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«An van. Dienderen Promotor: Professor Dr. Rik Pinxten Proefschrift voorgelegd tot het behalen van de graad van Doctor in de Vergelijkende ...»

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Production Process as a Site of Critique

Ethnographic Research into the Mediated Interactions

during (Documentary) Film Productions

An van. Dienderen

Promotor: Professor Dr. Rik Pinxten

Proefschrift voorgelegd tot het behalen van de graad van

Doctor in de Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap

Faculteit Letteren en Wijsbegeerte - Universiteit Gent

Academiejaar 2003 - 2004


This research has been built on the support, the encouragement, the

critique, and the assistance in such diverse areas as reading, negotiating, listening, correcting, hearing, viewing, cooking, performing, doing the laundry, the babysitting, the dishes, copying, printing etc. by a tribe of friends, tutors, filmmakers, Swallows, parents, relatives and crewmembers.

Without this gigantic network of people this work would not have been possible.

I therefore regard this thesis as a collaborative project, which I like to dedicate to all of you.

You… husband, friend, partner, source of inspiration, passion and critique, Didier Volckaert son, spring of marvel, wonder and timing Inani supervisor, comrade of a myriad of talents and wisdom Rik Pinxten Berkeley aficionado par excellence Marc De Mey devoted filmmaker-friend Eric Pauwels beloved and witty correctors Jo and Klaartje of La Vigne Rousse, a haven of hospitality “deep down” in France comrade-in-(many) crimes Reinhart Cosaert thoughtful and courageous readers Eve Sweetser, Steve Hughes and Dirk Dewit patient parents for their tremendous help and love Jeannine Weyers and Hugo van.

Dienderen You… never-ending source of inspiration, Trinh Minh-ha charismatic and powerful collaborator Els Dietvorst muses in our faculty Chia Longman, Lieve Orye, Koen De Munter, Marijke Cornelis, Ghislain Verstraete, Lisa Dikometis, Marc Verlot, Gwenda Vander Steene, Laurence Cuelenaere and Marijke Cornelis.

stimulating relatives Ilse, Andrew, Muse, Amber en Martha.

supportive transcribers Elke Borghs, Annapoorna Ellerbe and Eline Bocken.

helpful colleagues Kaat Van de Velde, Nicole Desmet, Gerda Vandaele and Joris Baeyens wonders of friends Gilles Marquenie, Kenneth Thomas, Minette Hillyer, Tarek Elhaik, Laurent Van Lancker, Maximilian Godino, Bijan, Kate Hurowitz, Helena Carreiras, Monique Murad, Fransisco Rios, Filip Ribeiro, Sami Alkassim, Karen Geurts, Valerie Herremans and Cis Bierinckx encouraging sources of critique Willem De Greef, Sven Augustijnen, Renzo Martens, Alex Claes You…

Precious collaborators of Tu ne verras pas Verapaz:

Elke Borghs, Maximiliano Godino, Eric Pauwels, Willy Thomas, Rudi Maerten, Eric Vanderborght, Veerle Devos, Tobias De Pessemier, Frie Leyssen, Bob Vanden Eynde, Carine Stevens, Patrick Delasorte, Tinne Vandensande, Luis Armando Tobias Sanchez, Martha Thelma Calderón Vandenbergh, Victor Sestig, Frans Deroy, Philemon Eeckhout, Albert Brysse, Jacques Lagrou, Roger Moreau, John Everaert, Jean-Claude Versluys, Stefan van den Bossche, family Deroy, family Merckaert, Marc Punnewaert, Kirsten Lemaire, Elvis Esmenjaud, the Nuyens brothers, Familie Vassaux, Amy Esmenjaud, André Vanderjeugt, Marc Punnewaert, Marc Lafontaine, Edmond Mulet-Lesieur, Sven Schoukens, Consul Paelinck, Katrien Vanderperre, Lieve Vanderstraete, Dirk Cools, Francisco Ralon, Dirk Terryn and Steve Maes Vibrant and talented crewmembers of Night Passage Gifted and multitalented Swallows Hundreds of (not)motivated students of the workshop in visual anthropology Preface Before delving into the corpus of this thesis, I want to share a personal experience that provided me with the urge and the energy that fuelled this research. Some years ago I worked for the VRT (the Flemish Broadcasting Cooperation) as a documentary maker. I had finished my studies in Film Production at the Art School in Brussels and my anthropology studies at the universities of Ghent and Berkeley, and was given the opportunity to make some independent films, before ‘getting into the system’. This system, the world of television production, attracted me for its scope, its enormous potentialities and possibilities. At the same time it also repelled me because of the way in which it wields its ‘power over the masses’.

As I wanted to explore this system, I worked for an independent production company that offers programs to different channels.

Because of my anthropological studies, my employers wanted me to work for a documentary series that was sold to Canvas, the second channel of the VRT, profiled as ‘high quality, high standard television for critical viewers’. The series dealt with different themes such as love, friendship, living, youngsters etc. and was designed as a cross-cut, a format that edits different stories in one program so as to build in a comparative and more dramatic structure. The story line I was asked to create needed to deal with a family of Turkish descent who were looking for a house. Before I started my research, my series editor, to my utmost surprise, handed me a detailed script in which not only the specific scenes were described but the quotes of the main ‘characters’ were written as well.

In the script, stereotypically, this family lives in a scrappy house with lots of relatives, the women are veiled and they all encounter many racist situations. For instance, they fall victim to villainous persons while they are looking for a buyer for their old house and are asked an exorbitant price for their new one. “Make it happen”, my series editor said, clearly affirming that I needed to model my interaction with this yet unknown family in such a way that I made them fit the script. “Of course, otherwise we couldn’t have sold the format” he answered when I asked him whether he was serious. The story quickly ended: I encountered a very interesting family with whom I made a documentary, without connecting to the script, so obviously this experience resulted in my dismissal.

When I tell this experience to friends, or to audiences when I lecture, I have noticed several specific reactions. They were of course surprised to hear how a documentary ‘fact’ is being manufactured.

A script, quotes, characters, cross-cut, all these narrative techniques seem out of place in a documentary context. They were even more astonished to hear that such a “renowned” television channel operates in this way. It is the context of this channel that provokes the strongest reaction.

From the perspective of the ‘viewer’, it seems that crucial information about the production process is obscured. As images are not critically contextualized the way written texts are - there are no footnotes, or bibliographical references - the audience seem to depend on the status of the channel to evaluate the truthfulness of the images they see. In this case that is precisely what shocked them: they never expected such a prestigious channel to resort to such methods.

Furthermore, from the perspective of the Turkish family, this script seems absurd as they were unwelcome guests in their own script.

There was no room for any participation or collaboration on their part in the creating of their image. The script is as a mirror image of the producer’s reflections, but there is no relation with the family it purports to show.

What if I were to fit the script, what would it entail for the Turkish family? How would this affect their lives and their social context? I noticed that my listeners were relieved to hear that I was fired eventually, so that I wouldn’t be strangled by this system. From the point of view of the author, this story questions the process of production as a site where authors, producers and editors are tangled up in a web of values, responsibilities and audience rating.

In general, this anecdote prompts several questions. First of all, why is the translation from reality understood as a representation?

Secondly, how is this transformation manufactured? What does this process entail with regard to the ‘other’ that is filmed? Next, which information is obscured from the ‘viewer’ and what are the consequences? Finally, how can the ‘author’ prefigure the ‘viewer’ within the process of production in a way that (s)he has a critical position in the film? In sum, how can we understand the interactions between the ‘author’, the ‘other’ and the ‘viewer’ in (documentary) filmmaking during the production process?

I evaluated this questioning of crucial importance in researching (documentary) film production: it is precisely this process of production that presents an enormous potential as a site of critique.

