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Notes Towards Day 9 (Tues, Feb. 14): Feminist Documentary Film Form(s)

Anne Dalke's picture

I. Coursekeeping

signing in

two Valentine Day's gestures:
naming one another!
* reading some lucious love poetry for Thursday
Donald Hall via JD: "I've always felt that poetry was particularly erotic,
more than prose was. ... I say that you read poems not with your eyes
and not with your ears, but with your mouth. You taste it."
Gertrude Stein's 1913 poem, "Lifting Belly" (available in our password-protected file)
Marilyn Hacker's 2000 poem, "Canzone" (available on-line on Poetry Friday)
plus (for global context, and as bridge from where we've been)
Afsaneh Najmabadi's 2005 newspaper article, "Truth of Sex,"
(by a scholar who came to my Gender and Science class a few years ago):
about the ways in which sex-change operations in Iran are being used to
erase evidence of same-sex desire (better that your daughter become a man,
than that she love a woman...a heterosexist pattern we'll see again, in a few
weeks, in Middlesex...)

reflecting on Margaret Price's visit: interesting extension
of the convo mbeale and I have been having on-line re:
bell hooks' Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism
("to be a feminist in any authentic sense of the term is to
want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist
role patterns, domination, and oppression" …. to be "no
longer victimized, no longer unrecognized, no longer afraid….")

and repeating MC's feeling that "listening, particularly to people
who are often given no voice or agency, is a solid tenant of feminism,"

* my thoughts about structure (or: the dance between opening up/
closing down the conventional form of the classroom -->
recognizing that what enables one of us
is likely to disable another (Katie on DSD),
I came away from our day-long discussion w/ two counter-impulses:
to relax expectations, and to be clearer about them;
acknowledging our diverse bodyminds/brainneeds, and
our need for shared conventions for learning -->
mid-sem evaluation/assessment upcoming!).

* "What is the academic essay for?" (and what does
it have to do w/ --how does it intersect w/--feminism?)

-- to show what you know
-- to demonstrate competence (i.e. that you know)
but "how well you do it" is irrelevant and uninteresting! (vs. keeping on-->)
-- to learn (= "move" beyond what you didn't know--
still very assessment-driven/productivity based);
-- to enable/further "the" conversation (for whom? what's the social context?)
--> "less agonistic forms of writing" (seems feminist to me!).

* the Burkean parlor as a lovely description of what
we are up to here (but missing activism....?)

II. postings, looking backwards, outwards
(it's a long way from Thursday til Tuesday...
I like listening to you thinking on Sunday night,
but --warning!!!!--missing 1/3 of you...)

Amophrast's notes from Feministing panel:
* "stealth feminism"
* "pop culture as a gateway drug to feminism"
(= "hinges on antiquated idea of gender, sexuality")
* identification not representation
* and link to The Lactation Station (talk about a distance from 'Breast Giver'!)

sekang on "Motherhood as a Retreat from Equality"
FrigginSushi: comparing motherhood and a "economically constructed carreer" can be difficult…Our brain and our heart is in constant confliction with eachother ...
mbeale: not considering motherhood as a combatant of a success (a career) is a belittling attribute of Western feminism …a strike against a progression to seeing the equal value in the life choices we may not see for ourselves.
pejordan: your question gets to the heart of what I was wondering about in my paper…I thought that you could have both…However, now I'm not so sure…It looks like children don't suffer negative effects from their mothers going back to work; on the contrary, it could actually be beneficial. So maybe the problem comes down to … not being able to trust someone else with your baby….I still don't really know where I stand...

[how does "Breast Giver" alter this discussion? what is motherhood like there?
is there a choice to work outside the home or not....?]

S.Yaeger: Our discussion on Tuesday about Spivak's idea that the author is often the worst reader of their own work has me thinking about "The Help"…the story of a rich white woman who breaks into the publishing world by teling the stories of the black household workers of her southern town… in which a white person risks nothing while the black characters risk everything …I commented on it on Facebook, and was met with several comments about how I had misread the book…I think… my opposition's insistence that authororial intention was important is a sort of reader's digest version of Spivak's case.  At the end of the day, the author's intention and own reading of a piece has little consequence … but that is not a bad thing.  If every text came with a mini-author to tell us what they meant, reading would fairly useless, and conversations like the one I've described above would never happen. 

bluebox: In my high school english class, there was one student who would always ask the teacher after we finished a book or short story if the symbolism and hidden meaning that the teacher listed out for us was what the author intended…. the moral of the story is it really is all up to what you see into the story.  I feel like you learn more about yourself from your interpretation of a story than from the actual story. To me, that's what matters more.

