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A unique practice
David MacDougall

Documentary filmmaking and ethnographic filmmaking have spawned a wide range of practices, but until fairly recently most documentaries have relied on techniques used in making fiction films, with each scene acted out for the camera. Observational filmmaking has diverged from this in its attempts to film spontaneous human behaviour rather than re-enactments of it. It also emphasises the role of the filmmaker as an observer, sharing this perspective with the viewer. Taking the example of the author’s filming at a boarding school in India, this chapter outlines the observational filmmaker’s approach to filming others, beginning with the initial motivation, entry into a community, the finding of protagonists, the filmmaker’s behaviour while filming and the practical and human difficulties that arise in the process.

in The art of the observer
David MacDougall

Most documentary films must be approached with careful planning, since the potential for disaster is very great. The challenge is therefore to keep the percentage of disaster to a minimum. In some ways this approach is a salvage process, for a film is ultimately the outcome of what one hoped to do, what one discovered along the way and what one was actually able to film. Typically there are two main sorts of disaster. The first results from a failure of intelligence or bad luck and the unpredictability of events. The second results from breakdowns in filming technology, perhaps the most vulnerable point in the filmmaking process. With the detachment of hindsight, the author describes the various filmmaking disasters he has experienced and, as an encouragement to others in similar circumstances, how they were overcome.

in The art of the observer
David MacDougall

In documentary films both the filmmaker and the viewer are observers, with the viewer observing the filmmaker’s observations. In observational cinema, to a greater extent than in other documentary forms, filmmakers attempt to give the audience access to their position as observers. The problem remains, however, of how to render the deeper significance of what is observed, and this may require filming strategies more commensurate with the complexity of life itself. The view that a simple camera recording gives the most accurate representation of social life is misleading in that it ignores this underlying complexity. Rather, it is the filmmaker’s structuring of his or her observations that allows a film to reveal more accurately the depth of human experience. This in turn requires certain arts on the part of the filmmaker, which can be called the arts of observation, adaptation, construction, allusion and performance. The chapter uses the example of the author’s film Gandhi’s Children (2008) to demonstrate how each of these arts may be employed.

in The art of the observer
David MacDougall

Although there is a significant tradition of films made by one person, collaboration has long been the dominant practice in documentary film production, and further forms of co-creation are emerging with the advent of new media platforms. This poses the problem of how we should interpret films that combine different skills and different creative visions. What is the place of authorship in such a work? Drawing on a range of examples, including several from the author’s own films, this chapter describes seven types of collaboration in traditional documentary film practice: dispersed collaboration, co-authorship, creative assistance, subject collaboration, sponsorship, complicity, and symbiosis. In addition to these, it notes that the collaboration of the viewer is crucial to the final realisation of a film.

in The art of the observer
David MacDougall

This chapter examines the experience common to many documentary filmmakers of being both outside and inside their subjects. Relationships between filmmakers and subjects vary greatly but they are often close and sometimes all-consuming. In making portrait films, filmmakers frequently feel a strong desire for their work to embody the subject in some total sense, beyond the simple representation of appearance and personality. At the same time they may experience a sense of inadequacy in trying to express the immensity of another person’s life. In this chapter the author uses one of his own experiences of making a portrait film to examine the larger processes and imponderables involved in the attempt.

in The art of the observer
David MacDougall

Noting the shift from didactic films to new documentary forms in the 1960s, the author looks at the various strategies that filmmakers have devised to structure the new material that these forms produce. Although filmmakers generally consider the structure of their films while shooting them, the prospect of editing a large body of material can still seem daunting. Unlike fiction films, the contents of documentaries often emerge only during the filming, and their construction can take many forms, often without a strict chronology. This chapter examines a wide range of structural styles and modes of organisation, and goes on to describe the strategies the author employed in making a series of five films at a boarding school in India.

in The art of the observer
Regimes of value associated with the corpse in French nineteenth-century painting
Anaelle Lahaeye

There are many factors at work in the iconography of human remains. Some of those frequently discussed are aesthetic criteria, iconographic traditions and specific contingencies, whether political (for example in war paintings), symbolic (essential for transi images) or cultural. There is, however, one factor that is rarely mentioned, despite its centrality: the regime of value associated with corpses. Christ’s body is not painted in the same way as that of a departed relative or that used in a human dissection. Artists choose a suitable iconography depending on how the remains are perceived. This criterion became absolutely crucial in contexts such as nineteenth-century France, when attitudes to corpses underwent major changes.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
An interview with Vernelda Grant
Bridget Conley
and
Vernelda Grant

This edited transcript of conversations between an Apache cultural heritage professional, Vernelda Grant, and researcher Bridget Conley explores the knowledge that should guide the repatriation of human remains in the colonial context of repatriating Apache sacred, cultural and patrimonial items – including human remains – from museum collections in the United States. Grant provides a historical overview of the how Apache elders first grappled with this problem, following the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) in the US Congress. She explains how and why community leaders made decisions about what items they would prioritise for repatriation. Central to her discussion is an Apache knowledge ecology grounded in recognition that the meaning of discrete items cannot be divorced from the larger religious and cultural context from which they come.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Open Access (free)
Burying the dead in times of pandemic
Diane O’Donoghue

Both historical and contemporary records of mass contagion provide occasions for visibility to persons who otherwise remain little recognised and even less studied: those who bury the dead. While global reports attest to self-advocacy among cemetery workers in the current COVID-19 pandemic, the psychological complexities of their labour go virtually unseen. Findings on the experiences of those doing such work reveal a striking contrast. While societal disavowal often renders their task as abject and forgettable, those who inter the remains frequently report affective connections to the dead that powerfully, and poignantly, undermine this erasure. Acknowledging such empathic relationality allows us to look at this profession in areas where it has never been considered, such as psychoanalytic work on ‘mentalisation’ or in contemporary ethics. The article concludes with an example from the accounts of those who have buried the dead in the massed graves on New York’s Hart Island.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Holocaust ashes in and beyond memorial sites and museums
Zuzanna Dziuban

This article focuses on ongoing contestations around burned human remains originating from the Holocaust, their changing meanings and dynamics, and their presence/absence in Holocaust-related debates, museums and memorial sites. It argues that ashes challenge but also expand the notion of what constitutes human remains, rendering them irreducible to merely bones and fleshed bodies, and proposes that incinerated remains need to be seen not as a ‘second rate’ corporeality of the dead but as a different one, equally important to engage with – analytically, ethically and politically. Challenging the perception of ashes as unable to carry traces of the personhood of the of the dead, and as not capable of yielding evidence, I posit that, regardless of their fragile corporality, incinerated human remains should be considered abjectual and evidential, as testifying to the violence from which they originated and to which they were subjected. Moreover, in this article I consider incinerated human remains through the prism of the notion of vulnerability, meant to convey their susceptibility to violence – violence through misuse, destruction, objectification, instrumentalisation and/or museum display. I argue that the consequences of the constantly negotiated status of ashes as a ‘second rate’ corporeality of human remains include their very presence in museum exhibitions – where they, as human remains, do not necessarily belong.

Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal