Author: Kim Munro
Published: April 2021
Much social-issue documentary making which follows in the Griersonian tradition is still predicated on the ongoing binary axis of the testimony of victim (Brian Winston 1988) and filmmaker as voice-giver (Trinh T. Minh-ha 1992). In the production of documentary about social issues, an unspoken contract between maker and participant is established, where in return for the participation, the filmmakers make an artefact which will bear witness to their stories, experiences and trauma. However, often the pressure to provide convincing evidence through affective and persuasive means from testimony can burden the participant and the filmmaker relationship. The reliance on first-person accounts of people in crisis also presents the problem of sustained listening in both the filmmaking process as well as the finished film.
Nichols’s concept of “voice” continues to be used, in terms of both authorship and the involvement of participants in the work (Kate Nash, 2014). With voice, there is an ongoing association with knowledge and epistephelia. Paula Rabinowitz (1994) and Trinh (1992) argue that the reliance on participants’ voices and testimony as evidence in documentary can often be totalising. In this research and film, I was interested in the broad question of what if documentary were less about speaking what is known, but rather a practice of not always knowing. In this work, a turn to a philosophy of listening through the works Gemma Corradi Fiumara (1995) and Lisbeth Lipari (2014) foregrounds multiplicity, complexity and the acceptance and affirmation of the other in their difference. Rather than relying primarily on first-person testimony, I sought to employ a range of representational strategies to tell the story of these participants and the event. These include the off-screen conversations, the interactions between myself and the participants, the observational mode of witnessing the rhythms of the seasons as well as post-production editing strategies, layering images and sound. With this in mind, my research questions were:
How can documentary participation be thought of more broadly than through first-person account?
This question addresses the concept of voice and attempts to shift away from the human-centric notion of voice towards one that also includes the materiality of the documentary site. In thinking through this question, I was interested in Jane Bennett’s (2010) “vibrant matter” and how attending to the vitalism of everyday objects and materials can shift the focus on the human voice as giving an account of the event. The Park explores how decentralising the role of first-person accounts, and situating the human voice among a range of other modes of participation, can ease the burden of the affective labour of first-person testimonies.
How can social justice documentary documentaries use poetic forms that translate the material rather than use indexical representation?
The subject matter of this film is as old as Grierson himself (almost). Knowing that these stories are common, doesn’t lessen the impact on the affected individuals. In the early part of filming, I took some footage to a producer who predictably asked me “What’s the story?” I was determined to the let the material speak, let the story emerge and foreground the countless lived moments over the period in which it was made. I was interested in how documentary can shift beyond representing that which is in the frame, and rather translate the experience of the event and the relational aspects of the experience. Hito Steyerl (2006) claims that shifting documentary representation towards a process of translation, which both critiques indexical images and realism’s claim on authentic depiction, can free the filmmaker from making decontextualised claims on what the documentary is and how it purports to know. Borrowing Steyerl’s use of translation supports my claims that the form of the documentary should emerge from each context, rather than rely on predetermined approaches which configure knowledge and experience as teleological.
How can a practice of listening create spaces of dwelling with rather than knowing the other?
This question calls into question documentary’s claim on totalising knowledge. In theorising listening as a way to think about documentary as a space which offers the possibility of multiple ways of knowing, I draw on Lipari’s idea of listening as a way “dwelling with”, rather than “knowing” an other (2010, pp. 350-51). In also challenging the dominance of epistephilia in documentary and the commodification of documentary into stories with familiar arcs, I borrow Corradi Fiumara’s critique of the concept of “interesting” and the numbing effects induced through constantly seeking spectacle. Corradi Fiumara writes that “In a culture determined by the technology of information the human condition is ever more scrutinized and exposed, as if the dominant tendency were to seek out ever more ‘interesting’ material”. She goes on to add that “we are increasingly immunised through exposure to human suffering as it is passed to us by the media” (1995, pp. 171-72).
