& Judith MacDougall interviewed by Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Taylor
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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.
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.
David & Judith MacDougall >>