Please note that the quotations in the film are accessible via ‘subtitles’. The closed caption option is a transcript of what is said in the video.
Author: Catherine Gough-Brady
Format: Digital Paper
Duration: 9’ 11”
Published: January 2018
This film and statement reflect early stages of research in a PhD. I am open to ideas that build on, or even contradict what I propose. I am open to other texts that I might read, or view, to add to this work.
The aim of “Filming” is to connect my practice with theory and through that connection to reveal intuitive aspects of my practice. The research questions that informed “Filming” are:
– What would happen if I applied the idea of Victor Turner’s liminal state to my own practice as a documentary cameraperson?
– How can I begin to understand more about the mental states that I am in, when I film?
I am interested in examining our intuitive knowledge as practitioners, and developing a more explicit understanding about the nature of this knowledge. I am a PhD candidate at RMIT University and my PhD is examining the use of character in the documentary narrative.
At the time I started my PhD, in 2017, I was finishing a documentary TV series called Ethics Matters. Like many documentarians I am involved in all aspects of the production process: scripting, filming, editing, and producing the work. My thoughts turned to the nature of the character of the documentarian, the character that exists outside the frame, but affects what happens within the frame, and the shape of the narrative. As John Grierson wrote, “You photograph the natural life, but you also, by your juxtaposition of detail, create an interpretation of it” (1946, pp.81-2).
Leading up to the commencement of my PhD, I had been introduced to the notion of liminality via a lecture given by feminist philosopher Dr. Rebecca Hill. I found the limbo-like nature of liminality fascinating. I began to notice other practitioner academics using Victor Turner’s ideas of liminality as explored in his 1967 article “Betwixt and Between: The liminal period in rites de passage”, for instance Ian Dixon’s presentation on “Squizzy Taylor vs. God: ‘Betwixt and Between’ Melbourne’s Actor/Director Paradigm” at Screening Melbourne (2017). I decided to examine Turner’s application of liminality, as experienced by the neophyte undergoing a rites de passage, in relationship to my own practice as a documentary cameraperson. I have focused on the filming aspect of my role in the production of a documentary in this “digital paper”, specifically on the documentarian who is their own cameraperson.
Filming explores similarities between the structural position of the neophyte, as described by Victor Turner, and that of the documentarian: “They have a physical but not a social “reality”” (Turner 1999, p.237); and “The subject of the passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, “invisible”” (p.235). Like Turner’s neophytes, documentarians are able to structurally disappear and reappear within a social situation without physically leaving the space. Turner writes, “As members of society, most of us see only what we expect to see, and what we expect to see is what we are conditioned to see when we have learned the definitions and classifications of our culture” (p.235). To socially disappear is not the same as to physically disappear. We have set up structures in our society that allow for social disappearance, the documentary cameraperson uses this. As a documentary cameraperson I can appear to have no social agency, but at the same time I have the agency of framing the shot.
Despite compelling comparisons between Turner’s liminality and documentary filmmaking, there are limits to the usefulness of applying Turner’s analysis. Firstly, for the cameraperson the liminal experience is regularly repeated, each time on a shoot, not a one-off life changing event. The liminality of a cameraperson is not significantly ritualised; the rituals associated with it are mostly minor, like beginning to cook a meal or going on a holiday, not at the level of going to war or becoming a woman. Also the liminality is rarely used to transform the cameraperson, say from child to woman, or farmer to warrior. The liminality is a tool used to create what is often an external object, the film, it is not a permanent transformation of self, but in the process of filming (or disappearing) there is some effect on the self. As Trinh T Minh-ha wrote “She necessarily looks in from the outside while also looking out from the inside. Not quite the same, not quite the other, she stands in that undetermined threshold place where she constantly drifts in and out.” (1997, p.418) As an aside, I wonder what effect being in the liminal state, on an ongoing basis, has on the mental and physical health of the cameraperson?
As a documentarian I recognise aspects of Turner’s liminal experience in my practice, but my experience is clearly not that of a neophyte. Turner writes how the neophyte “passes through a realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state” (p.235). The cameraperson when filming is not becoming a tabula rasa in readiness for the next stage of their life; quite the opposite, they keep all of the attributes of the past, present and the future state. In realising this crucial point of difference between the cameraperson and the neophyte, it led me to think about the nature of the internal mental states of the cameraperson. If it is not an empty state of expectation, then what is it?
