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Oct 22, 2017


by Patrick Hazard


Produced by International Alert Tunisia
Directed by Olfa Lamloum and Michel Tabet

A school and ernest children’s faces. They talk about their mother’s work and lack of education and what they would like to do when they grow up .… doctors, academics. They are articulate and calm. A young girl says ‘My dad went to school a bit. He can read and write. It’s my mum who didn’t go to school. Me, I want to hang in there and study as much a possible to make up for my mother’s ignorance.’ She wipes away her tears.

This is Majel Bel Abbès a border zone. On the boundary between Tunisia and Algeria. There is little development, only seasonal agriculture with fluctuating yields. So, they, the locals, turn to smuggling. Even the children. They might transport iron for six or seven euros working until 2.30 in the morning, a few hours sleep and then school.

“Kasserine is a barometer. When things go badly at Kasserine [….] they affect all Tunisia.” The movement from the impoverished rural areas to the city reveals discontent. ‘Young people expected a new vision of society, a new infrastructure.” However, ‘the rug was pulled out from under their feet even though it was them that made the revolution.’ Young and old alike talk of the difficult relationship with the authorities, how they are ‘working in a context of indifference from the state’. How ultimately they fear, perhaps a second violent social movement.

We see in this film, in microcosm the failure of the Arab Spring and the inability for society to change as quickly or as radically as hope had once desired. The State has failed. Kasserine is the only province in Tunisia without a cinema or a theatre. ‘The State needs to create a space for dialogue’. This film shows how cinema can create such a space.

Many documentaries struggle to be necessary.

Voices from Kasserine will never win an Oscar. It does not have the ‘narrative arc, the exploitation of death and celebrity of such films as the bio-documentaries about Amy Winehouse and, more recently, ‘Whitney: Can I be Me?’. Ghoulish exploitations of death. Where the pre-knowledge of death informs the entire experience of viewing. Voices from Kasserine does not exploit the dead. It does want any dying although there is the memory of death in the film. Instead the film enhances the living by showing what it takes to live. This is as far from a celebrity drama as could be.

The voices we hear in Kasserine do not attempt to reinforce myths but, to break them. What does that mean? It does not deny individual angst but it situates it in order to move beyond tragedy and failure as a documentary end in itself. It shows those who suffer not as victims but as potential agents of social change, articulate and calm in their reasoning and determined in their outlook.

There are two way to use a camera. One is to point it and take, the other is to give it and collaborate. This is not so much a question of film aesthetic but a moral choice. Power resides with those who look and capture. If power must justify itself then so must filmmaking.

To give voice is to give hope, at the very least it is a means of preventing total despair. Documentary film has always attempted to give voice, to give presence to those who have no other means to be heard. Even Flaherty despite his manipulations gave voice and presence to the unknown and marginalised.

In the clutter and never ending voices of instant communication and non-stop media how do we give voice and how do we listen? This film answers the question partly. And in the process reveals many of the contradictions at the heart of film and the heart of difference. What it shows most clearly is the self-awareness and intelligence of those who are usually only passing figures in the background of news bulletins. It shows that the exploited know they are exploited, the ruined know they are ruined. Shocking revelation is not what is required nor is cliched misery. To speak on film is cathartic

In documentary film, in everyday conversation there is often a tension when evoking or describing a different culture. This does not have to an ‘exotic’, distant culture, it does not even have to be geographically distant. It can be a distinction between classes: ’Underneath it all they are just like us’. This appeals to a comforting universalism. A tension exists between the homespun, teary eyed universalism and the idea of unfathomable difference. Our portrait of the ‘other’ too easily slips into one or the other. This is not simply an anthropological problem but a political and ethical one. The schizoid nature of these two positions haunts many a documentary film and many a thesis. Yet, from this nuance avoiding duality there emerges paradoxically and, miraculously, a sort of unity.

Most documentary film posit some form of soft humanism. A humanism sustained by the Ancients idea of the ‘golden rule’ and more recently Kant’s cosmopolitanism. This is not without its reductive dangers. Films that go beyond the depiction of strangeness and otherness, film that instead also want to carry a message, to be agents of social change, too often fall into the trap of a universalising humanism, the idea of a human ‘community’.

