“this piece of wood”

This project started as a mere interest in the visual aesthetics of the skaters in the Erzsebet Ter. For six months, I walked by this small skate park without even looking at what was going on. In the middle of the city, on one of the most famous and touristic neighborhood, the park seemed a little out of place; yet wasn’t drawing much attention. Just like me, most people were just passing by giving quick looks to the young people and kids skating and hanging around there. So I got curious.

For this project, I first decided to capture the brief snapshots of the skaters. I wanted to visually represent their performances through animated GIFs. Through the filming process, the more I spent in the park, I started to notice the small dynamics within the invisibly enclosed space of the park and also it’s relations to the rest of the square. Skaters, as well as bikers, were doing the same circular moves, over and over for hours. They were not talking to each other most of the time, unless they take breaks or try something together. They did not seem to realize the world outside that space and the rhythm of their moves. Julian and I filmed for hours, wondered around, and watched them; but not a single skater came and asked us why we were there. Since the diagonal walking path of the park moving away from the skating space, the skaters were relatively isolated from the touristic crowd as well. Despite that, skaters had a dedicated group of audience, who occasionally visit the park –mostly on the sunny days, and watch them. Yet, none of them seemed to care.

Erzsebet ter

In order to show these different dynamics, I decided to make a film instead. I based it on the story of the only skater, Peter, who was able and willing to talk to me in English. Peter started skating when he was 14, after he became a fan of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater PlayStation game[1]. His dedication and love for this sport and his life long hobby is interesting on its own. However, it is important to note here that Peter was my only access to the skaters on the park. Therefore everything I know and I represent through this film, is his perspective and his attachment to the skating.

The film was made by using footage from three different days. It was hard to organize sequences with consistent group of people. Also, the voice record of Peter’s interview was coming from a different voice-recording device. So, the greatest challenge was to balance the different audio levels of the videos and the sound from the device. Since it was our first filming and editing experience with Julian, we struggled to capture well-framed, stable shots of the fast movements and tricks.

Apart from the technical challenges, it was interesting to struggle between the theoretical debates that we engaged this semester. The questions over representation, interpretation were present even in this pretty neutral subject. In this sense, the camera was equally powerful and deceptive to convey what can be considered as “the reality out there”, meaning the real sequence of events happening in front of the lens.

Every time I turn off my camera, I recalled Alyssa Grossman’s talk, when she was complaining, how she felt like best moments always happened when she didn’t have her camera.

You can also access the film through this link here.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Hawk’s_Pro_Skater_2

On Rouch’s reality

The first and true example of cinéma vérité, “Chronique d’un été” (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961) stands as the best-known and well-discussed film by Jean Rouch (Steven Feld; 1989: 22). Though it is hard to reach consensus on such orders and authorities of works; “Chronicles of a Summer” opens up different lines of discussion on ethnographic film genre.

In this truly experimental work, specially compared to its time, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin attempt to go beyond the restricting relationship between the subject and the filmmaker/ethnographer. While capturing the real natural states of daily interactions, they want to be a part of the routine, bringing together the process of both filmmaking and ethnographic observation Understanding of reality in cinéma-vérité is not necessarily an attempt to capture reality in its pure, untouched state –if that even exists; but rather “direct cinema” aims to be truthful to the reality in the process of film and filmmaking.

The film starts with Rouch and Morin’s discussion of their project, with one of their subjects in the film, on the nature of filming and sociology. They walk around the streets of 1960s Paris, and ask people whether they are happy? Through this question, random people on the street turned into characters throughout the film.

According to Feld, Rouch does not limit his work to the term cinéma vérité. It is well known that he is heavily influenced by Vertov. However, he aims to carry his work one step further and creates an understanding where “… cinema concerned with exposing its own process of seizing improvised life and simultaneously commenting upon its own form of seeing, hearing and organizing.” (Feld, 1989: 235) In order to achieve this, Rouch and Morin create two different circumstances where the characters can meet and intersect in the natural flow of the film. However, at the end, the characters watch the final product about their lives and comment on it; which is a more solid attempt towards self-reflexive philosophy of the genre.

