“In Complete World” at the International Ethnographic Film Festival of Quebec, 2009

The following is the text of the presentation I made on Friday, 30 January, 2009, at the sixth annual student organized International Ethnographic Film Festival of Quebec (FIFEQ6), at the day held during the Concordia University part of the festival which moves across several university campuses. My previous presentations at the Festival can be found here for 2008, and here for 2007.)

My thanks again to the Concordia organizers, Marlee McGuire and Katherine Romanow, for inviting me to speak and for organizing another outstanding event. I must say that it has been a real joy to witness the positive energies and creative imaginations of so many university students in Montreal, an exceptional environment. This year also saw almost all of the filmmakers themselves traveling to speak about their films at the festival and hold question and answer sessions after the showing of their films.

What follows below is my presentation, followed by something special, in the spirit of Shelly Silver’s call for voices to be heard: feedback from the members of the audience at the event, penned on little slips of paper, collected at the end, and transcribed below. We thus turned a physical event into a virtual event, and it was great to see so many people willing to share their thoughts with the filmmaker, and leaving their own imprint on the occasion.

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In complete world, stimulates attention through words and faces, focusing on varieties of personal states of mind while linking them in different ways to the broader complexity that is the United States. The filmmaker is Shelly Silver, her work here was funded in part by a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. She used a team of six interviewers to go out on the streets of New York City and randomly pick passers by to answer a fixed set of interview questions, including questions such as: “Are you satisfied?”, “Do you make enough money?”, “Do you feel responsible for this government?”, “Do you feel responsible for the Iraq war?”, “Is there equal opportunity in America?”, “Is global warming happening? Do you feel responsible for it?”, “Do you fear anything? What do you fear most?”, and “Are you optimistic about the future?” among other very interesting questions. The title actually comes from one of the people she interviews, who refers to this world as an “incomplete” one and which Silver later transforms into In Complete World, almost as if she were suggesting that New York City might be seen as a complete world unto itself in some senses, a virtual world constituted by her interviewees, yet retaining a sense of incompleteness, a world in the process of constant transformation, never fully made.

In Complete World is formally described as follows:

“a feature-length documentary made up of street interviews done throughout New York City. Mixing political questions (Are we responsible for the government we get?) with more broadly existential ones (Do you feel you have control over your life?), the film centers on the tension between individual and collective responsibility. The film can be seen as a user’s manual for citizenship in the 21st century, as well as a glimpse into the opinions and self-perceptions of a diverse group of Americans. It is a testament to the people of New York City in this new millennium, who freely offer up thoughtful, provocative and at times tender revelations to a complete stranger, just because she asked.”

Shelly Silver’s body of work, of which this film is the latest component, is a challenging body of work that really provokes one into thinking about some very fundamental issues concerning who we are in this world, at this time. As she describes her work, it is meant to raise “such difficult issues as the cracks in our most common assumptions, the impossibility of a shared language, and the ambivalent and yet overwhelming need to belong — to a family, a nation, a gender, an ideology. Exploring the psychology of public and private space, the ambivalence inherent in familial and societal relations and the seduction and repulsion of voyeurism” are also cornerstones of her approach.

I had the pleasure of corresponding with the filmmaker, and these are some of the things that Shelly Silver shared with me about her film, in response to a battery of my own questions.

Answering my question “What motivated you to make this film?”, Silver responded: “a feeling of complete alienation with my country and particularly New York City (where I was born) which was becoming increasingly rich.” She took this further in a document she sent: “I started shooting In Complete World in 2007, out of an extreme feeling of alienation and disillusion with the US, and more importantly, New York City, where I was born and put in a good deal of quality time. This city, ‘my’ city, was becoming increasingly white, rich and homogenized and I felt myself being pushed out economically and culturally. In the interest of full disclosure, I was also frustrated with my own inactivity and powerlessness in the face of the disastrous direction this country has moved in for the last 8(+) years. Rather than leave New York and the US, or, perhaps, in preparation to do so, I decided to take out my camera and find out who were these people I was sharing a city with, by asking them the very same questions I was asking myself.”

As Silver told me, the filming was done through all of 2007, and part of 2008. Clearly the filming was completed before the election of Obama in November of 2008, and no one mentions either Obama, Clinton, or McCain, as far as I can recall.

In this film, Silver explains that she was looking to bridge the public and private worlds, “through the exchange of words, which are thrown in an ever-enlarging pile, one on top of another….I was looking for that intersection between I and we, that acknowledgement, sometimes begrudging, sometimes joyful, sometimes even disgusting, that all of us are a part of it. How do we say we?” This impacts on her choice of questions, and in response to my question as to what motivated that choice, she responded: “I wanted questions that would bridge the personal and the political, that would get at this issue of responsibility (originally the questions went “Do you feel responsible for the government you get?”, “Do you feel responsible for what your government does?”, “Do you feel personally responsible for the war in Iraq?”, and then to go to more existential questions (“What are you most scared of?”).