I first became aware of Wantirna Caravan Park situation through reading an article in The Guardian, titled “’It’s public housing or my car’: Longriver and the caravan park residents facing homelessness”. The park was not far from where I had lived for a few years as a child however, I never knew it existed as its hidden from the road. I contacted one of the residents mentioned in the article and he invited me to a meeting that was being held the next day.
The resulting film, The Park is a 28-minute film which was part of the exhibition Am I at Home. The exhibition was held in a gallery after the residents had moved out of the caravan park but in the same council area as where they had lived. The location was important in that it was local and accessible to the mostly elderly residents. The exhibition contained ephemera such as the protest signs from the roadside actions over the eight months, letters written by the residents and photographs of the site over the final year. The film was projected on a wall of the gallery. Towards the end of the exhibition, we held an event where one of the primary participants of the film, and the leader of the Wantirna Residents Action Group performed. Together, the audience watched the film and had an afternoon tea with local residents and council members. Throughout the exhibition, the evicted residents were often at the gallery doing advocacy and telling stories of their experiences. The film and the glimpses of the residents’ lives and personalities, was a counterpoint to some of the other material in the gallery. The film and the exhibition as a space of dialogue and critique recalls de Michiel and Zimmermann’s manifesto on open space documentary, where the practitioners become “context providers” instead of “content providers” (2013, p. 358).
The Park and the accompanying exhibition were the final project in my practice-led PhD which consisted of a range of projects that explored practices of listening as a way to counter the alienating force of neoliberalism, and reconstitute a sense of the collective. The research developed through a series of documentary experiments which examined experiences of aloneness, through spatial configurations of interactive and multi-screen works, to a site-specific walk and finally, a polyvocal installation. The methodology is informed by critical understandings of the neoliberal subject as a socially and politically isolated figure, and also phenomenological accounts of listening as an embodied and relational experience. Throughout this research, I claimed that when we attend more closely to the act of listening, documentary presents a way of being with, rather than, simply knowing others.
Situated in the field of documentary, my methods included traditional documentary strategies such as interviews, audio recordings and observational footage. However, theoretically, I drew on a range of fields including sound studies, philosophy, new-materialism, post-humanism and political theory.
In positioning myself within the (auditory) frame, where my voice is often heard interacting with the participants, I also draw on the essay film and the subjective perspective this form affords. I would argue that my non-dominant role precludes The Park from being an essay film. However, having said that, I am wary of any fixed notion of what the essay film is and refer to the work of Laura Rascaroli and Nora Alter.
When this film was first exhibited in the gallery, it had less explication in the form of the text on screen in the beginning and ending. This is because context was provided though the other materials. As a stand-alone film, I edited it to include more of a narrative structure and set-up through the opening text.
I present The Park as an opportunity to consider how stories about social injustices might be told. I hope this presents a model that counters the dominance and overuse of speaking, whether as narration or interview, in mainstream documentary. Geoffrey Cox claims that the dominance of speaking in documentary forecloses the space for reflection (2018, p. 5). As though without being told, the audience would otherwise be at a loss for meaning. Withholding the narrational voice can thereby subvert dominant expectations of what documentary will do, thereby presenting another way to experience it. Rather than documentary as a space for speaking and informing, in The Park, and within the exhibition, documentary becomes a space of listening.
Segments of The Park were screened during presentations at Visible Evidence in Beunos Aires in 2017 and i-Docs in Bristol in 2018. The Park was screened at the Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy conference at RMIT University in 2019.
I have also written about The Park and the use of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010) in ‘Rethinking first-person testimony through a vitalist account of documentary participation’ in Frames Cinema Journal (2017). Further, I have written about the filmmaking process and participation (with Paola Bilbrough) in ‘An ecology of relationships tensions and negotiations in documentary filmmaking practice as research,’ in Media Practice and Education (2018).
In terms of the activism of the caravan park residents, while they all moved out eventually, the protests and petitions resulted in the Victorian state law being changed to entitle displaced caravan park residents to compensation for financial and material losses occurred.
