Let’s say, to be evasive (the first evasions of many; an approach that is definitive of the sensitive territory I trod), that I returned agitated from seeing Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat. As I tried to explain afterwards to my partner who had not seen the film, and who was a bit mystified about my spectatorial excesses, this was for four entirely entangled reasons:

  • my father, coincidentally, is currently in Budapest, where he’s been for over a month, trying to make sense of my family’s last apartment-full of European-things-that-remain (portraits, tens of thousands of books, chatchkas), engendering conversations between my own next-generation about what we want, what we remember, who we knew, what we’ve lost as Jews (and non-Jews and un-Jews) who survived and mostly left Europe, but in our case to the United States of America not to Israel (for reasons that bare their own secrets and lies, yes?)
  • the generational story Goldfinger tells (he labels it of three generations), exactly lines up to my own family’s: Gen 1. recently deceased grandparents who survived and went silent; Gen 2: their children (our parents), who also survived (as children) and were told and thereby asked nothing (but saw lots), who were told nothing because nobody knew nothing, who wanted and want to know nothing because there was nothing to know, and everyone knew that, and had no feelings about this not-knowing given that there was nothing to know and it was better to forget; Gen 3. (my generation, somewhere around 50, now parents ourselves) who want to know everything and with feeling.
  • the “mystery” he reveals at the sordid heart of his grandparents’ story points to the many secrets that all families scarred by this (and any) war carry (on both sides), secrets that get revealed even though no one knows or remembers or cares about them (except for my insatiable generation: ever seeking, asking, hunting, violating those before us) through symptoms, tics, photographs, lies, and erasures, that is until we come along behind: bumbling, pushing, and asking.
  • the bumbling, naive, self-reflexive documentary style Goldfinger takes up, to enact the role and work of gentle but needy and seeking third-generation (who already know much more then we pretend to not know; my Lord, at his point, troves of books and documentaries abound!) is at once offensive to much that I think about the ethics of documentary (in that it puts the second and third generation continually on trial; most painfully evident during the scenes between Goldfinger and his mother) while also being the role I take up in my own family.

How could I not? We are destined to play out our knowing and needing positions as we move farther in time, place and generation from the trauma of war and genocide, and as those protected by the secrets no longer are in need of protection. But even as much as our performance of self and family is painfully pre-constituted, questions remain for me: can we consider our method; and what are the ethics of our seeking, as well as our forgetting? What does it mean for us to use our own family to tell stories that others might need to hear?

As a scholar and maker of feminist documentary, The Flat made me so upset because Goldfinger’s family documentary drama is my own, and yet I would like to believe that I have cast my family members in roles somewhat more protected. As was true in Shoah, S-21, and so many documentaries that follow, asking participants in any genocide (on both or all sides) to live out their culpability, or to learn of their weaknesses and blindspots, in front of a camera, and for a trusted documentarian, may serve well for the learning and healing that audiences need, but what of the subject(s) under view?

I have worked with many members of my family—as does a generation or more of autoethnographers—to help me reveal personal experiences that may help us to know larger social struggles and secrets. Here’s my Mom and sister on generational hope (an outtake from my documentary Scale):

And my Dad in conversation with me about “private conversations” for part of a larger show I co-curated about YouTube and community :

The Flat is so intense for me because I see less the painful strictures on my own skills, roles, and limits (as a third-generation Holocaust survivor, loving daughter or sister, or feminist documentarian), and more because I am faced to confront how the limits of (documentary) knowing itself prescribe us to invade in our will to love, learn, remember, and do better. For this reason, I end with Shu Lea Cheang’s amazing piece, Les Cles e (discussed by my father, above). In this documentary/(fiction)? we watch yet another inter-generational conversation, through the eyes of another seeking and trusted artist, but without the (structural) necessity of performing for others the truly painful learning of our own self- and inter-personal limits in the face of the profound and/or the profane.