I noticed that I exist in three interesting and distinct states when filming:
1. in the present world with the subject being filmed, aware of what is happening in that world, and what might happen next;
2. in the frame, making sure that the light, the focus, and the audio will be useable later;
3. and, in the final narrative, the edit, mentally noting when I have content that will be useful, thinking about my narrative as I film, using this to guide the shots I record.
These mental states are separate to any social status or invisibility that the documentarian might be trying to achieve. The documentarian may not want others to be aware of them, but they are very aware of the people and the world around them.
In her seminal article “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning” about nature of documentary, Trinh T Minh-ha quotes filmmaker and theorist, Alexander Kluge:
- A documentary film is shot with three cameras: 1) the camera in the technical sense; 2) the filmmaker’s mind; and 3) the generic patterns of the documentary film, which are founded on the expectations of the audience that patronizes it. (1998 cited in Minh-ha 1993, p.98)
Minh-ha and Kluge were writing about these states as a way of explaining how documentary is not objective fact, but a result of perception. What interested me was the similarity between Kluge’s states and the ones I identified. Kluge’s ‘camera in the technical sense’ corresponds to my ‘in the frame’, his ‘generic patterns’ corresponds to my ‘in the final narrative’. The point of departure between our states is Kluge’s ‘the filmmaker’s mind’ and my ‘in the present world’. My state has externalised something that Kluge has internalised. I think that my states reflect a lesser sense of control when I film. My states are more focused on a personal experience of a cameraperson, and on the difficulty of filming documentary footage, which often contains unexpected elements in the world around me.
In this film I mention the states, but I do not fully explore their meaning. I see the discussion around the internal mental states of the cameraperson as an initial discussion and launching point for further analysis, rather than as a set of conclusions. I have brought my commercial methodology to my research filmmaking. This means some ideas will be raised in one film, and be explored over a number of other films (cf my film Exploring Craft (2016) in “Sightlines” (forthcoming in 2018)). The films exist as independent entities, but also as part of a wider practice.
My creative practice methodology is influenced by the work of three theorists and one practitioner.
I agree with Brad Haseman that “performative research is derived from relativist ontology and celebrates multiple constructed realities. Its plurivocal potential operates through interpretative epistemologies where the knower and the known interact, shape and interpret the other.” (2006, 7) This idea is also expressed in Margaret Somerville’s theory of post-modern emergence, where she proposes that, “research writing necessarily opens her self to radical transformations, making spaces for existential doubts and uncertainties” (2007, p.226). A third voice that influences my methodology can be found in the work of Ross Gibson. In his discussion of the dual nature of critical and experiential knowledges, Gibson proposes that “you need to step both outside and inside the mystery. Not one without the other” (210, p.4).
I use documentary as my method of communicating my research. This choice has been influenced by the singer Amanda Fucking Palmer, who realised that she needed to use her artform as her method of communication, see “Gaga, Palmer, Madonna” (2009). Brad Haseman also examined this, when he wrote that he found “the material outcomes of practice as all-important representations of research findings in their own right” (2006, p.7).
Filming differs from both the documentary and the essay film and so I have called it a “digital paper”. By comparing Filming with Kirsten Johnson’s documentary Cameraperson (2016) or Laurie Anderson’s essay film Heart of a Dog (2015), it becomes clear that neither of those films explicitly combine their personal experience with a theoretical framework. Filming combines film language with academic texts to communicate the research. As Berkeley et al. wrote “It is fundamentally about the difference between a creative, imaginative use of a communication medium and a rational, discursive one, where the focus is less on conceptual clarity and more on affect and the generation of new associations and relationships” (Berkeley et al. 2016, p.27). I can do things in film I would not know how to do in text. I can create counter narratives, and through their juxtaposition even make an audience laugh at an academic idea.
The footage of me at the back of the room, trying to move a disassembled piano out of shot was accidental. I was tired from days of shooting and turned the lights off, but not the camera; that type of accident is extremely rare on a shoot, it is ingrained into the brain to button-off. When I saw the footage I realised that I needed to keep the camera rolling more often to capture the processes of filming, to reveal what is never shown. I purposely left the camera running when I fixed Prof. Mick Dodson’s pocket flaps, and when I directed the architect how to step into frame for our set up shot.
