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RADICALLY EMPIRICAL DOCUMENTARY

David & Judith MacDougall interviewed by Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Taylor


Quite some time before written anthropology was to follow suit, David and Judith MacDougall were using film to evoke individual embodied experience--the affective, sensory universe inhabited by us all, but which barely makes itself felt in the written monographs of anthropologists. And whereas ethnographic films had previously been predominantly oriented to the documentation of such spectacles as rituals and such processes as the fabrication of material culture, the MacDougalls were concerned rather to penetrate and depict moments of informal social behavior--at first glance, a kind of anti-cinematic subject matter. Although almost all of the MacDougalls' films have focused in one way or another on forces of social change and the intergenerational transfer of culture, and many of their African films highlight changes wrought by colonialism and postcolonial "development" policies, they do anything but give us an eagle-eyed view of the political terrain or plot its structural coordinates. Yet they succeed in showing how exogenous political-economic forces manifest themselves in the lives of particular people--not only in their changing world views, but also in their personalities, in their dispositions, in idiosyncratic nuances of behavior.

The MacDougalls' films have departed from the dominant documentary film style in various ways. Expository documentaries, to get their message, moral, or argument across, tend to resort either to scripted voiceover narration or else to set-up interviews in which people report on their experience after the fact. In the MacDougalls' films, as in observational cinema (direct cinema and cinema verite) more broadly, we see people actually living their lives, rather than simply telling us about them, with all the attenuation that entails and affectation it allows. But unlike some works (and much of the rhetoric) of the observational movement, the MacDougalls' films betray no desire to conceal the filmmakers' presence. In the midst of watching a heated discussion among family or friends, one might suddenly be privy to a snide remark about the filmmakers, a flash of recognition in someone's eyes as they unexpectedly catch sight of the camera and are reminded of its intrusions, or a shift into direct address to the camera that shows a subject to have been aware of it all along.

The MacDougalls' films have been pioneering examples of reflexivity avant la lettre. They typically acknowledge, or indicate, the filmmakers' determining presence in a variety of ways--not only with rhetorical textual intertitles, first-person commentary, and still and moving shots of themselves and their paraphernalia, but also by letting us hear their own laconic questions as well as their subjects' responses--in pretty much any way except for the heavy-handed Brechtian baring of the device that has become the stock-in-trade of documentary's "avant-garde." Thus their films lack both the presumption of omniscience of much voiceover-driven documentary and the presumption of objectivity of some observational cinema. In their own terms, their style is as "participatory" as it is observational. It is an approach that, in its attachment to the immanence and the flux of experience, one is inclined to call, after William James, "radically empirical." But unlike much of the phenomenological tradition, the MacDougalls' films, with their scrupulous attention to the dialogue of their subjects, never allow one to forget that reflecting on one's life (and its relationship to others) is part and parcel of actually living it.

IB (Ilisa Barbash): In cross-cultural films, do you think there are specific problems that revolve around the issue of translation? Are they different in kind from those inherent in written ethnography and from those involving all documentary films?

JM (Judith MacDougall): I think the major challenge in making observational films in unfamiliar cultures is not so much one of "translation" as one of creating an environment that allows viewers room to interpret the behavior of people operating within a very different social system. Yes, the problems are different in kind from those in written anthropology, and one must counter the expectations of those who expect a didactic essay. The hardest thing in the filmmaking process is to determine exactly how much manipulation and intervention is needed to ensure a reasonably accurate interpretation and yet never to "tell" too much. Constructing the beginning of a film is especially tricky because one tries to set up the themes, characters, and style, yet viewers should also be able to bring their own interpretations to it. Exposition without ambiguity can raise false expectations. Any hint of the familiar formulaic didactic style can cause the viewer to immediately suspend all mental activity and expect to be told everything, and then if such explicitness is not forthcoming, an audience can become quite cross.

LT (Lucien Taylor): Do you consider yourselves observational filmmakers through and through? Would you ever make much use of archival footage and re-enactments, or stylized hybrids blending fact and fiction, or more autobiographical or diaristic films?

JM: I'd consider doing any of the things you mention, but one can't separate style or structural strategies from appropriateness to the filmic situation. A part of what makes filmmaking so demanding is the effort it takes to retain an open mind while making decisions that preclude certain possibilities. For example, a film I'd conceptualised as requiring my first-person commentary might take on a different point of view, and be narrated by one of the main characters in the film. A situation that seemed to demand archival footage can suddenly change into one where people spontaneously choose to reenact their history, and this might be much more interesting. While filming in an unobtrusive observational manner, one might suddenly need to step into the scene. Probably new technology makes stylistic hybrids inevitable, and we'll be the richer for this; but there's an advantage to simplicity as well.