Heroism

November 27, 2007

I recently attended the festival screening of my friend, Ellen Spiro’s amazing documentary, “Body of War,” which she shot and directed with Phil Donahue (yes that Phil Donahue). It was a beautifully made, inspiring, and tear-provoking portrait of one man seriously injured in the Iraq war who returned home to the country he served to become a vocal activist against the war. It is also, explicitly, a film about Heroism, as this young man’s efforts are paralleled across the film by those of Senator Robert Byrd, one of the few politicians in Washington who had the courage (or heroism) to speak up, and vote against this illicit War.

Ellen and I come from the same school of political documentary: we both began in AIDS activist video, and moved into “queer” media quickly thereafter. Although, outside my participation in “The Watermelon Woman,” it would be important to note that Ellen has had a much more successful career, at least if you note the prestigious venues, awards, and airings of her documentaries (all of which have ended on PBS or HBO, I think).

Thus, when I sat in a theater, moved by her filmmaking, and the man’s story it so clearly told, while surrounded by a diverse audience equally aroused, I thought a lot about political filmmaking tactics, and what her film is doing, mine (SCALE) is not, and what that means for documentary and (anti-war) activism.

Baldly stated: her film uses heroism to its greatest advantage while mine deconstructs it. And please do understand me. I LIKE her film; more than that, I’d warrant her film is ultimately more effective for activism–or at least that’s what I’d like to consider here–because it uses tried and true structures, narratives, and feelings to move people. The film is melodramatic (it relies on issues turned into big emotions), simple (it reduces large and complex politics issues to the lived experiences of one person), and believes in the hero (the regular or regal man whose courage creates change). Meanwhile, by comparison, SCALE is distancing (its focus on the media and its own processes as media remind you that the characters are constructions of the filmmaker, also a character), complex (it refuses to come down on what it believes are the correct tactics for the left and instead considers the range of tactics and disagreements about tactics evidenced along Antonia’s tour), and is uncertain about the effects of heroism (or celebrity) on the individual or the movement. Ellen’s film leaves you weeping and inspired, while I imagine, mine leaves you thinking and riled.

And here I am, yet again on these pages, looking at tactics and individuals (on the left; of activism) that are in seeming opposition to each other, even as the cause remains the same, and the goals, and even the analysis. Yet we can not agree, at this time, on what is to be done. Should our films be didactic and emotional, or erudite and intellectual? What is the happy medium, or should we be making them all, letting them speak to each other, and speaking our opposition in the many languages we speak, and the many structures that can hold it?

Chicago SCALE Roundtable

November 5, 2007

Two weeks ago, we held a summit on the organizing and distribution possibilities of my documentary, SCALE, generously sponsored by a Chicago feminist media and arts organization and attended by a stellar group of hand-picked women activists, scholars, and organizers. I haven’t been able to write about it until this late date because this was a difficult meeting for me. This is not to say that the participants were un-supportive; they were not. But it is clear that SCALE was, for this group at least, not the “activist film” I had imagined or they had desired. The women in the room expressed that they need from documentary just what my sister has wanted throughout this process (and what she has insisted “activists” would want as well): either an in-depth portrait of the activist, Antonia (how she got there, how she stays there, what she fights for, how she does it), or an illustrated version of her book: a film as easier-to-understand condensation of her critically important ideas, first articulated in words, now in images and with emotion. I will attest that this activist film, the one mine is not, is important, and needed, just not the one I set out to, or even am capable to make. This would be a film that would feed and sustain people who are already working against the war and the Bush Agenda and who need more information, already working and need a pep-talk, already activists and need to see more like themselves on the screen for self-sustaining purposes.

The women in the room were uncomfortable with, or uninterested in the film’s sister-tension (the personal nature of the drama) and self-reflection (its focus on the media rather than Antonia’s ideas as expressed through the media). My departures from Antonia’s ideas were understood to be overly “theoretical,” “abstract,” or “obscure.” Complicatedly, however, it is the documentary’s self-reflexive quality about the state of the left, in relation to media, activism, organizing, and the relations between the personal and the political, which most seems to impress those who are moved by the film. This satisfied viewership understands the film as “activist” in how it allows us to see and talk about the left, activism, and the media with a new formal and verbal vocabulary (that of SCALE).
Which is all to say, that the workshop, although of course personally painful for me, was incredibly illuminating both about the film (how and for who it functions), and about a deep, abiding and defining split within the left about the best form and function of information, action, images and ideas in our media age. If you hate the film, you probably believe that direct action and organizing are what matters if we are ever going to make a change in this society; and if you love the film you are probably less convinced that such actions continue to matter, as you are also self-consciously debating where power lies in a society where individual action seems to have been subsumed by corporate control and media, and what that leaves as a possibility for you to do… Is the left best served by simply doing more stuff, louder, more effectively or does the left need to re-group, re-consider, and talk amongst ourselves about what has and has not worked, and what will and will not work as the conditions of power continue to change?

