Author: Christine Rogers and Catherine Gough-Brady
Duration: 09′ 17″ and 08′ 11″
Published: October 2022
Creative Audio Description of the Gough-Brady film can be accessed here.
As filmmakers, Christine and Catherine are accustomed to collaboration, but we are also accustomed to taking the lead and guiding a project towards the outcome. Academia provides a space in which collaboration between creatives with similar skill sets can take place. And so the first question we explored is a largely practical one informed and encouraged by an ethos of “uncertain enquiry” (MacDougall, 2019, p. 2):
Can Christine and Catherine, who are both strong-willed filmmakers, collaborate?
This, our first attempt at collaborating, resulted in two separate films. Part of the reason for this failure to merge our creative works can be attributed to the fact that while we both began at the same point, interrogating David MacDougall’s writing about film, we each asked different research questions of that material. We engaged with MacDougall in terms of our own practice, rather than trying to find a common ground. We had chosen the writings of David MacDougall because we both admire his essays on the creative process of filmmaking and we saw this to be a commonality between us that could bind our collaboration.
For Christine, MacDougall encouraged her to think about the act of raising the camera to her face. Two points that MacDougall makes prompted these investigations. The first is where he contends that filming is an expansion of the self outwards, into the world (1998). This statement caused her to question the way she uses the camera when meeting strangers and working in places where she felt she did not belong. The second is MacDougall’s comment that each film has two lives, the first the ‘uncertain enquiry’ during which the filmmaker feels fully alive, and the second, a consolidation where the myriad complexities are reduced for an audience. In comparison, this ‘second’ film, he notes, can “sometimes seem irrelevant” (2019, p. 3). This statement asked her to think in more depth about the experience of filming her elderly parents packing up their house, and to consider how picking up the camera mediated an intense emotional experience and how she remains uninterested in the outcome of this shoot. She did not go into the field with these research questions, rather, they resulted as she reflected on her experience of shooting as distinct from her experience of making the film as a whole.
For Catherine, the research questions also arose from the process of making the film and can be seen as part of the consolidation process. This film generated two questions. Firstly, can observational filmmaking be seen as a methodology? And if so, what are the methods used, and can they be applied to other endeavours? Secondly, how can a visual dialogue open up between the interviewee and an environment? While these research questions may seem unrelated, they are connected through the film work. A film has the possibility to be a site where multiple ideas are explored, and different research questions raised and answered.
The exploratory research process was co-operative, we shared quotations, films, thoughts. But the films we then created became separate expressions, stylistically different, necessitated by the way we each explored aspects of ourselves in relationship to the work of David and Judith MacDougall. Our lives, while similar (we are both filmmakers, had both just finished a PhD, were both starting new full time academic jobs), were also different. Christine is adopted and was thinking about her parents selling the family home, her links to Māori culture, and moving countries for her new job. Catherine has different concerns, primarily with losing her life-long filmmaker identity as she becomes an academic. We used MacDougall to explore changes in our lives, and how who we are shapes how we approach those changes, and the films we create. As MacDougall notes: “To the filmmaker, then, image-making is largely a form of extension of the self towards others, rather than a form of reception or appropriation.” (1998, p. 29).
David and Judith MacDougall successfully collaborated on many films, and we had not analysed how they did this. In fact, David MacDougall spends very little time discussing his collaboration with Judith in his writings. What we failed to notice is that, while we began with the same material, we both find our research questions in the process of creating, and that if we are to collaborate in a way where create a single work together, that we need to guide this aspect of the process to a place where our process of collaboration is closely linked. An underlying thematic concern was not enough to bind us creatively as we diverged in the ways in which we interpreted this starting point. We ended up creating separate dialogues with David and Judith MacDougall, and collaborated with the MacDougalls rather than with each other.
Catherine’s work responds to David MacDougall’s awareness that cameras “impose special ways of engaging with the world” and that this enables the filmmaker to “step outside themselves and adopt intermediate positions, not knowing the outcome” (2019, p. 7). For MacDougall, changes in behaviours lead to changes in perception and this can lead to new kinds of knowledge. Catherine is interested in the idea of linking behaviour with perception and how changes in behaviour can lead to changes in perception. This is explored in two ways in her film. Firstly, through the question of how could using observational filmmaking as a methodology influence her general work as an academic and challenge existing working methods? And secondly, by layering footage so that it steps outside itself. By placing the interview footage inside a frame that contains unrelated action Catherine is visually encouraging the viewer to find links in these ‘intermediate positions’.