When I filmed the cameraperson in the university lecture room he quickly noticed I was filming him, and he was extremely uncomfortable, I had broken the social rule of ignoring him, in fact I was making him the centre of my attention. The people in the room thought I was filming the room with my mobile phone, which they saw as commonplace and unthreatening, he knew I was filming him. Legally I was in a space that had warning notices that you could be filmed within it, but he never thought that he would be filmed. I felt as bad and awkward as he did that I was contravening our unwritten rules.
What is interesting about this film is that in exploring the liminal rules, it also breaks them.
I hope to generate discussion and debate about the experience of filming documentary, and to share my own observations.
Filming (2017) was created for a presentation at the ASPERA conference in Australia (June 2017). It also forms part of Catherine Gough-Brady’s creative PhD in documentary (RMIT, Media and Communication)). Catherine Gough-Brady received an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship
As well as a PhD candidate, I am a professional documentarian. My work has been broadcast on Australian national television, national radio, and included in film festivals. My work has also been funded by various government and non-government organisations in Australia and Asia.
Filming has not been shown outside of the ASPERA conference, however there was significant interest in the film from academics at the conference to use it as part of their teaching. There was also interest by practitioner academics in the discussion on the social status of the cameraperson. I have decided to seek academic publication for the work so that it can be shared with an academic audience.
Berkeley, L., Wood, M, & Glisovic, S (2016). Creative destruction: Screen production research, theory and affect. Journal of Writing in Creative Practice. 9(1&2), pp.7-31.
Gibson, R (2010). The known world. TEXT Special issue, Symposium: Creative and practice-led research—current status, future plans.
Grierson, J (1946). First Principles of Documentary. In: Hardy, F. ed. Grierson on Documentary. London, Collins.
Haseman, B (2006). A Manifesto for Performative Research. Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy no. 118 (Practice-led Research), pp.98-106.
Kluge, A (1998). Alexander Kluge: A Retrospective. In: Minh-ha, T. T. ed. (1993) The Totalizing Quest of Meaning: Theorizing Documentary. Psychology Press.
Minh-ha, T. T. (1997). Not You/Like You: Postcolonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference. In: Mcclintock, A., Mufti, A. and Shohat, E. eds. Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, & Postcolonial Perspectives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp.415-419.
Palmer, A (2009). Gaga, Palmer, Madonna [online]. Available at: http://blog.amandapalmer.net/lady-gaga-palmer-madonna-a-kitchen-ukulele-blogsong/ [Accessed May 30, 2017].
Somerville, M (2007). Postmodern emergence. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 20(2), pp.225-243.
Turner, V. W. (1999). Betwixt and Between: The liminal period in rites de passage. In Lessa, W & Vogt, E, (eds.) Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach. Pearson.
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
The author draws upon their experience of the film and television industry to raise intriguing questions about the social role played by the non-fiction filmmaker and links this to Victor Turner’s ideas of liminality (derived from his essay Betwixt and Between: The liminal period in rites de passage (1967)), suggesting similarities between the structural position of the neophyte, as described by Turner, and that of the documentarian seeking to craft film narratives out of reality. The playful, compelling video work, Filming, which is largely constructed from a kaleidoscopic series of outtakes and carefully selected archive material, demonstrates a great deal of skill, though it occasionally relies too heavily on essayistic voice-over rather than its images to create meaning. The self-reflexive video persuasively deconstructs some of the methodologies of documentary practice, and in doing so could be aligned -though it does not do this explicitly- to recent deconstructive documentary film works such as Kirsten Johnson’s diarist collage of a cinematographer, Cameraperson (2016), and the hybrid experimentations of Robert Greene, including Kate Plays Christine (2016) and Fake it So Real (2011).
The research statement is well-written and structured, and is at its most engaging when discussing Turner’s ideas, particularly concerning social disappearance. However, the statement does not sufficiently enhance or deepen the reader’s experience of the screen work (or vice versa) and too often merely replicates its content, even though in the video you assert, “I can do things in film I would not know how to do in text”. I suspect that this issue stems from the video’s presentation as a ‘video paper’ (something of a neophyte form), but there is scope to address this in your statement by discussing your creative and conceptual approach to the screen work in more depth. At present, this remains underdeveloped.
