Makers and Subjects

This piece was written in 2006. YouTube had only started the year before and Facebook in 2004, most phone cameras were barely capable of recording usable video and the explosion of public sharing of self-shot footage that has happened in the last decade was hardly imaginable. The home video diary was the closest model we had to what was about to happen. But the footage and images we share today can hardly be called diaries. The diary depends on an idea of privacy and authorship – and both those concepts have been transformed by social media. In particular the boundary of private and public has blurred. In an age where our images are automatically sent to a hackable cloud, I think we all have a sense that nothing we film now is truly private. Perhaps we’re also wiser about whether self-shot footage signifies authenticity. So the piece needs to be read in that context: a message from a moment of transition where, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, something was happening but we didn’t quite know what it was.

‘Every time a film is shot, privacy is violated.” (Jean Rouch)

There’s a moment in Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, when Timothy Treadwell, the film’s central character, films himself candidly talking about his own motivations: ‘I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends.” Treadwell repeats, then frustrated at his own lack of words, he turns away as though giving up, before adding ‘I’m very, very troubled … It’s very emotional. It’s probably not even cool looking like this.”

It’s an odd combination of private confessional and public performance, typical of Treadwell’s tone in much of the footage on which Herzog has built his documentary. What’s remarkable about it is that Treadwell behaves as though someone is compelling him to talk, to transgress a private boundary, although in reality he’s alone, the sole author and shooter of his footage in the Alaskan wilderness. He’s talking to himself, but at the same time self consciously concerned about how this comes across to an audience – a form of intimate performance to camera which has become so familiar in the age of youtube and facebook.

The use of self-shot footage of intimate moments has become part of documentary language. It’s one of the ways digital technologies have transformed documentary practice. But for documentary filmmakers, the prevalence of recordings made by our subjects raises some difficult questions. Take almost any contemporary event and there is likely to be a vast resource of images and film taken by people who are participants in it, not just witnesses to it. The scale of this is quite new and it opens up different kinds of relationships between filmmakers and subjects, raising new questions about where the role of the filmmaker begins and ends.

Prior to the expansion of home video in the 1980s, it’s hard to think of examples of film being used confessionally in this way. The costs of equipment and stock – and the commercial and public institutions through which they became available – on the whole prohibited diary-style self-shooting. Home movie-making was a pastime for the aristocracy, rarely included sound (which is fundamental to the confessional film diary) and tended to document family holidays, weddings and encounters with royalty, rather than emotional breakdowns.

In the early history of documentary, there was no role for subjects behind the camera as well as in front. Grierson’s concept of documentary had observation at its heart. For him, cinema was ‘an art based on photographs in which one factor is always, or nearly always, a thing observed.’ No place yet for the thing observing itself, for people turning the lens on themselves. Which is not to say that Grierson wasn’t interested in what his subjects had to say; reading his writings today it’s striking that, at least in the early days, he believed that documentary is primarily a vehicle for the people’s experience. No sooner had sound finally reached the documentary (initially in the film Housing Problems), than there arose the remarkable idea of including actual speech from everyday life. Grierson’s sister Ruby, assistant director of Housing Problems, is famously said to have turned to her subjects and said ‘the camera is yours, the microphone is yours, now tell the bastards what it’s like to live here’. But she didn’t want them to start talking about their relationships or their preoccupations with their states of mind – they were to speak about public matters, not about themselves, to illustrate an argument largely preconceived by the filmmaker rather than to lead us into their own subjectivity. The subject was there to illustrate subject matter. And, despite her comments, Ruby probably didn’t leave them with the camera and the microphone at the end of the shoot.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems the emergence of the domestic camcorder began a steady erosion of this dominant form of documentary. In the late 1980’s the BBC Community Programme Unit pioneered a new television format – video diaries – shot initially on Hi8 camcorders, self authored, intimate, present-tense documentaries about people’s lives from their own points of view. Since then, for better or worse, the video diary has become a standard tool in formatted television documentary: moments when the subjects give an intimate insight into what is happening to them, particularly at times when it would be difficult to shoot with a crew. On Youtube and other digital video distribution channels, diary material, now stripped of any broader context, is the dominant form.