This myth of the ‘human community’ was neatly skewered by Roland Barthes in his short essay ‘The Great Family of Man’. An essay inspired by an exhibition of photographs ‘the aim of which was to show the universality of human actions in the daily life of all the countries of the world: birth, death, work, knowledge, play’. As Barthes puts it the myth functions on two levels: ‘first the difference between human morphologies is asserted, exoticism is insistently stressed, the infinite variations of the species, the diversity in skins, skulls and customs are made manifest, the image of Babel is complacently projected over that of the world. Then, from this pluralism, a type of unity is magically produced: man is born, works, laughs and dies everywhere in the same way; and if there still remains in these actions some ethnic peculiarity, at least one hints that there is underlying each one an, identical ‘nature’, that their diversity is only formal and does not belie the existence of a common mould. Of  course this means postulating a human essence’

The idea of essence removes History so that there is nothing more to be said about the situation of individual acts. Nature comes first, and we are treated as an eternal lyricism. A myth of a shared human condition devoid of specificity.  All that is being celebrated is human essence. We weep for ourselves. the ‘alibi of a ‘wisdom’ and a ‘lyricism’ [….] only make the gestures of man look eternal the better to defuse them.’

Documentary filmmaking has dove-tailed with visual anthropological concerns with the exotic, the ’other’. Concerns about the inherent ambiguity and power relations embodied in the subject/object relationship first led to a reflexive turn where the reproduction of imbalances of power, in particular colonial concerns, were exposed.

While in the past decades anthropology has shifted from its traditional naturalistic mode predicated on the rhetoric of immersive fieldwork (participant observation) to new forms of ethnographic engagement intensify the involvement of anthropologists with their ‘subjects’. A key word that has risen in the methodological shift is ‘collaboration’. Collaborative film holds dangers too

Since the 1980’s collaboration has been proposed as a way to inform ethically anthropological relations in the field. More recently, the idea of collaborative visual anthropology and collaborative documentary filmmaking have come to the fore-front. In part due to post-colonial concerns with reproducing dominant power relations but also because of the rise of new cheap technology that has made the ‘sharing’ of the research process and  filmmaking a possibility.

This has allowed filmmakers to engage not only with the political but to literally reverse the lens. ‘Subjects’ are no longer passive but are ‘para-ethnographers and filmmakers’ The technology itself is no longer foreign, the means of production are accessibly and understood by subject as well as object. In this case, the shift to regard ‘informants’, ‘witnesses’, as collaborating counterparts has come to the fore. It is no longer sufficient tor regard subjects, as characters or actors to be manipulated. The relations in the process of filmmaking has been re-articulated into a collaborative mode which continues to force filmmakers to rethink the scope of their epistemic practices and to rethink the outcomes and representational modes. As a consequence hybrid forms of documentary have arisen. The accessibility and knowledge of the function of technology have raised added complexities to the relation between filmmaker and subject. Voices from Kasserine is a film that has tried to address some of the complexities that arise from these tendencies. Tendencies that strike right to the core of what makes a documentary film and what does a documentary film make.

In its ethnographic mode collaboration seems to be praised as a a value in itself and as a productive social practice. Collaboration seems to point towards a two-way egalitarian relationship that produces at the same time egalitarian benefits, although it does not always necessarily turn out that way.

Cinema began as documentary. and reflected the colonial ideology of the day. The French documentaire was called in English a travelogue trading on the idea of the exotic a long way from the civilised shores Europe and North America. It was only with Flaherty’s ‘Moana’ (1926) that John Grierson first applied the word ‘documentary’ in speaking of the film’s ‘documentary value’

It is commonly thought that what distinguishes documentary film from other forms of cinema is its claim to be more reflective of the truth. This seems an erroneous and solipsistic discussion, even though so may documentary workshops begin with just this question.’ What is the truth of documentary film? What is more or less certain is that while there may be multiple truths in any given social situation filmmakers tend to focus on one truth. There is no such thing as un-mediated reality. It is not the truthfulness or not of documentary film that ultimately matters but its intention and effectiveness in acting upon the world, upon knowledge production.

This is not new John Grierson argued for the production of documentaries that would serve the public interest, for form with ‘sociological rather than aesthetic aims’, although he also famously defined documentary as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’. The tension implicit in these two statements remains to this day.

Documentary filmmakers have, whether knowingly or not, generally followed a method of knowledge production well know to anthropologists, namely, participant observation. A practice according to which the filmmaker has to be socially involved in the setting she/he is researching while being detached enough to establish the appropriate observational conditions. Filmmakers and anthropologists have searched for alternative forms of ethnographic engagement that explore modes of fieldwork beyond participant observation: Collaborative processes, and reflexive modes.

