Category: VOLUME 2: SUS

Nanook of the North | Sus

Credit: Janus Films/Films sans Frontiéres

Joseph Owen

Virginia Woolf writes in her essay ‘The New Biography’ (1927) that the character of Hamlet is the ideal figurative emblem for documenting the ‘increasingly real […] fictitious life’ of the modern human subject. The drama which contains Hamlet functions as the prime mover for private complexity, the origin story for contemporary biography. Disputed, multifaceted Hamlet is preferable to an unadorned archetype or cipher, which Woolf designates, a little dismissively, as ‘John Smith of the Corn Exchange’. By this logic, the modern biographer should depict reality as derived from its subject’s personality rather than through his or her actions. Truth, in this rendering, is more likely found among fraught individual subjectivities than upon a mere depository of items, names and dates. 

As Woolf summarizes it, this mode of biography should complement the ‘granite-like solidity’ of fact with the ‘rainbow-like intangibility’ of imagination. The instability of these oppositions means that it is possible to indulge and lose both worlds; such is the delicate balance of truth and falsehood. Reality must be carefully sought amid the rubble of experience, in unfamiliar territories, through poetic abstractions, behind dark spots, and across unending icy tundra. Woolf identifies our motivation for this search in her novel-length satire of biography, Orlando (1928), as ‘a desire for distance, for music, for shadow, for space, [which] takes hold of us’. All of which seems to offer the infatuated biographer and its cinematic analogue, the documentarian, plenty of leverage to make a lot of stuff up. 

Admittedly, the movement between biography and documentary can be obfuscating. Although ambivalent about the ability of the cinematic image to adapt literary consciousness, Woolf acknowledged how silent film could offer a fresh artistic perspective. In her 1926 article ‘The Cinema’, Woolf generously speculated on the overall possibilities of the medium; in her diaries, she sedulously noted down her viewing habits. These included Man of Aran (1934), Robert J. Flaherty’s partly fabricated study of isle inhabitants living in relative isolation off the Western coast of Ireland. Given that Woolf intended to depict the human subject both in its dizzying multitude and as a necessary product of modernity, Flaherty’s nostalgic hankering for a primitivist, premodern existence must have supplied her with some form of jarring counterpoint. 

Not that they were without similarities in approach. Both drew on ostensibly sympathetic colonial imaginaries to distinguish between Western civilization and what they reverentially deemed to be far-flung and exotic social orders. Mostly for laughs, Woolf provides a sketchily drawn Constantinople in Orlando, while Flaherty, with apparent sincerity, captures arid plains of the Canadian Arctic as the setting for his dubious ethnographic classic, Nanook of the North (1922). Flaherty’s basic equipment and candid shooting techniques belied his byzantine development process and calculated deception of the audience. After initially filming the Inuit peoples, Flaherty dropped his cigarette, incinerating the original reels. With renewed focus, he returned to the Ungava Peninsula to fashion a narrative under more artificial conditions. This inevitably places the viewer, desirous of accurate representation, in an ethical and philosophical quandary. 

Flaherty made the character of Nanook, the taciturn provider and patriarch of a tight knit family, central to his new depiction. Among the acts of everyday survival, they are shown hunting walruses, building igloos, and, in a striking moment, emerging sequentially and impossibly out of a small kayak. One comic sequence has them meet jovially with ‘the white man’ at a trading post. The proceeding hijinks feature the children as they overconsume sea biscuit and lard, take remedy through castor oil, and bite, apparently innocently, into a gramophone record. Though unspecified, these scenes come imbued with a knowing theatricality. Something is up. What if we learn that Nanook, in real life, was previously aware of the gramophone and its purpose; that he was already using rifles instead of spears for hunting; that his name was not even Nanook but, in fact, Allakariallak; or that rather than dying of starvation in the desert, he was likely at home, succumbing to tuberculosis? 

What makes Flaherty’s effacement of his indigenous participants so galling today, but no less riveting in the cinematic instant, is the extent to which it allows the viewer to be morally complicit in their treatment. This is partly down to our fluctuating systems of knowledge. Recognition of subsequent postcolonial theory mitigates a broad appreciation of the film’s technical and dramatic devices. Critiques of anthropology and ethnography weigh against its circumstances of production. These types of questions haunt documentary filmmakers, who are now often less coy and more self-reflexive than Flaherty.

‘One often has to distort a thing in order to catch its true spirit’, Flaherty wrote in response to criticisms of his tendency to docudrama. This thesis does not sound too dissimilar to Woolf’s biographical manifesto, but it is fair to say that Flaherty’s embellishments in Nanook do not figure ‘the fearless, lovable, happy go-lucky Eskimo’ as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Instead, Flaherty has a scant desire for historical or psychoanalytic explanations; everything, including the human subjects, appears as hard and immediate surfaces, as extensions of natural habitat and subsistence labour. Truths of Allakariallak’s internal life could be found in his various toils, in the barren terrain, and in the heightened atmosphere of stoicism and melancholy. Yet, in Flaherty’s subaltern translation of Woolf’s dictum, Nanook of the North may as well be John Smith of the Corn Exchange, as defined only by his material existence. 

Flaherty had his own set of ethical limits. He was reportedly antagonized by F.W. Murnau, the director with whom he co-wrote the silent Tabu (1931), because he thought the eventual script too Westernized, too explicitly in thrall to conventional theme and plot. The principal romance and dual tragedy in Tabu, which is indeed missing from Nanook, suggest themselves in the headings of each act, where ‘Paradise’ descends into ‘Paradise Lost’. Through inscribed parchments, which function as the film’s intertitles, Murnau outlines the Polynesian custom that establishes the predetermined, tragic fate of the narrative. After the death of the previous incumbent, a sacred virgin emerges as the new and big taboo, appointed to the island of Bora Bora, required to live free from male desire, for fear of incurring the gods’ wrath and the associated dishonour. Not before long, she and her lover have copped it to the nearest French colony, only to be corrupted and misled by nominally civilized systems of monetary exchange and bacchanalian excess.

In Nanook, the viewer’s melancholy is wrought from instabilities of fact, through Flaherty’s condescending summaries and our knowledge of the participants’ exploitation. But in Tabu, melancholy is wrought from traditional techniques of dramatic irony, because we see where the tale is heading, aided by the remarkable tragic score, which, to borrow from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s account, is ‘conceived musically and rhythmically as a gradually decelerating diminuendo’. Tabu was made with more budget and sophistication than Nanook, which might make the former’s use and depiction of indigenous inhabitants all the more disquieting. What qualifies as documentary footage is harder to spot, just as the concessions to storytelling are more in evidence. Both films have the phrase ‘A Story’ in their respective subtitles, which draw attention to them as works of fiction, though patterns of deceit regularly entwine following the colon. After all, Woolf’s century-spanning fantasy Orlando is only, in some ways, ‘A Biography’. And just as the gap between thought and action is unbridgeable for Hamlet, the riddle of truth and imagination within the play cannot be resolved. The power of the tragedy is located in its suggestion of reality. The taboo, then, is that which collapses the distinction between fact and fiction, combining the knowledge of trauma with the trauma of knowledge.

