When Dahlias Bend Down
Author: Tasos Giapoutzis
Duration: 14′ 30″
Published: May 2021
– Can film function as an artefact of the filmmaker’s family archive while remaining engaging to the public audience?
– How can film operate as trigger for nostalgia, both to the filmmaker and to the viewer, and why is that important?
In When Dahlias Bend Down (2016) I use film form to explore my relationship as grandson/filmmaker with my grandparents/subjects, aiming to create a cinematic piece to be watched by the public audience that will also function as an artefact of my personal archive and future trigger for nostalgia.
Nostalgia as a term was used for the first time by the Swiss medicine student Johannes Hofer in 1688. Hofer associated the term to the German word heimweh which, in a simplistic translation, is homesickness. Initially, nostalgia was limited to describing the pain one feels when relentlessly longing for their homeland. Contemporary conception of the term attributes a broader sense to it. Sedikides, et al. (2004: 202) claim that ‘Nostalgia is yearning for aspects of one’s past, a yearning that may include but is not limited to one’s homeland. This yearning may pertain, for example, to events, persons, or sights’. Theorists agree that nostalgia is a universal experience, not limited to a specific group of age (Batcho 1995, 1998; Mills & Coleman 1994). As Kaplan argues, ‘There is no one who at one time or another has not experienced nostalgia’ (1987: 465). The concept functions in several different ways in our lives. It solidifies our sense of identity when allowing us to go along with the present and restore our self-worth by reminiscing an idealised past (Kleiner 1977). Nostalgia allows one to rejoice in remembering past cultural traditions, thus reducing existential anxieties by satisfying their need for cultural belongingness (Baumeister and Leary 1995). Finally, nostalgia bolsters our connection with the others. In most cases, while experiencing it, ‘the mind is “peopled”‘ (Hertz 1990: 195). Significant figures from one’s past are brought to life, in a process that re-establishes their connection. This is more than simply a reminder of people from one’s personal history as it fulfils their need for interpersonal belongingness, eventually aiding self-esteem and identity (Leary and Baumeister, 2000).
Feeling nostalgic offers multiple possibilities in one’s life despite the prevalent and dangerous fallacy that nostalgia is a simplistic, romanticised and insignificant manifestation of homesickness. The forms and potentialities of the nostalgic condition, however, vary significantly. Fred Davis (1979) creates a distinction between individual and shared nostalgia, between something experienced as personal and autobiographical and something which is essentially communal. He names the two modes of nostalgia as private and collective respectively. While this is a useful distinction, the mechanism of nostalgia is based on far more complex foundations than those suggested by Davis’ classification. A very interesting and useful approach of analysis is provided by Svetlana Boym’s categorisation of nostalgia as either restorative or reflective (2001). For Boym, restorative nostalgia places an emphasis on nostos and ‘attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. [It] does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition’ (2001 xviii). Moreover, restorative nostalgia ‘characterizes national and nationalist revivals all over the world, which engage in the antimodern myth-making of history by means of a return to national symbols and myths’ (Boym 2001: 41). On the other hand, reflective nostalgia ‘thrives in algia, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming – wistfully, ironically, desperately. [It] dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity’ (Boym 2001: .xviii). Overall, ‘restorative nostalgia manifests itself in total reconstructions of monuments of the past, while reflective nostalgia lingers on ruins, […] in the dreams of another place and another time’ (Boym 2001: 41). It is concerned more with individual and cultural memory than the national past and future evoked by restorative nostalgia (Boym 2001: 49).
That nostalgic remembrance of childhoods or even national glorious days, cultural traditions and aspirations might provide an answer to contemporary individual or collective instabilities and fears in our lives. In this way, our understanding of the present is inescapably informed by the past. Nostalgia offers therefore that bittersweet bridge between the now and the then. It is that state of mind that various forms of cultural production have attempted to explore, including film. The nostalgic feeling is primarily experienced and triggered through sounds – a familiar sound of a bird, a closing door, laughter – and images – a landscape, a photograph, a street.
