The theoretical inaccessibility in non-fiction filmmaking: the case for a new approach
I talk about capturing the 'lived experience' as a method of making accessible films. Or as a method of filmmaking practice. I believe this approach could be the most accessible form of film for an aspiring filmmaker to start with. What do I mean 'accessible'?. This article talks about that.
For the purpose of this article I call it 'lived experience films', just to differentiate the approach. A lived-experience film is defined here as a non-fiction film, based on the immediate realities around an individual's personal life. It is made with real life footage captured in a spontaneous manner without a script or preplanning, over a period of time ranging from days to years, using a portable video camera such as in a mobile phone. Now, this may sound very similar to some of the existing movements in filmmaking, such as the diarist avant-garde approach, the cinema-verite movement, observational cinema, or experimental cinema. However, the crux of this approach is that it is not exactly avant-garde or cinema-verite, or even observational cinema in its purest form. It is more of a fusion- where it all merges to become one, where non-fiction starts to feel like fiction.
Accessibility in filmmaking in the era of mobile phone cameras
Let us start the discussion by looking at an important innovation which makes our times historically unprecedented as far as filmmaking is concerned: the mobile phone camera. For anyone with an interest in filmmaking, the innovations in mobile phone technology in the last decade have created a never before accessibility to cameras that can capture moving imagery and sound. Indeed there have been many attempts in making both fiction and non fiction films using mobile phone cameras. However, has the technological accessibility really resulted in materialising the potential of filmmakers around the world? (By 'filmmakers' here it is meant anyone interested in making films, including enthusiasts, students, and aspiring career filmmakers. Also, although this discussion is relevant for both fiction and non-fiction films, this paper focuses on non-fiction filmmaking).
It can be argued that while technology has become accessible, there is a kind of 'theoretical inaccessibility and non-inclusivity' when it comes to filmmakers from non-western countries, especially the ones with no formal film industry, and communities where accessibility to film theory is difficult (due to linguistic, cultural, and socio-political barriers). Let's explore this issue further, first by looking at the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras and what it means.
The world is camera ready: can we go beyond cat videos?
Mobile phone cameras have become ubiquitous, even in places which are beyond the reach of mainstream filmmakers. For instance, Agbo (2019) talks about the use of mobile phone cameras in the riot and terrorism stricken areas of Nigeria. In his analysis about the 'unprecedented use of camera devices as agentive tools for civil struggles' Agbo (2019) notes how the quality of camera is a major deciding factor when a person is buying a mobile phone, even in the faraway villages of Nigeria. He says "The desire to be ‘camera-ready’, to frame the world, is as strong as the desire to stay connected to the world through voice calls and text messaging" (Agbo, 2019). The world, in other words, has become 'camera-ready' like never before in the history of human civilization. And with mobile phone cameras everywhere, it is waiting to be explored, through the perspectives of many a regional filmmakers.
Now surely, one could say that it is happening already, through millions of video 'clips', from cat videos to travel footage to videos of the shocking and bizarre, that flood the social media on a daily basis. But the question is, can we go beyond that, and define a new category of filmmaking, which would allow people who are interested in filmmaking to differentiate their works from this flood of the short videos? Can non-fiction films made with mobile cameras be constituted as a significant form of filmmaking art, and if it can be, how do we go about achieving that?
The Lived-Experience Films
So far, as a tool for documenting reality, the most noticeable use of mobile phone cameras has been in citizen journalism, especially in authoritarian regimes, where it has successfully eluded the strict censorship rules that mainstream news broadcasters are subjected to. Salti(2012) talks about how mobile phones were used to shoot insurgent videos during the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt and Syria.
"A month into the insurgency, the broadcast of news and footage was entirely fed by amateur video from insurgents, recorded by mobile phones and, to a much lesser extent, lightweight video cameras" (Salti, 2012).
However, while admitting the 'tremendous seductive power of the raw, in-vivo, in-situ video recording', Salti also points out the absence of a certain kind of footage: the one that 'captures the experience of actually being there'. She says :
"They probably exist, but I have yet to find videos that capture the intensity of the lived experience of being there. No matter. Perhaps that is not the point of the everyday video chronicling of insurgencies. Nevertheless, one can easily observe the centrality of the body in the daily chronicles of street protests in Syria, specifically in one of the most surprising features of the insurgency, namely the dancing" (Salti, 2012).
She talks about 'dabkeh', the traditional folk dance form of the local population, which was performed on the streets during the insurgence, and points to the absence of videos that capture those moments from a more intimate subjective perspective - of 'lived experience'- in contrast to the 'video chronicling' of events for journalistic purposes.
This idea of films that capture the 'lived experience' is further stated by Westmoreland (2015) who examines the use of mobile phones in revolutionary Cairo from a visual ethnographic perspective. The use of mobile phone cameras in a teaching experiment is discussed, and he notes that the use of an ' embodied visual approach allowed students to apprehend modes of lived experience' which form 'the basis of how people live and experience political life'. (Westmoreland, 2015). By capturing the subjective, non-representational aspects of student encounters with random strangers on the street, the experience creates a certain kind of 'affective knowledge' for everyone involved (Westmoreland, 2015).
Both Salti(2012) and Westmoreland (2015) points to the many possibilities of capturing the 'lived experience' and its potential to go beyond a mere political chronicling, to become something deeper, something far more universal. Westmoreland (2015) points further, to the possibility of such videos becoming rich, in-depth pieces of a visual ethnographic and visual anthropological pieces of history. In other words, these 'lived experience films' are not simply about an individual's subjective lived experience, but also the capturing of life and times of that corner of the world, culture, and happenings. These movies, in that sense, are also subjective memories of a collective experience.
What makes 'lived-experience' films the most accessible form of filmmaking is that it does not require anything other than a mobile phone camera, and a perceptive mind that is alert to the happenings in everyday life. Having equipped with the mobile phone camera, the only real requirement is the development of the 'perceptive mind'. Developing of that perceptive mind, in turn, is based on grasping of some core concepts and principles which guide the filmmaking process. We may refer to this set of concepts and principles as the foundation of a 'filmmaker's mental construct'. This construct is what guides the filmmaker. It gives the answer to fundamental questions about the film - questions such as 'what should be captured in the given moment?', 'should it be captured at all?', 'what is being expressed in the shot? ', 'what is the theme of the movie?', 'who or what is the centre of attention in the given shot?', and such.
Now this mental construct of the filmmaker is derived from the knowledge of existing theoretical constructs about filmmaking. For example, a filmmaker trained in the classical three-stage story arc structure will be able to look at her film and develop it accordingly from the ideation stage onwards. While fiction films have well established constructs that are universally understood, this is not the case with non-fiction films. And this is where the above mentioned issue of inaccessibility and non-inclusivity begins.
The inaccessibility of non-fiction filmmaking and the need for a new framework
It is true that due to the ubiquity of high quality mobile phone cameras, the technological apparatus for filmmaking has become highly accessible. However, there is a lack of 'theoretical accessibility' that discourages filmmakers from under privileged communities in taking on experimentations with their mobile phones. The question of 'what kind of film is it?' often perplexes them, and it is easy for their works to be brushed off as 'just an amateur mobile phone film', in the absence of a conceptual framework within which their films can belong. I can speak about this from his own experience, as someone from India, who has been pursuing the practice of lived experience movies for the last five years. While there is a big commercial film industry in India, the kind of non-fiction films based on lived experience that I have been working on, especially using a mobile phone, has little or no precedence.
The challenge here arises from the fact that the existing theoretical frameworks that define 'what kind of film is it' imposes certain restrictions on both the filmmaker and the viewer. For instance, Pierson (2018) points out that pretty much all theorizations of avant-garde or experimental film, from the 1960s to 1980s and beyond, including writings of P. Adams Sitney, Annette Michelson, Carroll and others, all feature 'modernism' as the cornerstone of both avant-garde and experimental filmmaking. And modernism is overwhelmingly associated with the concept of 'difficulty'. This idea of 'genuine art' requiring a certain level of difficulty underpins most experimental, or avant-garde works.
Of course it is up to each filmmaker to choose to pursue what they want in their films. If they wish to pursue what Jennifer Doyle describes as the 'the illegibility of nonfigurative and nonrepresentational work; the austerity of abstraction and minimalism; the rigor of institutional critique' (Doyle,2013), or what Greenberg famously championed as the 'necessity for difficulty in genuine art' so that the viewer doesn't get any 'shortcuts to pleasure' (cited in Pierson, 2018), it is their artistic freedom and choice. But the point to note here is that this 'difficulty as a feature', is a privileged value for members of certain communities who has access to such knowledge about specific art histories, and concepts like modernism, abstractionism, expressionism, or the ideological underpinnings of avant-garde vs Hollywood, and such ideas. And by making it a 'required feature' of 'genuine art', potential filmmakers from under privileged communities who have no access to such theoretical knowledge end up being alienated or considered as lesser artists.