For Christine, this work is a continuation of her exploration of belonging. It represents a new movement in her work towards understanding how belonging can be experienced and conveyed not only in the film itself, but through the action of shooting. Here, she is extending the work of videographers such as Sarah Pink who writes that filmmaking can be seen as a “process through which people, things and sensory experiences are drawn together” (2007, p. 245). Through focusing on the experience of picking up the camera and being in the world with it she was also engaging in a conversation with videographers such as Marsha Berry who walks with a camera “constructing landscapes” (2018, p. 52). Among strangers, Christine used the lens to construct belongings but when filming her ageing parents, she used the lens to distance herself. MacDougall argues that in the ambiguous places between filmmaker and subject ”consciousness is created” (1998, p. 25) and I respond that in that space belonging too is created.
Which disciplinary fields of practice and/or theory do your methods derive from (e.g. Fine Art, Graphics, Industrial TV production, Video art, Experience Design, Film, TV and Screen Studies, Cultural and Media Studies, etc.)
Christine and Catherine both use a creative practice approach to filmmaking to communicate research to audiences. We use the affordances of the audio-visual as part of the knowledge-sharing process. In our attention to, and reflection of, the often intuitive aspects of our filmmaking we work, with David MacDougall’s help, towards a new language for describing our experiences in the field.
Christine engages with autoethnography as a parallel methodology and method alongside creative practice research. Autoethnography emphasises that the researcher work from inside their body, focusing on their own experiences. It is story-focused, experimental, introspective and reflective. It calls for researchers to acknowledge how our engagement with our ‘field’ (filmmaking) shifts and changes us, and how ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ are intertwined. Autoethnography also advocates vulnerability and resistance to finality and closure (Anderson & Glass-Coffin, 2013). Autoethnography encourages Christine to turn from a focus on outcome to process and helps her explore and express the subtle undercurrents of adoption loss.
Catherine explores the idea that observational filmmaking can be seen as a methodology, and that this methodology can be applied to other processes, such as being an academic. Catherine is influenced in this by Helen Owton’s work on poetic Inquiry, where Owton explains that “the images and language in the poem encouraged me to find a “breathing space” for reflection and emotion” (2017, p. 5). Owton’s breathing space can be found in observational filmmaking, which involves periods of waiting, and alongside this allowing space for a quite literal connection of breath with the images during editing (Dungala-Baaka River and Gough-Brady, 2021). There is a focus required for filmmaking, and that focus resists the frequently busy and fragmented qualities of academic work and can create space for research that might otherwise be absorbed and dissipated. Observational filmmaking as a methodology forms a point of resistance to the less focused business of modern life.
These two films form the first in a series of collaborations that we plan to create. They are interesting as an early example of the problems we encountered in collaborating filmmaker to filmmaker. The films reveal that creative collaboration is a skill that can develop over time and through discussion. Our second collaboration (Oak tree and Gum Tree, presented at the BAFTSS 2022 conference) has been far more successful as we have been able to bind our work and ideas together in a way that allows for each of us to express our own way of seeing the world, and yet bring those expressions in dialogue with each other.
Academia offers a space for creative practitioners to create in ways that differ from usual collaborations in the film industry. Through our joint experimentations we explore how this fertile ground.
Anderson, L., & Glass-Coffin, B. (2013). I learn by going. In S. Holman Jones, T. Adams, & C. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of Autoethnography (pp. 57-83). Left Coast Press.
Bell, D. ‘Valuing the research that artists and media makers actually do’, MPE/MeCCSA Practice 2021, Online.
Dungala-Baaka River and Gough-Brady, C. (2021) ‘The River and the Filmmaker: A Journey Towards a Meeting Place’, The International Journal of Creative Media Research, (6 Special Issue: Grounded Place). doi: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2020.30
Gibson, R. (2009) ‘Extractive Realism’, Australian Humanities Review, (47), pp. 43-54. Available at: http://australianhumanitiesreview.org/2009/11/01/issue-47-november-2009/
Kilby, J., & Berry, M. (2018). Wayfaring, Creating and Performing with Smartphones. In Mobile Story Making in an Age of Smartphones (pp. 51-61). Palgrave Pivot, Cham.
MacDougall, D. (1998) Transcultural Cinema. Princeton: University of Princeton Press.
MacDougall, D. (2019) The Looking Machine: Essays on Cinema, Anthropology and Documentary Filmmaking. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Owton, H. (2017) Doing Poetic Inquiry. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Pink, S. (2007) Walking with video. Visual Studies, 22(3), 240-252.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Invite resubmission with minor revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
The two essay films in this joint work are not jointly made. They both use as a springboard the practice and research of Judith and David MacDougall. Christine’s film is an autoethnographic journey guided, she says in voice-over, by MacDougall’s writings in order to explore her unknown biological ancestors in New Zealand. Her voice talks about how image-making is largely an extension of the self towards others rather than a form of reception or appropriation. The effect of her filmic journey she tells us changed her view of her adoptive parents. Catherine’s film is self-reflexive. Interviews with the MacDougalls are presented on a mobile phone in different locations and interweaved with clips from an earlier film, in support of her voiced discussion about theme and narrative structure. In the interview David MacDougall argues that filming in an observational way doesn’t necessarily mean detachment or lack of subjectivity. He raises ideas of intuition, saying that as a filmmaker “you instinctively know where to place yourself in relation to what’s going on” and have a particular way of looking at it through the eye of the camera. Catherine’s voice-over asserts that she is keen to participate in what she is observing and this leads her to question how her job as an academic can be combined with her filmmaking practice. Valuable but different questions are raised in both films about filmmaking practice and the effect on the filmmaker’s own identity in their position as a filmmaker in the world and in their relationships with human subjects. There are some ethical issues around the representation of her adoptive parents in Christine’s film; echoing Christine’s journey of belonging and change, they are filmed silently packing their home, moving after many years, while Christine’s voice is dominant. This use of voice and silence is affecting but needs to be discussed in the research statement.
