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

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posted on 2023-06-08, 15:31 authored by E Shannon Magness
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.


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