Comparing Rouch to Flaherty, Feld argues that “From Flaherty, Rouch extends the notion of director=cameraperson to director=ethnographer=cameraperson” (Feld, 1989: 235). He continues that by doing this Rouch was able to make the process of filmmaking part of the ritual, or the event. Reminding Weinberger’s comments on invisibility of the ethnographer in the film; Rouch indeed extends the limits of audience, filmmaker, film and characters/actors. Without falling into routine of long observational sequences; he balances the power of editing and nature of ethnographic observation.

It is interesting that the division of labor in the film between Rouch and Morin is strictly divided as the filmmaker and the sociologist. Though it is not possible to say one way is better than the other; even though Rouch is also educated as an anthropologist, they strictly bind by their roles during the discussions in the film. Interestingly, Richard Gardner and Akos Ostor adopt a similar division of labor in their collaborations, where Gardner also has a degree.

Lastly, aside from these major discussions, Richard Brody points to the direct content of the film, on his piece in the New Yorker on Feb 21st, 2013.[1] While elaborating on the significance and success of the film, Brody repeatedly refers to the film as “… the greatest, perhaps the primordial Holocaust movie”. As Brody substantiates further, it is true that the film sheds light to the unspoken personal details of concentration camps and deportations of the time, maybe breaking a taboo. Yet, there are similar social problems of race, colonization, or economy, which are equally visible in the film. I believe bringing the nuances of the film down to single subject is limiting the discussion on rich content of the film.

Also, considering Rouch’s philosophical approach to film, is it possible to argue these personal stories are a simple result of the time this movie was made? In other words, it was not Rouch who went after the subject of Holocaust, but rather it was a very dominant, silent reality in 1960s Paris, so that he captured it? I tend to subscribe to latter, at least to give justice to the meaning of cinéma vérité and Rouch’s style.

[1] http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-extraordinary-chronicle-of-a-summer

*Feld, S. 1989. Themes in the Cinema of Jean Rouch. Visual Anthropology. Vol. 2: pp 223-247. USA: Harwood Academic Publishers.

On Representation and The Ax Fight

Eliot Weinberger opens his piece “The Camera People” with a beautiful analogy of ethnographic filmmakers as distinct species. He paints the ethnographers as an exotic, distant tribe who are invisible to the outside world.

“Outsiders know little of them [ethnographic filmmakers], for their homes are hidden in the partially uncharted rainforests of the Documentary. Like other Documentarians, they survive by hunting and gathering information. Unlike others of their filmic group, most prefer to consume it raw.”(p. 3-4) [1]

Apart from the intriguing and witty language Weinberger uses, the article presents an interesting overview of the history of ethnographic filmmaking. On Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon’s Ax Fight (1975), Weinberger elaborates on the questions on representation, claiming that ethnographic film is equally subjected to manipulation, which inevitably comes with editing process.

“…the moment one erases the stylistic differences, the ethnographic differences between a research film and an episode of “Full Speed to Adventure” are less than meets the eye.” (p. 16)

Ax Fight is pretty successful in this sense, since it shows the process of ethnographic filmmaking, and anthropology at work. Interestingly this clear process supports Weinberger’s arguments on the problems of representation. On their ethnographic film about Yanomami people, Asch and Chagnon provide four different sections on various processes of ethnography. On the first section, they provide the unedited footage of a fight; which can be considered the raw data. On Second, their comments on the footage serve as the preliminary analysis of this data. Later, with the written material they provide further information. On third section, the footage repeated with explanatory graphics, which can be seen as the ethnographic material under analysis. On the last section, Asch and Chagnon provide an edited version of the first footage.

I believe the way that Asch and Chagnon decided to provide their material shows the differentiated process of ethnography making. It also reflects on the possible wrongdoings and shortcomings, such as speculations. Most importantly, it proves that a random sequence of events can be transformed into a meaningful entity, but at the same time it is doubtful that this newly edited version of the previous sequence is able to encapsulate the event in its entirety.

[1] Weinberger, E. 1994. The Camera People. In Taylor, L. Visualizing theory: selected essays from V.A.R., 1990-1994. Pp. 3-26. New York: Routledge.

a final project attempt

When we were making Lumiere films with Kylie, and Mina, I enjoyed filming skaters and the visual aesthetics of their movements and acts. I also got curious about the lives of the young people who go there to skate. Skating has a culture, dominant aesthetics, and creates an identity.