One then could argue that film, as an audio-visual medium, serves as the exemplary vehicle for the exploration of nostalgia. We think and remember in narrative ways, leading storied lives. As psychotherapist Brian Johnson suggests:
Movies can take us to places we would never go and quite possibly never should go in real life. Although by going to these places vicariously through film, we are able to have experiences that can help us see ourselves and our problems more clearly. (Cited in Uhrig 2005: sec. 1, par. 4)
A cinematic mode that frequently elicits the nostalgic condition is the autobiographical film. Filmmakers instil into their narratives their autobiographical inscription and personal nostalgia in the hope that the viewers will emotionally respond in a similar manner. Wendy Everett (2005: 98) describes the autobiographical film as ‘the most personal of all forms of discourse – informed, as it is, by the director’s “I” as well as his/her eye, and characterised by its endlessly shifting viewpoint and entirely subjective vision’. However, she later on argues, that the exploration of a director’s personal memories does not happen through a ‘reassuring nostalgia trip’ but in a way ‘to understand some central, often repressed, and frequently painful, memory’ (Everett 2005: 98).
In Dahlias, I draw on the work of several filmmakers who consciously reflect on their private nostalgia through their films. A filmmaker whose work epitomises cinema’s preoccupation with nostalgia is the Soviet writer-director Andrei Tarkovsky. His films, such as Mirror (1975) and Nostalghia (1983), are profoundly nostalgic, both in terms of their narrative structure and in their mode of production. Tarkovsky’s fictional plots are inscribed with his own spiritual investigation as well as personal fractured familial relationships. Other filmmakers whose films are characterised as highly autobiographical and nostalgic are Terence Davies and Jonas Mekas. Davies’ first three feature films – The Terence Davies Trilogy (1983), Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), The Long Day Closes (1992) – explore his own personal memories from his childhood. In Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), Mekas returns to his homeland as an emigrant and creates a film diary, reflecting on his thoughts and memories. There is also the work by Sarah Polley – Stories We Tell (2012) – and Su Friedrich – Sink or Swim (1990) – which has intrinsically influenced the making of Dahlias. In those films, it is not nostalgia of primary concern, but its close cousin instead, memory. Filmmakers choose the non-fiction mode to explore their own families’ stories, even investigating the process of remembering itself, and its effect on the construction of subjective truths and identities. In this process, family secrets and hidden realities are revealed.
In Dahlias, there is no big family secret exposed. I turn my attention to personal, small moments of daily life (as most of the above-mentioned films do) with my grandparents before my relationship with them becomes one from the past. Quotidian activities such as having a meal, watching television, setting up a lamp to light a dark room, surrender themselves to the cinematic apparatus, turning into scenes of a constructed narrative, essential to each other as they collectively form meaning. While still at present, those moments, recorded through a mechanical process, will later develop into my personal – and indeed my family’s – vehicle of remembrance. As in Chris Marker’s most personal and idiosyncratic work, humans here are as important a subject as the filmic process itself. In Sans Soleil (1983), for example, Marker positions ‘the spectator to question the construction of images, history, and the relationship between works of art and the real concrete struggles of history’ (Lang, 2020). During this process, my life interweaves with that of my grandparents, offering another perspective to the film, from their POV. As they turn into cinematic characters and their lives into a plot, the film reflects on the effect of time on their relationship with each other and thereafter on their identity. The process of remembrance and the nostalgic condition are directly embedded within the narrative, aiming to evoke similar emotions to the audience as well. This mode of filmmaking resonates with Michael Renov’s definition of domestic ethnography. As ‘the lives of artist and subject are interlaced through communal or blood ties, the documentation of the one tends to implicate the other in complicated ways’ (2004: 218). It is a mode that ‘entails but exceeds autobiography’ (Renov 2004: 228), functioning ‘as a vehicle of self-examination, a means through which to construct self-knowledge through recourse to the familial other’ (Renov 2004: 218). In Dahlias, there is no pretence of authorial objectivity. Author and subject reciprocally determine one another, as my ultimate objective through this representation of the Other is nothing else but my longing for the Other self.
Film functioning as memory text, here infused with nostalgia. Annette Kuhn defines memory texts as cultural productions which ‘are in effect secondary revisions of the source materials of memory’ (2002: 4-5). Dahlias offers to me the opportunity to easily access and recall those past memories for the rest of my lifetime. It is the inherent audio-visual properties and spatio-temporal qualities of the medium that triggers the nostalgic condition, to a level that a still photograph or a family album is difficult ever to attain. Here they are reflective and private the modes of nostalgia that manifest, not only during the artist’s retrospective viewing experience, but within the narrative as well. Once it is implied that my grandmother has passed away, there are several shots of my grandfather being contemplative and alone (even though the presence of the filmmaker/grandson is self-evident). In the few passages of dialogue, he explicitly divulges his longing for his deceased wife. As shots patiently linger on such personal moments, he reflects knowing that the past is irretrievable. Likewise, the filmmaker, myself, cannot but nostalgise in a private and reflective manner. I look back at those memories not with the unattainable purpose to restore or reconstruct them, but with admission of loss and desire to use the then to find meaning in the now. It should be noted that the nostalgic viewing experience of the film turns into collective in occasions of public screenings or group family gatherings. That was the case in the premiere of the film in the festival circuit, when family members and friends shared their – mostly unspoken – nostalgia for their relatives and close companions.
