Documentary Filmmaking in the Midst of Moral Panic
DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2020.06 | Issue 3 | April 2020
Queensland University of Technology
In 2017, Australia was subjected to a costly and divisive same sex plebiscite, precipitating a time of moral panic according to many social commentators. This article examines responses ethically, aesthetically and, moreover, lovingly to homophobia, misogyny and hate in documentary filmmaking creative practice, citing the author’s own emergent collaborative work, a semi-autobiographical documentary film titled Handbag: The Untold Story of the Fag Hag, a love letter of sorts. Specifically, I ask how affective interventions on screen can change hearts and minds, and concludes that empowered and embodied interactions and engagements with audiences are sites of transformative potential.
‘Love and creativity come from the same place’ (van der Post, 2002).
In 2017, the Australian electorate was subjected to a ‘costly and divisive’ postal survey in order to determine whether the law should be changed so that people of the same sex could marry (Tomazin, 2017). While the postal vote returned an overwhelming ‘Yes’ to the proposition (ABC News) and led to greater marriage equality in Australia (Chang, 2017), the LGBTI community at large found the process discriminatory and inflammatory (Law, 2017). The vote became an ideological battleground in which conservative politicians used words to rail against ‘political correctness’ (Editor, 2017) and many supporters of the ‘Yes’ campaign came under direct physical attack from right-wingers (Davey, 2017).
At the same time, I was producing a screen intervention as part of an all-female production team, emerging partly out of professional practice and partly out of the academy, whereby the text adopts a ‘stronger critical research focus and often mirrors the distinct vision of a single writer-researcher’ (Baker, 2013: 4). The work, an autobiographical documentary film titled Handbag: The Untold Story of the Fag Hag (henceforth Handbag), is a love letter of sorts which attempts to value straight-gay alliances, sustaining friendship and the role of women in the struggle for equality. The narrative arc of the film follows that of the director/writer Monica Davidson, who sets out to understand why she – and indeed many generations of women in her family – has been such a magnet to gay men throughout her life. Monica’s journey of discovery takes her around Australia and abroad to the USA, where she discerns a distinct lack of pride felt by many women. With the help of her family and friends, Monica determines to reinvent the label and make it a celebration by creating a float for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, the first in the event’s long history. For the purposes of this article, the term ‘fag hag’, which is undoubtedly pejorative, is defined as a straight woman who enjoys the companionship of gay men (Moon, 1995) and is replaced, where appropriate, by the term ‘handbag’. The full trailer for the film can be watched below.
As Yes and No campaigners rallied, our creative project was deep in the throes of crowdfunding for the final stage of post-production, and therefore was attempting to enter into the public sphere via social media and publicity (Hart, 2018). As part of this foray, the above-the-line creative team implemented a number of engaging vlogs and posts as part of the campaign in the vein of behind-the-scenes ‘sneak peeks’. These affective missives formed part of the greater transmedia storytelling around the core property (Jenkins, 2010). However, some moments captured during this campaign have since found their way into the final cut, which is marked by a certain (and increasingly prevalent) hybridity of screen documentary form (Powers, 2004).
In this article, I examine potential ethical and aesthetic screen-based responses to homophobia and misogyny, and ask how affective interventions can fight shame and discrimination through screen production. It is not an easy process, staying loving; love and hate are intertwining emotions and even the gentlest lover can be turned to rage. Some may express anger when their passions are sublimated or injustice perceived, but this destructive power may in fact lead to further creativity (Crowley, 1999). Kristeva (1987: 5) noted love makes for a ‘sorrowful pleasure’. Even writing in this form about ‘the intrinsically subjective dimension of artistic production’ presents an enormous challenge (Barrett, 2008) but, a heartfelt approach in any creative undertaking, including the making of a screen documentary, may be potentially transformative for all involved – subjects, makers and viewers.
Love and Creativity
The connection between love and creativity might seem like the stuff of Sufi mystics and inspirational posters and memes. Yet the idea of love(-making) and creativity as one and the same may serve as a constructive metaphor for the act of working as an empowered and aware practitioner in the field of creative arts. Cognitive theories on creativity are often linked to innovation, invariably due to the economic benefits of a workforce more able to solve problems (Runco, 2007: 14). As such, creativity has been described ‘variously as an act, a process, a concept, a strategy or even as an ideological tactic’ (Steers, 2009 128). However, Psychiatrist Susan Kavaler-Adler asserted that the psychological state of love and creativity are inexorably linked, forming a dialectic whereby one may go inwards to explore notions of love relations and intimacy and ‘into the state of imagination that is the essence of creativity, a state of vision within the mind, which is removed from touching and doing in external reality’ (2014: 16). Connectedness to one’s own state of imagination is an indicator of good psychic health.