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The Other Side of the Wind | Sus

Credit: Netflix

Ben Flanagan

‘[Welles] comes back from the grave, gives you a masterpiece and you groan.’

Nick Pinkerton, Film Comment’s Best of 2018 talk at Lincoln Center, 2018

If the key aim of the documentary form is an attempt to tell The Truth, then Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is just that. A life told in fragments as jagged as the spears, mirrors, and faces that occupy his films, it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction in the cinema of Orson Welles. In some respects, you wouldn’t want to. A Shakespearian who supposedly moved from the Midwest to live as an Irish farmer at 16 before taking over The Gate theatre in Dublin, and lived a life on the stage before he ever moved into movies at 25 with Citizen Kane (1941), Welles was such a consummate mythmaker that half of his career is unfinished, from the studio interference on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) to partially shot Don Quixote and his imagined debut, Heart of Darkness. Even in death, the appearance of The Other Side of the Wind, in its final form on Netflix 40 years after a shoot of dribs and drabs concluded, is like finding the corner piece of a jigsaw puzzle. 

Shot over 6 years from 1970 to 1976, The Other Side of the Wind details the final day in the life of Jake Hannaford, a Welles/Ernest Hemingway hybrid played by John Huston. A director in the process of making a difficult final film, he celebrates his 70th birthday alongside his protege Brooks Otterlake (Welles mentee Peter Bogdanovich, at whose house the film was largely shot and where Welles lived in and out off), and stand ins for New Hollywood figures like Pauline Kael (Susan Strasberg) and John Milius (Gregory Sierra). By the time a stoned Dennis Hopper shows up to monologue about living in a society, it is clear that Rivette’s aphorism that ‘every film is a documentary of its own making’ has never been more apt. 

Unlike truncated works hampered by studio interference like Touch of Evil (1958), to experience The Other Side of the Wind on its own terms is folly. In its original intended format, The Other Side of the Wind is a fiction film. But the ‘truth’ of this legendary unfinished film, that was seen by scholars in snippets through a screenplay and oral histories by cast/crew, is in that fragmentary nature. Now it exists as a complete document, ergo, a hybrid documentary

This multi-channel, cross medium way of experiencing The Other Side of the Wind through its history begs the question of film. Is it the light that flickers on a blank space for its duration? Is it the production, and the history around that? Is it the reputation in some sort of cultural canon? Is it the memory of each viewer? It is all of these things at once. Bazin is pragmatic about this ontology: ‘As long as it satisfies the dream needs of the masses, it becomes its own dream.’ If one has experienced the film as a gofundme or through the mandala of social media before even laying eyes on Welles’ footage, then the film is as a dream. One might see The Other Side of the Wind as an experimental documentary, just as Goran Olsson refashions archival footage in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011) to express a particular point of view, or Stephen Soderbergh posting Raiders of the Lost Ark in black and white to Vimeo shifts its POV to that of the prolific filmmaker.  Yes, the POV in The Other Side of the Wind is Welles, and the footage is shot and directed by Welles to fashion a fictional narrative. But at some point in the 35 years between filming and release, the film became about Welles in a sense that goes beyond self-portraiture. For a film already about the end of a certain kind of 20th century male genius narrative, the meta-context of its production shows the lengths that culture has moved away from Welles, and its inability to dismiss him completely. 

To view The Other Side of the Wind as a documentary helps it escape some of the circular questions of authorship that a face value viewing brings up. Can this object be considered ‘True Welles’? Oja Kodar ostensibly had a large hand in driving the creative process, particularly in the unforgettable sex scene in the interior of her boyfriend’s car in the film within a film, conveniently also named The Other Side of the Wind. Then there’s Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall who drove the completion of the project and assembled the final cut alongside Bob Murawski, perhaps Hollywood’s DIY editor supreme. Certainly, Bogdanovich’s voice over narration as Otterlake centres him to the extent that one wonders how large his role would have been otherwise, sexualised father/son overtones with Hannaford/Welles aside. At the very least, Bogdanovich’s contribution to Welles scholarship makes mincemeat of the cursed, 3-hour Mark Cousins docu-sychophancy The Eyes of Orson Welles. Also released in 2018, Cousins uncovered incredible research about Welles and then used it to make a self-indulgent letter that smacked the viewer over the head with the original revelation that Charles F. Kane might resemble Donald J. Trump. But Cousins’ inability to resist drawing himself into the narrative through his epistolatory ramblings shows the lure of the Welles mystique that Bogdanovich has demonstrably spent his career trying to be a part of. 

The influence of Netflix itself as author cannot be discounted. After all, the streaming service saved the doc from a failed go-fund-me, and commissioned the Welles primer They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018), made by the commercially-minded Morgan Neville. It is the kind of supplementary DVD extra that gains a vital introductory resonance as a streaming title in its own right. This turns The Other Side of the Wind into a ‘package’ that develops Netflix’s brand for supporting auteur content. Compare this to the more general documentary style that Netflix has become known for: a salacious tabloid documentary filmmaking mode of easily digestible narratives, talking heads, and celebrity footage. Who is Tiger King’s Joe Exotic (2020) if not a Wellesian hero, beset by traitors and betrayed by lovers?  The context-free appearance of The Other Side of the Wind in the infamous Netflix algorithm alongside the always-trending Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (2020), has a disorienting effect. Draw the parallels between the conspiracies and charismatic villains at the heart of Netflix’s documentary output, from Epstein to Wild Wild Country’s Rajneesh (2018), and Welles’ characters like Harry Lime and Mr Arkadin, and it’s hard to disavow the connection that Welles has to the Netflix form, even if it’s impossible to find his films without searching. 

Considering its investment in this dubious material, Netflix ironically appears to reward products that deliver clear moral arbitration to its audiences. Viewers who tie aesthetic judgement with moral citizenship are tired of the genius male artist myth, and question why someone with so many failures continued to make films in whatever form. The gigantic wide-angle sex scenes may appear on screen as mountains of flesh that might actually reach God, but that is less important to those who wince at Huston/Hannaford when tells his teenage girlfriend ‘I’ll write a note to your teacher.’  An Open Secret indeed. Yet these are the kind of incidents which make The Other Side of the Wind a documentary. Because they are true. The latest season of Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This, which dispels the romantic myths from 20th century Hollywood stories, focussed on production designer Polly Platt after Longworth gained access to her unpublished memoirs. Platt, who was married to Bogdanovich at the time, presents The Other Side of the Wind’s set as a madcap carnival without direction. She recounts Welles’ snack intake including KFC bargain bucket; several steak tartare (he’s offended that Platt can’t finish her portion); and accusations towards the film crew of finishing his Tapioca Pudding when he is clearly seen with pudding residue around his mouth. Platt also depicts Welles as essentially kind and generous, recognising her talent and helping her during her breakup with Bogdanovich.