DM (David MacDougall): I'm quite open to the possibility of doing things differently in the future. For example, I'm not opposed to using narration, only to using it in certain shop-worn ways. In fact, we've used narration in a number of our films. I think it's also a mistake to jump to conclusions about a film on the basis of certain stylistic features. A film such as Tempus de Baristas may look superficially very much like a traditional observational film simply because it doesn't declare the filmmaker's presence overtly. But I believe it's fundamentally different in approach to observational films, and that the presence of the filmmaker can be felt in it in all sorts of other ways if one really understands the film.

IB: In David's Doon School Chronicles there are further departures from an observational style: still photo montages; the structuring of the film into chapters, each announced with an epigraph; and long close-ups of objects or body parts. Can you talk a little about this?

DM: In many respects the film is about the tension between uniformity and individuality: this is announced in the opening sequences of the film, with the empty uniforms and anonymous legs and bodies gradually being filled by individuals. In taking the school as my subject, I felt I had to deal with it both abstractly and with some intimacy. The stills and quotations from school documents are part of the process of abstraction. They make us step back from the school and regard it from a greater distance, and sometimes with irony. At the same time, I hope that the emphasis on material objects brings us closer to the physical reality of being at the school, and the immediate experience of the students. I don't think that an observational style alone would have accomplished this.

LT: Observational and verite films seem to have given way, both in the mainstream and within the independent community, to interview-based films. How do you feel about the shift? Do interview-based films really provide the context that some viewers felt to be lacking in observational films?

JM: I think the shift from observational material to interview material has more to do with changes in technology and changing economic realities than it does with an intentional modification of filmmaking methodology or philosophy. Shooting interviews on video is cheap, easy, and quick, and shooting observational material, even on tape, is enormously time-consuming and thus expensive. Observational footage has been replaced by "reality" footage authenticated by interview. Reality footage is also comparatively inexpensive because it usually depicts public events which fall into familiar categories, such as political events, disasters, and so on, and thus it can exist as a simple metonym which requires little interior contextualization. I worry that because this sort of journalistic practice has almost completely replaced older, more open, film forms, the expectations of viewers who have never seen a "documentary" are becoming very restricted. The preconceptions which bias interpretation are a crucial part of the process of mediation; for example, a viewer perceives a film very differently when it is seen on a television monitor as part of an academic seminar than when it's projected in a theater. And even though popular literature and television has developed the curious inversion of nonfiction viewed as entertainment (Cops, Funniest Home Video, etc.) and fiction is consumed as information (James Clavell's Rising Sun or the feature film JFK), there is a tendency, especially in academic circles, to equate nonfiction with information.

DM: I have considerable reservations about interview-based films. But one great potential of television, I think, is to allow us to watch and listen to people talking. We can get a real insight into a person's ideas and character through such material--for example, in Rolf Husmann, Peter Loizos, and Werner Sperschneider's film on Raymond Firth, in Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's film on Noam Chomsky, and in Terry Zwigoff's on Robert Crumb. Unfortunately this approach is very rare on television. There's a tendency not to want us to watch and listen, but rather to manipulate fragments of speech.

There are many questions about the self-validation of interview-based films, and Bill Nichols has written about this. Certainly they're an effective and tempting form of propaganda, because filmmakers have only to include the sentiments they agree with. Also it's terribly seductive just to sit back and be told things by people who supposedly know, and who promise a kind of behind-the-scenes view of history. But there's incredible confusion these days between television journalism and documentary. People simply don't know the difference. Interview-based films are always, on one level, retrospective and second-hand. They report on experience, they don't use film to confront us with experience, except as people look back upon it. Somehow these films are evasive: they don't really come to grips with film as a medium for engaging with life as it is lived--what Edgar Morin called the work of the cineaste-plongeur, who dives into life. They have a prefabricated quality, which of course is what television executives love about them. You propose an idea and then go around and collect interviews and archival footage. But it's sad to see young filmmakers going out to make a documentary and all they can think of to do is sit people down and interview them.

LT: How do you go about choosing a "subject" for your films? Do you focus on a "theme"? Do you select or "cast" your subjects?

DM: There are several considerations. One is how well a situation brings certain underlying issues to the surface. Another is how people embody those issues in their lives, and how expressive they are about them. Filmmakers are attracted to certain people for a variety of reasons--for the position they occupy sociologically, for the problems they exemplify, for their intelligence and other qualities, their attitudes toward life, their expressiveness, their skillfulness, their appearance or bearing. Undoubtedly we are often drawn to exceptional people, which may result in ethnographic films being skewed away from the norm, but I think this occurs in most anthropological fieldwork. At the same time, these people often sum up significant aspects of their society and are eloquent about it.