The attraction of the diary format is perhaps that it plays into our fantasy of seeing what really goes on when we aren’t there, of getting closer to how life might be without the cameras present at all, the fulfillment of Vertov’s impulse to ‘show people without masks, without makeup, to catch them through the eye of the camera in a moment when they are not acting, to read their thoughts, laid bare by the camera.’[i] In today’s television, self-shot material is seen as a guarantor for authenticity.  When we see it we know we’re supposed to be getting to the heart of things, spying through an open window into what the subject really thinks and feels.   But what makes this material distinctively different from other material captured by the lens is precisely its mix of private and public, its ambiguous combination of intimacy and performance.

Perhaps the most direct example of this is the sequence close to the start of Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans.  David, one of the Friedman sons, speaks to a camera in his bedroom:

Well, this is private, so if you don’t, if you’re not me, then you really shouldn’t be watching this, because this is supposed to be a private situation. Between me and me. This is between me now and me in the future. So turn it off. Don’t watch this. This is private. If you’re the fucking, oh, god, the cops.  And if you’re the fucking cops, go fuck yourselves, because you’re full of shit.”

If you don’t want it to become public, recording a video diary is a risk; all secrets have a tendency to flow towards the light. David Friedman has three potential audiences in mind, even whilst making the recording.  One, himself, in the future, second, a public who ‘shouldn’t be watching this’ but somehow are, and third, the cops.   Which makes you wonder what is compelling him to record it, when he is so conscious of the possibility of others seeing it, even of contributing to legal evidence against members of his family.  Like an indiscreet office email that ends up being forwarded to millions around the world, the video diary is an experiment with the borders of public and private – and perhaps that’s part of the motivation.  Secrets are a burden and recording them begins a process of exposure, over which the subject’s control is bound to be precarious.  As filmmakers we are complicit in this experiment.  We become the channel through which the fantasy/nightmare of the private confession becoming public comes true.[ii]

Using self-shot material demands a shift in thinking about the relationship between documentary filmmaker and subject. Like Grierson, most filmmakers even today perceive themselves as observers and interpreters.  There is a strong resistance in documentary culture to any meaningful editorial control being given to subjects.  We have a legal framework in which the signing of a release form usually hands over all of the subject’s rights, and an editorial framework in which they are largely excluded from any decisions once the cut has started.   Within this production model responsibility for transgressions of privacy are placed firmly on the subject.  If they feel a boundary has been breached, the pat answer is that they should have thought about that before getting involved.

The production practices surrounding diary material tend to undermine these boundaries. At a legal level, self-shot diaries imply a different kind of consent; by default the subject owns their own filmed material – and its inclusion in a film is likely to involve a more complex negotiation than the signing of a release at the start of shooting. Because the filmmaker-director will usually be absent when the material is shot, they are necessarily pushed to adopt a more distant role of briefing, support, or selection.  A good example of this shift in the role of the documentary director is the feature documentary The War Tapes, a gruelling portrayal of the lives of American soldiers in Iraq built from soldier’s own camcorder recordings.  Director Deborah Scranton was in regular email contact with five soldiers of a single battalion for over a year.  They sent her their tapes, and she made suggestions about what to shoot, in a dialogue with them.  At the same time, she shot material with their families at home, which in the film gives the soldiers’ recordings a wider context. The final cut is hers, but the decisions she makes are substantially shaped by her accountability to the soldiers themselves, and by their trust in her handling of their material.  The finished film, though made from material shot by people who were broadly in support of America’s war in Iraq, is in my view, one of the most devastating anti-war films ever made.  But I imagine it is one in which the soldiers do not feel that their material has been taken out of context.  The use of diary footage is a negotiation which continues throughout the production process, not just at the moment of shooting or acquisition (in the case of archive).  As a result, the documentary becomes more of a process of joint exploration, in which decisions about what remains private are made in the context of an ongoing relationship between filmmaker and subject.

