Home » About » Currently Reading:

A Film Born of Desire

April 12, 2011 About No Comments

This film was born of desire—that of an oldie excited by the sudden politicisation of students in the face of the attack on public education launched by the Coalition Government last autumn, a sentiment felt by many of my generation who were politicised in the late 60s. Since I’m a documentarist working in academia, it seemed obvious to me that I had to go out and film what was going on. The first chance came in early December when a young friend told me of a teach-in to take place at Tate Britain a few days hence, and we went along together to film it. The event turned out to generate its own drama in front of the camera, and was quick to edit. My first idea, since I’ve been shooting short video diary pieces whenever a good opportunity arose, was to do a video blog, which would build up a picture of the anti-cuts movement as it evolved. The New Statesman liked the idea and invited me to become their first video blogger. I then asked my University’s Vice Chancellor, Paul O’Prey, if he’d like to talk about the issues with colleagues on camera. He agreed, and was happy for the University to lend its support (though not financially). He appears in the chapter ‘On Campus’. This may not be exactly what the bureaucrats at the AHRC are thinking of, but I offer the result as a good example of an academic doing a piece of practical research with impact outside academia. Only it’s also outside the market. And by the way, it’s made with a zero budget.

I conceived the idea of turning the video blog into a full-length film pretty much from the start. The method would be simple: to return to Glauber Rocha’s formula for Cinema Novo in Brazil in the 1960s—to go and make films with a camera in the hand and an idea in the head. (Too simple for the section on methodology in a grant application, and there was no time for that anyway, so I didn’t make one.) In practice this meant looking for events which would present themselves visually and where people would speak for themselves, so that each episode would have a certain unity. For the long film which came out of this, my initial model will not surprise those who know me—it had to be Patricio Guzmán’s historic documentary of the last year of Allende’s Popular Unity government, The Battle of Chile. As a friend pointed out, hopefully the ending would be different, and the title I eventually adopted invokes another model, the founding film of cinéma vérité, in the true French sense, namely Chronique d’un été by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin. After all, what this film turns out to be is the chronicle of a winter.

Invoking these models may sound like chutzpah but what makes it possible for a single person to attempt to emulate those films today is of course the decisive shift into digital film-making which has created, inter alia, the video blog. Towards the end of my filming, the death of that other great documentarist of those years, Richard Leacock, reminded me of why those films stand to me as a paradigms: because Leacock spoke of documentary as gathering data to figure out what the hell was going on, and of direct cinema as the attempt to capture the feel of ‘being there’. There’s also the matter of spontaneity—filming without any kind of script but responding to what you find in front of the camera, and not wasting time planning the edit but editing directly onto the timeline on the computer screen. The closest thing you can get to Astruc’s dream of le caméra-stylo, the camera as a writing instrument. Which in fact is one of the basic modes of video on the web.

Indeed a huge amount of video has been pouring onto the Web to give a very different picture of the protest and resistance movement from the way it’s presented by the big mainstream media. (You can see a personal selection of them on a youtube playlist I’ve assembled under the heading ‘Resistance’ here. Doubtless this is an idiosyncratic list—anyone’s would be—but it represents a wide range of different approaches with varied provenance and intent.) If the result of this profusion is the difficulty of seeing the wood for the trees, it also facilitates my own endeavour, since I was able, as I started out, to draw not only on moral and intellectual support from my colleagues at Roehampton, but also video activists ready to share footage, like Reel News and visionOntv.

One thing that struck me, as I went and filmed public events, was that my camera was always only one of many. Not just that, but you can quickly see what other people have made of the same event precisely because the results are rapidly posted on the web. This is fascinating—the society of the spectacle being subjected to a prismatic reality check, which has the effect of placing any individual version in question. If this of course includes my own, what I hope it nonetheless succeeds in showing—because documentary is subjective and objective at the same time—is what an interviewee in the episode on the Netroots conference, Martin Tod, says about video: that it can show ‘the real feeling there is about the situation at the moment’, it can ‘show people that other people feel the same way’, because ‘if someone’s got something really authentic and real and true to say, that will come across’. This accords with my own view about video as a documentary medium, that it’s as much about the voice as the image, of communicating the way people understand the situation we’re in through their own discourse, obviously shaped by the way it’s all edited, but always in a more coherent and cogent manner than the mainstream media allows. (Apologies, by the way, to anyone in the film who isn’t identified, but I didn’t always manage in the rush to get everyone’s names.)

Another thing that delighted me was the amount of music I encountered along the way. If I sometimes went looking for it, like the delightful Dance Against Deficit Lies, there are are other scenes where it was caught by the microphone because it was there, from children singing in a library to sound systems on the streets. But the film also gave me the chance to incorporate songs from Banner Theatre’s latest show, a cabaret against the cuts, in fulfilment of an idea of working with them which I’d conceived for an earlier project for which we didn’t get the funding (perhaps because we were tempting fate with a proposal for a radical film about money).

It remains to be seen whether the thinking part of my brain, which tries theoretically to comprehend the nature of documentary, will keep up with the desire of my fingers, as I sit editing at the computer, to respond to what my eyes and ears discover in the footage. I found myself having to adopt a novel work rhythm.  In the old days you would go out and shoot a film and then come back and edit. This was a reflective process.  I used to start by looking through the rushes to decide what sequence I would use to end the film, and then go back and work out how to get there. That’s obviously not going to work in this case. Firstly there’s no ending in sight—and now that I have to finish it, I’m reminded of someone’s witticism that documentaries are never finished, they’re only abandoned. But at least the demonstrations of 26th March make for an impressive final sequence. Second, I have had to go out and shoot, come back and edit very rapidly, post up the results, and then repeat the process every week or so. This, in other words, is a situation where to paraphrase another Brazilian, the critic José Carlos Avellar, the camera is an actor within the reality which it films, and that reality is the co-author of the film.

For my earlier reflections on the uses of video on the web during the general election see Election videos, while New spate of agitational videos offers a provisional assessment of just that at the beginning of December last year.

Comment on this Article: