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VIRTUES OF THE INTERVAL: REFLEXIVE AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN TWO CONTEMPORARY DOCUMENTARY MOVIES
Sona the Other Myself – by Yang Yonghi
Wide Awake – by Alan Berliner
Reflexivity in documentary is not a new phenomenon. If it sometimes seems so, it is because of a linear and evolutionary vision of the history of documentary has long prevailed amongst critics (Bruzzi: 2000). The form would have evolved from a rather primitive and naïve form to the intricate and complex forms of today. But one only needs to remember Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera to realize reflexivity has been present at the very start of the form. That said, due to a number of factors amongst which postmodernism, cultural studies, identities politics and a general higher awareness of filmmakers and audiences alike, reflexivity is becoming more and more prevalent amongst documentary filmmakers. In the same time, in our confessional culture, first-person documentary has known a growing popularity over the last decades, and is now “dominant style of documentary submitted to the highest-visibility showcase today for independent film” (Aufderheide: 1997). “This kind of work is part of a much broader social movement that blurs the lines between public and private life”, sums up Aufderheide. Following Aufderheide, we will here consider the first-person documentary as a genre.
Because reflexivity often entails a first-person narrator, and because autobiography always does, autobiographical documentaries and reflexive documentaries are sometimes subsumed under the same umbrella. But, as Jay Ruby recalls in “Images and reflexivity”, the two are not to be mixed. A work can be reflexive without being autobiographical, and vice versa. An autobiographical work is about the creator of the work. A reflexive work is a work that turns to itself. As Ruby puts it: “To be reflexive is to structure a product in such a way that the audience assumes that the producer, the process of making and the product are a coherent whole. Not only is an audience made aware of these relationships but they are made to realize the necessity of that knowledge.” (Ruby: 1977, 4). A reflexive film undermines the illusion of transparency, and unfolds unmasked, as one could say. It exposes itself as the product of a deliberate construction, the result of an interpretation of the world. But the second sentence is as important: the audience is made to understand that this reflexive aspect is not a formalist ornament or a stylistic fancy. “To be reflexive is to reveal that films – all films, whether they are labeled fiction, documentary, or art – are created structured articulations of the filmmaker and not authentic truthful objective records” (Ruby 1977: 10). Reflexivity in a work marks a will to question and challenge fixed definitions (of reality, of truth, of subject etc). One can now see how first-person narratives can be not reflexive. Mapping the formation of oneself, or engaging in oneself discovery journey, does not necessarily mean question oneself as subject.
Stressing the difference between reflexive and autobiographical is important, because what is at stake is what the first-person documentary can possibly bring us. How to make a highly personal narrative relevant and interesting to the public ? How not to fall into self-indulging, boring tales of solipsism and victimization?
To bring some elements of answer, this paper will look at two contemporary reflexive first-person documentaries, Sona the Other Myself by Yang Yonghi andWide Awake by Alan Berliner. We shall see that XXX
These movies clearly identify themselves as autobiographical portraits – starting with their titles, Sona the Other Myself and the subtitle of Wide Awake: “portrait of the artist as insomniac”.
Formally, both films have formal distinctive aspects that have become characteristics of the autobiographical genre. The characters that appear are directly related to the filmmaker: Yonghi’s family members in Sona, Berliner’s family in Wide Awake, and his doctors (which assume both the role of experts on insomnia and of Berliner’s doctors). The two movies rely a lot on home movies and family material. Sona is archetypal in this regard, composed uniquely of Yonghi’s videos of her family in Japan and Korea, or more rarely of family pictures – mainly at the opening of the movie, to establish the family genealogy.Wide Awake is more hybrid. Berliner shoots home videos, mainly of him (not) sleeping, of his wife and son, or of a family dinner. He also uses family home movies shot in Super 8. He also adds other images whose status is less clear: he is the central character but is filmed by a crew (at the doctors’, in his studio). Characteristically, the frame is neatly composed and does not move – contrasting highly with the “rawer” images of home-movies. He mixes these personal images with archival material that is neither personal nor familial. We shall argue later on that this precise use of archive drags the movie out of the intimate and private sphere towards a more public one – but nonetheless, theses images are not devoid of a personal dimension. As the movie unfolds, we understand they come from the personal collection Berliner has been obsessively keeping for years. Because they have been over decades of sleepless nights, they are not neutral and have an autobiographical dimension.