Are pep-talks, feeling good, and getting smarter the only way to inspire activism, or could activism come from self-scrutiny and uncertainty? Does navel-gazing waste our precious time? What do we gain and lose when we don’t speak directly, supplying much-needed information, but rather talk about the state of information itself? What is the use for formal and intellectual complexity about our current state when the current state is itself so bad?

#1 SCALE screening

October 11, 2007

On Thursday, October 4, we had our first work-in-progress screening of SCALE fro a friendly audience at the Claremont Colleges, where I teach. Antonia made it, as did representatives of various local anti-war groups, who spoke about their efforts before the screening began.

The most interesting aspect of the Q and A at this screening mirrors a theme of the documentary: its interest in divisions within the left about the form and function of education or information in relation to social change. Many in the audience were there (understandably) to hear Antonia speak truth, facts, and analysis to power, something she does very well, and for which she has a following. While this does happen, in small parts, in the documentary, it is, in fact, not really a documentary about Antonia’s book and its ideas, as much as it is about the concept of scale, and how Antonia’s book, ideas, and experiences trying to sell and impart them demonstrate the contradictions of ramping up numbers, attention, and exposure. Thus, some in the audience were pleased to see a self-reflexive documentary raising questions of tactics, effectivity, organizing strategies, and the role of the media and celebrity in contemporary politics, just as Antonia’s fans thought this was a diversion from the real stuff.

Discussion centered around whether the left should be educating itself with facts, or whether we have already heard these facts; or should we be navel-gazing, and re-thinking strategies, as well as our flaws and strengths?

Finally, the highly personal nature of the questions asked to Antonia and I (rather than political) threw Antonia, and it is seems good she has some practice before the show really goes on the road. People asked her questions she has never heard before: abo0ut her spiritual beliefs or our family. And afterwards, we talked together about how my feminism, and a commitment to the personal, is fundamentally different from her more straightforward commitment to the “political.” This is really another vocabulary to think about the differences in knowledge production, and political strategy raised above, and I am certain that these tensions will define the life and reception of the film.

Editing SCALE 3

September 27, 2007

August 8, 2007

Back home after a month in Columbus OH defined, in the end, by the concerns addressed in my earlier posts: what it means to be an artist-on-my-own and how I can be true to my own uncertainties and also my sister’s fortitude. Home again in Pasadena with one-hour documentary in hand, I hope that I may have succeeded. I want to believe that SCALE accomplishes multiple, self-nourishing goals:

SCALE ricoches and reflects between the power and limitations of the small and large. My muddy and sloppy camera reveals complexity and feeling while the smooth operations of Robbie’s camera give the world a gloss that is convincing and familiar. Both have power. And that’s not even going to Oprah.

SCALE links the personal and the political, insisting that what happens between people (emotions, ideas, trust, betrayal, power, kindness) mirrors and combats the largest operations of dominance and control in our world (war, wealth, politics).

SCALE believes that small things, the things regular people do in the space of their own lives and through the reach of their own actions, do have effect. Although the doc would never presume to be able to measure such effect.

SCALE believes that groups of people magnify the power explained above. Although, again, the doc would never deign to calculate the scale of such power.

I hope the documentary can be used for organizing, both naming for people through the awesome words of my sister some of the crimes of the Bush regime, and pointing them towards avenues of action including writing, speaking, demonstrating, and making media. I hope the documentary will challenge people to think about the role of their own activism and action in the media age.