Experimental collaboration proposes a displacement in the fieldwork practice; it is an ethnographic mode whose epistemic practice for knowledge production is experimental (not only observational) and whose social mode of engagement is collaborative (not only participative). What does it mean for an ethnography to be experimental and collaborative? and how could collaborative experiments in the field make us think of more experimental forms of fieldwork collaboration? These questions, though anthropological in genesis, also challenge us with new questions related to our role as documentary filmmakers. Paying attention to the contemporary contours of ethnography as ‘collaboration/experiment’ might offer us the possibility of exploring new conditions for the production of anthropological and documentary knowledge.

In the past decades, anthropology has shifted from its traditional naturalistic mode with the ‘been-there-done-that’ rhetoric of immersive fieldwork to new forms of ethnographic engagement that intensify the involvement of anthropologists with their counterparts. ‘Collaboration’ has been one of the figures invoked by anthropology to describe this situation. However it is far from new: since the 1980s collaboration has been proposed as a way to inform ethically our relations in the field, or as a way to engage politically with the anthropological fieldwork. In the last years collaboration has been mobilised again but in this case in a new sense; it has been proposed as a methodological response to the ethnographies that are developed in expert contexts of knowledge production like scientific laboratories, political institutions, economic organisations or artistic and activist collectives. Holmes & Marcus (2008) have argued that in such context people have ‘para-ethnographic’ practices, very similar to those of anthropologists. As a consequence, they can no longer be treated as ‘informants’ but as collaborating counterparts. In this situation, the articulation of relations in the field in a collaborative mode forces anthropologists to reconsider the scope of their epistemic practices and to rethink the outcomes and representational modes in a gesture that ‘refunctions ethnography’ (Holmes & Marcus 2005).

Following this argument collaboration seems to be an ethnographic mode specifically apposite for social contexts oriented by the production of knowledge. But we have witnessed an intense change in the production of knowledge in the last years. Hybrid institutions have emerged as part of a process that have brought about profound shifts in the nature and distribution of expertise. The generalisation of digital technologies seems to have intensified this trend as well as added challenges to the anthropological fieldwork. People with no social science expertise are taking part in the fabric of social science research through the development of tools (visualisation of Twitter interactions, techniques for the extraction of Facebook social data…) that allow them to elaborate very sophisticated analyses of large empirical data. The same concerns inform contemporary documentary production.

This claim for a collaborative mode in documentary/ethnography is part of the emergence of collaboration as a figure praised in many social contexts. It is pointed out by governments when promoting collaborative efforts in innovation; it is mobilised in artistic contexts as a way to articulate publics and to figure the social engagement of art; it is also claimed by technology designers and developers as a key feature of digital culture. In such contexts, collaboration is praised as a value in itself and as a productive social practice. In its documentary mode collaboration seems to point to a two-way egalitarian relation that produces at the same time egalitarian benefits, although it is not always necessarily this way. Despite such a collaborative impetus in our contemporary societies we lack a precise vocabulary to refer to the particularities, nuances and differences of diverse modes of collaboration, a trend that has also affected our lack of detail in the articulation of multiple experiences of participation.

Hence, while the idea of collaborative filmmaking may seem both ethically and aesthetically to lead to a more nuanced outcome in which relations of power are laid bare and no one voice prevails, we must still suspend for a moment the assumptions we have over collaboration to ask some simple questions: What do we mean when we call a form of collaborative relation? What ethical imprint do we concede to such a practice? What are the political dimensions attributed to it? In doing so we would like to take into account the invocation of collaboration in knowledge-production contexts without forgetting its twofold character referring either to the manifold ways of ‘doing together’ (collaboration as a social form) or to the more specific ways of joint thinking and information sharing (collaboration as an epistemic mode). In this vein, maybe collaborative filmmaking might be characterised as a specific contemporary mode of inquiry on the transformations of relationally in knowledge production practices.

Collaboration is, therefore, not simply a methodological strategy but a relational and epistemic mode that filmmakers recursively unfold to pose questions that are still not able to articulate. In this vein, ‘experimentation’ becomes a figure for capturing the transformation of the form in these situations.

In conclusion, by paying attention to the contemporary contours of documentary filmmaking as ‘collaboration/experiment’ might this also offer the possibility of exploring new conditions for the production of anthropological knowledge. Voices from Kasserine in its own ways attempts to address these issues, while being self-conscious enough to reject certain tropes of traditional documentary filmmaking vis-a-vis the subject. If this can lead towards an engaged filmmaking we can only applaud.


Posted in: Director's Blog



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