After my return from the Women, Social Justice, Documentary conference at Smith last weekend it took me awhile to name a certain disquiet that was raised for me there. Critically, my concerns had nothing to do with the strength of the presentations or the commitment of the community. It was reaffirmed for me there that:

  • women need documentaries that represent female experience from a feminist perspective
  • women hunger to make documentaries about their own worlds and experiences with their own voices.

However, Charlie Musser’s post about the same conference helped me to name some of my qualms through questioning how we know and frame this field of practice: are we women documentarians victims, adventurers, heroes, or champions? And if none of the above, what is or should be our trope or role of choice?

In other posts here, I have discussed how male documentarians (and fiction filmmakers in the documentary mode) often represent their documentary filmmaking about adventures as if they themselves were the hapless explorers, as if they were the rugged spelunker or fearless soldier; as if making a film was a war or a similarly endangering undertaking.  Keeping men’s fantasies about such rugged film roles in mind, it seems particularly noteworthy that many feminist documentarians, who are themselves making films about women’s oppression, voicelessness, and sometimes even physical or emotional danger and violence, cast themselves and particularly their filmmaking in this light: as if documentary making is a form of victimhood and suffering.

Thus, as often as we discussed documentary-making as achievement, I heard this feminist mode presented as an expression of oppression: in that the industry is patriarchal, funds are scarce, the nation is conservative, and infrastructure is capitalist. And of course, all that is true. Many of the battles of current feminist filmmakers are the same as those of the generations before us; and in some arenas, it seems we’ve seen as much backlash as we have growth. And certainly, many women have and still come to their filmmaking as a first stop after, or as a response to lived oppression. However, the disadvantages we might encounter as women in film are similar to but not the same as the human rights violations we might document, or even the voicelessness that may have brought us to the medium, and when we tell the story of our film practice only using the disempowered tropes and experiences that brought us there we end up failing to build upon, yet alone even acknowledge, the successes we have made: the many, many films, careers, awards, institutions, festivals, books, or classes in the field. For, the conference also confirmed that:

  • the history of earlier work, makers, and institutions are lost unless we reconstitute them
  • and harder to admit, we get something from this perpetual losing

Which is to say, that once we do have some (more) power than we did, when we do have foremothers (now across a few generations) and a robust, generative, diverse, and amazing body of film, now that we are feminist documentarians with a real history and future (evidenced at the conference through the fire power of the “new” generation: Sonali Gulati, Anayansi Prado, Michelle Medina), how might we enact our self-representation as a field through and with power?

What are the metaphors and practices for having and using an empowered feminist voice amongst many?

We don’t have look far! Here’s just a small sample of some of the inspiring models presented at the conference:

Cynthia Wade: links her power with responsibility.

Barbara Hammer: lusty adventurer with politics.

Su Friedrich: angry citizen challenging film and social norms

Rea Tajiri: loving daughter and respectful neighbor reaching out with poetry

Lourdes Portillo: mother-maker opening our hearts in service or memory, justice, and complexity

Home after back-to-back events where I wore one hat that just might be construed as two (an interesting slip [of the tongue] or tip [of the hat] that helps point out some of my unease with [my place in] the “Digital Humanities,” more on that to come).

The first was just that: Re:Humanities, a student-run undergraduate conference where a day of really impressive student presentations were book-ended by addresses by professors (myself and Katherine Harris) who spoke on our own pedagogic commitments to undergraduate research.

While there was much to note here, I’ll focus my observations on the related themes and contradictions of expertise, authority, authoring, and professional(ism)(ilization) in the realm of the digital (humanities). We enjoyed polished, first rate and diverse student presentations on topics ranging from the mapping of Soweto, to websites devoted to postcolonial feminism, Paris monuments, and global street-art, to pleas for better digital design or citation practices, to the digitizing and narrativizing of rare books. It was crystal clear that digital humanities opens up a place, multiple methods, and voice for qualified young participants who would otherwise not be so readily enabled to “publish” or circulate their work while also being so creative and impassioned about both the content and forms of their fledgling scholarly endeavors. Many of the students commented that doing work for an audience larger than one professor (and maybe their Mom), promotes a higher degree of commitment, professionalism, and passion then they feel when writing a paper, and this reminded me of something I already knew and already do…

The subject of the second conference: Women, Social Justice and Documentary, held at Smith College. Granted, this group of faculty, artists, and students had not really heard of the “digital humanities,” although they were also interested in thinking about the relationship between making things like documentaries, and their academic (arts and humanities) studies, and (feminist) passions and commitments. In this case, a decades-long struggle to find and circulate a voice by those deauthorized by gender, race, sexuality, and other forms of patriarchal oppression has created a substantive history of media objects, and an infrastructure that holds them (including distribution, festivals, scholarship, and pedagogy).

Why, we might ask, doesn’t Digital Humanities know about the work and struggles and conquests of (see Hammer Retrospective at the Tate above) the speakers at the second conference like Lourdes Portillo, Barbara Hammer, or Rea Tajiri who have been interpreting their impassioned, politicized ideas into forms of media and pedagogy for decades and this to an enthusiastic audience who has responded in kind with criticism and media production of our own?