For Bazin, ‘nothing in cinema is entirely accidental, and nothing is entirely false either.’ In interviews, Welles repeated the notion that the director is a ‘Presider over accidents.’ If that’s the case, then Welles accidentally unspools those tapioca pudding-filled guts in every shot. The footage itself captures, as Platt noted, the chaotic, ramshackle film set that doesn’t function as one would expect a ‘great director’ to. It is its own Behind The Scenes film. In Welles’ footage as edited by Murawski, central is the relationship between the past and present, older authors and their younger counterparts in conversation. Accidentally or not, this captures the very ideas inherent in its making across half a century. In the raw footage assembled to form a narrative – each aspect ratio shift, incorrect eyeline, switch between colour and monochrome, actor change – the very bones of cinema are on full display. That makes The Other Side of the Wind a documentary as much as They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, or You Must Remember This, or Tiger King.  

In 2018, along with The Other Side of the Wind, Netflix released Shirkers, Sandi Tan’s documentary based on her own incomplete first film of the same name. After filming a striking indie with friends in her native Singapore, the film’s producer Georges Cardona stole the footage. Shirkers in Netflix form combines the original footage with a true crime style account of the production and Tan’s search for the stolen film. The wilful obstruction of her film echoes Welles in ways too numerous to mention here, although it’s worth noting that Cardona was a cinephile devotee of a masculine American cinema that is derived from Welles. 

The case is made in Shirkers that the film was a key part of Singaporean film history. It is a lost masterpiece, like Welles’. And Netflix, in returning these artifacts to us, get to profit and improve their cultural cache by keeping them in their archive, accessible but no more significant to their algorithm than reality shows like Too Hot to Handle (2020). They will ultimately decide who gets to see Shirkers in 5, 10 year’s time. Netflix is the ultimate, algorithmic synthesis of Cardona-esque cinephilia. They can continue to promote trash over art, empower voices in only the most profitable sense, and bankroll projects like The Other Side of the Wind for as long as it’s useful to the algorithm. 

The joy of Welles is in the imagining. Imagining the unfinished projects, the apocryphal stories of lovers and bar fights and tapioca pudding. His legend is tied to romantic myths of genius 20th century men, from Hemingway to Bogdanovich. The Cardonas of the world necessitate the fragmented, imagined brilliance of Shirkers and The Other Side of the Wind. In our dream of a brighter culture, we find a real Hybrid documentary closer to Welles’ true vision. 

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Dreams of a Life | Sus

Credit: Film4/Dogwoof Pictures

Orla Smith

‘As people, we are so much constructed by other people and what they think about.’

Carol Morley, audio commentary of The Alcohol Years (2000)

Scrolling idly through Instagram about a month ago, my thumb stopped on a cartoon about Breonna Taylor. Over 10 panels, it reimagined the night Taylor was murdered at the hands of police officers as a narrative with dialogue and emotive characters. This cartoon, and others like it, are well-intentioned attempts to humanise a movement and encourage empathy for a victim beyond the distancing nature of a headline or a news report — but are they ethical? The cartoonist puts words in Taylor’s mouth and ascribes facial expressions they imagine are accurate to her final moments — and perhaps they are — but the cartoonist wasn’t there, so they can’t know for sure. In order to generate empathy and action, they have co-opted the persona of a woman who can no longer speak for herself.

The ethical questions around projecting our own assumptions onto the dead are at the centre of Carol Morley’s documentary Dreams of a Life (2011). Morley’s film retells the life of Joyce Vincent — a woman who died in her North London bedsit and whose body wasn’t found until three years later — through the testimonials of old friends. They speak in dubious certainties, stating how lonely or confused Vincent ‘must’ have been, even though the interviewees’ accounts often contradict each other. Accompanying these interviews are staged reimaginings of scenes from Vincent’s life filmed by Morley and actress Zawe Ashton, two women who never met Vincent and only know what they’ve been told by her peers and the news. Suffice to say, we should take everything we see and hear in Dreams of a Life with a grain of salt.

This skepticism is something Morley actively encourages of her audience: she empathetically observes the way the interviewees remember and mourn Vincent while reminding us to be critical of what they tell us about her. It’s natural, human, and even sometimes useful to try to make sense of someone’s passing by interpreting their life (and death) through a personal lens. It allows us to turn a tragic, unexplainable loss into a growth experience, so we might move forward having learned, say, to pay keener attention to the lonely, withdrawn Joyce Vincents in our lives, or to take action to prevent future Breonna Taylor’s from being murdered. That being said, it’s imperative we understand that this personal interpretation reflects more on the interpreter than the interpreted. Morley’s subject is not Vincent, but the people who are memorialising her. 

Morley introduces us to the mythology around Vincent first, relaying the sensationalised details of her death so we start making assumptions before we’ve even gotten a chance to understand who Vincent was when she was alive. The first people interviewed are the journalists who investigated her death: people who only ever knew Vincent as a story and not as a person. Over Barry Adamson’s weighty, dramatic score that recalls stylised true crime cinema more than it does documentary, Morley lingers on newspaper headlines that yell the gory details of Vincent’s death in block letters. She includes a few glimpses of Ashton playing Vincent, walking amongst a London crowd, but she’s just a small, faceless figure in the distance at this point, anonymous save for the way she hobbles awkwardly down the street. By limiting what we know about Vincent to just the tragic facts of her death, Morley gives us room to assume what we may about her: is her gait weighed down by a thick cloud of sadness, or just the heavy bag of shopping she lugs around?

It’s thirteen minutes into Dreams of a Life before we see an image of the real Joyce Vincent, and it’s a shock to the system. Morley understands the power of an image to shape how we feel about a person, so she gives us time to form our own mental image of Vincent. Then all at once, she fills the screen with pictures of Vincent, focusing in on each picture one by one so we have time to really take them in. She looks like a real woman, rather pretty, smiling joyfully into the camera — nothing like the tragic figure we might have imagined her to be, nor the decomposing corpse the headlines inadvertently bring to mind. This moment hangs over the rest of the film. Even as the interviewees, Morley herself, and we, the viewer, continue to make assumptions about Joyce’s life, and her inner life, we remember to continually question these assumptions.

Morley avoids legitimising any one interviewee’s account over the other, because whether they were a close friend of Vincent’s, a casual acquaintance, or a news reporter, none of them have ownership over her story. The interviewees are never named with title cards on screen, and their relationship to Vincent is only inferred through their stories. They’re just faces against a blank, beige background, each presented as a speculative voice rather than a legitimate source. What’s more, their accounts of Vincent don’t always line up: one sequence sees multiple people gush over Vincent’s singing talents, only for Morley to cut to her music producer ex-boyfriend telling us that ‘Joyce was not a singer’. Because of how unreliable every single source is, the film becomes more about observing how Vincent’s friends process their memories in the wake of her death than seeking the truth about Vincent’s life.

The interviewees are telling stories about an avatar of Vincent that lives in their heads, not the real Vincent, and similarly Morley uses Zawe Ashton as a physical avatar for her own dreams about Vincent’s life. Morley opts to film these recreations rather than use archival footage of the real Vincent, because once again, it’s not reality but people’s fantasies that she’s interested in. The heavy stylisation of the staged sequences featuring Ashton — with dramatic music, the swoop of a steadicam, and even one musical scene — draws attention to their own fakeness. We’re constantly reminded that what we’re seeing isn’t real. Morley jumps between documentary interviews and staged fictional sequences, mixing them interchangeably; neither provides more ‘truth’ about Vincent’s life than the other.