Another striking feature of the autobiographical movie is the prevalent use of a first-person voice. In both case, one can hear the filmmaker speak, on screen or via a voice-over. But in both cases, it is made very clear that the narrator is the filmmaker – indexing the movies in the autobiographical realm. In Sona, it has different functions. It makes clear the personal dimension of the movie by stating the relations of the filmmaker to the images (“this is my parent’s home in Osaka”). It provides important information (as in one of the opening sequences, telling the history of her parents and brothers). It fills the gaps between the sequences, explaining for instance that Sona’s mother died or that her brother is getting remarried. But more importantly, the voice-over is also the subjective voice of the filmmaker, which gives the viewer the emotional subtext of the images. For example, after a sequence of a big family diner, given by the Korean family receiving Yonghi’s family, and over images of women filling up a fridge with boxes of food, she says “ I feel sad because I make them spend the money we give them, but also happy because the fridge was full all the time we were here”. The voice here reveals the complex relations of dependence, guilt, love that underlie the celebration. Later on, she wonders “ I had conflicts as a teenager… I hope I am not Sona’s burden”.
Berliner heavily uses the first-person narrative as well. Since Berliner in the movie is the one that is both afflicted by insomnia and leading the enquiry about it, the “I” is everywhere. Contrarily to Yonghi, Berliner appears on screen, interacting with his family and doctors, sometimes directly addressing the audience, sometimes his crew. The voice-over is also very present in the movie and also told from a first-person point of view. The first-person narrative that unfolds in voice-over is a crucial element for the cohesiveness of the movie. It is this “I” that alternatively muses, worries, explains and admonishes, that account for the fluidity of the progression of the movie, by providing a constant link between the different levels of the examination of the insomnia.
These movies make thus clear they are autobiographical: that they are about a personal story, explorations by filmmakers of topics that they are very closely related to.
But these are not straightforward autobiographies. As the titles reveal, they are oblique self-explorations: of Yonghi’s niece on one hand and insomnia on the other hand. The filmmakers engage in autobiography through the exploration of subjects that are defining for the filmmaker’s identity – a sleeping disorder, a childhood in a dictatorship.
Sona the Other Myself is a portrait of Sona, Yonghi’s niece, growing up in North Korea. Yonghi lives with her parents in Japan, but her brothers live in North Korea. When she can, she visits her family and films the encounters. She focuses on her niece, Sona, who is the main character of the movie. The film follows her as she grows up, interjecting scenes with Yonghi’s parents in Osaka, or with Sona’s family members in Korea. The dramatic structure follows Sona’s life, as she loses her mother at 5, attends a funeral ceremony, watches her father getting married again, has birthdays, comes to Japan, becomes a self-conscious preteen. The self-portrait is a family portrait. Similarly, Alan Berliner’s Wide Awakepresents itself as an enquiry about the insomnia from which he has been suffering for decades. The enquiry into the causes and possible cures for the disease structures the movie. It starts with an exposition of the disease, the gravity of Berliner’s case, and then, as other characters are being introduced (doctors and Berliner’s family members), the film moves on following a thematic line: possible familial causes, biological aspects, social aspects, effects on personal life and necessity of a cure.
In both cases, the narrative lines intertwine an exploration of an external subject, with a more personal line. In Yonghi’s case, it is subtle: but each time she gets to film Sona corresponds to each time she is allowed to visit Korea and is reunited with her brothers. Between the lines of Sona’s unfolding childhood, one sees Yonghi’s adult life and complex relation to her native country. In a more conspicuous way, Wide Awake goes back and forth between a general enquiry into insomnia, and the personal life of the filmmaker. From the start of the film, Berliner tells us his wife Sherry is expecting a son. His paternity and how it will affect his life is the dramatic underlying arch of the movie. The film finds its tension in the personal narrative: Berliner as an artist enjoys his insomnias as creative times, but as a committed partner and father, he must learn to fit in a day-oriented routine.
These movies are thus ambivalent self-portraits.
According to critic Jim Lane, autobiographical portraits tend to have a looser narrative structure, more similar to a “collage of elements” related to “the analogical, metaphorical and poetic rather than to the narrative”
Less of an overarching narrative, more micro narratives.
For Lane, these interwoven micro-narratives end up creating a “complex weaving that presents family or self less in a cause-and-effect logic and more as figures in tension with states of being referred to in the past and seen and heard in the present”.
These ambivalent films are far from mere autobiographical works. They are both reflexive documentaries as well, reflecting on how they are made, and engaging the viewer in considering this too.
In this regard, the opening scenes can be considered as motherly scenes. In both movies, taking place before the title even appears, they indicate very clearly the reflexive stance of their filmmakers. In Sona, the first sequence focuses on Sona, then three years old, eating an ice cream. The frame then widens, revealing what surrounds Sona – here, her parents, and Yang’s brother. This initial shot makes clear that there are other people surrounding Sona, and that the focus on the little girl is a very deliberate filming choice. A few seconds later, the little girl gets attracted to the camera and gets closer to it, until she hits it with her spoon. The materiality of the camera is then suddenly made explicit, and the illusion of transparency shattered. From the start, the film makes clear that what the viewer experiences is an artifact created by a camera. The opening scene draws her attention to the fact that the camera mediates the interactions with the characters: characters acknowledge its presence and it is susceptible to modify their behavior in return.
The opening sequence of Wide Awake displays the same reflexivity in an even more conspicuous way. The film opens with a shot of a plane over a desert, with an eerie music. The voice over goes “Einstein’s dream, take one”. This sets up a dreamy mood, particularly effective and the viewer is ready to get carried away, when the voice over goes “Wait! Stop!” The image cuts to a close-up of Berliner saying, “These morning shots are killing me”. It is suddenly obvious that the voice-over is his voice, and that the sequence is a product of him. The illusion the viewer was so readily slipping in is shattered from the start. With another cut the film returns to the plane, while the voice goes “Einstein dream, take 2”.
From the start, these movies warn the viewer that they are watching a film, crafted and mediated, and not the truth.
From the openings, the reflexivity is displayed in many ways, constantly undermining the possible illusion of “watching life as it is”. For instance, the filmmakers include their families’ reactions to the filming process – as when Sona’s mother, in the first scene at the post office, asks her to shut off the camera, or when Sherry, Berliner’s wife, gets mad at him waking her up with his camera in hand. In both case, these scenes draws the viewer’s attention to the relation of the filmmaker to his or her subjects. By showing their reactions to the presence of the camera, it denaturalizes their appearance on screen, and reveal it for what it really is: the result of a relationship with the filmmaker mediated by the camera, the product of a continuous negotiation that can break anytime. In Sona for example, the little girl asks Yang to turn off the camera while she is about to say something that might be controversial. Or in another sequence, she asks Sona’s brothers about school, and they get very self-conscious, obviously because they are being filmed.