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This was my starting point, when I decided to make a photo essay about skaters Erzsébet tér. Then, in a discussion Anna gave me the idea. Skating is very much about movement and the act. So I thought I could reflect this aspect by making animated GIFs. I planned to make interviews with the skaters, very limited life stories. I wanted to ask why, how they got interested in skating; again to a very limited extend understand a day of their life outside of the skating park, through their skating.

You may rightfully ask why not just making a video? Well, true. I have no satisfying answer to this. Most honest approach would be, I think I want to play with the medium a little. The GIFs are more restrictive in terms of conveying context and narrative. At the same time, they make the audience focus on the event, the section only; while still presenting the movement unlike a photograph can.

So, I went out last week, with these ideas in mind. I tried to set up a meeting with Patriczia, the girl we filmed last time. She promised me a meeting on Thursday with a friend. But they didn’t show up without letting me know. I assume it was due to rainy weather. Then on the weekend, I decided to approach random people on the spot. The small group on Saturday had one English speaker with them. There were seven guys, hanging around and occasionally showing each other some moves. My translator tried to be very helpful but we had our limits. He was not able to understand what I wanted to do clearly; I could not access their dialogues among each other. On Sunday, I was still motivated to find a way to access my new field. This time the population in the park was much younger. Majority were kids between the ages of 10-15, some had their parents with them. I wondered around, attempted to talk to couple of them. This attempt didn’t get me any further either.

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In all cases, people were friendly and they did not mind to be filmed at all –or it is possible that they did not clearly understand what I would do with the things I recorded. But more importantly, I realized their conversation and the atmosphere is the most important aspect that I need to understand, if I want to conduct a small ethnographic work.

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update: Small commentary session in class was really helpful. You comments encouraged me to continue with my idea and provided new perspectives. I’ll be posting…

Forest of Bliss; reviving old discussions

Robert Gardner with his films initiated various discussions on context, representation, nature of ethnographic work, and many others. Here, I am particularly interested in the absence of contextual information Forest of Bliss (1986), a non-fiction film –in Gardner’s words- on an entire day at the holy city of Benares in India and the rituals on death, and related ceremonies. [1] I would like to question Gardner’s style and choices in the film, in light of the book Making Forest of Bliss (2002), which is the transcription of the scene-by-scene discussion of the film with the co-producer, anthropologist Akos Östör.

41BMJCJSSJL

As Stanley Cavell stated in his introductory piece on the book, Making Forest of Bliss “the virtual absence of (western) words” enhances the visual impact on the audience, by presenting an untouched form of visual imagery, purified from an imposed western (?) meaning. At least it is claimed; this was what Garner was aiming for. However, I think the mere existence of a book on how the film was made, which investigates the meaning and the context scene by scene, stands as the biggest controversy between the purpose and the work.

I saw the film without having any background information either on Benares, and the film itself. It is true, the scenes were aesthetically powerful, and emotionally moving. But at the same time, rituals were sequences after another. The daily conversation and religious chanting were different sounds and melodies to me, but they were at the same distance. I was a foreigner to Benares before seeing the film, and I still am after.

I am not claiming that films like Forest of Bliss have or should have education purposes. But I believe Gardner’s work is not only refined of context or constructed representation, there are both of them, strongly; it is also altering the relation between visual and written material.

Coming back to the book Making Forest of Bliss; I think every work that Gardner and Östör put in there supports that every choice, every scene of the film was highly contextual. It is not only a very strict representation of Benares chosen from a myriad of possibilities. It is also a very “western” choice, despite the absence of relevant words. What I cannot understand is, how can Gardner rejects that his film is a reproduction, a version of reality, meaning a representation; when he talks at length in the book about how constructed his scenes with thousand references?

For example, on the pages long discussion on the opening scene of the film; Gardner talks at length about the mythological references to ancient Greek culture, to Cerberus between the banks of river Styx. The old groaning man throughout the scenes suddenly has a name, a real identity; Mithai Lal. Similarly, when Östör asks about the editing process, Gardner admits that it is a reconstruction without using the word. The scene with bird and dead corpse are put together to create an aesthetic narration, where they were not connected in reality temporarily and spatially. (p. 48-49)

So I believe my question stands, if this film is still a visual narration, where is the nuance of taking out the verbal narration? What is the purpose, if the representation, narration still stands strong?

It is interesting to see that even though Gardner was also trained as an anthropologist at some point in his life, they have a strict division of labor. As Östör puts it: “The filming is your [Robert Garner’s] thing. My responsibility was to apprehend Benares as anthropologist would, to interpret visually and otherwise.” (p. 16-17). So, what is this divide between anthropologist and the filmmaker means?