Though you reference oft-cited filmmaker/theorists such as John Grierson and Trinh T. Minh-ha, et al, your research statement would also benefit from a stronger contextual underpinning in order to orientate the reader -particularly related to contemporary notions of documentary form. This seems especially important if this article is as you state, ‘An initial discussion and launching point for further analysis.’ The growing literature on documentary filmmaking’s ever-expanding formal variation means we can no longer assume that a documentarian relies primarily on observational approaches to storytelling in order to ‘disappear’ into a subject as per the observational techniques of direct cinema. Contemporary documentary is as much about foregrounding the formal characteristics and methodologies of the form as it is about dissolving them. Situating your discussion within a wider documentary context would help guide the reader to a fuller understanding of why you believe our understanding of the documentary form can be illuminated through the filter of Victor Turner’s ideas on liminality. Providing the reader with this robust methodological framework would also enable you to further distinguish Alexander Kluge’s writing about the perceptual status of the documentary filmmaker from the ‘three interesting and distinct’ states of mind you identify in your own practice.
Furthermore, the lack of specificity related to the description of documentary methods results in some clarity issues when the author discusses the role of the ‘documentarian’, and a brief clarification on how the term is being employed in this context would be beneficial. For example, you refer to the ‘mental states of the cameraperson’, but frequently in the video work you appear to be performing the role of self-shooting director (as well as, of course, being the author/director of Filming itself). Though ‘documentarian’ may be employed here as a collective term that encompasses each individual production role, an acknowledgement of the differing creative agency inherent within these roles (i.e. that affects their ‘social reality’ and thus their ability to ‘disappear’ whilst filming) would have helped to narrow the focus of your discussion.
However, the project presents a valuable link between the author’s industrial experience and scholarly research.
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
Both the written and film work are very well executed. The style and propositions that the film sets up are rye and amusingly critical and this is what gives the film its strength and originality. Leaving in “out takes” that really help to frame the argument and make visible Catharine’s three states of a documentarian. In doing this we, as an audience, pop in and out of the film in terms of a positioning and become aware of ourselves as an audience and this really helps to get across what is being narrated in the text.
However, I would like to question if a camera person really is liminal, to ask if they have disappeared or if in fact they being ignored? This becomes significant as it is a matter of agency. The film work itself shows that Catherine does not disappear but that she does shift into a position outside/inside of what she is filming. In the written proposition, Catherine suggests a comparison between Turner’s neophytes and the documentarian, as ‘able to structurally disappear and reappear within a social situation without physically leaving the space’. However, disappearing does not do justice to the complex three states of a documentarian that Catherine is also proposing. Perhaps a question of agency and authorship might be more apt as the camera and filming affords a different type of agency and privilege (Renzo Martens’ Enjoy Poverty: Episode III is a good example of upending the disappeared documentarian). Catherine also states that “we have set up structures in our society that allow for social disappearance, the cameraperson uses this”. I would also question this idea of social disappearance as to whether people disappear or are ignored either intentionally or unintentionally – seen as having perhaps no relevance and therefore become less visible.
Disappeared means not to be present but in both of these cases those described are not only present but they are fulfilling a role. This is evident in the writing when Catherine comments of the reaction of the cameraman in the lecture room once she transformed him into a subject. It was less that he became visible as he was not invisible but did filming him allow or deny him a type of agency? What is interesting however, is that Catherine’s film makes visible the difference between camera woman and documentarian as they operate in differing modes across the 3 states of documentation: they exist in different modes but as the same person and at the same time.
What Catherine has presented in both Filming and her written presentation is a rigorous argument, drawing on both film making experience and her considerable theoretical underpinnings. Her observations about her own experiences as a practitioner are very strong and what gives this work its uniqueness and character and I believe she can call on this to great effect when unpacking the three states and considering the liminal process of the documentarian so that she and her experience as a documentarian becomes more present in the writing as it is in the film. Catherine’s conclusion that ‘what is interesting about this film is that in exploring the liminal rules, it also breaks them’ is fundamental, but key to tapping into the heart of this rich research enquiry: her positioning, understanding and approach to audience.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.