Being a filmmaker myself, and having ‘been there’, I consider myself somewhat of an insider who on the one hand, can provide and assess information that would otherwise be more difficult to obtain.

On the other hand, throughout my research I will question the importance of the production process and thus the value of an ethnography of production: these formal aspects are examined in view of a hyphenated framework that builds on notions provided by anthropology and media & cultural studies.

As such, the present research focuses on the ethnography of production not only in terms of what type of information it offers for media researchers, anthropologists and ‘viewers’ in general, and thus on how to use the production process as a site of critique: it also examines how ‘authors’ create new strategies and methods to suggest the (context of) interaction, hence presenting concrete possibilities for filmmakers, visual anthropologists and practitioners in general.



–  –  –

1 I wish to draw attention to my choice in this thesis to specify these methodological notions in relation to the fieldwork in chapter 2 which is referred to as “What and How – Phase II.” iii As Alvesson and Sköldberg argue, reflexivity should ultimately reveal the complex relationships of production of knowledge, the different contexts in which these processes occur and the position the researcher has in these processes (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2001). Moreover, I comprehend this description as a general formulation of the subject that I examine. These authors point the way to a more open-minded, creative interaction between theoretical frameworks and empirical research. They claim that relevant qualitative research is not a technical project, following the set procedures as elaborated in recent literature, where questions of access were handled about how to conduct interviews, how to make notes during observations and so on (Ibid. 288). Rather, instead of reasoning the managements of the different components of the investigation, they stress the importance of a meta-understanding of the character of research work. What primarily determines the value of qualitative research is “the awareness of the various interpretative dimensions at several different levels, and the ability to handle these reflexively” (Ibid. 288). According to the authors, it is “the handling (constructing and further interpreting) of empirical material in a reflexive way, setting into motion reflections on several issues, at the same time consistently admitting ambiguity, is what gives social science its hallmark” (Ibid. 288). Alvesson and Sköldberg accordingly facilitate the creativity of established ideas, while maintaining flexibility on the level of research procedure and interaction with empirical material. It is from this perspective on reflexivity that this thesis has been produced.

Following Dornfeld, I attempt here the integration between an anthropology based on

an interpretive or symbolic perspective and a practice-oriented approach (Dornfeld 1998:

12), suggested by Marcus and Fischer, to focus on “both form and content, on meaning in action … the use of the specific Marxist keyword of production (and such derivative notions as Pierre Bourdieu’s “symbolic capital”) signals an effort to meet materialist and political-economy perspectives on their own terms. Not only is the cultural construction of meaning and symbols inherently a matter of political and economical interests, but the reverse also holds – the concerns of political economy are inherently about conflicts over meanings and symbols. Thus, what the use of the cultural-production idiom indicates, again, is that any materialist-idealist distinction between political-economy and interpretive approaches is simply not supportable” (Marcus and Fischer 1986: 85).

iv This holistic approach prompts a flexible stance. I have therefore peeked over disciplinary boundaries, abundantly reading authors from such different domains as (visual) anthropology, cultural studies, cognitive linguistics and film theory. This interdisciplinary stance has been established because of the necessity of basic notions fundamental for the ethnographic fieldwork, such as representation, visual culture, interactions, mediations and so forth. The interdisciplinary links of this research verge on what W.J.T Mitchell calls an “’interdiscipline’, a site of convergence and conversation across disciplinary lines” (Mitchell 1995: 440-441). MacDougall adds: “In creating resistance to conventional textual discourses, images weaken the boundaries between adjacent disciplines. They describe a world in which the physical, social and aesthetic are intimately intertwined, and in which the performative aspects of social interaction are present, as well as its underlying structure. (MacDougall 1998: 263) This flexible, interdisciplinary and holistic approach prompted me to write this thesis simultaneously in a theoretical and an ethnographical vein. To throw in a metaphor, it is

as the work of a juggler, who tries to swing several plates on sticks at the same time:

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