• Alex Xavier

A non-fiction approach that blends cinematic story telling with observational documentation

Article 2:

In the previous article I talked about the ubiquity of mobile phones and the potential it opens up for making non-fiction films. These movies, which I have termed as 'lived experience films' just for the sake of differentiation, are essentially a subjective capturing of the life around oneself over a period of time- the lived experience of oneself. Now, that sounds similar to the avant-garde diarist cinema tradition. So why differentiate it with a different label? What are the theoretical and philosophical lineage of this approach? Let's have a quick look into these aspects.

To avant-garde or not ?

Any discussion on avant-garde can go on to multiple facets and complexities. But here, we will stick to one crucial aspect that will clearly differentiate the proposed non-fiction film format from the usually perceived methods of avant-garde films. And that aspect is the use of handheld camera: how it is used, and what it tries to express.

The movie making using mobile phone cameras is in many ways similar to the diarist approach of Jonas Mekas who did the same thing using his Bolex back in the 1950s. In the avant-garde diarist approach, the filmmaker essentially captures moments that she deems worth capturing on a continuous basis for a long period of time- weeks, months, or years. Mekas' talks about his approach as follows:

"Since 1950 I have been keeping a film diary. I have been walking around with my Bolex and reacting to the immediate reality: situations, friends, New York, seasons of the year. On some days I shot ten frames, on others ten seconds, still on others ten minutes. Or I shoot nothing. When one writes diaries, it's a retrospective process: you sit down, you look back at your day, and you write it all down. To keep a film (camera) diary, is to react (with your camera) immediately, now, this instant: either you get it now or you don't get it at all. To go back and shoot it later, it would mean restaging, be it events or feelings. To get it now, as it happens, demands the total mastery of one's tools (in this case, Bolex): it has to register my state of feeling (and the memories) as I react" (quoted in Adams, 2002).

Now, in the lived-experience films too, The core of the practice is almost the same. One has to be aware of the happenings around, and be ready to capture it as and when it occurs. The 'alertness' and 'readiness' is important for both approaches. However, there is a crucial difference between the avant-garde style of filmmaking and the lived-experience films, even though they both seek to capture the same thing (almost). And that crucial difference is the difference between 'perception' and 'reaction'.

Let's examine this further. The avant-garde is focused on the 'reaction' of the filmmaker, the emphasis is on the filmmaker's 'feelings' to the happening. This leads to a self conscious style of filmmaking which draws attention to the camera itself. The use of the 'handheld camera' is an ideological choice, a statement, that goes against the principle of 'omniscience' or 'invisibility of camera' put forward by Hollywood cinematographers like Victor Milner and Lindsley Lane.

From the early days of pioneering avant-garde filmmakers like Maya Deren and Marie Menken, whose films would lay the foundation of postwar avant-garde filmmaking in the US, and go on to inspire the works of Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, the 'shakiness' of camera has been a key feature of avant-garde filmmaking (Hart, 2019). Drawing attention to the camera, and more importantly, 'the person behind the camera' is a crucial part of the avant-garde aesthetics of 1960s, a period which is considered as the culturally most significant period for the avant-garde movement (Hart, 2019).

This is to say that, in the handheld aesthetics of Brakhage and Mekas, each shake of the camera is a reference to the filmmaker, and the reaction of the filmmaker, which is seen as more important than the narrative of what is happening 'out there'. The indexical connection between the filmmaker's body and camera - the 'oneness'- which the films of Brakhage and Mekas emphasises, leads to a style of filmmaking that is 'structured not around a scenario but instead around the filmmaker themselves' ( Hart, 2019). Avantgarde filmmaker's use of camera, deliberately draws attention to the apparatus, and through that the filmmaker behind the apparatus.

On the other hand, while lived-experience films also uses hand held camera, and is indeed a subjective capturing of the lived experience, unlike avant-garde, it does not focus on the camera itself. The use of handheld camera is incidental due to the properties of the mobile phone device. The shakiness itself is not a feature, but an inevitability that is seen as something to be minimized. And most importantly, it avoids reference to the filmmaker as much as it can. This also means that it avoids the voice-over narration unless absolutely necessary.

It is also worth noting that the handheld aesthetics of avant-garde films was greatly influenced by the discourses on abstract-expressionist paintings, resulting in use of camera as an expressionist tool, drawing attention to the shakiness itself. According to Hart (2019),

"It was not just the presence of a cameraperson that was being signalled but also the active, responsive intelligence of the filmmakers. The movements of the camera—each reframing, each movement, each angle—expressed that response. The shakiness of their handheld cameras was a constant reminder and a signal to viewers to pay attention to the expressive capacities of the camera itself".