My exploration of nostalgia in cinema continues through my ongoing practice-based PhD project, in which I reflect on the nostalgic condition in the framework of contemporary migratory movements of populations in Europe. In the project I also look at the collective and restorative modes of nostalgia as they are elicited through films such as British Heritage Films from the 1980s and 1990s, aiming to memorialise national myths and enhance the audience’s sense of national identity.
This is practice-based research in which the creative artefact aims to explore the above-mentioned questions. The film work conducted functions as a form of experimentation, in ways that any form of art does. Through artwork artists aim to ‘push boundaries, to ask questions, to learn more about our art and our role within it’ (Skains 2018: 86). Based on Graeme Sullivan’s (2009) analytical framework of four domains that describes the scope of practice-based (and practice-led) research, When Dahlias Bend Down resonates more with the dialectical strand. In these cases, ‘the artist-researcher explores the uniquely human process of making meaning through experiences that are felt, lived, reconstructed and reinterpreted’, resulting from ‘art-making processes or outcomes of encounters with artworks (Sullivan 2009; 50).
My approach to film practice as research resonates with ethnographic research models. During the filmmaking process I immerse myself into the lives of the participants, using film form to reflect on various psychological and cultural elements. My strong personal involvement in the project – as researcher, film director, featured character and real-life relative to the protagonists – allows Dahlias to transcend into the field of autoethnography. Established autoethnographer Carolyn Ellis defines the concept as ‘research, writing, story, and method that connect the autobiographical and personal to the cultural, social, and political’ (2004: xix). It is an ‘an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience’ (Ellis, Adams and Bochner 2011: 1).
The chosen short-length documentary format appears to be ideal for this highly personal project. While Tarkovsky, Davies and Mekas have proven that feature-length – documentary and fiction – films can just as effectively investigate personal idiosyncratic narratives, the availability of digital technologies offers the opportunity to filmmakers/researchers do the same faster and in significantly lower-budget, maintaining absolute control and focus of their creative vision. In Dahlias, having at my disposal low-cost and easy to operate contemporary camera and sound equipment, I decided to assume multiple roles in the production process; those of the producer, director, cinematographer, sound recordist. The only other person contributing creatively is the editor/sound designer in post-production, who is a close friend and collaborator of mine for years. As filming continued over the course of three years, it would be impossible to develop and complete the project in another way. Having additional crew members would dramatically increase the cost, and thereafter stall the production. Other contributors present on location would also significantly impact the performance of my grandparents on camera. The recording process would lose its familial essence and be more mechanical instead. Interestingly, when I asked for my grandparents’ approval to proceed with filming, both eagerly accepted, encouraging me to record as many hours of them and their lives as possible so me and my family can watch the footage in the future and vividly remember them. I am sure if there was another camera operator filming, their reaction would be different.
At first stage, When Dahlias Bend Down functions as a documentary film that follows traditional observational filmmaking practices, having a clear narrative, main characters and themes. The film is composed of three segments, all defined by my grandmother’s different stages of health. While my grandparents are the only characters appearing on screen, my physical presence is apparent. Initially, it is my voice and direct communication with them that establishes my relationship with them as well as the duality of my role as grandson/ filmmaker. Later into the film, and as my grandmother’s health deteriorates, I withdraw purely to the role of the filmmaker, figuratively offering them privacy to spend those last moments together alone by themselves, as most of their days have been for many years. On a second level, the film operates as an artefact of personal memories and a trigger for nostalgia for the filmmaker, other family members and people who were close to my grandparents.
The film highlights the potentialities for the medium of serving as a personal archive, while simultaneously aiming for wider audiences. As a form of ethnography, it is more than merely a portrait of my grandparents. There are structural elements that bolster its universal identity: the anonymity of characters (until the end credits) and place, the lack of narration, the global thematic concerns such as life/death, ageing, etc. It diverges from home video recording practices by following contemporary professional – albeit low-budget – filmmaking methods of production, post-production and distribution (appropriate to the short documentary format). It is a film that brings attention to nostalgia as an emotional condition, foregrounding the relationship of the two: nostalgia as film, film as nostalgia.