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
Corradi Fiumara, G. (1995) The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening. London: Routledge.
Couldry, N. (2010) Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Cox, G. (2018) ‘Introduction. In Cox, G. and Corner, J., eds, Soundings: Documentary Film and The Listening Experience, 2018, pp. 1–14. Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield Press.
De Michiel, H. and Zimmerman, P. (2013) ‘Documentary as an Open Space’. In Winston, B., ed. The Documentary Film Book, 2013, pp. 355–65. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lisbeth L. (2010) ‘Listening, Thinking, Being.’ Communication Theory 20, no. 3. pp. 348-362.
Lipari, L. (2014) Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Nichols, B. (1983) ‘What gives documentary a voice of their own?’ Film Quarterly 36.3 pp. 17-30.
Steyerl, H. (2006) ‘The Language of Things.’ European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies 3.
Trinh, T. M.H. (1992) Framer Framed. New York: Routledge.
Winston, B. (1988) ‘The Tradition of the Victim in Griersonian Documentary.’ Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film, and Television. Ed. Gross, L., Katz, J. S., Ruby, J. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 34-57
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement.
In this documentary film there is an empathetic performance of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s crucial approach to filmmaking as ‘speaking nearby’. This is adequately referenced early in the supporting statement, which emphasises the need to reflect about the relation between representers and representees, even more so when dealing with sensitive social issues. The one being dealt with in this case is the human right to housing, often threatened by structural inequalities. The film takes a road-trip aesthetic approach at the beginning, where the speed of the journey may be passing by live stories and experiences of human beings at the margins of society. The intersection of lighting, colour grading and a carefully orchestrated sound mixing evoke a sense of uncertainty represented by shots on the move.
This establishing sequence smoothly takes us to the Wantirna Caravan Park, in the outskirts of Melbourne, where a settled community built over years is suddenly disrupted by the one-year notice of its closure. “No idea about what’s going to happen”, we overhear in the midst of a multi-sensory confusion. It is then that the camera zooms in to that site that represents home, and where the filmmaker interacts, in solidarity with the community of The Park. To the initial poetic documentary style, there is a move towards an observational style, that shows a series of houses. From there, the filmmaker adopts an interactive documentary mode, which prompts the empathetic encounter with the community. That is when the idea of “being with, rather than, simply knowing others”, as claimed in the supporting statement, take full shape.
Through spontaneous interactions with the technologies of representation between the community in the Park, the camera, microphone and filmmaker, the film creates a sense of intimacy and a safe environment of trust. Having this been established, the voices acquire the deserved strength, as if they were transmitted through the megaphone that Peter is holding at some point in the film, in preparation for the rally. The collectiveness of the space is emphasised through a palimpsestic aesthetic where off-screen voices commenting on the camera’s focus are kept, in interaction with the filmmaker. “We are dark clouds”, we hear someone say, as the camera is poetically taken us to the surrounding space that has fostered such home.
Such “landscape photography” both serve to enhance the poetic style of the documentary and convey the rootedness embedded in the featured space. Care and belonging become revolving themes, continuously appearing in the various interviews, and aesthetically conveyed through an empathetic camera speaking nearby the community in The Park. I wonder if this is an aspect that could be emphasised in the supporting statement when reflecting about “the broad question of what if documentary were less about speaking [about] what is known, but rather a practice of not always knowing”, which is such an excellent point.
There is a polyphonic methodological intervention, discussed in the statement as a decentralisation of the voice, in that responds audiovisually (and haptically) to the first research question. Because of the reflexivity of the filmmaking approach and the road-trip-like opening sequence, I was also wondering if we could hear a bit more of how the filmmaker first arrives to this site and encounters the community at The Park. This film makes a genuine new contribute to our understanding of practice-research and raises crucial questions around the ethics of filming subject. The film is ready to be published and I am sure that through its publication in Screenworks, it will inspire further scholars working on the idea of home and belonging, as well as filmmakers concerned with ethical and empathetic ways of interacting with filmed subjects.