I’d have to say the answer to this is why I don’t whole-heartedly embrace the digital humanities (while I’m happy to be embraced by them). The “field” does the amazing potentially radicalizing work of asking humanities professors (and students) to take account for their audiences, commitments, forms, and the uses of their work. But this was always there to take account of, merely being obscured by the transparent (and patriarchal) protocols of publishing and pedagogy that have suddenly been miraculously revealed because of the confounding force of the digital. However, this turn is occurring, for the most part, as if plenty of fields, and professors, and artists, and students, and humanists hadn’t been already been doing this for years (and therefore without turning to these necessarily radical traditions of political scholars, theoretical artists, and humanities activists).

I wrote just such a comment recently on Miriam Posner’s blog:

“Just got turned on to your blog. How thrilling! When I think (and write and d0) about doing as making as thinking I have often made videos as well as books, and more currently “ video-books” (which are really just big web-pages), so what I think has been lost in this “all Digital Humanities are communities of practice speak” (and particularly that this is a radicalizing moment for humanists) is not simply that people crafted before in that twee sense, but that academic writing is and always was doing, as it was craft, and that these added digital technologies have merely exposed that scholars were always making things, in ritualized ways, for particular users, with machines and for special(ized) uses (and now actually have to be accountable for this). I spoke with Victoria Szabo about this at length for a panel she co-ran recently, Evaluating Digital Work for Tenure and Promotion: A Workshop for Evaluators and Candidates at the 2012 MLA Convention. I love your four points at the end for the reason that it marks practice as political, and hope you’ll take a peek at some of the similar principles I’m working through at my Feminist Online Spaces site (a work in progress to be sure).”

Drive-Bye SCMS

March 20, 2010

I performed a few drive-bys at SCMS (parking $40!) as it was held in my own town, meaning I stayed home and was thus left to perform Mommy-duty while other conference-goers cocktailed into the night. No matter, I attended 4 panels, 1 workshop (Queer Mentoring, where I spoke) and 1 party, and here’s a fly-by of my idiosyncratic bests:

Sean Cubitt pointed out our looming dystopia (who knew!) where the world and its citizens, due to finite resources, would soon have to choose between media storage and consumption, while also more encouragingly reminding us that there is only one global communication system that effectively brings nations, corporations, people, and NGOs together to problem-solve–not for health, poverty, or peace but in the name of the WorldWideWeb–making this our future’s most probable terrain of productive politics (a lone place of co-dependence, passion, and engagement).

Raya Morag gave a paper on representing the trauma of the perpetrator which rocked my neat little documentary world. If, as I believe, documentary’s function is to make its subjects into victims or objects (even if it thinks it is performing the noble opposite, and even when critical documentarians push it against its own evil ends) whatever do you make of a slate of recent Israeli films that allow the perpetrator of atrocities into this very documentary victim-slot?! Morag creates a template of resulting crises: of evidence, disclosure, gender, audience and narrative. Yes.

On a terrific panel on Sex in the Seventies, Damon Young looked to one strain of radical feminist thought and image-making (like Catherine Breillat’s) that divides the face from the vagina, in hopes of “faceifying” the vagina, and thus granting it the face’s personality, identity, and humanity and cementing its (her, our) valid place in liberal democracy.

Here, Elizabeth Venell re-visited the oeuvre of Barbara Hammer, arguing that the tautological narratives of coming out and visibility (from repression to liberation, invisibility to visbility), used by queer scholars and makers to narrativize queer cinema’s triumphant history, could be expanded to include other stories, including the affective over the legible.

The conference ended for me at the lovely Queer Mentoring Panel where gobs of grad students and gracefully aging professors talked together, carefully naming and nuancing our mutual and conflicting professional needs and commitments given the institutionalization of queer studies and the ongoing realities of homophobia and world-wide Depression (financial). I waltzed to the bar with my designated mentee, Greg Youmans. We realized together the beautiful ironies raised by the figures of Jan Raymond and Eve Sedgwick who served as my dialectical spectral mentors in the dying or changing Lesbian Nation which was Western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley in the 1980s. Lucky me, I was already his fan, allowing for what I hope is the best kind of queer mentoring, the one I called for in my brief remarks, a “good lesbian mother connecting via queer commitment and love while remaining vigilant around the easy marginalization of the least visible queers (lesbians, people of color and trans people) and minding the dangerous minefields of cross-generational engagement.

Take a look at Millenium Film Journal’s special issue, No. 51, Experiments in Documentary, edited by Lucas Hildebrand. A strong introductory essay is followed by artist statements/interviews about making work that sits “at the intersections of documentary and experimental practices [where] the duality of actuality and creativity energizes artists to make work that is radically beautiful and fantastically true.”

Artists featured: Michelle Citron, Donigan Cumming, Jeanne Finley and John Muse and Tommy Becker, Sasha Waters Freyer, Su Freidrich, Richard Fung, Barbara Hammer, Adele Horne, myself, Leandro Katz, Ernie Larsen and Sherry Millner, Jesse Lerner, Frederic Moffet, Lynne Sachs, MM Serra, Deborah Stratman, Mark Street, Tran T. Kim-Trang, Liza Johnson and Jonathan Kahana, Tess Takahashi and Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, Peggy Ahwesh, Caroline Koebel, Chie Yamayoshi.

Hildebrand suggests the term “essay film” as a more “elegant term” to describe a “making transparent [of] the maker’s processes of thought and discovery.” I’ll return to this soon, but I’ve been carefully looking at the “essays on film” introduced by Film Studies for Free in a recent post.