As the film progresses, these staged scenes become longer and more presumptuous, to reflect how Morley’s (and the viewer’s) fantasies about Vincent’s life become more elaborate. These sequences are short and impressionistic, depicting small interior moments like Vincent, alone, setting the shopping down in her bedsit and taking a mournful moment to herself. But as we hear more of Vincent’s friends’ stories, we inevitably start to imagine our own narratives about her life, and Morley’s and Ashton’s reimaginings reflect this. One particularly moving scene lasts the whole length of a song, as Ashton’s Vincent sings to herself in the mirror. Later, in the most speculative staged scene, Morley depicts a younger Vincent (Alix Luka-Cain) in her family home and suggests that there was abuse in her household — a theory that many of her friends suggest but nobody can prove. Including this scene is a bold move bound to upset audiences who were already on edge about Morley telling a dead woman’s story. But because Morley makes the artifice of her film clear from the very start, these scenes become more a reflection of all of our wild and presumptuous imaginations than it is an attempt to depict what Morley sees as the ‘truth.’

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Handsworth Songs | Sus

Credit: Black Audio Film Collective/ The Other Cinema

Satya Hariharan

In 1986, Harun Farocki was commissioned by the German television series Filmtip to record a series of pieces, one of which was Catchphrases – Catch Images. A Conversation with Vilém Flusser. It’s a deceptively simple video. Farocki analyzes a German tabloid, Bild Zeitung, with Czech-born media theorist Vilém Flusser, focusing on the relationship between text and image, but as time unfolds, the viewer begins to realize the event is not just the discussion being held (and read via subtitles for non-German speakers), but the act of recording & transmitting video of this discussion. Flusser makes this clear with his final words in the piece:

‘…we are not just speaking in normal circumstances in a cafe here, but in front of a television. And therefore everything that we are speaking of here is itself plunged into an image and for the recipient is ‘magicised’ again so that we find ourselves on a very slippery slope. We are observing here, apparently transcendentally, this kitschness [sic] and brutalization and reduction of human dignity through this sort of demagogy and serve ourselves as factors of a new kind of magicisation [sic] on the part of the television’.

In the decades since this piece, the experience of receiving ‘news’ has been drastically transformed. The notion of a static printed object is a thing of the past. Reality is shifting, unstable, ever-changing; it’s imbibed through smartphones and computers. New York Times articles change their headlines days after publication, livestreams are edited into video clips where context can be stripped away or reassigned, and the media corporations sift through these ever-growing deposits of information to decide what is ‘news’ and how to reflect it in a way that maintains their established position within the current social order. Previously, the news occurred as a ‘daily’ concept, whether that was through the morning paper, or the evening television broadcast. Today, with omnipresent cameras and the internet’s rapid dissemination of media, ‘news’ can happen at a moment’s notice, without the approval of an editor, albeit still under the jurisdiction of the monolithic entities that control our social media networks.

There is a recent history of images that intersect between police brutality and racial violence in America, a history that grows only denser as imaging technology becomes more prevalent in society. In Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Flusser postulates that ‘…there is no everyday activity which does not aspire to be photographed, filmed, video-taped… All events are nowadays aimed at the television screen, the cinema screen, the photograph, in order to be translated into a state of things.’ His views mirror that of his larger ideas on Western society, that once the possibility of a thing emerges, that the societal apparatus will eventually manifest it as a reality. This stems from his experience as a Holocaust survivor forced to flee from his native Prague and exile in Brazil, while his family who stayed behind were killed in the Auschwitz camps. As such, a society where racialized violence from the police force that governs over its civilians is a constant part of the present reality will continually produce visualizations of this violence.

The 2010s marked a shift in the presence of imaging technology and distribution. Rodney King’s 1991 beating hangs as one of the major cultural memories of racialized police violence in the United States caught on camera during the 1990s; the public was forced to confront the visualization of racialized state violence, a constant in the reality of American history dating back to slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas. This process of visualization grew in tandem with the widespread access to imaging technologies. A pattern emerged of images of police killings circulating en masse, followed by mass protests in coordinated nationwide efforts, protests which have grown increasingly unstable following the latest iteration of a continually escalating series of counter-protest police state deployments, in turn begetting another series of images of police state violence, that of the riot police beating protestors. It’s a series of images that emerges from a system which reflects the reality of a broken societal structure via video & audio, though one’s perception of this reality is naturally shifted by how it’s mediated to them.

John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986) was a film that emerged in response to similar material conditions in the United Kingdom in 1985, when riots broke out in Birmingham and London that could be seen as the result of neocolonialism systematically disenfranchising immigrant communities and subjecting them to state violence. The film was characterized by cultural theorist Okwui Enwezor as ‘a historically inflected dub cinema whose spatial, temporal and psychic dynamics relays the scattered trajectories of immigrant communities.’ It is a film that escapes succinct definitions, a machine of parts that include celluloid shots of the riots, interviews with a number of immigrants, different voiceovers which destabilize and eliminate the usual authoritative hierarchy that accompanies the technique. While rooted in the issues that accompany the policing of immigrant communities, Enwezor notes that ‘Handsworth Songs reflects more profoundly the agency of the oppressed; it narrates their stories, not purely from the point of view of the event from which it derives its name, but equally through an archaeology of the visual archive of minoritarian dwelling in Britain.’

While Akomfrah deliberately fragments and mediates our viewing experience in a way that transcends the bounds of linear thought via visual and sonic juxtaposition, experiencing these images today through the stream escapes the delineation of the traditional filmic experience or projected image. Handsworth Songs has an ending, after a little over an hour of sounds and images, where a voiceover calls out ‘Let them bear witness to the process by which the living transform the dead into partners in struggle,’ over images of Black immigrants in transit. The call echoes an earlier voiceover: ‘In time we will demand the impossible in order to wrestle from it that which is possible. In time we will demand that which is right because what will be just will lie outside present demand. In time the streets will claim me without apology. In time I will be right to say ‘there are no stories in the riots, only ghosts of other stories,’’ a haunting statement juxtaposed over images of black and white infants. Today those children have come of age, and we’re surrounded by the ghosts of Akomfrah’s images, continually being made and transmitted to those willing to tune in. There is no emphasis anywhere, everything is inundating, and reality is overwhelming. The delineation of between the film and reality has dissolved, as new images continually emerge. The viewer can choose how much media they imbibe, and the media imbibed shapes their representation of the world. 

Farocki recognized the problems of attempting to convey the utter horrors of reality through the audiovisual medium. His 1969 work The Inextinguishable Fire opens with him addressing the camera directly, critiquing the atrocities the U.S. government was committing at the time in Vietnam. ‘When we show you pictures of napalm victims, you’ll shut your eyes. You’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close them to the memory. And then you’ll close your eyes to the facts.’ In a time when the immediate image of another space, place, and time can be grasped in an instant, different realities are mere clicks away. Yet as Flusser notes, ‘[Images] are supposed to be maps but they turn into screens: Instead of representing the world, they obscure it until human beings’ lives finally become a function of the images they create… Human beings forget they created the images in order to orientate themselves in the world. Since they are no longer able to decode them, their lives become a function of their own images: Imagination has turned into hallucination.’ We are left with fragments of reality, which can be threaded back together in innumerable permutations. Whoever forms this amalgamation conditions societal thought, whether that’s a television news network stripping clips of their context and inserting commentary, or an individual editing clips together and uploading them to YouTube.