In the research statement, there is useful discussion around observational filmmaking and autoethnography in creative practice, with supportive insight from Owton and David MacDougall around the value of intuition. However, the research questions are descriptive rather than analytical and the theorists cited, while relevant, are also descriptive with little contextualisation, analysis or conclusions. There is little on the value of uncertainty and entanglement in creative practice although it is referred to as an important part of their joint methodology. Christine was apparently provoked to develop research questions about the experience of making her film, but these questions are not specified. Catherine provides useful research questions around observational filmmaking as a methodology and visual dialogue between the interviewee and environment. Christine’s section on belonging needs more analysis and how the action of shooting may be of value. Overall, this is a strong and original work, but as a joint work more is needed in the statement to contextualise the overall methodology and in the discursive aspects of the research, where research knowledge overlaps between the two and where differences may lie.
Review 2: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
The two films with a shared title ‘Electronic Knowings’ depart from a shared desire to explore, though practice, or rather to put in practice, some of the thoughts/theories of visual anthropologists (documentarians and ethnographers) David and Judith MacDougall. In particular, David MacDougall’s notion of ‘uncertain enquiry’ seems to play a key role here, and both authors use it to frame their research around the process of filming. While for Catherine Gough Brady this process invites a reflection on her earlier films (which are then juxtaposed to and put in dialogue with very interestingly embedded clips from the interviews with the MacDougalls), for Christine Rogers the process becomes an auto-ethnographic inquiry into camera’s role in creating a sense of distancing and belonging.
While both films are well-crafted and provide for a very engaging viewing, I wonder if Christine would consider changing the very beginning of her film. As the film starts with words ‘David MacDougall…’, and continues by positioning his work as relevant to her, which seems appropriate as this is the theorist whose thoughts prompt the creative practice. However, I felt that this actually narrows down the scope of the film, from an auto-ethnographic reflection on distance and belonging, to being exclusively an answer to David MacDougall’s work. The film has a potential to go further, elsewhere and away from ‘only’ being a response to a prompt, so opening it in this way, in my view, undermines the strength of the piece.
The written statement frames the research to some extent, but could be further expanded to provide few clarifications. Generally, I was left wondering about the choice of MacDougall’s theories as a prompt, and more could be said about his relevance and appropriateness for what the authors wanted to achieve in this work? The text refers to MacDougall’s work as ‘foundational’ at a later point in the writing, but do not specify enough what this means for the authors’ individual work, and also for their collaboration. In fact, it would be very useful, for the reader, to learn more about the collaboration between Catherine and Christine, and how they worked together on this publication.
I recommend for the authors to revisit the research questions, to include MacDougall’s theories more directly. In the first draft of the written statement, apart the prompt (MacDougall’s work), the two authors go on to discuss their work as parallel to one another, with very few intersections and attempts to put them more directly into dialogue. The authors go on to formulate their independent research queries, which makes the reading as a whole rather incohecive. This could be addressed by agreeing on a shared research framework that goes beyond a shared reading, which would then also better reflect the way in which research is positioned in the two films.
While both authors are clearly interested in the filming process, I wonder if more could be said about the parameters that they have set for themselves in this context. Surely the process of filming would be different depending on quite a few factors, from the subject matter to working on one’s own or with a crew. I believe that it would be useful for the reader to get a better sense of the confines that allow the authors to think about the process.
Also, in the abstract, it says that ‘Catherine explores observational filmmaking as a methodology that can extend to other fields…’. I wonder what are the other fields implied? Later on, the text mentions ‘being an academic’ as a process that would benefit from observational filmmaking as a method. While I sympathize with what the author refers to, I wonder whether this could be either differently expressed or reconsidered.
The discourse around autoethnography should be clarified. I disagree with the idea that autoethnography can be seen as ‘a parallel working method alongside creative practice research’, as this implies creative practice research to be a research method rather than a research mode. I would suggest that, in this case, autoethnography seems like a research method for this creative practice research (as a mode of knowing).
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to the above.