In an act of aberactive catharsis (Csikszentmihalyi, in Runco, 2007: 14-15) or the revival of the dramatic events of one’s past, the Handbag project grew out of the director’s need to express a cyclic experience of deep connectedness and subsequent trauma around significant interpersonal relationships in childhood. The director, Monica Davidson, grew up in a single-parent family, having lost her father at an early age, and remembers fondly the gay men who filled an important role in her development. In many ways, these men became part of Monica’s ‘logical’ family, if not her biological family (Maupin and Koval, 2007). Davidson simultaneously recalls the trauma of homophobic comments from school friends, the personal impact of the HIV AIDS epidemic and loss of a close gay male friend to depression and suicide. Handbag provides a creative outlet to lovingly recuperate lived experience here and now in the flesh and on the screen.
Embodiment ‘through the camera-eye’ is an act of identity politics and suggests that loving interactions on screen occur and are read in larger arenas (Chanan, 2007: 246). Whereas once homosexuality could only be subtly inferred in mainstream cinema texts, there now exists a proliferation of films made by and for sexual and gender-diverse individuals (Benshoff and Griffin, 2004: 1). Similarly, feminists ‘have thought long and hard about the politics of people filming people’ (Walker and Waldman, 1999: 13). Moreover, women filmmakers working in the field of autobiographical documentary disclose ‘the striking … positions that women occupy in modern society’ (Lane, 2002: 190). Feminist phenomenology provides the best framework for philosophical investigation of the creative reconstituting of the lived experience of women and gay men (Fisher, 2011: 91).
Kerrigan, inspired by Csikszentmihalyi’s systems approach to creativity, argued that the creative documentary originates somewhere between the personal realm and social/cultural influences, and ‘is a systemic and iterative process that can be internalised by an agent [read: individual] who is conditioned through creative practices’ (2013: 124). The documentary is the love child of these factors, raised by those who choose to enter the parenting arrangement, who, through facing the rigours of creative practice, getting better and strong to the challenges love presents (that is, hate). As a result, films like Handbag, which is shot entirely on digital formats and often in the intimate setting of the subjects’ homes, alter audience expectations of what a documentary is. For us, the creation of one’s own embodied, gendered identity is ‘influenced specifically by the people and contexts of interaction in which we participate’ (Fivush and Buckner, 2003: 164).
Agnés Varda’s semi-autobiographical documentary The Gleaners and I is an example of embodied filmmaking. The Gleaners and I is a lyrical and visually arresting film about people who choose to pick over society’s waste to find food, shelter, clothing, inspiration or even fun. Varda, who, as a filmmaker, is a gleaner of sorts, draws extensively on the visual power of the reflection, as she passes comment on her own aging body by juxtaposing self-portraits against a discarded clock with no hands (in effect, halting time), and using a mirror to study her maturing face. Rutherford (2003) notes that ‘all spectatorship is potentially affective’ and describes the affective experience contained within this inspiring documentary:
‘Ethics, the legal code, self-scrutiny and parody all jostle for position with the sweet taste of a ripened fig, the beauty of afternoon light in an apple orchard and the experience of old age …. [In The Gleaners and I] there is no implicit hierarchy here between image and word, no phobia of the image or its potential indeterminacy – the full capacity of the sound and image is put into play, and with it the affective experience of the spectator’ (129).
Kate Ince discerns in The Gleaners and I, ‘a performance of feminist phenomenology deriving from her woman-subject's desire, experience, and vision’ (Franz, Lindquist and Bitner, 2011: 613). Ince draws upon Young’s seminal work on feminine embodied experience, Throwing Like a Girl , stating that Varda’s work ‘privilege[s] female subjectivity and embodiment at the expense of representing as a cultural construct, either in the narratives or the material structure of her film-texts’ (ibid: 613). Handbag seeks to privilege feminine subjectivity, to tell our stories and, via affective sound and imagery, demonstrate our bodily experiences, our thoughts and feelings, and our outlooks, loves and longings.