Review 2: Accept submission for publication with no amendments.
I think that this could be edited more tightly down to about 20-22 minutes. If the director/ producer decides against this, I would respect their decision – however, nearly half an hour is quite a sizeable length for a short documentary and I am not convinced that the characters we are introduced to are as compelling as the narrative itself. I was most taken by Mary, whose finest moment comes when she plays with the boom mic – although I’d advise against showing the mic in a documentary, I absolutely loved this unexpected little piece of human interaction. It’s a brief moment of magic – mediating even the famous writing by Bazin on Kon Tiki (Thor Heyerdahl, 1950), where the author makes a comment about how the appearance of a large whale – unplanned, of course, by the production – shows that the best moments in documentary come without our planning. On the other hand, I never felt especially connected with the others in this documentary – rather, it was their plight that made me feel more attached to this project. This is not to be seen as a criticism of the director, I know all too well that documentaries benefit from interesting people in front of the camera and all evidence indicates that Munro was working very well with what was there.
Style-wise, I really like the decision to generally avoid manipulative music and some of the set-ups are good. There are some quite stylised shots of the outside of the various character’s living quarters – although I do not think this interferes with the generally taught realism. I enjoyed watching this documentary and the use of opening and closing titles is a better call than expository narration. I have marked this as ‘average’ in terms of originality for the reason that this sort of ‘social justice’ story – in which the everyman is victimised by a form of hierarchy – is not unusual, especially for documentarians seeking a ‘sob’ story (all the while being removed, both figuratively and financially from the impact of such issues). Nonetheless, I was impressed by the fact Munro avoids trying to create a sense of emotional manipulation – this is very much as factual as possible and does not attempt to make a grandstanding statement or offer any answers to this disturbing scenario. All in all, this is a good piece of work that shows a talented filmmaker at work and a convincing call for attention to localised issues.
Review 3: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement.
This research examines how poetry in documentary can function as a means of decentring and problematising the expository-authority of the filmmaker. The poetic nature of ‘The Park’ allows the participants to define the context wherein we encounter their world, and examines how ‘listening’, ‘translation’ and ‘re-interpretation’ collectively constitute the most productive space in which to investigate or portray powerlessness and social injustice. The film seeks to break with a totalising need to exclusively rely on, and ‘bear witness’ to, the first-person testimony and ‘voice’ of the participants. The film proffers a storytelling rubric which is less interested in “what we know” than what may be existentially “unknowable” in a singular, finite or unequivocal sense. Consequently, the film’s achievement in capturing the immensity of the participants’ experience in losing their homes and finding themselves displaced, is significant in its methodological approach.
In every visual language, genre and format the nature of standard aesthetic conventions and story-structure-formats effectively ‘interpolate’, ‘presume’ and define a spectator and an audience. Too often this process can limit the ability of the film-artefact to express/ articulate with/and resonate with the experiences of diverse and multicultural audiences. However, as filmmakers attempting to deconstruct these standard stylistic conventions and genre-forms we sometimes, unintentionally, further interrupt and impede the process by which the viewer identifies with the central characters on screen. The strength of the methodological approach employed by Munro is that in foregrounding what I would describe as ‘articulation silences’ in the visual style, she manages to accentuate, rather than limit, the empathy we feel for the displaced characters in her story. She situates her characters within a visual format which effectively liberates them from a depoliticised filmic space. Munro avoids depicting her characters as ‘victims’ or as ‘heroes’ in a standard ‘David & Goliath battle’ against the relentless forces of change and development. Instead, the specific poetic format she employs in this film produces a thoughtful, sustained, and evocative enquiry into the complexities that so often are omitted in more conventional storytelling.
This work is explorative, interrogative, self-reflexive and is a strong example of practice-based research which adopts alternative styles and visual modes in filmmaking to articulate more powerful stories, study more complex characters, and which interpolates more active, questioning spectators. Munro has constructed a visual space wherein diverse spectators and audiences can actively contemplate and consider the social processes which produce inequality and hegemony.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.