While the short film is the main outcome of this project, this statement is the exegesis that explores ‘that knowledge that has remained implicitly within the artist’ (Skains, 2018: 86). Elements for further discussion are the use of ‘flawed/imperfect’ cinematography and sound that aims to accurately express the film’s themes; the high influence of the director’s identity on all stages of production, alluding to theories of authorship; the brief presence of the filmmaker within the narrative space, and the way meaning is constructed through his absence at times, both techniques contributing to the roles of grandson/filmmaker and grandparents/subject transcend singular characterisation.
– 18th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Greece, 2016
– 12th Fest – New Directors/New Films Festival, Portugal, 2016
– 3rd International Documentary Festival of Ierapetra, Greece, 2016
– 1st Beyond the Borders International Documentary Film Festival, Greece, 2016
– 10th Greek Documentary Festival – Docfest, Greece, 2016
– 10th British Shorts Film Festival, Germany, 2017
– 4th Chennai International Short Film Festival, India, 2017
– 10th London Greek Film Festival, United Kingdom, 2017
Considering the intimate nature of the film’s impact, it is difficult to quantify it. Its selection and screening at multiple film festivals worldwide, indicates the film’s public resonance and wider interest in its thematics. In discussions that followed those screenings, viewers consistently expressed their satisfaction on the film’s ability to allow them to reflect on their own personal histories, memories and relationships without, however, forcing a specific emotional state on them.
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— (1995). Nostalgia: A psychological Perspective. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 80, pp.131–143.
Baumeister, R. F. and Leary, M. R. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, pp.497–529.
Boym, S. (2001). The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.
Davis, F. (1979). Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia. New York: Free Press.
Ellis, C. (2004). The Ethnographic I: a Methodological Novel about Autoethnography. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.
Ellis, C., Adams, T. E. and Bochner, A. P. (2011). Autoethnography: An Overview. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12 (1). Available at: doi:10.17169/fqs-12.1.1589.
Everett, W. (Ed). (2005). European Identity in Cinema. 2nd ed. Bristol: Intellect.
Hertz, D. G. (1990). Trauma and Nostalgia: New Aspects of the Coping of Aging Holocaust Survivors. Israeli Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 27, 189–198.
Kaplan, H. A. (1987). The Psychopathology of Nostalgia. Psychoanalytic Review, 74, pp.465–486.
Kleiner, J. (1977). On nostalgia. In: Socarides, C. W. (Ed.) The world of emotions. New York: International University Press. pp.471–498.
Kuhn, A. (2002). Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. London: Verso.
Lang, C. (2020). ‘The Ideology of Chris Marker: Film History, Documentary Form, and Dialectics’, CineAction, May. Available at: https://cineaction.ca/issue-100/the-ideology-of-chris-marker-film-history-documentary-form-and-dialectics/ [Accessed: 10/01/2021]
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Mills, M. A. and Coleman, P. G. (1994). Nostalgic Memories in Dementia: A Case Study. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 38, pp.203–219.
Renov, M. (2004). The Subject of Documentary. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.
Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. and Baden, D. (2004). Nostalgia: Conceptual Issues and Existential Functions. In: Greenberg, J., Koole, S. and Pyszczynski, T. (Eds.) Handbook of experimental existential psychology. New York: Guilford Press. pp.200–214.
Skains, R. L. (2018). Creative Practice as Research: Discourse on Methodology. Media Practice and Education, 27, 19:1, pp.82-97, DOI: 10.1080/14682753.2017.1362175
Sullivan, G. (2009). ‘Making Space: The Purpose and Place of Practice-Led Research’. In: Smith, H. and Dean, R. T. (Eds.) Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice in the Creative Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp.41–65.
Uhrig, S. C. N. (2005). Cinema is good for you: the effects of cinema attendance on self reported anxiety or depression and ‘happiness’. Colchester: University of Essex. [Online]. Available at: https://www.econstor.eu/handle/10419/92196 [Accessed 23 January 2018].
Distant Voices, Still Lives. (1988). [DVD]. Directed by Terence Davies. United Kingdom: British Film Institute (BFI).
Mirror. (1975). [DVD]. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Soviet Union: Mosfilm Studios.
Nostalgia. (1983). [DVD]. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Italy, Soviet Union: Rai 2, Sovinfilm.
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania. (1972). [DVD]. Directed by Jonas Mekas. United Kingdom, West Germany: Vaughan Films.Sans Soleil. (1983). [DVD]. Directed by Chris Marker. France: Argos Films.