Inspired by Varda, I first attempted to create an affective on-screen experience in an earlier autobiographical documentary I made called Orchids: My Intersex Adventure (henceforth Orchids). Orchids charts my experience of having a biological intersex variation, whereby reproductive organs are at variance with the genetic sex, and the negative impacts of social stigma medical intervention. Orchids attempts to create ruptures through artistic manipulation of the sound and image. Montages of bright, day-lit sequences of my journeying through picturesque Australian landscapes create affect, as do scenes of my sister Bonnie and I gleaning eccentric country ‘op shops’ in order to find treasured objects. Photographs and personal objects from the characters’ lives are shot and edited to arrest the attention of the viewer, and the rich sexual shapes and textures of the film’s symbol – orchids – are intended to be beautiful and fascinating.
Similarly, Handbag incorporates observational material, intimate narrations, vividly drawn animations, filmed interactions and interviews, interlaced with archival footage and still photographs a glitter-bomb of colour and sound. There is a cheeky nod to queer cultural icons such as Liza Minnelli in a series of re-creations of famous instances of the fag hag on screen, including Cabaret and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The director-as-presenter and guide to the world of the “handbag” places herself in stylised scenes from the seminal movies she admired growing up and spoke to her experience of having gay men as a constant feature of her life.
The hybrid nature of many documentaries nowadays – that is, the reworking documentaries to include re-enactments, mock-umentary aspects, animation and scripted narratives (see Svetvilas, 2004) – augments the affective potential of our piece. The multiplicity of styles and formats allow filmmakers to push the affective boundaries of the documentary genre directions, as the hybrid film ‘resonates without relying solely on empirical representation’ (Robertson. 2016). Whether such seeming transgressions erode the integrity of other more ‘serious’ documentaries is highly contentious and brings into question the philosophical nature of truth, and the assumed ability of the viewer to discern play from seriousness, image from imagination, and fact from fiction. From my perspective, the product of the playful influence of hybridisation is all the more alluring and satisfying to the viewer, who becomes engaged in the audio-visual game of untangling.
Aside from their seductive powers, hybrid forms may offer comfort to the embattled embodied creative practitioner. In truth, some areas of love, life and creativity are difficult to bear, and escape into the shimmering veil of fantasy offers a much-needed break from the grind of day-to-day reality. The idea that documentary could be used as a therapeutic tool is not new, and, potentially, such texts ‘modify and reconfigure the very nature of therapy and confession as practices for producing social and individual identities and knowledge’ (White, 1992: 7). For us, the aura surrounding our love-in was not one of unicorns and rainbows all of the time. We faced plenty of resistance during the film’s final crowdfunding campaign coinciding with the Australian marriage equality survey, including the destructive spray-painting of a Nazi swastika on houses of our loved ones who displayed rainbow flags and internet trolls stalking the production team’s social media posts. These occurrences were simultaneously saddening and maddening, and I (as producer) and my team attempted to reconfigure these with a series of provocative vlogs, calling out the ‘bad behaviour’ and offering peaceful solutions.
Conflict is the sandpaper used to craft a documentary film which pierces the skin and lands in the heart, and so requires courage and a willingness to take a risk. In one of Monica’s daily vlogs, filmed at night in a pool of street lamplight, she asks viewers to ‘look out for each other’ during the spate of homophobic attacks (Davidson, 2017). These vlogs created an outpouring of support and sharing of experiences even if speaking out could have caused our humble production and its cast and crew to become the focus of malintent. We were determined to exploit the potential impact and social, cultural and political change possibilities available via online technologies and DIY distribution models of contemporary documentary production (McLagan, 2012: 313).
Similarly, in the creative output (or the ‘core property’ which is Handbag itself), we gamely used the conventions and poetics of cinema to fashion an authored impression of the ‘trying times’. By gathering the captured fragments from personal histories and the remembered past, we were able to assemble those glimpses into a representation that approximates the present ‘I’ or oneself in the now. This process of self-inscription required a mapping of certain geographical and temporal spaces, an orienting of the place where one belongs in the world. As makers of Handbag we explored these worlds imaginatively, allowing ‘free capacity to move back and forth between internal psychic life and external reality’ (Kavaler-Adler, 2014: 15). The ability to discover and rediscover familial relationships both real and imagined via the careful use of the video camera and edit suite has a beneficial, therapeutic effect. There is still the very real political, social and cultural promise of the text, as there is a pressing need to change the social and legal systems that discriminate against people who choose to love someone of their own sex. It was our aim to acknowledge the challenges of autobiography and use the experience of making an autobiographical film to assist others, as empowered mentors, particularly the female viewers of the film.
