Representation is tricky work. Part II.

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Now, let’s look at the decision to include the filmmaker’s image in a documentary film as not only a matter of what is more faithful to the reality of the situation, but it also as a question of viewer experience.

The inclusion of the filmmaker on camera involves a specific affect—a disruption of the “fourth wall” that influences the reception of a given representation. As bell hooks made clear in her essay “Is Paris Burning?” the 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning would have been a decidedly different film if Jennie Livingston, the white, middle-class lesbian filmmaker who made the film had appeared along side the queers of color from the New York ball scene that she depicted.

A poignant example of a filmmaker’s portrayal on screen within her own documentary exists in Canadian filmmaker Kat Cizek’s film Seeing is Believing: Human Rights, Handicams and the News. At one point in the film, Joey Lozano, a member of the Nakamata coalition of ten Phillipino Indigenous groups whom Cizek is documenting, picks up the camera and Cizek and her crew appear briefly on screen from the perspective of the documentary subject, Joey. This moment is an interesting rupture indeed: a metaphysical disruption in which the audience sees the stark contrast in dress, appearance and behavior of the filmmakers to those of the Indigenous Phillipinos. This disruption not only pulls the audience out of the vérité experience, but it also acts as a visible marker of all of the issues of interpretation and influence inherent in Cizek’s process of representation. As the film itself is about representation—and self-representation—I would say that Cizek’s film is decidedly enriched and critically complicated by the scene.

kat cizek

filmmaker Kat Cizek

More recently, the 2010 documentary film Catfish has stirred audiences through its inclusion of the filmmakers alongside their cinematic portrayal of a woman they expose as not who she claims to be in her Facebook profile. This film, with its multiple, competing and overlapping representations, has sparked quite the debate in the comments field of its New York Times review. Some readers critique the narcissism of the filmmakers and the exploitative nature of their entitled, New-York-City-hipster predation of Angela, a woman “in profoundly difficult circumstances.” I have to wonder, though, how much of this analysis is based in the fact that we can see the filmmakers within the film—their clothes, their office, their car, their fancy, expensive technological accouterments? Do audience members judge the representation in Catfish more harshly because the filmmakers expose themselves and their process within the very content of the film itself? What would be lost if these details had been covered over, as they so often are in documentary portrayals?


Nev Shulman, Catfish

I have to say that I personally appreciate the self-referential aspect of this film—and perhaps it’s because I’m so invested in the nature of representation. I just love all of this film’s complications to the documentary process—an effect evidenced by the comments on the NYT review. Beyond my interest in the film on a metaphysical level, though, I actually think that the filmmakers Ariel Shulman and Henry Joost did an incredible job portraying Angela as a complex, three-dimensional, nuanced character and that they do so with respect and integrity. I agree with one NYT commenter who says that those who critique the filmmakers portrayal of Angela “appear to be projecting their own insecurities […] onto Angela, believing she is made to look sick, sad, and pathetic, when in fact, although they themselves find her to be so, she is not.”

I don’t know though. That’s just my take… It’s certainly up for interpretation.