Editing SCALE 2

September 17, 2007

July 16, 2007. It has been a really great first week. I have been editing with concentration and fervor helped and abetted by the Wexner’s master editor, Paul Hill. We’ve made huge headway, primarily humanizing the piece by adding more of me. And letting me take some of the emotional slack. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to put in more of Antonia’s amazing optimism and energy, as the story had become more and more about how she was captured by the intrigue of the limelight, and less and less about how she continued to do the hard work of being smart and on and present and committed even for that short while when she also though the book might become a bestseller.

While I am certain I will finish the film, and assured that it will be better then when I came, and close to all I want to say, my real fear at this stage is that I am not a powerful enough artist to kick it up to that final stage that this work deserves. And, of course, this is linked to SCALE because while I have always chosen for my work to remain small, primarily out of theoretical and political and artistic commitments to what happens when real people make small work about and within communities they belong, I have also not expanded my scale because I gave up on the endless exhaustion and humiliation of fund-raising, pitching, and altering my work and self to fill other’s agendas. And then, frankly, as much as I have resisted this waste of time, pulling me from the issue at hand and the pleasure of working, I’ve never been that good or capable at the pitch, the schmoozing. I get self-conscious and embarrassed. I’d rather be aloof, outside this humiliating economy. Finally, there’s always the strong possibility that I can’t get funding—slogging away at grant apps, floundering at meetings with commissioning officers—because I’m just not really good enough.

While my world view—that everyone can and should be able to express their ideas about themselves and their world—supports that everyone, including me, deserves the grace of self-expression, I do also believe in innate talent. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Self-trained in video; never a “real” artist; I hit against a wall that is my innate creativity (or lack thereof), often. Also, of course, I’m too intellectual to be a good artist. And probably too dogmatic, and out of touch with regular Americans, not to mention disdainful of the media traditions that make most people comfortable. I’ve sat here in the small mostly because it’s where I should be: reaching the audience to whom I can speak, a limited crowd interested in the ideas and values that concern me which include

-the relevance of small, personal work and activism and the real voices of real people not pundits

-the fact that getting bigger corrupts, exhausts, and punishes and that staying small allows for an attention to inter-personal ethics

-and the fact that these ideas seem hopelessly out-dated, some kind of nostalgic homage to a ’60s that was never this good anyways, and are downright ineffective against the new kinds of fast, huge, networks of corporate power that rule us.

On YouTube Celebrity and SCALE

September 15, 2007

An article about my class ended up on the AP wire and less then 24 hours later, I’ve done or scheduled 10 print and radio interviews, including a visit from CNN to my class scheduled for next week. It’s been on the local news in Florida, on my sister’s elevator in NY, and in the Herald International Tribune. It’s all over the web; can’t track it. Heart-pounding, adrenaline rushing, I’ve been able to do nothing else all day but worry about how I represent myself, my ideas, my course through a mainstream media which does not usually talk my language or acknowledge my concerns, given their erudite nature and political leanings (see my blog!). But reporters have been polite and intelligent, I’m an expert after all, a PhD; as have I. Why?

I knew that the form, and even content, of Learning from YouTube would be sexy, getable, marketable but I did not know what that would mean for me. Most strikingly, it has made me engage in thoughts of self-censorship (whether I will follow through or not is another matter), where I worry that the radical nature of my work will disallow me to be taken seriously, thus closing down channels before they open, and minimizing my credibility, as well as the more general and less ideological intellectual ideas raised.

But beyond this, given that my documentary, “SCALE: Ending the Bush Agenda in the Media Age,” is all about celebrity, and the power of not being known while still doing good work, and the left’s inability to successfully think through how or why to use the media machine as a way towards power and change, it seems downright ridiculous that I’m suddenly having just such a moment after having determined that the nature and focus of my work would, by definition, keep it small, intimate, in my control, and as radical as am I.

At the end of the film, I ask my sister why she never got on the morning talk shows, and she suggests that it is because she is “too left and also too right, too correct.” So, why am I being invited? I’m not too left and also not too right? That sounds correct to me. How am I being seen and used? And what can I make if this access, if anything?