Sink or Swim. (1990). [DVD]. Directed by Su Friedrich. USA: Downstream Productions.
Stories We Tell. (2012). [DVD]. Directed by Sarah Polley. USA: National Film Board of Canada.
The Long Day Closes. (1992). [DVD]. Directed by Terence Davies. United Kingdom: British Film Institute (BFI), Channel Four Films, Film Four International.
The Terence Davies Trilogy. (1983). [DVD]. Directed by Terence Davies. United Kingdom: British Film Institute (BFI), Greater London Arts Association, National Film and Television School (NFTS).
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 (these should be outlined in detail in the review).
The impact, novelty and originality of the film: I enjoyed watching this film very much. It is quiet, unhurried and very moving. It starts with voice over black, and uses this device in other places (as well as playing with darkness in the dimly lit interiors). It has a feeling both of the intimacy of a grandson filming his grandparents, but also of a respectful distance. The camera style is a purely observational gaze, the filmmaker being evident only in very occasional comments from behind the camera, and in the open and tender way both his grandparents address their remarks to him.
It is notable that music is used very sparingly, in my memory not until the death of the grandmother. This turning point is alluded to rather than narrated directly, the aftermath conveyed subtly in cold, outdoor winter shots of the village – my only reservation here is with the rather obvious shot of the dead flower. Otherwise the filmic restraint is admirable and very effective. My sense is that this film is as much about death and mourning, as it is about ‘nostalgia’.
The image is always letterboxed in a wide screen format, which works very well, particularly in shots which feature the two grandparents. As far as I’m aware there aren’t many, if any, autobiographical films which make us of the kind of observational gaze mentioned above: I think this is where the novelty and originality of this piece resides.
The quality of the accompanying statement: The statement makes a strong and well-presented case for the film’s (potential) relationship to theoretical questions about nostalgia, and gives a very coherent picture both of these questions, and of production process and the film’s aesthetic. However, I was left a little unsure of how these elements relate concretely to his ‘exploration of nostalgia’ in this particular piece of cinema – in other words how, say, ‘the private and collective’ or ‘restorative or reflective’ modes are manifest in When Dahlias Bend Down. I would have appreciated more in the statement about how he sees these connections. From watching the film I understand his citing the work of Tarkovsky, Davies and Mekas as his artistic context, but I think that his project could be enhanced by widening this context.
As I was reading his statement, for some reason the opening sequence of Marker’s Sans Soleil occurred to me: ‘The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965 […] He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader…’ More seriously I think that he needs to locate his work more within debates about autobiographical documentary – specifically, for instance, I reckon the work of Renov in The Subject of Documentary (particularly on Domestic Ethnography) would add to his theoretical context.
Review 2: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement (these should be outlined in detail in the review).
This is carefully paced, “end of life”, low key, observational documentary patiently recording a (Greek?) couple living alone together, as the wife, unwell, anticipates her death and reflects on the processes of dying. In the latter part of the film her husband is seen alone in the house his wife having died. The old man quietly grieves for his partner and admits to the difficulty of carrying on life alone. We feel his own death is not too far away and like his wife he may be wishing for this. The film is appropriately slow, yet full of rich visual detail with the camera providing a portrait of the couple and giving us a sense of their habitat and habits. The presence of the film-maker (their grandchild) is present but in a minimal way as there are no direct interviews in the film. Just an overhearing of snatches of conversation between the couple, though later with his wife departed the husband is clearly addressing the film-maker and sharing his thoughts with him though this relationship is not foregrounded. A nice piece.
The filmmaker identifies his research questions: ‘Can film function as an artefact of the filmmaker’s family archive while remaining engaging to the public audience?
How can film operate as trigger for nostalgia, both to the filmmaker and to the viewer, and why is that important?’
I have to admit I am not sure how to evaluate the accompanying research statement nor indeed why I’d want to. In my opinion the film stands alone as a piece of documentary film which presumably was informed by a process of interactive research (I’d hesitate to use the term ethnographic research). The film as process is the research activity. The output is the film. I am not really sure what the body of academic writing discussing concepts of nostalgia adds to this. In any case he says little about the concept of memory, nor does he discuss the body of critical literature which addresses personal and collective memory and their relation to film and photography. The cognate creative work identified is partly relevant, though I am not sure how relevant it is to allude to the work of Terence Davies or Jonas Mekas – both of these bodies of work having completely different auspices to the director’s piece. The director hints that the film is about remembrance and a family archive and this, I feel, is perhaps the richest research lead he might have followed.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.