The present is unstable and keeps shifting, and these changes in reality are constantly transmitted, though it is crucial to examine their mediation. We are in the midst of a shift in how we live with images. In 1985, Flusser published another work, Into the Universe of Technical Images, a series of essays which he described as a fable, which ‘narrates a fabulous universe, that of technical images, a fabulous society, that of cybernetic dialogue, a fabulous consciousness… It narrates the story with consummate hope and at the same time with fear and trembling. For this fable is a catastrophe about to break out of its shell. And we are that shell.’ We are in the midst of this catastrophe, a catastrophe of the horrors of our reality, which we want to blind ourselves to continually reemerging, horrors that are the result of our society’s construction. Where the images lead us is yet to be discovered.


Eshun, Kodwo, and Anjalika Sagar. The Ghosts of Songs: the Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982-1998. Liverpool University Press, 2007.

Flusser Vilém. Into the Universe of Technical Images. University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Flusser, Vilém.

Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books, 2018.

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The Mind of Jake Paul | Sus

Credit: Shane Dawson TV

Cathy Brennan

Shane Dawson’s 2018 documentary profiles of Jeffree Star and Jake Paul have fascinated me for more than a year now. Documentaries on YouTube by a famous YouTuber about other famous YouTubers? There’s got to be something interesting to say about that. 

Shane Dawson started posting on YouTube in 2008 and is considered to be one of the first personalities to parlay YouTubing into a successful career. Star goes back even earlier, having started his career on MySpace. Since then he has embarked on a short-lived music career, has a YouTube channel, and today runs a successful cosmetics company. Jake Paul meanwhile is a former Disney Channel star who, along with his brother Logan, has become notorious for dangerous pranks on YouTube. He also formed a short-lived group of young social media influencers known as Team 10, which is perhaps most famous for producing the hated song ‘It’s Everyday Bro’. 

What unites these three figures, beyond ill-advised music careers and immense wealth, is their racism. Dawson’s latest video, posted in June, was a disingenuous attempt at holding himself accountable for his past in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests across the world. Star also has a long history of racism, while Paul has been accused of racist behaviour towards former Team 10 members, the Martinez twins.

The abusive behaviour of overpaid social media stars has been chronicled elsewhere.  Dawson’s repulsive documentaries are fascinating in their own right. While researching for this piece, my thoughts became so knotty and disparate that I decided to give up and just write some general impressions. Though they are numbered, these thoughts can be read in any order and have been titled with things I actually said out loud while watching Dawson’s videos.

1. Why am I doing this to myself?

Dawson initially frames himself in these documentary series as a brave journalist profiling dangerous individuals, as though he’s Ross Kemp going undercover with the bling ring. Dawson amplifies the sense of danger in his videos through editing certain sections like a horror film with Star and Paul as monster-figures. When Star mentions that he has had work done on his teeth, Dawson splices in a graphic clip of dental surgery like he’s editing the opening credits to Se7en. On the journalistic side of things, Dawson emphasises to us how “real” everything is with super-serious disclaimers about these videos being unscripted. In reality though, Dawson’s role is that of a PR doctor, burnishing the images of these wealthy and well-known individuals. Parallels can be drawn with the rise in palatable fascist profiles as a genre among news outlets.

This PR hackery is most evident when Dawson talks to Star about the drawbacks of his immense wealth. In one particularly galling moment, Star is crying while explaining that friends and family only use him for his money. Dawson gushes about how “proud” he is of Star. The moment rings hollow because, as Dawson has already illustrated, Star isn’t just a bit better off than the rest of us. He’s a full-on capitalist, with all the parasitic implications such a title carries. This part of the series takes place in the offices of one of the warehouses that Star owns, and just moments before this, Star divulges his landlord status. Yet Dawson clearly wants us as viewers to see Star on our level, as a vulnerable human being, rather than as an obscenely rich racist.


Dawson frames the Mind of Jake Paul series as a journey to find out whether Jake Paul is a sociopath. Host-led documentaries, whether on TV or online, tend to use this quest-like framework for viewer engagement. Despite his apparent buffoonery, Dawson clearly possesses some media savvy to have got where he is today, and so he would be aware of how ethically dubious it is to play Armchair Psychologist. That’s why the second episode of the Jake Paul series has Dawson sit down with licensed therapist and fellow YouTuber Kati Morton. It gives him a veneer of credibility. Interestingly, the video description says ‘IMPORTANT NOTE: Once again I’m 100% NOT trying to call any celeb or youtuber a “sociopath”’. As with the Morton interview itself, this reads as insincere ass-covering.

3. Kill me

Writing about YouTubers is difficult partly because of the labyrinthine nature of YouTube drama. Typically, this may involve viewers interpreting something one YouTuber says (either in a video or on social media) as a sly dig at another YouTuber. This then leads to Reaction videos and multiple players may get involved. One could easily spend hours watching videos, reading online articles, and trawling through social media feeds to get an idea of what has happened and the context. There’s even a YouTuber News channel, which itself often stokes the flames of this asinine drama. This is both a drain on the individual’s time and attention, and it renders us into passivity so that Dawson, Star, and Paul can frolic on our screens, wallowing in wealth and status.

4. Shut the fuck up

One of the curious ways in which Dawson’s videos turn Star and Paul into sympathetic figures is down to Dawson’s grating screen presence.

For instance, while Star is giving him a house tour, Dawson’s cartoonish persona clashes with the more muted Star. In this video, Dawson goes on about Star’s wealth, which is admittedly, grotesque. Yet Dawson does this by constantly referring to himself as poor, which, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a bit rich coming from someone who was apparently already worth $4 million in 2018.

With Paul, Dawson implicitly contrasts his own persona with Paul’s. This establishes how dangerous Paul is, while also demonstrating how nice and soft Dawson is. Dawson overstates Paul’s malevolence through frantic editing of Team 10 videos, pouring creepy music all over them. In turn, he unconvincingly portrays himself as a softer, more likeable figure, even going so far as to say “I am too nice”. This doesn’t work because Dawson can only ever express something through over-statement, even when he’s trying to be understated. He’s so anxious for the viewer to know how empathetic he is, that Dawson unwittingly invites doubt into our minds.

5. I hate you so fucking much

In his Jake Paul series, Dawson gestures at a larger goal of blowing the lid on the psychology of YouTubers. This comes off the back of stories that reveal the lengths of abuse YouTubers will go to for fame. One particular example would be the 2017 revelations surrounding Michael and Heather Martin, who lost custody of their children after using them for abusive prank videos. However, as a YouTuber himself, one who has been in the game since 2008 with a certifiable track-record of racism and abuse, Dawson condemns his project to an ouroboric fate by being the driving force.

6. Fuck Off

So, what are we left with through Dawson’s media presence? In the words of Hilary Rodham Clinton (god, I can’t believe I’m quoting one of her tweets): “delete your account”.

