Down with the traditional Man…ifesto

A ‘woman-ifesto’ for documentary

Cate Blanchett in Manifesto
Photo by Julian Rosefeldt, courtesy of Film Rise


Why are all manifestos so self-aggrandizing and narrow minded? Reading Dogma 95 or We: Variant of a Manifesto is the intellectual equivalent of WWE. You believe you’ve won before it’s even started. (Punching punctuations abound!!!)

But it was never real to begin with.

How very macho.

How very male.

That type of writing (and its corresponding message) does not suit documentary.

At its best, documentary is in the service of others. It’s humble. It’s intricate.

Sound familiar?

It’s easy to see documentary as female. Think of its secondary status to the juggernaut that is the fiction industry, the primacy of the human figure (especially as a function of “witnessing” action), its unruliness, its unrivaled emotional power, its tenderness…

But centered around ethics, focused on the real, and most often intended to mobilize – it appears documentary goes one stop further. Filmmaker and POV emeritus Noelle Elia says it best:

“It could very well be that documentary is the feminist art form. Its nature is changeable, resistant to being boxed in and strictly defined. It’s responsive to context, receptive to nuance, and does not shy away from complexity or ambiguity.”

How can we nurture this tie to feminism?

First we must acknowledge feminism is many things, and there are as many feminisms as there are types of women.

And surely we want to applaud works that explicitly concern the marginalization of women, however to stop at that is marginalizing in its own right.

It’s also about the form, the process, and the perspectives.

Can’t we say the strength of Chantal Akerman’s uncompromising allegiance to her subject matter in From the Other Side renders the work feminist despite its focus on the border crossing of predominantly male subjects? In Sleeping Soldiers, Tim Hetherington’s dismantling of masculinity certainly qualifies as feminist even though he himself is a man and the project only features men.

Besides, if we’re acting from a feminist impulse, we must relinquish women from the confines of “women issues.” As Susan Sontag reminds us: We are writers, not lady writers.

And this woman-ifesto is not just for women.

This is about establishing a way of writing about documentary, of defining documentary, which speaks to its ethical backbone and nebulous form.

Feminism can guide us in that endeavor. It’s a good parallel; a reference point.

We need interpretation, reinterpretation, diversity, strength, and kindness. We need honesty, creativity, open-mindedness, and luck.

How do we build a community, a structure, for a discipline premised on the respect for difference and embrace of criticism?

One phrase rings true: *Keep your eyes on the limits.

Nuts! (dir. Penny Lane, 2016)

Every medium of representation has its limits; be open to all strategies when writing.

Susan Sontag identifies that photographic and video documentary strategies are distinct, and offer different advantages: “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.”

Narrative can be broken down further. Audio storytelling is exceptionally intimate and more inviting for interviewees, but lacks the particular testimonial advantages of the image. A video work is awash with evidence, but leaves little time for meditation and can lack focus. Animation unleashes subject matter and creative potential, but the form can undermine its claims to truth.

Of course, these are generalisations. All projects will reaffirm or challenge these conventions in their own particular ways, but no medium is perfect.

As ethical documentarians, our obligation is to the subject matter at hand. We must not be shackled by a commitment to our own practice or preferred mode of documenting. It’s not about us. We have to assess what needs to be said, and then consider the medium(s) that work best. Form follows function.

The World Before Her (dir. Nisha Pahuja, 2012)

Go (to) the limits: embrace marginal content and the ethics that accompany it.

We know that the stories we tell define cultural values, and in turn, our relationship to them.

Stuart Hall in “Theories of Race and Racism” explains: “Identity is always in part a narrative, always in part a kind of representation. It is always within representation. Identity is not formed outside and then we tell stories about it. It is that which is narrated in one’s own self.”

This is all the more alarming knowing power perpetuates itself, as seen by a mainstream pumped with heteronormative narratives wrought with racist, sexist, classist stereotypes.

But Hall offers storytelling as the essential tool in mobilizing change and challenging existing hierarchies: “The recovery of lost histories…is an enormous act of what I want to call political re-identification, re-territorialization and re-identification, without which a counter politics could not have been constructed…That is how the margins begin to speak. The margins begin to contest, when the locals begin to come to representation.”

Documentary is perhaps the storytelling mode best positioned to expedite the process of changing cultural attitudes given its indexical relationship to reality. If executed well, it can unleash the emotional leverage of fiction and the persuasive power of fact.

Given this potential, we must actively prioritize marginal voices and diversity.

In turn, positionality must be at the forefront of all documentary practice. When representing those less privileged, great care must be taken. Transparency, robust research, and a nuanced, intersectional approach to ethics are imperative.

Cameraperson (dir. Kirsten Johnson, 2016)
Janus Films

Good intentions don’t matter unless they are made apparent in the text itself.

As documentarians, our job is to get the point across. The stakes are too high when working with real subject matter. Good intentions are insufficient when defining the other’s experience for the world.

Analysis must be well-founded, and those insights must be communicated to the audience.

This is not to say there is no room for abstract work, but in that case, you are choosing to focus on the form, and that should be made clear to your subjects.

Yet transparency refers not only to your subjects, but also the relationship you have with your audience.

The screen must read; you can’t take any chances, for as Caroline A. Jones and Peter Galison remind us: “unimaged and hence…unimagined.”

Ava DuVernay on the shoot for 13th
Courtesy of Netflix

Get your house in order: fight discrimination at the level of production as well.

History has shown social justice communities have been as blind to discrimination in their ranks as the targets of their criticism. Perhaps most evident of this truth is the marginalization of black women in the feminist movement.

Currently, 84% of all directors in Canadian screen-based mediums are male, despite a 50/50 split in film schools. The documentary industry is better, but largely because of a “fiscal cliff” that relegates most female talent to the low-investment projects in production.

All this to say, we must practice what we preach.

Our ethics of representation must equally be applied to what happens behind the camera as in front of it. We know it’s not only what stories we tell, but who tells those stories that matters.

And if we believe in equal opportunity, if we make an effort to promote diversity in our documentaries, then the production of our work should offer an example of what that change can look like.

As Alan Sekula describes: “A didactic and critical representation is necessary but insufficient condition for the transformation of society. A larger, encompassing praxis is necessary.”

Accept your personal limitations, embrace collaboration.

There is no such thing as an auteur. You have to work with other people, at least with respect to your subjects, and all creators are in reference to the canon of artists and representational codes that influence them.

Not only is embracing the auteur foolish, it is dangerous, seeing as every act of writing is saturated with our own biases.

“In both the practice of speaking for, as well as the practice of speaking about others, I am engaging in the act of representing the other’s needs, goals, situation, and in fact, who they are… This act of representation cannot be understood as founded on an act of discovery wherein I discover their true selves and then simply relate my discovery. I will take it as a given that such representations are in every case mediated and the product of interpretation.”
-Linda Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” Cultural Critique No. 20 (Winter, 1991-1992)

We must accept our personal limitations as mediators and encourage the input from as many perspectives as possible.

Collaboration encourages productive criticism, challenging assumptions – the tenant of good documentary, and social justice practice.

Sarah Claydon is a multi-media documentary storyteller and writer. She does contract work for CBC Radio and the like while completing her master’s in Documentary Media at Ryerson University. A lover of learning, she holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University, and a graduate certificate in New Media Journalism from Sheridan College. A lover of women, she’s a friend to all those who consider themselves feminists.

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