In a sequence of Wide Awake, Sherry will display her pregnant belly with a smile, obviously enjoying the interaction. But the next scene will show her sitting on the toilet asking Berliner to stop filming, then closing the door on him. In another example, during the family dinner, Berliner’s mother appears nicely dressed-up, with make-up on. Since she is much more dressed-up than the other family members, one can assume it is not for family but at least partly because she knows that she will be filmed – and enjoys the opportunity to display her better self. But she gets more and more annoyed as the dinner goes and Berliner presses her with questions on his childhood. She finally interjects “Alan, you didn’t bring me here for singing” when Berliner presses her to go on with the lullaby she used to sing him. This sentence reveals that she had some expectations why she was filmed and that singing is out the contract. All these scenes, marks of self-consciousness or reluctance, are usually edited out. By using them, the filmmakers insist on showing that their filming is the product of a relationship with their characters and that the filming is an intrusive and sometimes obnoxious act. It shows that the movie is the result of negotiations between the filmmaker and her or his subjects.
The decidedly reflexive mode account for much of the visual style and personality of the films – even though they are very different. Sona retains all along an amateurish look, keeping and playing with the formal impurities of home movies: shaky frames, abrupt zoom in etc. Yonghi does not try to give her movie the polish look that is often associated with a finite “professional” film. Thus viewers are always reminded of the personal and subjective source of the images.
The presence of the filmmaker is much stronger in Berliner’s movie. Berliner constantly draws the viewer’s attention to the crafting involved. He addresses the viewer from his studio, with a computer opened on Final Cut Pro behind him, with windows displaying images previously seen in the movie. The soundtrack sometimes is replaced by his own voice singing the lyrics (one of the first songs is “So tired” by The Beatles, and Lennon’s voice is suddenly replaced by Berliner with headphones, singing the lyrics). He draws the viewer attention to what he is doing: he will ask her to notice the music looped in the soundtrack, before telling exactly what it is and where it comes from.
Reflexivity also allows him to display a dazzling virtuosity that accounts for much of the viewer’s pleasure. Because he is free from the bind of “making the movie look real”, he can use the most conspicuous editing – like jump cuts or images looped.
In a stylistically very different way, both these movies prevent the viewer from ever forgetting she is watching a film, a subjective treatment of reality. From the viewer’s point of view, reflexivity also prevents the formation of a feeling of immediacy and unmediated closeness to take place durably. Reflexive processes create a distance – allows for the creation of an “interval”, to use Trinh Minh Ha’s term. One can think of the interval as the gap between one thing and its representation, the person and the name, the world and language. It is the space for uncertain meanings and enquiring looks – the space where longing, desire, identification unfolds.
The combination of autobiographical – often thought of as the case with the minimal distance between the subject and the creator, with the interval created by reflexivity, produces hybrid self-portraits that leave space for viewers to engage.
In both cases, it is not really the filmmaker’s self that is explored, but an alter ego: Sona for Yonghi, and a persona of himself for Berliner – very explicitly in Yonghi’s case: Sona being “the other herself”, almost literally a translation for “alter ego”. The little girl functions as a projection of Yang, what Yang could have been had she grown up in North Korea with her brothers. The analogy is made very clear, visually (a shot of Sona with her brothers will echo almost identically a picture of Yang with her own brothers) as well as verbally: the voice-over keeps drawing parallels between Yonghi and her niece. Yonghi’s quest for her own identity, her attempt to come to terms with the feeling of loss, unfolds delicately around the central figure of Sona. As we said earlier on, Sona is never a mere symbol – the film makes this very clear. The sequence where Yang follows her to school encapsulates the self-exploration through her alter ego. Yonghi films Sona going to school with her father – she is very close to the girl, and then follows her in the street while the girl walks hand in hand with her father. The voice-over goes “It was as if I was holding hands with my father and I was thankful”, making obvious the identification. But Sona arrives to school, and Yonghi does not follow her. She films the girl going away, and the voice goes on “ I cannot enter. As if Sona was leaving the unusual hours she spends with me to enter her own reality… I am juts a visitor here”. Throughout the film, we don’t really get to know Sona (how does she feel about her mother’s death? how does she like school? what does she daydream of?), nor Yonghi. But we get the sense of the search, the quest, the longing for a different, better history, for a united family. And we get this sense because of the distance and the interval – and in this distance, as viewers, we can find a space.