While I was shooting the Doon School films I felt that in some ways the major protagonists were "casting" themselves. Certain boys stood out from the crowd because of some special aspect of their activities or character. One boy was so remarkably expressive in everything he did that I always felt he could easily have made a career as a child actor. But I was also looking for a certain pattern of representative students. In Doon School Chronicles I focused on a group of four boys who shared a room together but differed greatly in background and personality. I also chose two others, a younger boy who was making a success of school life in very conventional ways, and an older one who had always challenged the conventions of the school and was making a success of his life there on his own terms.

LT: All your films are distinguished by your manifest presence, interacting variously, if usually laconically and subtly, with the pro-filmic world we see on the screen. How has your orientation to reflexivity changed over the course of your work?

DM: Reflexivity at one time was at the center of our enterprise, because we were making films that were explicitly epistemological. Whatever their other subjects, they were about how films represent knowledge, and what sorts of knowledge were available to filmmakers. It was also important to remind audiences that films come about through the agency of filmmakers, not the gods. There was always the danger, though, that the self-reflexive stance would be taken as a stamp of authenticity--that because we acknowledged the constraints upon our view, that view would be more completely believed. In effect, self-reflexivity tended to be crudely interpreted as erecting a structure of explanation around one's work to legitimate it. This nurtured the naive positivist view that science really could describe external reality accurately if all the filters of subjectivity were identified and done away with. It completely missed the point that we know things through ourselves, and that you can't simply eliminate the self in the pursuit of knowledge.

For me, reflexivity now means something rather different. It's something inscribed in the work at a deeper level. To understand the relation of the filmmaker to the subject, you have to engage with the film more imaginatively. The presence of the filmmaker, and the quality of the filmmaker's relation to the subject, permeates a good film. It is evident in the nuances of camera movement, in the framing, in what the filmmaker selects at any given moment, in the pace of the film, its themes and ideas, and how people behave before the camera. It lies in many things that the filmmaker would be unable to identify precisely, because the filmmaker is too intimately involved. This suggests that the filmmaker may not be the best person to define for the viewer the terms in which the film should be read. These must be read in the film itself.

JM: The problem of how to include the author as a solid, real presence is similar in both written and visual media, in that an extra body requires additional space, and generally the vehicle can only hold so many bodies. It is in the nature of texts that space is time, and they can only go on for so long, and usually it takes quite a long time to deal with the complexities of exotic others doing strange things in alien cultures. The more the author appears as a real body, the more he/she also needs explanation. I am often derailed when I read some of the recent ethnographies because I am always stopping to wonder where the author went to school or how old she is and who her parents were, and so on. When we create narratives with characters who are real people, and not fictional ones, we are faced with the basic limitations of the medium we're working in; it's a difficult problem. It has often been suggested that multimedia will alleviate these space/time limitations, but I think we'll always need freestanding texts, the product of our analytical and creative energy, however imperfect these might be.

LT: Would you be as quick as Jean Rouch to say that "There is almost no boundary between documentary film and films of fiction"?

DM: I would not be nearly as quick to say that. The boundary may indeed be vague, but that doesn't mean there is no difference on either side of it. The actors in fiction films are real people, but does that make all fiction films documentary? I'd like to preserve the distinction, for two reasons. I agree with Bill Nichols that there is a fundamental difference between films about living people, who belong to the world regardless of any film that might be made about them, and people imagined by a scriptwriter and played by actors. There is far more to the person in documentary than what one films, but there is no more to a fictional character than what is in the film, however richly it is evoked. Secondly, documentary filmmaking is for me importantly a way of making contact with the world, of sensing and declaring the existence of things, whereas fiction would seem to be a way of adding to the world in its own image. I have to admit, though, that Bresson is a great filmmaker for me precisely because he reaches beyond the fictional. He is working in Rouch's borderland.

LT: Who has made up your audiences over the years? Do you make films explicitly for multiple audiences?

JM: I always have felt very much like Edgar Morin, who says in the last scene of Chronique d'un ete, "I thought everybody would find the film sympathetic; now I see people I'm fond of, like Marilou and Marceline quarrelling [over it]. That upsets me. I assumed audiences would like the people I liked."

DM: I have never been happy with the idea of making films for a "target audience." Once a film is made, it may have any number of audiences, and in the future many that were never anticipated. Much of what people see in a film is the result of what they bring to it, and each viewer in effect sees a different film. If a film is sufficiently rich and complex, I believe it will have meaning for a variety of viewers, or perhaps rather, give them the materials to make meaning Recently, I've felt increasingly that the most important audience for a film is the people in it. But of course you make a film for other people too. And you make it for itself, to bring it into being.


This is a fragment of an interview that was originally published in the American Anthropologist journal (Vol. 98, no. 2,
pp 371-387, 1996) and subsequently republished in an expanded form in Film Quarterly in 2000, where it can be read online. in its entirety. COPYRIGHT 2000 University of California Press, please ask for permission before reproducing.


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