Following the KCL Postgrad Film Studies Conference that I wrote about last week, I’ve been up to Glasgow for a similar event. In fact, two. The first was a workshop on documentary as research, with a focus on human rights and video activism. The panel I joined included folk from the Manchester collective Castles Built in Sand, the Glasgow Human Rights Film Festival, and Camcorder Guerrillas.
Several members of Castles Built in Sand come out of the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, and their approach rejects the concept of ‘objectivity’ operative in the mainstream media. Instead, not just as an alternative but in opposition to the sensationalism of the big media, they ‘favour a more nuanced “inter-subjective” method that acknowledges not only our own subjectivities, but that media and cultural production is bound up in histories, bias, experiences, perspectives and aesthetics that render the idea of some objective truth impossible, if not dangerous.’
This is a critique to which all the panel members would subscribe, but didn’t mean that the session was repetitive or self-congratulatory. On the contrary, there was a rich mix of experiences to be shared, including valuable insights from Paula Larkin about the film festival’s audiences. There was also the sense that the current political conjuncture presents both need and opportunity for work of this kind—work which comes out of encounter with communities instead of the mouth of the reporter, and instead of the clichéd generalisations of the media pundit, opens a space for empathy and identification. For as we saw in the examples screened after the panel, the rejection of false objectivism doesn’t mean retreating into either subjectivism or relativism, any more than it implies—a view favoured by various theorists—that documentary is just another kind of fiction. On the contrary, this work is rooted in the capacity of the videographer to enter right into the social reality of the street while even the conscientious big media reporter only hovers at the edge.
There was more about audiences at the Postgraduate Symposium the next day, in a paper about the Glasgow Film Theatre and the annual Glasgow Film Festival from Lesley-Ann Dickson. This brought up some valuable considerations about spaces of screening (which in the case of the festival include the multiplex). And because the Glasgow University department covers theatre and the Centre for Cultural Policy Research as well as film and television, it happened that there was also a paper about the spaces in which Scottish touring theatre groups perform across the country (from Cassy Rutherford), and another (from Steven Boyer) about audiences for computer games (not to mention other topics like early film exhibition Scotland, or broadcasting policies in Asia). Boyer’s paper was particularly fascinating—an account of the way the games industry has incorporated the player into the process of game development in a form that amounts to the exploitation of unpaid labour.
All in all, I learned a great deal in a short period of time, but found the questions about audiences and spaces of reception particularly stimulating. I kept thinking about the film festivals I’ve been lucky to attend in the last few years, mostly small ones in Spain and Latin America, but including some larger ones (Havana, Tehran, Amsterdam). The entry of the 21st century has seen a huge expansion of small-scale festivals which discover local audiences who want to gather together and share the experience, and the film festival therefore has to spill out of the commercial cinema and discover spaces where this mixing can take place. The same digital technology that allows films of every kind to circulate in cyberspace also allows the act of screening itself to find new locations, like the open-air screenings in Granada at Cines del Sur, or the documentary festivals in Pamplona, and Atlantida in Uruguay. The interesting thing is that the Spanish festivals often also use the traditional theatres or small opera houses run by the municipality in cities like Granada and Santiago de Compostela, which have ample foyers for socialising that are either lacking in multiplexes or horribly noisy and alienating. These theatres are always individually characterful, while the multiplexes are brutal and anonymous. Indeed at one moment I had a flash memory of a multiplex interior, and couldn’t at first remember where it was. Eventually, by process of elimination, I realised it was Amsterdam during IDFA a couple of years ago. When I first went to IDFA in the early 90s it was smaller and very friendly; now it’s big it hasn’t lost its buzz but it’s more dispersed and alienating.
By contrast, one of the things I took from Paula’s remarks about the Glasgow Human Rights Film Festival was that one of the primary functions that activist video can fulfil is to return to the community from whom the subjects are drawn a sense of affirmation of their own image, lives and human dignity, at the same time as carrying their voice into public space. To be sure, we’re only talking about small corners of the public sphere, not the mass audience of the mainstream, but the size of the audience isn’t really, I think, the issue. What small-scale exhibition and dissemination can achieve is to animate the debate which feeds the wider public through the cracks and fissures in the mainstream, which have always existed and are now also fostered by the small media and social networking.
In this context, it seemed to me quite appropriate that my day ended with a screening of Chronicle of Protest at Free Hetherington, a large old house converted to use as a graduate centre and now the site of the longest of the recent wave of students occupations, where we used a laptop and a portable projector to screen the film on the wall of an upstairs room.
And here’s the talk I gave at the postgrad symposium, More About Crimes against Humanities.