voicing it too, so touching.”
“What a wonderful, touching and beautiful film. I could totally identify with it, demonstrating the social and emotional implications of being dyslexic.”
“That was the most touching and loveliest piece I’ve ever listened too. Thank you so very much for doing this. I remember being that age and know how lonely it can be.”
“Wow, that made me cry. What a powerful lovely film. Well done xx”
“Fab film, just watched it, it made me cry and think of the struggles my daughter has, thank you for sharing xx”
Bergen-Aurand, B. (2009) ‘Jay Rosenblatt’, Sense of Cinema, Issue 53, December, http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/great-directors/jay-rosenblatt/.
Chion, M. (1999) The Voice in Cinema. Translated by Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press.
Genette, G. (1980) Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Greens R. (2017) ‘Character Over Concept: Writing dialogue in search of story’, Journal of Screenwriting, 8:1, pp. 39-54.
Kozloff, S. (1988) Invisible Storytellers: Voice-over narration in American fiction film. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lane, J. (2002) The Autobiographical Documentary in America. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
Rascaroli, L. (2009) The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film. London: Wallflower Press.
Renov, M. (2004) The Subject of Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnestoa Press.
—. (2008) ‘First-person films: some theses on self-inscription’ in W. de Jong & T. Austin (eds), Rethinking Documentary: New perspectives, new practices. Open University, Buckingham.
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 (these should be outlined in detail in the review).
The short autobiographical video, Owls and Parrots, by Robert Greens uses a voiceover driven production approach to reveal the first person education experiences of a young person with dyslexia from primary school through to university. The director has cast a young boy to deliver the voiceover script, a choice that powerfully emphasises the vulnerability of young people in such circumstances. The script was developed out of unstructured interviews about the director’s own experiences as a student and how he was treated and constructed by his educators. The work is moving and engaging with intriguing resonances established between the locked off shot of the ‘anyplace’ of the school-classroom-as-location and the openness of the voiceover content and the, at times, tentative delivery. I enjoyed watching the piece and found the experience emotionally affecting.
As a creative practice research project it is well designed with an appropriate scope and a well-focused range of investigations. This methodological approach is, in itself, a valuable contribution to creative practice research as it showcases a sustainable and precise way to examine key creative choices via small scale but audience-facing productions.
The researcher states that “[t]he aim for the work was for the voice-over to be ‘the image-maker’”. The project is successful in achieving this aim. The compelling nature of the anecdotes that are revealed through the narration sustain viewer interest, leaving space for the viewer to empathise and imagine out from the highly loaded stories that are shared. However, rather than the viewer being led “to imagine what has taken place in that classroom”, the location offered this viewer a proxy that could stand in for any classroom.
The visual content is of occasional interest and provides a poignant reminder of the kinds of sites where some of the narrated events could have occurred. However, the visual material is perceived as a placeholder, a generalised any-location where similar events might occur, a generic rendering of ‘school room’. No deeper resonances are accrued through acknowledged connections with the original events – the significance is instead overlaid onto the location through the recounting of key moments as we look at the space, searching for potential links. This is location used in the manner of drama/fiction (chosen for narrative effect and mise-en-scène) rather than the way we might be accustomed to see it used in documentary (sites chosen because of a specific relationship to events or topics being considered).
Similarly the child’s voice represented a general idea of young-child-ness, conveying a pleasing guilelessness and sincerity, even in the moments where the performance displayed uncertainty. Again, this permitted the viewer to personalise the work – it prompted compassion for the situations being recounted, fondness for the young performer and the authenticity he conveyed and left me to wonder if the young people in my life experienced similar harshness and difficulty. Dara Waldron’s application of the Sartrean notion of ‘depiction’ may be interesting for the author to follow up as a way to conceptualise how such a process operates (Waldron 2014).
The key areas of contribution are in the scripting process, the pairing of the narration with a ‘poor’ image (Marks 2000) (Steyerl 2009) and the impact of the choice to cast a young boy for the voice over as an affective trigger. While all three of these techniques have been explored in differing ways elsewhere, the combination presented in Owls and Parrots attains considerable impact. For example, there are interesting moments where the ‘real’ that is a result of production choices breaks through as the young performer struggles with difficult and unfamiliar words in the script. This close alignment between topic and creative realisation is satisfying at a deep level for the viewer. The casting choice also capitalises upon pre-existing associations with children’s voices whereby the audience interprets pauses and raising inflections in the voiceover delivery as a willingness to please, activating a sense of protectiveness that one might generally feel towards a vulnerable child.
The written statement would benefit from further editing to strengthen the description of the creative approach, more strongly situate the work within an existing community of practice and to correct typographical and grammatical mistakes as well as some general errors of expression. For example, the sentence: “The child’s voice becomes a prism which we examine and judge the events being recounted (e.g. the teacher swearing in frustration about the narrator’s inability to understand some instructions)”.
Firstly, I don’t agree that the child’s voice is a prism. If the author is committed to this metaphor, then it needs to be further unpacked to support the association. Secondly, the sentence could be structured for greater clarity. Is the child’s voice a prism through which we examine and judge events or is it a prism we examine and then use as a context in which to judge events?
There is an error in the final citation of Kozloff in the Context section (Kaoloff should be Kozloff).
The stated research questions could be revised to more strongly focus on what emerges from the creative practice research process.
– how does hearing a voice, as opposed to seeing an image or reading a title, affect our connection to a subject? is a question that seems to require audience research.
– how does hearing a voice not attached to the storyteller affect our understanding and our ‘identification’ with the subject? is again a question of reception.
– how can invisible aspects of dyslexia be communicated through film? I’m not sure what is meant by the ‘invisible aspects’ of dyslexia – perhaps subjective aspects or personal experiences of dyslexia is more accurate?
There is a level at which the overlap between creative practice research and audience reception research is unavoidable as we can never know whether a goal such as increasing understanding is achieved until the work encounters an audience (and then measuring such an outcome is another exercise in itself). In addition, the reviewer relies on their own experience as an audience member of the work, alongside any documentation of the production process, when assessing the research outcomes. However, there is nonetheless scope to rephrase the research questions and assessment criteria to focus more on the findings that arise from the production of the piece.
The author may find the following references relevant for further research into areas related to the current work:
Renov, M. 2004, The subject of documentary, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
This book focuses on “nontraditional modes of autobiographical practice [such] as the essay film, the video confession, and the personal Web page”.
Renov, M. 2008, First-person films: some theses on self-inscription, in W. de Jong & T. Austin(eds), Rethinking documentary: new perspectives, new practices, Open University, Buckingham (This chapter looks at how autobiographical practice sits in relation to other non-fiction film practices).
Trinh, T.M.-H. 1992, Framer framed, Routledge, New York ; London. (This book includes discussion of the process of interviewing subjects to develop a script that was then performed by actors in her film Surname Viet, Given Name Nam).
Filmmakers whose work is relevant to consider include Patrick Keillor and Jay Rosenblatt.
I congratulate the author/director on producing this engaging and thought-provoking work.
Marks, L.U. 2000, The skin of the film : intercultural cinema, embodiment, and the senses, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
Steyerl, H. 2009, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, e-flux journal, vol. 10, viewed 22 December 2018 <https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/>.
Waldron, D. 2014, ‘The poetic mode as depiction: sense-value and Gideon Koppel’s sleep furiously’, Studies in Documentary Film, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 116-129.
Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement (these should be outlined in detail in the review).
This is an interesting and worthwhile project that will undoubtedly contribute to knowledge and understanding around dyslexia. The feedback received on the film thus far is very positive and it clearly has much value in an educational setting. The Director does, however, explicitly say that primarily he has ‘made this film to be published on the peer-reviewed online journal Screenworks’. This is more problematic, as Screenworks has a remit to publish practice research in film and screen media which offers a space for research contexts and I don’t feel that this submission quite manages to do this in its current form.
Whilst the accompanying research statement provides an interesting and clear route map of the research process, I am not convinced that the research context is robust enough. In particular, my concern is that, though described as an experimental film, the work is not put into dialogue with other work in this field to show how it is contributing to an ongoing and ever evolving field of practice. As the Director himself states, the film does come across as being somewhat simple. Whilst the case for this is well argued within an educational context of bringing forth new knowledge about an important subject, what is much less clear is how it is contributing to knowledge and experience in relation to the cinematic form. Within this context, the Director is very clear that he wanted to explore a cinematic as opposed to literary approach to his own experience of dyslexia as a child, the accompanying statement fails to engage with the audio form to justify the benefits of delivering this piece as a film rather than an audio piece.
For publication in a practice research journal such as Screenworks, this could perhaps be resolved through a more robust consideration of audience and/or through further exploration of the relationship between process and form perhaps by making the research process more evident within the film itself.
All reviews refer to original research statement which has been edited in response.