Following my second claim; I think this film challenges the usual claims of visuals power over the written work. When written and visual ethnographic works are compared, the visual is cherished because it has the power of creating the concrete reality for the audience. No matter how good a description is, when it is after a claim of transferring a reality, certain knowledge, a photograph says more than a paragraph. Yet without the context in Forest of Bliss, the scenes are moving pictures without captions. Time, space, the ritual, language; “understanding” the film on any level is completely depending on the audience –exactly like Gardner wants it to be. Now how can we claim this is purely ethnographic work, without visiting the main purpose of ethnography again? Is it producing knowledge, doing research to produce knowledge? If yes, what kind of knowledge does Forest of Bliss produce? I do not have clear answers even after reading Making Forest of Bliss.

[1] For more information, please see: http://www.der.org/films/forest-of-bliss.html

Small tribute to Lumière Brothers

The previous week’s task was to make sure we were able to use a camera, when it is needed. So the task seemed simple enough; take the camera, shoot a 1-2 minute film in the style of Lumière brothers. We should basically set the camera, and let it run for couple minutes and see the result. As Gloria mention in the small tutorial session, this meant that the editing was happening before we click the record button. However the practice is never as easy as the theory claims to be:

Though we were a responsive, coherent group, it was pretty hard to decide the setting. We were discussing ideas on the way, but instead we went out and got experimental on the way. Why don’t we start with the people who skate in Erzsébet tér? I approached the skaters; luckily one of them was speaking fluent English. They were eager to show “their moves” to us. So we set the camera to a location where we can both have the distance and their close-up moments. We changed the location, twice, to get a both distant view and a close-up as they approached the ramp before the camera. I was impressed by their natural flow, and how they did not even cared about the camera. It was nice to be able to catch their moments of tiredness, and disappointment when they fall. At the same time, camera and recording gives you the feeling that you miss the most important moment on the second you turn off your device.

Through the shooting all I think about was how technology gives us the freedom to choose, play and manipulate. As we were waiting and shooting for one to two minutes, I kept fighting with the impulse to pan, zoom, or get the small thing on the corner that camera cannot catch in the current position. I wanted to play with what we already see. Later coming home and watching it for the first time, I realized what we really missed was the sound. It is impossible to hear all the sounds in the environment, as camera inevitable filters and records it. We missed the repetitive sound of construction on the background, the traffic, and the people walking by… They all rhymed together with the visual. I guess Gloria was right again using the headsets…

End of the day, I actually very much enjoyed watching the skater and see their enthusiasm. It is a deep city culture that I have no idea about. Maybe I can take the opportunity to learn and create for the final project; thoughts are still under construction.

Belated comments on Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl

How can one draw a line between the aesthetics and ethics of work? If there is an existing border in between, does it change at all when one is concern with an artwork? In her 1975 article[1], Susan Sontag claims that there can never be a clear-cut divide between the two. For her, visual representation of an image, a concept, or an ideology is directly related to the possible ethical dilemmas it may create. Simply put, if works like Riefenstahl’s represent fascist ideology or eugenics visually, no matter how beautiful they are; their aesthetics are dangerous and worthless.

My take is not clearly black and white like Sontag’s statement. Though I acknowledge the importance of knowing the details, history and representation of the visual that you are exposed to; I also recognize the artist’s take on the subject. To me, the very aim of art is a conscious choice of representation which reflects a personal stance, taste and aesthetics; whereas ethnography –as we discussed in class- is an attempt of objective, natural, only a transfer of knowledge. Representation in ethnography is an inevitable circumstance, which aimed to be avoided as much as possible in most cases. At this point, Riefenstahl does not reject that she is after a certain, very precise representation of beauty. When she starts from this perspective, I cannot consider her work ethnographic, even if she claims it to be. Still, arguments against Riefenstahl’s stand on the basis of her obsession on the perfect body. Her aesthetic lines are undisputedly following the same trade, despite there are nearly four decades in between with a “de-nazification” process in 1945.