There have been attempts recently, to address this issue of accessibility at least partially, by expanding the definition of avant-garde, and by looking at modernism through a broader perspective, (such as the works of Davide James (2005) and Juan Suarez (2007)). Yet, these still do not address the fundamental issues. For example, how do we talk about the theoretical underpinnings of modernism in experimental filmmaking or the search for truth in cinema-verite traditions, to a villager in a faraway tribe in Mongolia who wants to make an independent movie with her mobile phone camera, based on her day to day lived experience? And if she doesn't follow these conventions of 'difficulty', would her work still be treated as a 'genuine' or 'significant' form of film art?
Note that this paper is discussing specifically about non-fiction filmmaking that focuses on capturing the 'lived experience' of individuals over a sustained period of time, ranging from days to years. Our current classification system for such movies is that they are either diarist avant-garde, observational documentary, cinema-verite, direct cinema, or experimental filmmaking. However, the theoretical and ideological underpinnings of these filmmaking approaches are inaccessible for aspiring filmmakers from many communities due to language barriers, socio-political situations, and cultural traditions.
This would not have been a major problem even a decade ago, when filmmaking technology was accessible only to a privileged few. However, that is not the case anymore. Mobile video cameras have reached the farthest corners, and the world, as described in the beginning of this paper, has become camera ready. Expanding the definition of modernism won't make filmmaking inclusive. Which is why we require a new framework, that is not tied onto any particular stream of art history, or to concepts in any one language. We need something that is universal, the principles of which are easy to understand, and which are embedded into the collective knowledge of every community.
This is why I feel the need for defining these movies into its own category with broadly accessible and inclusive underlying principles, new possibilities could open up for filmmakers from diverse communities. It could lead to films which are made as an 'individual form of art' just like, say, painting, or writing. Eventually, with participation from filmmakers from diverse communities across the globe, it could potentially become a category consisting a kaleidoscope of thousands of 'lived-experience movies', showcasing the life and times of people in far richly diverse, far more detailed, and far more realistic frames, than any mainstream film industry could ever hope to capture.
The simple act of story-telling as the core
And this is why I believe that the simple act of 'story-telling' should be the core philosophy of this approach. Story telling as in a folklore tradition, or as in a mythical structure. Take the very 'primitive' idea of the filmmaker as a story teller, and apply it to the non-fiction lived experience movie. Look at the world, and the reality, as if it is a 'collection of stories to be discovered'; not as 'stimuli-for-reactive expression' of the avant-garde, or the 'truth-beneath-the-surface to be unravelled' of cinema-verite, or an 'experimentation in challenging the viewer's perceptive capabilities'. Instead, make non fiction films as if it is a folk story. Fuse the methods of mythical story telling with non-fiction footage, captured in a spontaneous, unscripted, unplanned way.
There is difficulty in this approach, definitely, but that difficulty is not theoretical. It is the difficulty in being alert, being ready, being in anticipation of the glimpse of the story that may unfold in reality any moment. And that difficulty is universal, it doesn't favour someone with the privilege of understanding art history over the one who doesn't.
Read: The next article on How lived-experience filmmaking is different from other non-fiction movements: Theory and practice
David E. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005);
Juan A. Suárez, Pop Modernism: Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).
Pierson, M. 2018, "The Accessibility of the Avant-Garde: Talk about American Experimental Cinema", Discourse, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 3-29,139.
James, D. 2005, "The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles" Berkeley: University of California Press
Suárez, J. 2007, Pop Modernism: Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday Urbana: University of Illinois Press
Herzog, A. (2020) 'ON JONAS MEKAS', Millennium Film Journal, (71-72), 144+, available: https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A645944063/AONE?u=anglia_itw&sid=AONE&xid=253d068a
Salti, R. 2012, "Shall We Dance?", Cinema Journal, vol. 52, no. 1, pp. 166-172.
Westmoreland, M.R. 2015, "Mish mabsoota : on teaching with a camera in revolutionary Cairo", Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, vol. 7.
Agbo, G.E. 2019, "Challenging the frivolities of power: the ubiquitous camera and Nigerian political elites", Africa, vol. 89, no. 2, pp. 286-302.
Hart, A.C. 2019, "Extensions of Our Body Moving, Dancing: The American Avant-Garde's Theories of Handheld Subjectivity", Discourse, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 37-67.
Jonas Mekas Quoted in P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943–2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 339.