The lived-experience films, deviates from this style and focuses on the 'narrative'. The reference to the camera and filmmaker is avoided as much as it can, and when it occurs it is incidental than deliberate. In this sense, the camera movements are merely to help with the story telling, and not to draw attention to the movement itself. Thus the use of camera in lived-experience films is more in alignment with the 'invisible camera' principle , and treats 'shakiness' as something to be minimized through practise (and supports the use of mini-tripods or mini-gimbals if one has access to it).

In other words, in the new approach, the camera, while being handheld, aspires to be 'invisible'. The camera is 'a tool of perception', not 'reaction', and tries to pursue the viewers' 'illusion of presence'.

Now at this point, it is also worth pointing out that Marie Menken, the early pioneer of avant-garde, regarded shakiness of camera not as a feature, but as an incidental bug that could be minimized. Her style, which was 'not directly subjective or obviously expressive but visibly handheld', was lost to the subsequent generation of avant-garde filmmakers (Hart, 2019). In this sense, the lived-experience films could be said to be a fusion between the early vision of avant-garde filmmaking (of Menken) of 'handheld camera subjectivity' and the 'narrative focused, realistic style' of the likes of Milner and Lane. Thus we are looking at an approach that fuses two opposing approaches, where the subjectivity of filmmaker merges with the invisibility of camera presence. The filmmaker and her reactions are incidental presence, not the core of the film. In other words, 'show, don't tell' remains the core principle for the 'lived-experience filmmaking'.

Cinema-Verite and the new approach

Apart from the avant-garde cinema, the 'lived-experience films' approach overlaps with the French Cinema-Verite style of Jean Rouch, and in certain aspects with the 'direct cinema' of Robert Drew. The fact that the lived-experience films are shot spontaneously without any script, and the filmmaker is invisible, yet involved are all aspects of this overlapping. However, it cannot be confined to any of these labels because it does not share the same underlying ideological foundations of these movements.

The key differentiation between cinema-verite approach (and its derivatives) and lived-experience films' approach is regarding the definition of 'truth' itself. Cinema-Verite in its core is occupied with finding and revealing 'the truth' to the viewer, whether in a participatory way of documenting it or as a detached observer. The underlying notion is that there is 'truth out there to be revealed'. However, the lived-experience film makes no such claims about 'the truth', its fundamental search is not to find the truth out there, instead it is to 'find the stories' out there. Its fundamental idea is that there are 'little movies' out there to be discovered through the camera. Of course since it captures real moments without any preplanning, the truth of that moment is inherently embedded in the visuals- but what it focuses is on the moments when a 'glimpse of story' is revealed, its concern is the 'discovery of cinema in every day reality'. To put it simply, cinema-verite (and other versions of it, including direct cinema or observation documentary) is a documentarian's art, while lived-experience filmmaking, as proposed here, is a storyteller's art.

Reality is a collection of little movies

Now, going further into the 'show, don't tell' principle, there is naturally a question that arises. What to show? We saw in the above section that in the lived-experience films, the filmmaker is a 'silent witness' whose reactions and feelings are not the focus of the narrative. Instead of the avant-garde filmmaker's 'inward looking eye', the lived-experience filmmaker opens her eyes to the 'outside world', to the countless stories and scenes that are unfolding everyday around her. And this leads to an inevitable challenge: what to show? which story to focus on? Which transient, momentary unfolding of the scene to pay attention to?

And this, right here, is where the lived-experience films differentiates itself from every other approach. For the traditional filmmaker, there is a script, and there is no confusion as to what to show. Even in non-fiction observational documentaries, there is a pre-decided theme, a set of central characters or incidents to follow. For the avant-garde filmmaker, there is a clear point of focus, even when there is no script- which is the filmmaker herself and her emotional reactions conveyed through the camera movements.

But when making the non-fiction film in this new approach, there is nothing; just life itself. Life, in all its shades and hues and rhythms and tones and movements, with all its characters and conversations and happenings, with all its spontaneities, uncertainties, and idiosyncrasies.

What will you show? Which song will you tune to? Which conversation will you pay attention to? Which character will you follow? In other words, where will you focus? To what will you pay attention? And this challenge is at the heart of lived-experience films, where the perceived 'reality out there' becomes a grand 'movie you are in', and you have to choose which scene to capture. And this outlook at life, as a collection of stories, a fictitious tale, a grand movie itself, is the core differentiating factor, in theory and in practice, that separates lived-experience films from other movements.


Read the first article : Lived-Experience Films: A new framework for non-fiction filmmaking with 'story-telling' at its core

Watch : some of the videos I made, demonstrating the lived-experience filmmaking approach

Know more about the story behind 'Little Human Tales', the non-fiction feature I am currently working on



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Jonas Mekas Quoted in P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943–2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 339.

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