Reconfigured Documentary: the brief

Today at uni we were given the brief on the documentary project, which is the final project of the first year of my course: BA (Hons) Moving Image. The deadline is Friday 24th May. The name of the brief is “Reconfigured Documentary”. It’s about breaking the traditions of documentary.

We watched excerpts from three films:

The Arbor by Clio Barnard

This is a documentary about the playwright, Andrea Dunbar. Dunbar grew up on a council estate in Bradford, West Yorkshire, and her life was tragic; she died, aged 29, from alcoholism. She had three children; the first, Lorraine, was born when Dunbar was 18. Dunbar’s first play, The Arbor, was crafted when she was 15; a teacher helped her polish it to performance standard. Barnard interweaves the play into her documentary about Dunbar. The play is a piece of realist drama taken from Dunbar’s life experiences, although Dunbar’s stage directions ensure the audience know they are watching a play; for example, the character The Girl introduces each scene by directly addressing the audience before performing her role.

In the documentary, the play is staged outside on the council estate where Dunbar grew up, with local residents standing around watching the performances. Barnard recorded interviews with Lorraine, Dunbar’s daughter, and other members of her family, and used actors to lip sync their words; whilst this did create a sort of distance between the truth of what the interviewees were saying and the performance of the actors playing the interviewees, I found it a deeply intensive emotional experience: I cried as Lorraine spoke of her mother’s emotional absence that partly created the conditions that allowed Lorraine to be sexually abused (Lara, my classmate, did a really lovely thing at this point: she placed her hand on my shoulder and kept it there until I stopped crying). The actors playing Lorraine and her sister were middle class which created another piece of distantiation – they were both playing working class women.

Lorraine and her sister take different stances on the legacy left them by their mother’s behaviour: Lorraine blames her mother for all that is wrong in her life; her sister takes control of her life and is determined not to let her childhood experiences get in the way. A childhood story the girls tell, in their different ways, demonstrates this: Lorraine and her sister are trapped in their bedroom and Lorraine sets the bed on fire. They are trapped in the room because the door handle has been removed by their mother on purpose – this was, apparently, a regular occurrence. Lorraine acknowledges this but her sister laughs at her mother’s checks to make sure the girls don’t have any items on them that could allow them to undo the handle on their side of the door. The fact that she laughs at her mother’s behaviour suggests she is not capable of feeling the emotional pain this may have caused her. It seems that both girls take oppositional extreme views on their mother’s behaviour.

The door handle scene, along with other scenes, takes place inside a house on the Bradford housing estate where the girls grew up, but the parts of the girls are played by the adult actresses which creates a sense of unreality. Ultimately, Barnard used the distantiation techniques to demonstrate the fact that “documentary narratives are as constructed as fictional ones” (see interview with Barnard here).

The Battle of Orgreave by Jeremy Deller

Art Angel commissioned this site specific re-enactment of the 1984 clash between police and miners at Orgreave. Deller sent out an invitation to those involved in the 1984 violence to take part in the re-enactment. Many volunteered to participate and, in some cases, switched roles. As well as showing the re-enactment, the film documents the process of the filmmaking and there are interviews with Tony Benn and other political figures. It’s an important film in that it highlights the propaganda put forth by Margaret Thatcher in order to achieve her aims, and the BBC’s involvement in editing footage of the clashes between police and miners to support her, rather than showing the events as they happened temporally correctly. Deller’s aims did not include creating space for healing to happen by allowing dialogue between those involved on opposite sides during the 1984 events, but I do wonder whether this may have been a by-product of making the film. Those involved found themselves in a situation that allowed them to talk about what happened and how they felt about it at the time and this, in itself, is a powerful act. Judy, our tutor for this project, wondered how it might be to revisit this community to find out what changes have occurred since this film was made.

The Benin Project by Uriel Orlow

Orlow’s work encompasses memory, archive and trauma. The Benin Project was a video installation that critiqued British colonisation by exploring the context of the Benin bronzes that are held in the British Museum. The Visitor is a video showing Orlow’s visit to Benin, and his meeting with the King of Benin, to discover the effect of the absence of these artefacts on the citizens of their country of origin. The film uses stills rather than moving image and the narrator is a female with a Nigerian dialect. I felt tired whilst watching this film, partly because of the aggressive tone of the accent of the narrator and partly, I think, because of the strong emotions I’d been feeling earlier in the day. I found this film harder to engage with than the previous two, perhaps because of the less emotional, for me, content.

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