Our stated objective of Handbag is to fight shame and discrimination, and address the social and economic disadvantage in the GLBTQ sector (see Hart, 2018). At the time of the Australian marriage equality postal survey, a time of ‘moral panic’, our crowdfunding campaign for Handbag focused on empowering women to become change makers in the face of human rights abuses and the criminalisation of homosexual acts around the world (Fenton. 2018). As women speaking to women, our hope was to subvert discourses ‘owned’ by patriarchal voices (Silverman and Foucault, in Humm, 1997: 41). Yet, it is uncertain how our message might be ‘heard’. Documentary spectatorship is the site of multiple, even conflictual, desires that traverse the presumed barriers between conscious and unconscious processes’ (Renov, 2004: 102-3). Therefore, spectator identification can only ever be understood as ‘shifting, oscillating, inconsistent, and fluid’ (Evans and Gammon, 2004: 217). Under such oscillating conditions and varied theoretical stances, controlling engagement seems near impossible.
In Handbag, we felt a psychological approach of assertive engagement was the best tool with which to create an access point for the multifarious viewer. A part of this approach is the empowered reveal, which represents an invitation to access the feminine gaze. As the tellers of the story of the ‘handbag’ both on-screen and off, we deploy both voiceover narration and intimate pieces-to-camera in order to allow access to deeply personal moments in history. Although such revelations could be interpreted as ‘trite [and] self-serving’ (Whittle, 2005: 124), we attempted to transcend naïve rumination and refused to accept possible ‘narcissistic indulgences’ inherent in autobiography (Lane, 2002: 21). This ‘transcendence’ often relied on revealing an emotional truth that was difficult to share, and therefore impossible to fake. Our goal, in effect, was to create a space between ourselves and others to effect a transformative interaction based upon mutual disclosure and generate a contract with our participants and audience in order to establish a supportive relationship that cherishes openness (Giddens, 1991: 6).
In one scene from the core property, Monica chooses to return to her working-class hometown of Newcastle on the east coast of Australia in order to retrace a significant relationship with gay men in her childhood. Barefoot on the beach, with gulls calling, overlooking the surf and cruising coal tankers, Monica meditates on the pain she felt when her favourite gay uncle Bobby disappeared from her life for many years during her childhood, leading her to believe he had died from complications of HIV AIDS. Here, her heartfelt vulnerability trumps any self-absorption. Likewise, in later scenes, the chaotic crafting element of Monica and her mother Pat (a textile artist and a self-declared ‘handbag’) whilst creating a float for the iconic Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras takes on a sensory quality as the women struggle with body and soul – ripping, cutting, sewing, painting, molding, affixing and gluing – to give physical form to their fondness for their gay friends and family members. Monica openly struggles with self-doubt as the deadline to complete the float looms large, and reflects on her most challenging experience with gay men when she fell in love with her (not-yet-out) best male friend as a young woman and was subsequently rejected. To the strains of Stand by your Man and over-exposed VHS home movie footage, Monica remembers that while heartbroken she was able ‘rise above’ and transmute her romantic attachment into friendship. Both moments, confessional in nature, exhibit vulnerability and invite a shared sense of empathy. Further, they align with our objective to choose love in the fight against shame and discrimination.
As the Australian marriage equality postal survey wrapped up in late 2017 and the results came back from the public overwhelmingly in the positive, we felt like they could sit back and relax for a moment. We celebrated with their friends, delighted they could now get married and share their affection in the plain light of day. However, the reprieve was only fleeting, enough to catch one’s breath and gird one’s loins, as the work of Handbag continued. At the time of writing, the post-production on Handbag is being finalised. This article advocates for affective interventions on screen but as yet it is unknown if our offering will have the impact which we so deliriously desire. It is our hope that Handbag will manifest further transformation via wider distribution and exhibition.
Interviewed some years after the publication of Gender Trouble, philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler reiterated the value of creating works and acts ‘that challenge our practices of reading, that make us uncertain about how to read, or make us think that we have to renegotiate the way in which we read public signs’ (1996: 122). Her sentiments offer encouragement to us as authors of Handbag, bolstering the deconstructive aims of the project, which were set upon the demystification and destabilisation of assumed knowledge of male-female friendships. That filmmaking has (and always will be) demanding should not discourage documentarians who make their creations ‘from the heart’. As feminist-poet Adrienne Rich (1979: 68) once noted, ‘[a]n honorable human relationship – that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ – is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. … It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.’
Explore the website for Handbag, where you can learn more about the project, the team behind it, and watch the documentary in full.
This article was first presented at the 2018 Australian Screen Production, Education & Research Association (ASPERA) conference, Melbourne, 27-29 June.
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