Olympia -1938

Olympia -1938

The Nuba of Kau -1975

The Nuba of Kau -1975

Even in her late years, following 60 years after her works  for Nazi rule, Riefenstahl rejects any claim of association with fascist ideology, in every possible moment of every documentary and interview. To me, her deliberate and insisting rejection of the impacts of her early work indicates a delusional state-of-mind, or an alternative reality that she crafted to survive and continue to embrace her beloved masterpieces “Triumph of Will” and “Olympia”. As Riefenstahl puts it, she has always been drawn to beautiful things[2], she just happens to be rejecting the impacts of her notion of beauty.


[1] Sontag, S. 1975. Fascinating Fascism. In New York Review of Books, vol. 22

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/jan/08/filmnews.video

On Alyssa Grossman’s work

The tangible, vivid aspect of visual material that I mentioned in the previous post was visible in Alyssa Grossman’s work and her talk “Thinking Through Film: Animations, Collaborations, Installations” on 19th January, Monday. Her recent work on memory in post-socialist Romania provoked lively discussions on aesthetics of ethnographic filming, ethics of work and relation of anthropology with film.

Grossman’s first work was on memory in post-socialist Romania, presenting different ways to evoke and represent memory. In two installations, on one side she presented a set of objects chosen by the participants and on the second same individuals told the stories of the objects. For me, the two installations were really successful combination of an aesthetic eye and ethnographic anthropological data. She claimed that with objects (with the example of the ice tray) memory transcended through time and space. I believe the way she presented the objects also enhanced this effect. Someone from the audience asked Grossman what the significance of these objects was to Socialist Romania, since they resemble the stuff she owned in her childhood, which had nothing to do with a similar past. Though I do not know the person, I knew she was from Turkey, and we shared the same past because the objects evoked the very same feeling for me. Turkey being in the periphery of the two blocks of Cold War, under heavy state industrialism went through similar experiences in 1970s and ‘80s. This is one of the moments that visual achieves more than any piece of writing can.

On her second work “In the Light of Memory”, Grossman experiments with the same idea of memory in a similar fashion. In a park in Bucharest, she strolls though the benches with a camera capturing people’s routines, reactions and interactions to the camera. With the scenes from city and voice-overs from the interviews she again evokes similar memories of the city. To me it was interesting that her work (the small unofficial YouTube excerpt is below) attracted many questions about ethics. I clearly see that the discussion is particularly relevant due to the technological advancement and new cultural wave of sharing and privacy notions. Unlike previous work, ethical concerns make visual material more vulnerable vis a vis the written material –which is easy to control, and limit.

Lastly, the relatively older work “Into the Field” left me with questions closer to anthropological concerns. In this work Grossman filmed the daily, in her words mundane, routines of Romanian nuns in a monastery. Especially in this work, the ethnographic material was so tangible, when compared to writing. The medium was able to cross the boundaries of representation, objectivity to a certain level. Though I recognize it is still a choice to place the camera in a certain way; it is also an equally arbitrary choice to decide to write a paragraph. However I am still not satisfied with Grossman’s answer, so pose my question one more time: can we se the same tools of methodology (like participant observant as Grossman used) when we switch to a different medium of representations (like films) with relatively different limits and concerns?

First interactions…

Deciding to take visual anthropology class was a relatively brave move for me. Somehow I was expecting “foreign” notions, themes or new techniques. It is true that they are present. Yet I realized, they are also exciting continuations of long-lived problems of representation, objectivity of anthropology. Photography and film carries the discussion to another vivid, tangible level.

On the comparison between Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922, 78 min) and Lumière Brothers we have discussed the similar fascination of the new technologies of recording. They both observed the everyday life, natural, ordinary, habitual behavior of people. In class, we concluded that they were the rituals of society. However why did only Nanook cause the trouble for our discussion? We discussed that he represented culture as a totally and painted a entirety from his own perspective. Why it was so problematic for Flaherty to take very holistic approach towards culture? The claim for scientific endeavor, ethical concerns, lack of comparative data can be some of possible answers. For me, the first divide of ethnographic film and the rest lies here. Ethnographic film facilitates a discussion around the different realities it represents and speaks to. It starts a conversation between the audience and the subject matter on a different tone.

Finally, I think all novel mediums have their own fascination, maturation and contestation periods. In this case, both cinema industry and ethnographic film improved and created individual literatures around. The conventions are a result of a collaborative effort, as well as the criticisms raised. As early examples of their kinds both Nanook and Lumière Brothers’ clips still facilitates new discussions.