[are there any limits on individual interpretations? are all equally valid?
is that "feminist"? = giving equal weight to all voices, whatever their location?
would Spivak agree?]

epeck: I have been thinking about how Spivak refuses to simplify "Breast Giver" into a parable about India, yet how she doesn't seem to mind making "Jane Eyre"  into a story about a poor white woman achieving her goal ... I don't see how she can do both things - is it acceptable to make a story about an individual into a neat story about a type of individual when we share their race or background?  I actually liked the idea of "Breast Giver" as a metaphor for India's relationship with its people, but I also liked the idea that we should be careful in making people into lessons or parables.  So, how can Spivak do both with different texts...any thoughts?

rayj: I think part of Spivak's work is about resisting imperialist and colonial readings of non-European women or life more generally. I don't know if it is acceptable for her to reduce Jane similarly, but it is definitely a reaction against the hegemonic readings of the other and that which is not white. There is privilege that is denied to those stories that depict that which is not part of what we consider mainstream or civilized. I think a radical reclaiming of stories such as the Breast Giver as more than parable is a moment of empowerment necessary for oppressed populations.

[and what is the effect of such a reading on populations that are not oppressed?]

dchin: Imperialism is everywhere; it permeates even our classic literary texts, Spivak says. In class, we pointed out all the various ways in which imperialism exists institutionally and how we choose to submit to it, especially in higher education. My frustration is, well, where do we go from here?

sara.gladwin: Individual rights … appear to be somewhat of an illusion, contrary to the power structures that are apparent within society...knowing all this, I'm not sure where this leaves me.

III. Born Into Brothels
* different genre/sort of representation: how might documentary film work as feminist form?
(trailer begins: "Don't waste your time w/ blockbuster movie. Educate yourself! Watch documentaries!")

* became "part of my repertoire" the last time I taught this course:
student's contribution to our co-constructed portion of the syllabus

* part of an extended project: Kids with Cameras

IV. Small group work:
* First tell one another what your reactions/questions are.
a few on-line:
really sad... also struck by the documenatry side of it: using the children's love of taking pictures to provide insight into a world that we rarely see.
michelle.lee: I just wonder sometimes where do we come off saying it's our "responsbility" to go help others simply becuase they are worse off.
meowwalex: the way in which you were brought up to see the world can really limit your capability to expand your point of view at even a very young age. It was also heartbreaking to see many of the parents completely unable to understand the importance of education and not wanting them to have a better life than the one they are providing.

* Go 'round and hear your questions, get some of them up in our shared space.

* Who among you has studied film
(especially documentary film)
as a genre/representational form?

* Re-"frame" (sic!) your initial reactions with some of the language
used to describe this filmic form (all quotes from Bill Nichols,
Introduction to Documentary, Indiana, 2001):

A. Institutional Framework
"To remind viewers of the construction of the reality we behold, of the
creative element in John Grierson's famous definition of documentary
as "the creative treatment of actuality," undercuts the very claim to
truth and authenticity on which the documentary depends.... By
suppressing this question, the institutional framework for documentary
suppresses much of the complexity in the relationships between
representation and reality, but it also achieves a clarity or simplicity
that implies that documentaries achieve direct, truthful access to the real.
This functions as one of the prime attractions of the form (24-25).

B. Community of Practitioners
Documentary filmmakres share a common, self-chosen mandate to represent
the historical world rather than to imaginatively invent alternative ones....
The documentary tradition relies heavily on being able to convey to us the
impression of authenticity ... that what we see bears witness to the way the world is
(25, xiii).

C. Corpus of Texts
Norms and conventions come into play for documentary that help distinguish it:
the use of a voice-of-God commentary, interviews, location sound recordings,
cutaways from a given scene to provide images that illustrate or complicate a
point made within the scene, and a reliance on social actors, or people in their
everyday roles and activities, as the central characters of the film are among
those that are common.... Another convention is the prevalence of an informing
logic that organizes the film.... typical is that of problem solving (26).

D. Constituency of Viewers
The sense that a film is a documentary lies in the mind of the beholder as much
as it lies in the film's context or structure.... Most fundamentally, we bring an
assumption that the text's sounds and images have their origin in the historical
world we share... not conceived and produced exclusively for the film (35).

Sharing some of this re-framing w/ the large group.....

V....before bringing yet another "frame" into play, a la
reflection: "the visual space in which the backs of the chairs
overlap appear to have magnified the pattern...."

Thinking about the relationship between feminism and documentary cinema:

(From Annette Kuhn, "Passionate Detachment,"
Women's Pictures: Feminism and Cinema):

taken together, they might provide a basis for certain types of intervention in culture....

A feminine language would be more open, would set up multiplicities of meanings...
making the moment of reading one in which meanings are set in play rather than
consolidated or fixed....A feminine text has no fixed formal characteristics, precisely
because it is a relationship...reception is crucial

....openness as a defining characteristic of the feminine is something very different
from the closure...implied by the tendentious text....

[in cf,] a cultural practice calling itself feminist may actually be characterised
by some degree of closure: a restricted range of possible readings."

(From Julia Lesage, "The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film."
Issues in Feminist Film Criticism,
ed. Patricia Erens):

Feminist documentary filmmaking is...congruent with...the affinity group...The films...
came out of the same ethos as the consciousness-raising groups and had the same
goals...deliberately used a traditional "reality" documentary structure...valorized their
subjects' words...looked @ familiar elements to define them in a new, uncolonized way....
The intent is political. Yet the films' very strength, the emphasis on the experiential,
can sometimes be a political limitation
, especially when the film...offers little or no
analysis or sense of collective process leading to social change.

Does this particular documentary operate as a "feminist form"?
In what context might it serve that function?