U know them by their fruit: unfinalizing the ‘extreme other self’ in documentary filmmaking

Magness, E Shannon (2013) U know them by their fruit: unfinalizing the ‘extreme other self’ in documentary filmmaking. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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Abstract

My research explores the documentary encounter between the filmmaker and a
familial subject who is also politically opposite to me, or what I term an
‘extreme other’. The Thesis consists of a one-hour film and a forty thousand
word critical and reflective work analyzing the ethical, aesthetic and political
implications of this documentary encounter. The subject of my film is my
cousin from the USA who used to work as a high school principal, but who
over the past decade has adopted ethno-religious nationalist views—including
the view that only white males should be allowed to vote in the USA. My aim
was to create a representation of my politically ‘far right’ subject which would
be, to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s term, unfinalizable. My film and my writing both
focus on navigating the possible obstacles to unfinalization, such as the fact that
my views may be considered oppositional to my cousin’s, my marginal authorial
status as a national other, and the implications of theorist Michael Renov’s
designation of family film as domestic ethnography—a type of film which he writes
is so highly intersubjective due to blood relations that the familial subject
“refracts” (2004: xiii) the filmmaker and the film becomes an
“autobiographical” self-portrait (ibid).

I responded to my quandary of representing radical intersubjectivity between
myself and a familial ‘extreme other’ by experimenting with narrative, thematic,
and montage strategies deeply influenced by concepts from life-writing,
documentary theory, literature, psychoanalysis and ethnography. Through the
process of integrating critical exploration with filmmaking practice, I invented a
form and style for the film to approach my goal of unfinalizing, while leaving
traces of my ethical and aesthetic choices, and of my grappling with the
problematic nature of representing opposing political views. Meanwhile I
reflected on the ways in which intersubjectivity has been represented between
filmmakers and ‘extreme others’ in existing documentaries, featuring both
familial and non-familial subjects. Furthermore I reflected on the
autobiographical and performative techniques of marginal authors.

I began the film as a way of defending my cousin’s liberty to criticize the US
Government, in 2004 when the ‘War on Terror’ was rapidly shaping the
zeitgeist. However, I soon found myself in opposition to his ethno-religious
nationalist views (to use Manuel Castells’ term). Given the radical
intersubjectivity indicated by Renov’s domestic ethnography, I brought critical
concepts to bear on filmmaking practice in order to negotiate my goal of
unfinalizing my cousin whilst maintaining my own political views which are
radically different from his—and I did this while testing the degree to which
this film about him was also about me. Furthermore, I carried out this research
to find out how such a conceptual exploration could make an integral and
visible impact on the film.

I found that part of my motivation for articulating my cousin’s criticisms
against the US Government was indeed autobiographical—especially regarding
my personal desire to escape what I perceived as the American stereotype in
England. Meanwhile my reflections on existing documentary work showed me
that other documentary makers were also personally invested in their
encounters with ‘extreme others’—even non-familial ones. Furthermore I
developed the view that designating family films as ‘domestic ethnography’ can
serve to obscure the political messages in such films by overemphasizing the
importance of the domestic milieu. However, as the director and editor of U
Know Them By Their Fruit, my persistent experimentation with
autobiographicality eventually led me to further emphasize the public and
political aspects of my film.

I have contributed an original film built in the unfinalizing tradition of critical
reflexivity, while problematising the power of authors to construct subjects.
Moreover, I have based much of my filmmaking practice on an approach which
considers what is unsaid, the potential we have for radical intersubjectivity. For
lack of a better name I have termed this approach my ‘spiritual’ conceptual
framework, and it is tailored for exploring and representing radical
intersubjectivity in the documentary encounter. This conceptual framework
includes Jean Rouch’s ciné-trance, Levinas’s I-Thou relation, and psychoanalytic
theory of the doppelgänger device. Furthermore, I have tested Renov’s
designation of family film as domestic ethnography, and provided a critique based
on the specific filmmaking circumstances of featuring a familial ‘extreme other’
subject, in a cross-national US/UK context, where the author is marginal. I
have also provided an analysis of radical intersubectivity in non-familial film,
based largely on my ‘spiritual’ conceptual framework. Finally, I took inspiration
from performative techniques deployed by other marginalised authors, as well
as non- or less marginal authors.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Media, Film and Music > Media and Film
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1993 Motion pictures > PN1995.9.A-Z Other special topics, A-Z > PN1995.9.D6 Documentary films
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 28 Aug 2013 06:09
Last Modified: 15 Sep 2015 12:59
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/45893

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