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The Viewing Booth | Sus

Credit: Roco Films

Catriona Mahmoud

Regarding the Pain of Others

2020 has been an unprecedented time for reflection and engagement with movements that aim to tackle structural inequality. Beliefs are simultaneously being developed and dismantled. In Great Britain for example, Black Lives Matter’s calls for immediate structural change coincided with a renewed seeking of value in the essential work of those considered to be on the frontline. Regrettably, both are arguably forgotten outside of the newscycle of a global crisis. Despite being filmed before our current climate of reflection and restructuring, an urge to bring awareness to the oppressed and broaden our understanding of sects has been explored in two of the summer’s festival favourites: Me and the Cult Leader, and The Viewing Booth. Both films feature a singular focus on subjects that hold beliefs drastically different to that of their documentarian. 

Premiering at Sheffield Doc/Fest, Atsushi Sakahara’s debut feature Aganai: Me and the Cult Leader, a Modern Report on the Banality of Evil, has a title that seems to definitively conclude that the subject of the film, Hiroshi Araki, is evil and should be perceived that way by the viewer. Me and the Cult Leader begins with a quote from the Japanese constitution, ‘The freedom of thought and conscience shall not be violated’. Sakahara then delves into the psyche of an executive and PR representative of Aleph (formerly known as Aum Shinrikyo), the cult made famous for leading the Tokyo Sarin Gas terrorist attack in 1994. As Sakahara makes clear, the quote’s role is a reminder for viewers that, while actions can be made legal and illegal, thoughts should be decided with agency, and not on your behalf. 

Sakahara, who features throughout, is himself a victim of the attack who travels with Hiroshi across Japan. Sakahara’s incentive for this interaction is somewhat unclear. We can assume, from the references to trauma and PTSD, that he hopes to unpack and find some form of closure for the incident that has so clearly shaped his life until this point. What surprises Sakahara, Hiroshi and possibly even the viewer is the closely aligned upbringings of both subject and filmmaker. At points it can be fair to say that they develop some semblance of a friendship, despite one being the root cause of the other’s lifelong physical and mental health deterioration. 

The Viewing Booth similarly sees its subject and filmmaker develop a relationship, but one that is based on an attempt to calculate and understand one another’s differing perspectives. Ra’anan Alexandrowicz directs the revealing interaction between himself and Maia Levy, a young Israeli-American woman, as she watches footage produced by Jerusalem-based anti-occupation group B’Tselem. Alexandrowicz himself, also Israeli and ex-IDF, frequently prompts Maia to describe her often cynical and disengaged thoughts on watching Israeli soldiers brutally mistreat Palestinians, like a perverted, horror-show version of Gogglebox.

What links these films, other than their commentary on the relationship between filmmaker and subject, is the investigation into ways to dismantle deeply rooted beliefs within an audience or individual. These beliefs are often held so tightly that, despite data convergence making information readily available for access and consumption, individuals can find themselves maintaining personal opinion through only seeking information that complements their existing values. This cyclical method of feeding one’s own beliefs creates a systemic denial of concepts that could alter the personal perspectives of our subjects, trapping Maia and Hiroshi within their own Bourdieuian habitus. 

Sakahara and Alexandrowicz’s subjects hold beliefs that are likely contrary to the viewers of each respective film. As Alexandrowicz poignantly states to Maia, ‘I remember looking at you and thinking this is the person I want to make films for,’ expressing that he doesn’t see the point in making films about the Palestinian occupation for those who are already against it. Maia retorts by saying she’s ‘making active choices [when challenged about the way she views B’Tselem footage], if not what would I say? It wouldn’t be my opinion then’. While we see glimpses of Maia personally questioning her own belief system, she regularly falls back into seeking the safety of her familiar and predetermined gaze to justify any emotional reaction to what she’s seeing on screen. At one point she deflects by remarking on Alexandrowicz’s filmmaking tools and decisions, indicating that he is also making choices. She is under his gaze, and his decisions on her portrayal are beyond her jurisdiction. 

This challenge of control is also presented to Hiroshi. In a particularly moving scene, he silently cries as the film crew find themselves at the train station where he would visit his late grandmother as a young man. Here we’re presented with one of the first vulnerable and humanising instances of Hiroshi, who, until now, was merely the representative of a disgraced sect of Japanese society. Along with Maia’s observations on gaze, scenes such as these were chosen to be kept in both films, creating an unexpected multidimensional understanding that both these subjects are in fact ‘only human’, as Maia aptly mentions. As a viewer, we like to think we choose whether to empathise or not with a character. But these films successfully show that identification can be readily found outside our comfort zones, giving a new understanding of the role a documentary has in shaping opinion.

These documentaries are deeply confessional for both their subjects and filmmakers. They reflectively reveal, process, and attempt to heal by dismantling the belief systems of those involved in the filmmaking process and the audience watching this unfold. Each subject is forced to confront and regard the pain of others, and while Hiroshi and Maia may not directly be involved in their community or heritage’s infliction of this pain, we see emerging realisations of personal responsibility in each subject. The humanisation of these individuals is ultimately made possible through the integral moments of sincere emotional expression.

While this earnestness is invaluable to gain understanding of those with such potentially differing opinions to that of the viewer, unfortunately there are issues inherent to these methods. We face the Brechtian issue of performative response from each subject. On one hand Hiroshi is literally being interviewed as a PR representative of a disgraced organisation hoping to improve their public perception, and on the other Maia remarks upon being aware of the context of the film studio. This leaves it to the audience to optimistically trust the filmmakers to present an unbiased truth. However, they too are only human and choose to verbally challenge their subjects’ beliefs, satisfying for the viewer, but not necessarily leading to any conclusions of right and wrong. The subjects involved do certainly come out of each film with a more sympathetic understanding of others with different beliefs to themselves, but remain unable to admit any guilt or responsibility for the tragedies they’re associated with. 

While we don’t necessarily know what becomes of Hiroshi and Maia, we do know this experience will have made them question themselves, as well as gain perspective on the responsibility of the roles they play in others’ lives. This in effect will hopefully allow the viewer to reflect on their own approaches to the acceptance of changing one’s own mind, and thereby bringing a self-awareness that everything we do or believe can in turn have a cause and effect. 

The Viewing Booth is available to view via Open City Documentary Festival 2020. Find out more.

Aganai: Me and the Cult Leader, a Modern Report on the Banality of Evil does not have a set release, but keep an eye on this link for information.

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!

Inventing the Future | Sus

Credit: QTY/Isiah Medina

Thomas Atkinson

‘Adaptation’ only works as a description of Isiah Medina’s Inventing the Future if it is ‘adaptation’ as defined by Andre Bazin. As Bazin posits in What is Cinema? Volume I, filmic adaptations of non-filmic texts work best when we consider them an artwork in their own right that expands our understanding of the original text. Indeed, Inventing the Future, an adaptation of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ 2015 book of the same name, is resolutely a work belonging to Medina. His previous films, such as 88:88 and especially Idizwadidiz, are riveting, bracing works that rail against the social and cultural forces of capitalism with genuine anger and hopefulness, with a dizzying editing style and impressive manipulations of computer-generated spaces. 

Srnicek and Williams’ book fits Medina’s interests, though it is unlikely to convince you that the messiahs for a new generation of left-wing empowerment have arrived. It’s not for lack of trying on their part. They spend a great deal of the book’s first chapter bemoaning the way ‘folk politics’ have overtaken the need for organisation on the left. They say that socialism has died on its feet and is in dire need of a revival with a new, exciting, and concrete message. 

‘All this is to say that we are the motherfucking shit,’ one can imagine the authors positing before getting to the point: the Global Left should embrace technofascism. Yes, in order to reach what the authors call a ‘post-work society’, what needs to be done is not organising at a local level, instigating direct action, and showing solidarity with material struggles both foreign and domestic. In fact, all that is needed is a list of four demands (yes, only four!): a reduced working week, Universal Basic Income, doing away with the work ethic, and their signature demand, full automation of work wherever possible. This means the use of machines and computers to perform work instead of humans. It really is that easy to dismantle the insidious, rigid, weblike structure of neoliberalism! 

The book does not grapple with any material implications of its assertions. Who will (be exploited to) make these machines? Are the powerful people of the world just supposed to let all this happen? In what world is the Global Left in a position to make ‘demands’? As is clear from the unfettered hellscape in which we all reside, the net result of Srnicek and Williams’ book in the five years since its publication has not been an almighty overhaul of the capitalist system as we know it. Its only tangible impact appears to be the release of Medina’s ‘adaptation’. 

Though Medina’s films have appeared at a few festivals, they’re also all available online, which might explain the particular type of attention Medina has received. MUBI Notebook has published essays about his work several times, and one or two veteran critics like avant-garde expert Michael Sicinski and Nick Newman have shown interest in him. But the place where Medina’s work has received the most attention is Letterboxd. Visiting Inventing the Future’s ‘reviews’ page is to be met with a barrage of equal derision and acclaim. Slant’s Sam C. Mac gives it a rave; a user by the name of yush describes its imagery as ‘embarrassing’. In its reception, as with its making and distribution, the film is entirely a work of the digital era.

However, let us be clear and up-front here: I do not share the rapturous view that Inventing the Future is ‘the first film of the 22nd century’, as suggested by my erstwhile contemporary Ben Nash. Despite Medina’s considerable vision as a filmmaker, Inventing the Future is an incomprehensible work. Its arcane editing system is how one might envision a journey through a pinball machine, to say nothing of how regressive the horseshit politics underlying both the book and the film are.

I have seen Inventing the Future twice now. But the farce of the film is that no amount of rewatches would be enough to fully decode its messaging. The problem becomes apparent during Medina’s many signature strobe-like montages. In the opening, for example, Medina splices together millisecond-long clips of student protests, Lego blocks, and CGI landscapes. Later, these montages mash together images from other sections of the film, as though it is actively consuming itself. 

It’s a fascinating thread to pull at, even if a film about the ontology of cinema in the digital era already exists in Jean-Luc Godard’s last few features. But with the film grafted onto the rigid structure of Srnicek and Williams’ book, which is read out in narrated sections across the film’s runtime, the viewer is forced to try and make associations between images. This is difficult to do, and makes the film meaninglessly obtuse, though these illegible montages are not as silly as when Medina lets some of his images breathe. Because then we actually have to look at them, and they are often thuddingly stupid. It’s insulting the amount of times Medina forces his audience to consider the individual and global implications of capitalism through the medium of foam alphabet letters.

Several of this film’s supporters say its key balancing act is between the intellectuality of its form and a more touching humanism at its centre. Presumably these acolytes are referring to Medina’s inserts of a Black father and his child that arbitrarily pepper the middle section of the film, because if not, then I have no idea what they are talking about. If anything – and this should be the real key to the film – Inventing The Future refers more frequently to the act of dehumanisation. 

Medina’s relationship to a pair of socialist Cambridge graduates, for example, seems driven by his ironic distance from them. As these writers brainstorm a policy theory text about climate change and cycling, the aforementioned images of the Black father-child family unit will appear sporadically for a second at a time, intruding on the writers’ conversation. Taken literally, the juxtaposition of image A and image B could be read as Medina’s visual illustration of humans demanding to be put back into political discussion. It’s a solid sentiment, until one remembers the guiding principle of Srnicek and Williams’ book: folk politics is useless politics, and humanism is ineffective compared to the power of machinery and digital realities. Something is up here, and it’s not just the writers’ abhorrent combination of courgettes with cheesy pasta in a later sequence. 

Medina also pushes his CGI fascinations to their limit with his digital dehumanisation, resulting in digital images that are sometimes pretty, but often just hilariously ugly, such as the repeated – and entirely computer-generated – image of test-tube babies being grown in Matrix-style pods that look like bad demos for a 00s Resident Evil game. And when it comes to actual living, breathing humans, they are often seen residing in green screen environments, save for a couple who discuss Socrates with each other in a deadpan, stagey delivery reminiscent of such works by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet as Antigone (1992). The running theme here is one of humans being eaten by technology until their very existence within the image is dependent on it, a scary notion that seems like a cautionary against the very book Medina is ‘adapting’.

More essential to all the digital images is the knowledge that Medina is the digital ‘oppressor’. Even though algorithms from computer programmes perform the dehumanisation, he is imposing these 1’s and 0’s on his subjects. He points this out in the film, too. Among the other repeated images in Inventing the Future is a pretty impressive deconstruction of motion capture processes that shows the human in the green screen space, the monitors on which the human is being watched, and the camera capturing all these images as well, which are all seen in a 180⁰ dolly. 

All these examples run in diametric opposition to the book’s core thesis, or at least challenge the notion that the accelerated growth of new technology can be beneficial for a Global Left. Such is the contradiction in Medina’s work. These images are opposed to the book on which they are based, almost to the point where the actual text itself is ignored. At one point in the film, narrated readings from passages of the book are matched in the sound mix by Medina’s Straubian couple, meaning the audience can’t hear it. The unresolved heart of Inventing the Future is this (self-critical?) act of adaptation, where malevolent technology is interrogated in the imagery, contradicting the book, and sometimes outright mocking it.

Yet the promotional materials for the documentary, over which Medina presumably has considerable influence given the film’s DIY production and distribution, bill the film and the book as a single piece that ‘look[s] to the future with unwavering optimism about what humans and technology can do’. In other words, they contain positive assertions about the book. So either Medina is playing a long game of lying about his film’s true purpose, or he has disappeared up his arse and resorted to cheap obfuscation for its own sake.

Therefore, it is worth talking about the success, or lack thereof, of Inventing the Future. It’s clear that, unlike the purely theoretical value of Srnicek and Williams’ book, Medina’s film is a work of actual art in its own right. So, if one were to put the political fallacies aside for a moment, does this alter how one might evaluate the work? Whether or not you buy that Inventing the Future is an act of self-sabotage, Medina has shown an affinity in his writing for the idea of automation as an artistic tool. This is likely what drew him to make the project in the first place, and what fascinated him about the idea of adapting a book in such an obtuse way. This is ultimately a piece of art about art, and specifically about Medina’s fascination with how the use of automation can further democratise the creation of art (for example, an artist no longer needs to hire special effects people to do their work when two or three clicks of a mouse can do much the same thing in Adobe After Effects). 