Key to the success of that relationship is that it demands a responsibility for the consequences of the filmmaking that go beyond the film itself. Documentaries have an impact off-screen as well as on. People can be made famous or notorious, become rich or be ruined, arrested or pardoned, fall out or be reunited as a result of documentary films.   Because contemporary media feeds so voraciously off itself, any filmed material might have a much wider audience, in other contexts, than the filmmaker ever intended.  Where film travels deeply into the private realm, this is particularly acute – it can and often does change the subject’s world.  It would be bizarre if the filmmaker – whose activities have initiated them – were exonerated from responsibility for theses consequences, and yet the conventional legal and practical parameters of television documentary do precisely that.   By contrast, the ground rules for a ‘joint exploration’ model are an honesty about likely outcomes, about the context in which material will be used, and an accountability for the film’s impact on the subject, principles which filmmakers are often criticised for lacking.

This begs the question as to whether this kind of relationship with subjects compromises the documentary filmmaker’s other responsibilities, to their audience and to the truth of the story they are telling. One way of conceiving these shifts in documentary practice are as a continuous rise of the subject, towards a participatory utopia in which everyone is broadcasting their own ‘unmediated’ stories in their own words and images. But a characteristic of web clip sites like YouTube and Facebook – and of ‘compilation television’ – is that footage is decontextualised, separated from wider meanings.  The footage that rises to the surface is the footage that attracts instant attention. What space does this leave for a critical filmmaking in which material is taken at more than its surface value?

My own work has revolved around two kinds of practice: the first participatory filmmaking in which my role as filmmaker is to enable someone to articulate their experience through a filmmaking process in which they have as much control as possible; the second as a director of ‘people-based’ documentaries, in which the responsibility for the world view of the film lies with me.  When I started out I often mistakenly blurred these roles, but there are clear distinctions between the two practices which tell us something about the relationship between subject and maker in documentary. For example, a participatory project, Digitales, involved me in working with Roma communities in Slovakia to create short one minute films, based around their own photographs and voices.  As a filmmaker on this project I am responsible for working with the subject/author to find the strongest way of telling their story, passing on technical and creative filmmaking skills, encouraging them to think about an audience, and supporting them to push themselves and their films as far as possible in quality and content. But crucially I don’t usually question the validity of the story they are telling, and I don’t juxtapose or recontextualise that story to change its meaning.

On the other hand, where I’m working as a documentary director (as opposed to a facilitator, or a workshop leader), that approach would be unsustainable; even – or perhaps especially – in a documentary which draws substantially on self-shot material. Bill Nichols has described documentary as occupying  “a complex zone of representation in which the art of observing, responding, and listening must be combined with the art of shaping, interpreting, or arguing.”[iii] The filmmaker is not just a collector of images. As a documentary maker you try to get underneath your subject’s performance, which may include putting the material in a context different from that originally intended by the subject, as Herzog does with Treadwell’s footage in Grizzly Man, or interpreting it in a way they disagree with.  So an important ingredient of the relationship between maker and subject is an acknowledgement of that aspect of the journey – that in the end it may take the subject to places they would not have gone to on their own, and perhaps that they are uncomfortable with.

Treadwell and Herzog never met. And it’s possible Treadwell would never have given permission to Herzog to use his Alaskan recordings in the way that he has. But like Scranton’s War Tapes, Herzog, whilst disagreeing with his subject, manages to give Treadwell his autonomy and his self-shot material its integrity. I like to think that Treadwell would have recognized the end result and that perhapsGrizzly Man even says the things Treadwell himself was groping for when he stood alone in front of the camera and recorded his own confusion.


This is an edited and update article first written for “Rethinking Documentary’ in 2007.

[i] Vertov, Dziga (1984) ‘The Birth of Kino Eye’ in Kino Eye; The Writings of Dziga Vertov (trans. K. O’Brien) Pluto Press, p 41

[ii] Williams, R. (1983) Keywords, Flamingo Press pp.242-3. Raymond Williams points out that the meaning of the word ‘private’ underwent a shift from something undesirable (as in ‘deprive’ – withdrawn from the privileges of public life) in the middle ages to something desirable (seclusion and the protection from others) in early capitalism. In late capitalism, the promise of access to the private is a currency, the trade in which is central to all media forms, from You Tube to Heat magazine to docu-soap.

[iii] Nichols, Bill (1997)  ‘Documentary and the Coming of Sound’, article forDocumentary Box,  originally published in Spanish in Palaci, Manuel (ed) Historia general del cine, Catedra Publishers, Madrid.

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