Although it is not as visible as in Yang’s movie, Berliner also creates an alter ego in the movie. As he said during the in-class discussion, there are actually two Berliners: the one that is wearing a white t-shirt in his studio, and the man in the black jacket in the doctors’ cabinet. White T shirt Berliner is the filmmaker at work, recording the voice-over and going over his archives, whereas Berliner in a black jacket is the filmmaker that suffers from insomnia, the suffering patient looking for explanations and help. At times, there will be dialogues between the two (at the end, when discussing whether Berliner should start therapy). The split makes two characters, towards which Berliner exerts much self-derision. Berliner is depicted as irascible, moody (as in the scene where he gets angry at an assistant for “moving around”), selfish (when he leaves Sherry deal with the baby despite his promises of waking up), and comically over-anxious (as when he gets carried away in his own monologue, worrying about the nursery of his still unborn child: “ we should fill the applications early, New York nurseries are very competitive”). Although the real Berliner has probably some of these characteristics, the Berliner we get to see is a caricature, a persona with whom the real Berliner is experimenting and having fun. The interval here produces the possibility of laughter and allows for humor. – which is another way of engaging the viewers.
Wrapping the self-exploration around an external figure than the “I” is a very powerful strategy. It maintains a tension in the movie and provides a space for the viewer. The interval provides a space for the viewer –something to engage in that is more than the exhibition of someone’s individuality. It prevents the movie from being self-indulgent or obscene.
Eventually, it draws attention to the role the camera plays in the self-exploration. These reflexive movies show that the camera does not merely record, but is an active part of the formation of self. In Sona, the camera is actually what brings together the broken pieces of Yonghi’s identity. Yonghi’s family is divided between two countries, Japan where she grew up and North Korea where her parents grew up and her brothers live. The political isolation of North Korea makes the divide even bigger. Metaphors of communication fill out the film. It opens with Yonghi’s mother, who is a central figure of the film, the link between Japan and Korea, sending parcels and medicine and money. The first sequence after the title is of her preparing parcels to send to Korea, and in a beautifully fluid sequence we follow her biking to the post office. These parcels, we are told, are “the lifelines” of their family, the links between family members that politics keeps apart. Likewise, phone calls and letters are constantly evoked (or filmed) throughout the movie. The camera becomes clearly another one of these linking devices. On the first level, her videos are what Yang can take home when she returns to Japan (hence the images of one of Sona’s brothers saying nice things to their grandmother to the camera). But even more so, the camera is the tool that Yang has and uses to put together pieces of a dislocated geography and family. Only through the filmmaking process, from the filming to the editing, can this identity take a sort of cohesiveness – in the form of a film. Yonghi’s identity, as well as her family’s, is dispersed. An accurate portrait depicts the longing, the projection – and the fragile cohesiveness that comes from communication, whether parcels or phone calls.
In Berliner’s case, the camera might not be as crucial to the formation of identity. But one cannot help but notice how the similarity between Berliner’s modes of thinking and the filmmaking art is displayed all along the movie. Parallels are constantly drawn. The looped music he plays over and over again echoes a remark he makes about hearing loops of music when he goes to bed. Or he will mention, after a brilliantly culminating and increasingly fast sequence, that the Tick Tick rhythm that has been on much of the soundtrack, is actually the same as the pounding sound he hears when he is in his bed. The archives also appear to be visual representations of his subconscious, his imagination. In one sequence, a conversation about counting sheeps to go to sleep cuts to footages of a rancher and his sheeps jumping over a barrier. Then, as the doctor’s voice says anything works instead of sheeps, the image cuts to gymnasts looped, then to a growing number of several images edited in an increasingly faster pace. The archives look like Berliner’s mental images. The metaphor is great: like much of our mental images, archives come from everywhere and their precise origin might be lost – but it does not matter, it is the way we arrange them that matter. Berliner says: “ My brain doesn’t shut off, I cant control where it goes or for how long”. This is the very opposite of the filmmaking, and especially of editing. Camera, but more so editing, is thus the process that gives Berliner a sort of control over his mind hyper-activity. With the movie it becomes a dazzling firework – in the real life it keeps Berliner endlessly awake at night.