But it also feels as though Medina grafted the book onto his own ideas about automation, creating a battle of form versus content that fans of Inventing the Future have barely grappled with. Its conception of automation as a positive force for art is perfectly agreeable. But to muddy that by galaxy-braining and suggesting that The Robots Will Save Us is like saying that drinking water hydrates us, so to combat dehydration we should all drown. This is not to mention that the film’s illegibility to a great deal of viewers makes it basically useless as a political text in a way that the book, for all its unbelievable egotism and misplaced energy, was not. One can read and understand Srnicek and Williams; Medina’s film needs footnotes.

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Arboretum Cycle | Sus

Credit: Nathaniel Dorsky

Maximilien Luc Proctor

Potential Energy in Landscape Portraits

With documentaries constantly at war with themselves, ‘documentary’ effectively fails as a genre label.  ‘Objective’ is an absolute fallacy so long as human hands guide the camera and an individual can be credited with authorship, but in an effort towards it, some popular examples of the form have tended in recent decades to fall into the same patterns – leaning ever further from actually documenting life as it is. The general trend in  American-made documentaries is leaning away from observers like Frederick Wiseman (despite the presence of Ex Libris on the 2017 Oscars finalists shortlist, it wasn’t nominated) and toward the idea of constructing crime-focused studies built around narrative-style beats and hooks with shocking reveals. I think The Imposter (2012) is the last example of this that I actually watched, though I’ve avoided numerous Netflix docs that offered a whiff of something similar. Paradoxically, the films which seem to best fit the idea of documentary, of truth, of closely documenting the lives of their makers, are those most often relegated to the fringes of moving image culture; diary films from Jonas Mekas (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches aka Walden [1968]) to Anne Charlotte Robertson (Five Year Diary [1981–1997]), first-person location studies from Robert Beavers (From the Notebook of… [1971/2000]) to Su Friedrich (Rules of the Road [1993]). 

(L: L’eau de la Seine [1983])

If we consider a documentary to be a document of a certain space at a given time, then allow us to consider the ways by which experimental film takes this concept to its logical conclusion and formally re-figures its very parameters. A great deal of experimental film meets the basic definition of documentary – according to Oxford: a non fiction film which ‘document[s] reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record’ – although how the space is documented rarely matches with our preconceptions of how it should be photographed ‘correctly’ in order to present the space objectively. The question becomes whether or not a diary or otherwise stylistically subjective vision of the world qualifies as ‘maintaining a historical record’. 

That is to say, though visually radical, Mexican filmmaker Teo Hernández’s L’eau de la Seine is certainly a document of the water in the Seine river in 1983, despite not being a traditional image of a body of water; Hernández’s camera captures late-afternoon sunlight reflected on the river in a rapid fire continuous movement in all directions, with low-shutter speeds causing the glistening light to streak accordingly. Likewise, Nathaniel Dorsky’s Arboretum Cycle captures the San Francisco Arboretum near his home for 2 hours, without any single, obvious wide-shot of the entrance or any site-specific manmade indications of where we are. So if I have seen the film, have I seen the arboretum? Certainly not, though I have seen what the arboretum means to Dorsky; the largely out of focus close-ups construct an external projection of his interior understanding of the landscape. In some instances, the images are almost unrecognizable as plants, though the fact that they are still discernible as plants tells us they are filmed without true abstraction in mind, meant instead as a small re-calibration, just as valuable (or more valuable) of a document of the arboretum as any visually straightforward showing of it.

(Top: still from Coda, Bottom: still from Monody, both 2017, from sections of the Arboretum Cycle)

Such roads of questioning eventually lead to James Benning, whose documentations of space early in his career meant traveling through various geographies nearly without altering the frame (The United States of America [1975] co-directed by Bette Gordon), bringing images of Oklahoma oil wells to New York (Oklahoma, 1978), and looking for topographical indications of what might provoke murder in a small town (Landscape Suicide, 1987). Eventually his work slowed into static landscape studies, spending prolonged periods of time with smaller stretches of space; 13 Lakes (2004), a patch of sky in FAROCKI (2014), a single field in L.COHEN (2018). Though Benning’s images are minimalistic, they are often loaded with inferred emotion (look no further than the last two mentioned titles, odes to fallen friends – FAROCKI offers a static shot of the sky, as a billow of clouds pass overhead for nearly 80 minutes, and L. COHEN shows us a static landscape for 45 minutes, interspersed with a brief eclipse and the Cohen track ‘Love Itself’. Avant-gardists seek to not only represent a space, but really show us what those spaces are made of – to forego the physical in search of the emotional. What that emotion looks like is up to its maker. That is to say, clouds, however traditionally photographed they might be, are never only clouds, yet the degree to which they may embrace headspace depends on the filmmaker’s formal decisions (in this case, Benning’s insistence upon a singular image). In the case of Dorsky, it’s through an unorthodox engagement with traditional lens functions: focus and aperture. There is potential energy hidden in the land, energy which requires skill in order to be found.

The work of the aforementioned Teo Hernández is a great example of re-contextualizing how we think of physical properties onscreen. His camera constantly performs the impossible, rarifying objects, people, and structures in a warped spiral flurry; shooting at low shutter speeds, sometimes single frames, and constantly zooming rapidly in and out. The effect is one of hyperfocus and constant surprise. As we adjust to the whiplash, we watch closely so as not to miss an image. While Hernandez disassembles reality before our very eyes, we are amazed by our own eyes’ capacity to still recognize the fundamentals of the objects being altered. In Midi (1985), he shows how one can move actual mountains; physical properties as we know them are only façades separating any given landscape’s potential energy from our perception of it. While the camera constantly spins, twists, zooms and elongates physical properties, and the (what seems to be edited entirely in-camera) montage cuts most moments down to flashes of impressions, the spaces remain legible. In fact, they arguably make stronger impressions as we struggle to catch them flashing by than they would if we had a longer and clearer view. 

The films also hold fleeting moments of unfiltered clarity, like when the incessant motion pauses to recognize the blood spat by a bull in a fight in Midi. Travelogues like Souvenirs de Florence (1981) and À Montpellier (1988) document relaxed vacation travels – though always filtered through Hernandez’s agitated fidgets. Statues, dogs, shops and tourists all fly by, subject to Hernandez’s physically-rearranging whims. In the former film, his gaze finally settles for a prolonged and sober look at a hunched-over old woman begging her way through the sparse population of a shaded veranda held up by Roman columns. In the context of a body of work built primarily from shots lasting less than a second and focused on playing with architecture, this full minute and a half dedication to human struggle on the streets is startling (though handheld, it is nearly stoic for Hernandez). Then 15 seconds of stoicism dedicated to a man asleep on the street. Another flurry of city shots, and a third pause on a young girl beggar, holding her baby brother, largely ignored by the crowd. These are devastating moments of documentary, a reminder that looking does not always equate to seeing. 

(Stills from Souvenirs de Florence [1981])

Several films by Teo Hernandez are currently available to stream as preview files on Lightcone.

It occurred to me some time after writing the text that I would be remiss not to mention some of the many film festivals that actually show experimental work in a ‘documentary’ setting, including but not limited to: True/False, Sheffield Doc/Fest (who actually screened Dorsky’s Arboretum Cycle), Open City Documentary Festival, and many more.

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!