‘GIRL’ – New Vertical Short

Hi All,

As per usual I begin this post with an apology for my appalling lack of interaction with my blog as of late, I’ve moved things over to my new website megankfoxfilm.com for the most part!

However, I thought I’d touch base with the lovely people who follow me here to share a short film I made recently dealing with the issue of female homelessness. We shot this film in vertical format to make audiences consider the space that marginalised characters occupy in our society as well as on our screens. It was shortlisted for the Nespresso Talents competition and selected to screen at the Vertical Film Festival in Australia, and we are hoping it will have more festival screenings in the coming months.

So if you enjoy the video please take a moment to like and share it, any support is greatly appreciated as always.

African American theatre in its revolutionary, and post-revolutionary phases (‘Topdog/Underdog’ and ‘Dutchman’)

During the early to mid 1960’s LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka founded a movement known as the Black Revolutionary Arts Movement, the cultural arm to The Black Power Movement. The Black Power Movement was created by a group of activists who believed that the non-violent protests of the Civil Rights Movement were ineffectual. They were separatists who believed that equality could only be achieved for African Americans by creating their own cultural institutions. Spokespersons for Black Power emphasised the need for social and economic independence within the black community and promoted ideas of self-defence. This approach to protesting and political activism became the foundation of Jones/Baraka’s Black Revolutionary Arts Movement which emphasized black consciousness, community involvement, separatism and revolutionary action, and new aesthetics in form and structure.

‘Dutchman’ written in 1964 is a perfect example of African American theatre in its revolutionary phase and one of the first plays written within these aesthetics, a simple, violent and shocking representation based on history. The title of the play refers to the legendary ‘Flying Dutchman’ a ship of the dead that is believed to haunt the seas. The subway car of the play is a representation of such a ghost ship, where a young black man is murdered, it is a ‘ghostly incarnation of racist fantasies’. The play operates on the black and white binary in which the white man or woman is the educated and privileged one, but in the case of ‘Dutchman’ this binary is reversed, consequentially resulting in Clays death as the white woman is so intimidated by the educated and self assured black man that she must kill him. In Scene One of the play Lula’s character flirts with Clay, and seems to be attracted to him but hints of inherent racism are clear from the very beginning of the play in lines such as ‘don’t you know what staring means’ implying that the black man is ill-educated or ignorant, and ‘I saw you staring [..] down in the vicinity of my ass and legs’ assuming the misconception of black sexual obsession and the black mans want for a white woman. Lula demonstrates her judgemental character in this scene, as Baraka uses her to make comments on white society such as ‘I lie a lot, it helps me control the world’. Her character is manipulative and controlling throughout the play, a reflection on the kind of control that the Black Arts Movement were rebelling against during this revolutionary phase in African American theatre.

This play represents the African American struggle against white oppression, as Clay is bombarded with questions and judgements by the white woman, who is all the time trying to transform him into something other than himself, so that he will fit into the stereotype she has for him in her imagination. By Scene Two of the play her hostility is growing towards Clay and she feels the need to mock him as an African American, telling him to ‘pretend […] that you are free of your own history’ and yelling ‘GROOVE’ at the top of her lungs in a pathetic attempt to embarrass him. Her hostility grows and grows throughout every scene of the play, and her actions become more and more calculated and provocative as she provokes Clay into hitting her, forcing him to act the way the white woman expects the black man to act, violently.

In Clays final speech to Lula we get the sense that this is in fact a speech from Baraka, and perhaps the entire black community at the time, to racist white America. He proclaims that they can’t see ‘the pure heart, the pumping black heart’ behind the coloured people, that Lula (representing many white American’s of the time) is a ‘great liberated whore!’, pretending to think so equally while acting on behalf of her racist, oppressive culture. He celebrates black identity as being more artistic and soulful than white identity in this speech, ‘let me bleed you, you loud whore, and one poem vanished’ stating that all white Americans are interested in is ‘Money. Power. Luxury’ that their souls are cold and dark. The murder of Clay in the subway car, with all its white inhabitants turning a blind eye, is a definite metaphor for the racist culture that would go to any length to keep the black man down and support the oppressive deeds of its fellow white man. This play promotes separatism and aims to encourage revolutionary thought, to incite strong political action and put anger into the hearts of African American audiences who were expected to leave the theatre with new understandings about the politics of race in America.

In contrast to the revolutionary style of theatre in ‘Dutchman’, Suzan-Lori Parks ‘Topdog/Underdog’ is in many ways more complex, dealing with human issues of identity and family struggles above, but including, the struggles of African American society. While ‘Dutchman’ is extreme simplistic revolutionary theatre, ‘Topdog/Underdog’ is a complex Beckett-type play with post-revolutionary views of identity and politics. The play represents contemporary life as a dog-eat-dog world, hence the name ‘Topdog/Underdog’, and dramatizes race ‘as a contradiction between dreams of a possible life and the reality in which the chance of their realization is the ultimate gamble’.  It is the story of a realistic conflict between two African American brothers who are trying to live their lives in very different ways.

The play has a large historical and cultural frame of reference with the brothers names, Lincoln and Booth, foreshadowing a grim fate that is suggested to be ‘part of a longer historical trajectory’. Lincoln’s fate is entirely determined by the part that he plays in his life, and the grand irony of it all is that he spends his whole life trying to avoid being shot, by working in a place where he is constantly shot, and ending up being shot in reality. The play begins with another foreshadowing of its ending, Booth practising his card game and nearly shooting Lincoln when he surprises him. The 3 Card Monte that the brothers play throughout the play is very significant, as everything in this story seems to be a game, the family relationships, the sexual relationships and both of the men’s identities.

The roles that the characters play are a comment on the roles that African American men are expected to play in society, either impersonating the white man or gambling, working illegal trades. While Lincoln is interested in working hard at an honest job to make money, Booth is interested in all the trimmings of Western culture and will do anything, dishonest or not, to get them. They both represent common stereotypes in post-revolutionary culture; the hard working ‘wanna-be-white-man’ and the ‘gangsta’ negro who’s only interest is in making money and being surrounded by women. But there is so much more to these characters than those shallow stereotypes, as Booth’s despair and feelings of hopeless, abandonment and loneliness are evident when he is alone and Lincoln asks the thought provoking question in Scene Two ‘Does thuh show stop when no ones watching or does thuh show go on?’. This very question is what makes the play one that deals with human issues rather than exclusively African American ones, the idea that our whole existence is just a series of performances. Indeed, both of these men do impersonate someone that they are not in the play, Lincoln is impersonating President Lincoln, and Booth is actually impersonating his brother, trying all the time to live up to the standards Lincoln has set with his card playing.

The play is composed in the same format as jazz music, with a constant repetition and revision of events. For example, Booth’s feelings of abandonment by his mother are repeated when Grace leaves him, and he sleeps with his brothers wife on the same day of the week that he witnessed his mother having sex with her lover. Sex plays a huge part in the identities of the characters also. Lincoln’s first sexual encounter was sleeping with women that his father had sex with, and Booth’s first sexual encounter was seeing his mother engaging in an affair in their own kitchen. These events shape the characters undeniably, as Booth relates to his mother and see’s Lincoln as a father figure in which he is trapped in an Oedipal love-hate relationship with, that ultimately ends in the father figures murder. Booth feels emasculated sexually and in his life, feeling the need to constantly reference his sexual life – ‘she let me do her how I wanted. And no rubber’, but he is all about the aesthetics of sex, how it looks and the status that it gives him, he even claims to wear ‘magnums’, (a brand of condom made for ‘the larger man’) a name that evokes the imagery of guns and violence.

There is ‘deft layering of verbal and visual images of racial violence’ in the play, for example in Scene Three when Lincoln describes how ‘people like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up […] not raggedy and bloody and screaming’. This is a statement on how America has dealt with African Americans struggles for equality, preferring to think of it as a neat little chapter in history that has been resolved rather than an ongoing and brutal fight for justice. In contrast to Amiri Baraka’s methods of violent and shocking representation to comment on social injustices for black people in theatres revolutionary phase, Parks uses imagery, realism and human issues to outline the underlying problems in post-revolutionary black society and how America has in many ways sanitized its history of black oppression and forced black men into these roles through years of slavery and inequality.

Is it possible to achieve objectivity in documentary film?

Objectivity is defined as the discipline of ‘striving (as far as possible or practicable) to reduce or eliminate biases, prejudices, or subjective evaluations by relying on verifiable data.’ When watching a documentary film we generally assume that it is objective by that definition, however it is extremely difficult for most film-makers to objectively capture reality on screen, as through the process of making the film and becoming more and more familiar with the characters involved in its story, it is a natural reaction to draw conclusions and consequentially become biased. It is also important to note that a hugely influential aspect of documentary film making is the editing process, not only must a film maker choose what questions to explore and who to follow on screen to make a film objective, the editing process must also be objective in choosing what parts of the film to cut and which ones to leave in the final draft of the film. Many documentary films, while still being entertaining and insightful, have failed to successfully capture reality due to their makers prejudices.

For example, some of Michael Moore’s documentary films are in my opinion biased by the fact that he is a distinctly left-wing filmmaker, which leads me to believe that he is subjectively choosing what information he will include in his films to suit his anti-establishment driven following. Documentary filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine set out to make a film in support of Moore’s work some years ago, but instead found that some of his films had been edited to such a degree that it compromised the entire truth behind the film. The most notable example that the pair uncovered is this; ‘Roger & Me’, Moore’s hugely successful account of what Moore portrayed as a fruitless attempt to force Roger Smith (the former chief executive of General Motors) to answer questions about their policies in closing the car manufacturing plants, was infact not that fruitless at all, according to Caine and Melnyk. They claim that Moore interviewed Smith on camera twice, but the scenes were left out when the film was edited, apparently for greater dramatic effect. This is one of the most extreme examples of biased documentary filmmaking that I can think of, but the faults of the director don’t even need to be that great to make a prejudice documentary, all he or she needs to do is become too emotionally involved in the story, concentrate on one point of view while ignoring another, or heavily provoke their subjects to compromise the objectivity of a documentary.  Many film makers do provoke or interrogate their subjects in their films to prove a point or message.

This style of provocation in documentary film making started with the French ‘Cinema Verite’ tradition of the early 1960’s. Where earlier documentary films had simply observed or sympathised with its subjects, Cinema Verite prodded and provoked its subjects to explain themselves and their actions. The most highly regarded and notable film of the Cinema Verite tradition is ‘Chronicle of a Summer’, the 1961 film by ethnographic film-maker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin. The film begins by following female volunteers on the streets of Paris, asking passers-by ‘Are you happy?’, to which each person answers differently but most answer very superficially, aware of themselves being filmed. The second half of the film is much more interesting in my opinion, a group of young Parisians who have never met and who all come from different backgrounds (an African man, a Jewish lady who is a holocaust surviver, a student etc.) all sit down together and through the question Morin asks them, they get to know each others life stories. While the film is constructed in a very creative and forward-thinking way and should be celebrated for its groundbreaking technological advancements (utilising handheld cameras and sync sound equipment) one has to wonder whether a documentary film in which the director is so personally involved in the interviewing process can be considered truly objective. The film makers place people in situations and provoke responses from them in this film, so questions are raised as to the authenticity of the documentary, such as why were these people chosen to be grouped together? And what is the relevance and purpose of the questions being asked? The term ‘Cinema Verite’ was coined by Rouch and Morin for this film, but it is not the kind of film that was later described as Cinema Verite as it is so provocative and in my opinion, not an objective portrayal of reality but instead an insightful look into the actions and performances of normal people when they are aware of a cameras presence.

Another example of a brilliantly original and touching documentary, that tries to be objective but is in many ways biased due to the emotional investment of the director is Zana Briski’s ‘Born into brothels’, a documentary about the children of Calcutta’s red-light district made in 2004. The premise of the film is that it is told from the children’s point of view, they are given cameras with which they take photographs of their surroundings, family and friends and then discuss them. Through this technique Briski does achieve quite an objective view of the situation in which the children live, as they are not provoked to tell stories specifically about their encounters with the prostitution industry, but instead stories that they think are indicative of their lives, giving us a much more realistic view of life in Calcutta’s red-light district than the gruesome and sensational one we have come to expect from such documentaries. It is quite an observational film, rather than a provocative interview-based documentary, which I find to be a far more objective way of capturing reality on film. However, as unbiased as the film may seem Briski herself does admit in the film that she feels a very strong emotional connection to the children and consequentially interferes with their lives by trying to get them into schools which, while being an honourable thing to do, does compromise the objective integrity of the documentary.

On the opposite end of the moral spectrum in ‘American Movie’, a documentary directed by Chris Smith following an aspiring film maker’s attempt to make his first feature, objectivity may be slightly compromised for different reasons. It is the story of filmmaker Mark Borchardt’s struggle personally, financially and spiritually over the course of two years to achieve his dream of making a horror film. Although the film feels authentic and claims to be totally unscripted I can’t help but feel that it is a little too outrageous to be an honest depiction of reality, and it makes me wonder whether the characters were prompted to act in certain ways at times (especially the character of Mike Shank!) to give the film a more comedic edge. However, ‘American Movie’ seems to have all the ingredients of an objective documentary, with many different views being expressed, and both central and peripheral characters having an input in the interviewing process, it is hard to believe but perhaps it’s true that reality is even more bizarre than fiction, and ‘American Movie’ really does objectively capture these odd yet lovable characters lives!

There is such a fine line between an objective documentary and a biased one, so I have found it quite hard to find a documentary which I would consider to be truly objective, but I do think it is possible to objectively capture reality in some documentaries. A mere two films spring to my mind as good examples of objective documentary filmmaking. The first is the controversial ‘Supersize Me’ documentary directed by Morgan Spurlock in 2004. The film follows Spurlocks dissent into serious ill-health when he decides to act as a guinea pig to examine the effects of eating nothing but McDonalds food for a month. He undertakes this experiment not knowing what the consequences may be, and documents how his health is effected by the fast food. This documentary objectively captures reality by conducting a real-life experiment and having the findings of this experiment examined by doctors and officials from the health sector (to be exact, he consulted three doctors, a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, and a general practitioner) which verify that the data depicted in the film is true.

‘Gimme Shelter’ directed by the Maysles Brothers in 1970, who were renowned directors of the Direct Cinema movement of the late 1950’s and 60’s, is another film that I believe objectively captures reality by simply observing events as they unfolded, naturally and spontaneously, as if the filmmaker were a mere fly on the wall. This style of uncontrolled, ‘candid cinema’ is in my opinion the most objective style of documentary filmmaking. ‘Gimme Shelter’ is the story of the events that took place before and during The Rolling Stones disastrous Altamont Free Concert in 1969. What was originally intended to be the biggest party of that year, relying on love and peace to restrain some 80,000 people from rioting and becoming violent (as the band decided that not only would the concert be free, but would also have no security staff!) ended in tragedy when a reported four deaths, four births and uncountable injuries occurred. Most of the violence was believed to have been incited by the Hells Angels, a notorious motorcycle gang who took it upon themselves to beat anyone who tried to get on stage during the performances. However, even though this fact is well known and widely believed, the Maysles treated the subject with respect and placed no blame in the film, letting the Hell’s Angels defend themselves through voice clips taken from a radio show, and drawing no conclusions as to who the blame should lie with for the brutal murder of one man who produced a gun during the Rolling Stones performance. The film is edited in such a beautiful and unbiased style, with shots from many different perspectives and scenes that neither glorified nor condemned a single band member, audience member or Hell’s Angel but depicted them all as individuals acting very naturally as themselves. I find this film to be truly objective as it shows these events from a simply observant point of view, and the point of view is that of a bystander who has no connection to any of the characters or subjects and takes no sides in the telling of this unbelievable story.

In conclusion, yes, it is possible to objectively capture reality on film, but the more documentaries I watch the harder I think it must be. In my opinion the only ways to objectively capture reality are by observing events as they happen and not interfering, and if you must interfere then interfere thoroughly by getting many opinions and points of view across, taking no sides in the matter. Above all the secret to a good objective documentary is in the name, a document, it should document its story as it happened truly, untainted by the filmmakers beliefs or personal opinions.