These two movies stress how much the camera is active in the constitution of their identity – in both cases, although differently, the camera allows them to keep together disparate pieces, to finally have control over it.
Finally, the reflexive autobiography, the interval and the allows for the production of a film that intertwines the personal and the social, and leaves space for people to engage with what is thus not only personal tales, and cross individual lines as well as historical ones.
In Sona, choosing to film this little girl growing up in a dictatorship allows for a rich picture of the lines that shape and cross subjectivities. As we said before, the film is paced by the visits of Yonghi to her Korean family – and only once, the other way around. This allows Yonghi to show how much how individual lives are entangled with history. The family life is very much shape by unpredictable jolts of history: the interdiction for Yonghi’s brothers to go back to Japan, Yonghi’s being prohibited from entering North Korea again, or the diplomatic crisis between Japan and Korea. Although Yonghi deliberately avoids politically charged scenes or talks, benign details, such as Sona learning nationalist poems, or a radio telling the glory of Kim Jon Il, tell of how a military regime shapes people. Yonghi’s family – and herself – is shaped by politics and history. But another one echoes this politico-historical timeframe: scenes of death, and birthdays. Following a little girl growing up, the film shows the importance of another timeline, paced by marriages, deaths, and birthdays. Sona creates a sense of self that is shaped by these intricate lines, of history, politics, life and its transience. Lives are shaped by unpredictable jolts – of history, politics or simply life and death. In acknowledging and exploring this, the film touches a common ground where the viewer can also feel concerned.
This balance is also reached by Berliner, although differently. As the film goes along, the reflection over insomnia broadens. It reaches out to New York City – though jump cuts creating a hectic feeling, or a beautiful serene sequence of images of New York in the daytime, building bridges between the personal experience and the city that never sleeps. Along the way, insomnia becomes a metaphor for a particularly intense way of engaging with the world and the city (whose visual equivalent is Berliner surrounded by his boxes of pictures ranging from writers portraits to Afghanistan war). Berliner’s uncle who suffered from amnesia is described as feeling overly concerned with the world’s problems. Insomnia becomes the mark of a very very intense love of life; desire not to miss a bit of it. Eventually, the metaphor widens: “being jet lagged in your own time zone” is a metaphor for a general inability – or unwillingness – to fit in. The end of the film highlights Berliner’s love of night: a time where he feels productive, creative, and free. But as his wife tells him, “it’s like you live on a different time zone rom Eli and I. And that is gonna have to change”. The struggle against insomnia, and the ambivalent relation to it, end up being a tale of how to fit in normality when one engages in life in a much more intense way than most, a tale of how does one learn (or not) to fit in.
IN their first-person documentary movies, Alan Berliner and Yang Yonghi combine autobiographical and reflexive look. Their self-portrait is thus oblique, showing us how much of it owes to the camera. They both use an alter ego to search for themselves. These beautiful films create a distance, between the image and the thing, themselves as filmmakers and themselves as subjects. They leave an interval for the viewer to fit in, for the viewer to laugh, feel, long. It is the interval only that allows these movies to escape narcissism, solipsistic self-examination. In the interval can occur what Aufderheide calls “an opportunity to launch public discussion about the terms of social identity and public life”, the tentative of a “public language for today’s and tomorrow’s virtual communities”.
Aufderheide, Patricia. 1997. “Public intimacy: The development of first-Person documentary.” Afterimage 25, no. 1: 16. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed March 22, 2011).
Bruzzi, Stella. 2000. New Documentary : A Critical Introduction. Routledge, London.