Glick's Picks: Perspectives on “Place” in Documentary

Guest contributor Josh Glick, a Film Studies and American Studies Scholar from Yale University, reflects on place-based documentaries past and present.

 

Web-native documentary offers a breath of fresh air in conversations about collaborative videomaking. Powered by the Internet markup language HTML5, web-native documentary involves coding moving image or audio elements directly film festival to craft and present rough cuts of these web-native projects.

 

One intriguing aspect of this mode of documentary is its ability to capture an incredibly vivid, multisensory, and multimedia sense of place. While taking on vastly different topics, 18 Days in Egypt (Jigar Mehta and Yasmin Elayat), One Millionth Tower (Katerina Cizek), and Green Corps (Meridian Hill Pictures) all encourage a process of slow viewing and listening through which spectators learn about people within a particular environment (Cairo, Toronto, Washington D.C.).

 

[caption id="attachment_2679" align="alignright" width="175"] From Meridian Hill Pictures' project Green Corps[/caption]

There is certainly much more to say about how these projects transform the role of “ film producer” and “film viewer” and how they relate to contemporaneous varieties of grassroots digital culture; yet, their focus on social landscapes of distinct places made me think about how the coordination of different forms of media to represent a community has been central to experimental documentary throughout the 20th century. Looking at three case studies of media makers who productively deviated from long-form, streamlined storytelling will hopefully offer some fresh ideas for how we understand the relationship between place and documentary in our web-native moment.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

On assignment for Fortune Magazine in 1936, the poet-critic James Agee partnered with the photographer Walker Evans to record the lives of sharecroppers in Great Depression-era Alabama. The 1941 photo-book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is a document of the encounter between Agee, Evans, and the families they met. The provocative assemblage of texts and photographs creates an at times disorienting journey for the reader-viewer, but constantly elicits new ways of understanding the human subjects and their material surroundings.

Upon opening the book, one first finds 42 black and white uncaptioned photographs by Evans, before going on to: a sparse title page; a three-page “Preface” by Agee; an excerpt from William Shakespeare’s King Lear; the last lines of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto; part of F.B. Carpenter’s children’s geography textbook, Around the World With the Children; a list of “Persons and Places” to be explored in greater detail; a “Preamble” addressed to Evans from Agee; and another “Preface” by Agee. The bulk of the book that follows consists of interleaving reportage on the families and Agee’s own “On the Porch” ruminations about his method of inquiry and his anxieties about his own “outsider” status.

[caption id="attachment_2681" align="alignright" width="180"] From James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company, 1941)[/caption]

It is interesting to think about the ethical implications of including uncaptioned photographs or the use of pseudonyms for town and people names. Additionally, while the book constituted a breakthrough in highly reflexive literary journalism that butted against the standard practice of “voice-of-God” narration, one might also consider the consequences of always hearing Agee rather than the individual subjects.

The Number Our Days Project 

[caption id="attachment_2682" align="alignleft" width="156"] "Barbara Myerhoff and Two Center Members" from the Jewish Women's Archive.[/caption]

The University of Southern California (USC) anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff spent over eight years with the elderly Jewish inhabitants of Venice, California, an immigrant population neglected by their own landlords, city officials, and local gentrifiers. Modifying literary theorist Kenneth Burke’s statement that “literature” was “equipment for living,” Myerhoff believed that “stories” were in fact “equipment for living.” Documenting the everyday practice of storytelling, as Myerhoff theorized, could serve as a way to empower residents who were eager to share their life experiences with others, advocate for the residents’ equitable and just treatment, and serve as an important and innovative contribution to local and national history.

[caption id="attachment_2683" align="alignright" width="201"] Two Members of Israel Levin Center referenced in Barbara Myherhoff's work. From the Jewish Women's Archive.[/caption]

Working with the staff at the Israel Levin Center (the communal hub for the elderly) Myerhoff first led a series of small-group storytelling workshops in the early 1970s. Next, Myerhoff worked with renowned PBS filmmaker Lynne Littman to depict the social architecture of the neighborhood in the Oscar-winning documentary film Number Our Days (1976). Myerhoff also published a literary ethnography of the community in 1978 under the longer title, Number Our Days: A Triumph of Continuity and Culture Among Jewish Old People in an Urban Ghetto. Around the turn of the decade, Myerhoff organized the Life Not Death in Venice art exhibition at USC, where the elderly served as docents of their own paintings, infusing the artifacts on display with personal and collective meaning.

Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986 

Cultural theorist-historians Norman Klein and Marsha Kinder joined forces with computer designers Rosemary Comella and Andreas Kratky in 2002 to create the DVD-ROM Bleeding Throughan early form of digital database storytelling. The

[caption id="attachment_2678" align="alignleft" width="175"] Norman M. Klein, Rosemary Comella, and Andreas Kratky; Bleeding Through--Layers of Los Angeles: 1920-1986 (Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2003)[/caption]

skeletal biography of a fictional character named Molly provides the narrative vehicle for a much more thorough historical exploration and excavation of 20th-century Los Angeles, a metropolis so often buried under the oppressive weight of pop culture myth and illusion. Bleeding Through presents three “layers” of material that together illuminate the downtown core’s constantly shifting social texture, commercial and domestic layout, and demographic makeup.

In “Part 1: The Phantom of a Novel: Seven Moments,” one hears Klein recount anecdotes from an interview he supposedly conducted with Molly in 1986. In “Part 2, The Writer’s Backstory,” one navigates a collection of documents including news clippings and black and white photographs that sketch the nonfiction context in which the character lived. “Part 3, Digging Behind the Story and Its Locale,” offers the broadest kind of context, including survey maps, segments from old films, contemporary moving-image accounts of locations, and contemporary testimonies of people giving their memories of how life in the city used to be. Drifting between these different interfaces, users learn about how neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights and Bunker Hill have completely changed over the years. 

Bleeding Through is less about offering people the satisfaction of getting to the end of a story, than about the pleasures of digging beneath or peeling back the glamorous façade of the Los Angeles metropolis to discover a much more complex, diverse, and fractured urban fabric.


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