Through the Image
Recent Documentary Work from the Visual Scholarship Initiative

Sydney Meredith Silverstein, La Mamá de los Pollitos/The Mother Hen (2013)  

Friday, November 7, 2014
Atlanta Contemporary Art Center

Under the Men’s Tree (David MacDougall, 1968/73, 16 min)
La Mamá de los Pollitos (The Mother Hen) (Sydney Meredith Silverstein, 2013, 26 min)
In the Lemon Grove (A. C. Klupchak, 2013, 29 min)

In Sydney Meredith Silverstein’s video La Mamá de los Pollitos (The Mother Hen), a mother and daughter sit in plastic chairs outside their house. The setting is suggestive of theater, or perhaps the set of a talk show. The mother holds her infant grandchild and converses with Silverstein, who is behind the camera. The talk is preoccupied with dating and sexuality (up to and including a problematic reference to penis size, delivered for maximum embarrassment of her onscreen daughter). The general dynamic is thus slightly awkward, but with a clear warmth between filmmaker and subjects. Then Silverstein cuts to a later moment from the same view, when the women have gotten up and the chairs are empty. Suddenly a stroller is pushed into the frame from offscreen, directly through the chairs. The set is completely demolished, as if we were watching a moment of Brechtian theater. The frank talk continues among the women, while a male voice addresses the filmmaker from offscreen: "I forget your name." (Is he flirting?) The camera finally pans over to this man as he pushes his own wheeled vehicle out of the frame. Many other visual and thematic layers are present in this complex scene, but the point is that what was ostensibly a documentary about the raising of chickens in a Peruvian town has opened onto a more general and subversive reflection of sexuality, motherhood, and fertility as it is experienced here.

One more moment to describe, this one from A. C. Klupchak’s In the Lemon Grove. Much of this video is about the economies of recycling in a hurricane-damaged town in Nicaragua. But for a moment we depart this business to find a group of teens playing soccer in a lot. The camera is moving along with them, following the ball, participating in the kineticism of the play. But suddenly, it pans to a small, stationary girl in surprising close up. This stops the filmmaker in her tracks. The girl is staring directly at us, smiling slightly. The camera pans down to her own stroller – mysteriously empty not just of a child but of a seat. It pans back up, then rejoins the game.

Why, in the middle of the business of recycling, has this moment of both physical and cinematic play asserted itself? What purpose does it serve? Why treat a documentary conversation about sexuality between two women as a kind of theater, only to destroy, then reassert, that sense as part of the documentary? These are other ways of asking the central questions that have animated the work of these two videomakers and the group to which they belong, the Visual Scholarship Initiative.

The VSI was formed at Emory University in 2010 by graduate students whose work necessitated moving beyond the traditional academic parameters of text and writing. Originally, the VSI grew out of courses given in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA), the university’s doctoral program in Interdisciplinary Studies. The ILA has been a hub for innovative scholarship at the university, in which students complete projects that require rigorous work across different disciplines (from throughout the Humanities to Public Health, Law and many more).

The VSI is not a collective, but an initiative; as such, there are many different individual projects, forms and points of view. In addition, the group’s work is not limited to the visual: it deals with scholarship in all non-text-based forms (sound, performance, architecture) as well as emerging hybrid forms that also utilize text. However, tonight’s screening concentrates on video work produced by VSI members. Silverstein’s and Klupchak’s videos were produced in 2013 for an ILA course on documentary production taught by Professor Anna Grimshaw. (Regular Film Love attendees will remember our presentation of Dr. Grimshaw’s four-part documentary Mr Coperthwaite throughout 2013. Grimshaw’s courses and filmmaking have been foundational to the establishment and goals of the VSI.)

Videos such as these are made to resist conventions on two different fronts: academic text-based scholarship and mainstream documentary films. Both of these conventions – perhaps surprisingly in the case of film – tend to resist the visual as a primary source of knowledge. Narrative films are extensively word-based: starting as written scripts, driven by dialogue (with imagery as support), and critiqued via language. Standard documentary films follow from this, by emphasizing narration and talking-head interviews over purely visual approaches. The observational approach seen in Silverstein’s and Klupchak’s work (and the work of Grimshaw and her other students) eliminates scripts and interviews, replacing these with the act of following a subject and shooting footage of them as they go about their activities, silently or not. One effect of this is that the "real" subject of the film emerges much later, in the process of editing – and as we see in Silverstein’s video, it may be quite different than what the filmmaker had in mind while shooting. Just as the filmmaker must follow the subject while shooting, during editing they must be guided by the footage, rather than following a preconceived plan.

Clearly, it’s not that words are absent from these videos. Silverstein’s, especially, contains a good deal of dialogue and even a few interviews. But compared with conventional documentary interviews – in which subjects are generally removed from their everyday context, are carefully lit and framed, and in which the filmmaker’s role is conspicuously unacknowledged – Silverstein’s "interviews" are more accurately interactions between filmmaker and subject, rather than interrogations. In such ways, these videos are conversant with diverse alternative cinematic and ethnographic visual traditions, from cinema vérité to observational cinema, and with such recent developments as the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. (To place tonight’s videos in one context of these histories, we also present Under the Men’s Tree, a pioneering film of observational cinema by David and Judith MacDougall, shot in 1968 among the Jie in Uganda.)

In general, the heightening of observation and the lessening of talk in these videos reveals facets of life and experience that would commonly go unremarked in written texts or conventional documentaries. More present here, for example, is the sound of a particular space or activity – for example in Klupchak’s video, the crunch of plastic underneath the feet of a small child who is running on top of the mammoth bags of recycled soda bottles, or the sound of the burning fire beneath a large cooking pot that holds the childrens’ meal. When we spend time watching two men empty a large bag of plastic bottles into a compacting machine, we hear the sound of the machine and the bottles, we notice the men’s bodies, their clothing, and how they move. All of these sensory aspects are as much a part of this story as the other things that are more easily rendered in text, such as the calculation and exchange of money, the truck’s route to the recycling plant, and the recycling methods. In the sensory context that Klupchak gives to this process, these cease to be mundane details and instead live in a fuller picture of the life of the town and its people. On the surface, such generous techniques of observation – including Klupchak’s incorporation of aimless play and Silverstein’s inclusion of onscreen interactions – may seem to take us away from the subjects at hand. But they become essential to our understanding of these communities. In addition, the scenes that are produced by these observational techniques – the soccer game’s diversion, the reverie of the young girl’s gaze, the sexual talk, the ironic sense of theater, and the destruction of the set – all serve as metaphors for the way these videos intervene in conventional documentary practice and word-based traditions.

Notes by Andy Ditzler, 2014

A. C. Klupchak, In the Lemon Grove (2013)

Through the Image is a Film Love event. The Film Love series provides access to great but rarely seen films, especially important works unavailable on consumer video. Programs are curated and introduced by Andy Ditzler, and feature lively discussion. Through public screenings and events, Film Love preserves the communal viewing experience, provides space for the discussion of film as art, and explores alternative forms of moving image projection and viewing. Film Love was voted Best Film Series in Atlanta by the critics of Creative Loafing in 2006, and was featured in Atlanta Magazine's Best of Atlanta 2009.

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