Documentary and the cinematic thought machine

Provocation by Bettina Frankham

First Chaldaic Oracle
There is something you should know.
And the right way to know it
is by a cherrying of your mind.

Because if you press your mind towards it
and try to know
that thing

as you know a thing,
you will not know it.
It comes out of red

with kills on both sides,
it is scrap, it is nightly,
it kings your mind.

No. Scorch is not the way
to know
that thing you must know.

But use the hum
of your wound
and flamepit out everything

right to the edge
of that thing you should know.
The way to know it

is not by staring hard.
But keep chiselled
keep Praguing the eye

of your soul and reach—
mind empty
towards that thing you should know

until you get it.
That thing you should know.
Because it is out there (orchid) outside your and, it is.
–Anne Carson

Documentary practice is a way to think the world.  It is a formulating, a historicising, a narrativising of a world that is often otherwise chaotic and confusing. However if we are to engage with the way of knowing advocated in the above poem, it is to come through lateral approaches, patience, perhaps even intuition. There is a sense of accumulating understanding that speaks of an experiential kind of knowing that cannot be articulated or contained in a few rhetorical dot points. This is also where the sense of spending time and being open to ‘nothing’ happening and seeing where that might lead is valued as part of the process of coming to know “that thing you should know” [i].

My interest lies in how an artistic practice can shift the work from a didacticism that says, “I know all about this topic, come and listen to my wise words”.  While the notion of an “art work” can have the effect of elevating the artist and the work above the ordinary, the openness of expression permits room for the audience to bring their own understandings to bear on the issues under consideration with the attendant possibility for greater and more deeply experienced impact.  In the admission of uncertainty and the acknowledgement of complexity, the agency of the audience and their ability to “know that thing”[ii]in multiple ways is mobilised.

The work I am currently editing, How many ways to say you?, is intended to create an experience through the audio-visual material of the film both as an echo of my experience travelling through Cambodia but also as a way to think through ideas of relationship, history, memory and representation.   At the time of filming there were constant questions raised for me about the impact of recent Cambodian history upon people’s (both locals’ and visitors’) being, their interactions with each other and ways of understanding this world.  My approach to and treatment of the raw footage has been an attempt to explore these ideas.  Through a methodology that has notions of photogénie [iii] at its core, I am trying to convey a sense of the affective impact that this place and these people had, and continue to have, on me.

The material of the film is arranged according to a poetic structure that is based on fragmentary sketches of the relationships implied through the use of the different ‘you’ words that appear in Khmer.  The footage can be described as adopting an observational style, inasmuch that, in filming, I have frequently taken a position of standing back and watching, waiting for moments of interaction and absorbing the scenes on which I have trained the camera.  While filming frequently has the effect of taking one out of the current, physical moment, in this instance, the camera actually facilitated a way of looking that was more akin to accretion than analysis.  It became a way to approach understanding rather than an attempt to subdue, preserve and pin down the world in front of the lens [iv].  The camera became a point of conversation and interaction with people, as those standing with me behind the camera would tell those in front that they were on camera and what they could see.

This kind of interaction is indicative of the overall intention for the work.  In contrast to a more strict interpretation of an observational mode of production, certain aesthetic techniques have been used to undercut the realist style of the footage.  There is a twofold motivation to this approach.  Firstly, it is part of a reflexive strategy.  By emphasising aesthetic choices I am attempting to negotiate some of the ethical problems of an observational visual style [v].  While there are sections where the subjects appear unaware of the camera, I have tried to balance this out by drawing out the moments where the subjects look back and engage with my presence.  Through using a frame within the frame, motion effected video (slow motion and time lapse), filters to create different visual textures, long dissolves and text on screen the constructed nature of the work is also made blatantly apparent.  Secondly, the aesthetic treatment is part of a conceptual approach that seeks to address what-has-yet-to-be-thought through images, their appearance and combination.  In embracing a Deleuzian notion of the “cinematic thought machine”[vi] I am working to draw out aspects of intuitive and perceptual knowledge through the very particular aesthetic approach of this film.  This isn’t an attempt to duplicate reality but to create an experience of the film in itself.

Although fragmented, the work does try to convey a sense of people as individuals with lives beyond what is captured in the frame.  While their images do constitute the aesthetic material of the work it is my intention to imply lives lived beyond that are much greater than the framing of this film.  Their presence gives some dimension to the abstract concepts of the different ways to say you but the clear boundaries of the inner frame indicate the limits of these representations.  It is my hope that they don’t simply stand in as archetypes to represent a word.  Through their looking back and engagement with the viewer through the device of the camera I hope to denote their particularity and unique humanity.

The combination of a few, basic English phrases, my fairly sketchy grasp of Khmer and the process of filming prompted many exchanges and the gift of time in halting conversation. Using a standard definition pro-sumer video camera, filming took place with the small in-built LCD most often turned towards the subjects.  This enabled me to capture the looking back of subjects as they are both watching themselves and returning the unblinking stare of the camera.  However, this wasn’t a longitudinal filming process associated with an ethnographic methodology.  These are brief glimpses and fragments accumulated over a three and a half week period of independent travel through Cambodia.  So while the material may have an observational appearance, the container or structure of the work reflects the fragmentary nature of the experience. These are snapshots rather than detailed studies.  Nonetheless they are moments of significance, instances of impact drawn out from their quotidian context for closer examination.  There also remains a sense of time unfolding through the work with a languid flow to the pacing created through long dissolves, slowed footage and a feeling of lingering on moments of quotidian beauty.  Time is also spent with people, situations and otherwise passing instances as a way to explore how they might connect with the title word of each section.

My creative practice in making How many ways to say you, is a key part of my research.  Through my research I am interested to expand the range of what constitutes knowledge in a documentary context.  I want to advocate for the importance of conveying experience and the role that an aestheticised approach has in offering up that experience in a way that encourages audience connection.  In many ways this means that I am working at the edges of what might properly be considered documentary.  I am exploiting the use of actuality to establish documentary credentials.  I am playing around with issues of indexicality to see how far I can push it before the connection with the real is weakened to the point of loss.  I am drawing on materials from the world to conjure something of the experience and the emotion of an encounter.  I am trying to embed theory, ideas and concerns in the very way that I treat and approach the material.  I am working to generate a practice that addresses issues in an essayistic way.  It is a tentative approach that acknowledges complexity, difference, difficulty, lack, insufficiency and incompleteness.  I’m interested in the territory of documentary that doesn’t seek to be an expert witness but that can engage with serious issues nonetheless.  It is my contention that this combination is possible through a poetic approach to documentary.

[i]^ Carson, A. 2000,Men in the off hours, A. A. Knopf, New York.
[ii]^ ibid
[iii] ^ See for a discussion of this somewhat nebulous concept.
[iv] ^ By the same token it was also important to acknowledge moments where I needed to put the camera aside and be present, letting my memory be the record rather than have a recorded image become my memory.
[v] ^ Among the criticisms, charges of ‘visualism’ has seen observational work come to signify “a distanced, disembodied, controlling gaze that objectified human subjects and denied them agency and history” (Grimshaw, A. & Ravetz, A. 2009, ‘Rethinking observational cinema’, JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL ANTHROPOLOGICAL INSTITUTE, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 538-56.)
[vi] ^Huygens, I. 2007, ‘Deleuze and Cinema:  Moving Images and Movements of Thought’, Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], no. 18, viewed 21/05/2012,