Silver mentioned a moment ago a structure of accumulation. She explains this further by stating, “In Complete World‘s structure is based on accumulation. One answer/one question builds on the next, giving the effect of a growing jigsaw, where issues are complicated and characters are slowly allowed to grow. I found this structure of accumulation allowed for and encouraged complexity — having each person interviewed in the position of directly answering a question (unmediated by commentator or ‘expert’) and putting the viewer (again without commentator or expert) into the active position of building/making sense of the film over time. I also hope that the viewer enters vicariously into the position of the interviewee, asking himself or herself what they would answer, while they are watching the film.”

The politics of voice is also a critical part of the film, not just its structure, but also its intent, and its underlying meanings. Regarding what she says is her obsession with voice, Silver explained that, “Before starting, I was scared that street interviews would no longer function because streets/the public space, would no longer function in the same social and collective way and that my specific questions, which engaged people as individuals and as citizens of a larger whole, would be met with apathy or indifference. Instead people had a great desire to speak and be heard, to have a voice. My job as filmmaker was to do my best to allow for this chorus (and I use this word specifically, because these is something so musical in their combination) of voices to be heard. After my experience making the film, looking back over the last decade, I feel that this voice, our voice, individual and collective, is what’s been lost and must, at all costs, be regained.” So is this meant as a “political documentary”?

In terms of the politics of producing a documentary that “preaches to the choir,” and relies almost exclusively on interviews with the so-called “experts”, Silver has some sharp points to make that are well worth listening to: “I made In Complete World to be a way of questioning myself, a personal learning tool to figure out my own inactive position vis-à-vis my country, government and society. I’m hoping, because of the way the film is built, and because of the questions it deals with (how do we balance our personal lives with our more public ones, how do we navigate personal and collective responsibility), that this question of ‘preaching to the choir’ gets interesting/complicated. Clearly, all Americans are ‘in the choir.’ And everyone, for that matter, is a member of a larger society, regardless of political leanings. There is also no one answer (or at least I don’t have one) to the larger questions that I ask, having to do with how to live and navigate within a society. I don’t want In Complete World to offer an answer or prescription, but instead, a beginning of a dialogue. In the end I hope that In Complete World provokes both individual reflection as well as a desire to be ‘in it,’ to be one of the many voices that are heard and hopefully responded to.”

I also asked Silver to speak about some of the technical issues surrounding the making of the film, for example, “How long did you spend with each individual?” to which she replied “20-30 minutes, which is a long time for a street interview,” and one has to agree, and that also suggests that those interviewed found the questions to be engaging enough themselves, important enough, drawing them in further, to want to stay for the next question, and the next, and the next, answering each one seriously, cleverly, with humour, with sadness. One has to recognize the skill of the interviewers, and of Silver in planning these questions, that they clearly touched the people interviewed in such a manner that the interviewees did not experience the questions as an imposition. Some come out and thank the interviewer at the end for this opportunity to speak and to be heard. I asked Silver if she had a problem with people turning her away and refusing to be interviewed, to which she replied, quite simply, “many, many people.” Indeed, you see the same happening in Chronicle of a Summer, with a clip from that film to be shown here tonight.

Questions of intimacy, spontaneity, public and private, truth versus reality, all of these come up in both Silver’s film and Chronicle by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin a few decades before. The coincidences, which seem more striking at first than when one watches both films in their entirety, initially caught my attention, so I asked Silver if she was inspired by the work of Jean Rouch and by Chronicle of a Summer. Silver replied: “Definitely. This magic of going into the street not knowing what to expect. They start with happiness, I start quite similarly/differently with satisfaction (the root of which implies responsibility/payback of debt).” Indeed, I also noted the altered initial question, and I like this notion of satisfaction as different from happiness — more than happiness, satisfaction implies an external relationship, seeing yourself in relation to a wider world, seeing yourself in relation to where you were before and where you would want to be, and you can be satisfied and not necessarily happy. In other words, for me at least, satisfaction is more social, more concrete, almost measurable, while happiness is more deeply interior and individual, and perhaps ethereal.

There are strong differences as well between the two films, aside from the initial question that is asked. Compared to Chronicle, Silver’s film is much more fast paced; Silver’s interviewees always have answers, they never struggle, or as happened on occasion in Chronicle where they sometimes gulped for air looking for words, or sucked on a cigarette nervously, or even broke down in tears. Silver never enters people’s homes, there are no dinners, no fights with her interviewees, no time spent at the beach together or in the disco. Silver’s interviewees show no sense of fearing the camera as an object, shying away from it, but they are of course very much conscious of it, as you hear in the remarks at the end. Some ran away of course, but these are not shown, whereas they are in Chronicle. Silver’s interviewees do not engage in long self-reflections, nor do they challenge the questioner. In Silver’s film, the questioner is not seen or heard, except partly, once, by accident. There appears to be less intimacy in Silver’s film, which is not Silver’s fault. Rouch and Morin “cheated” you might say, by using many people who were students of theirs, or comrades in political organizations to which they belonged — they knew their people well in advance, and even then they needed to keep the wine flowing and the food moving so as to sustain long and animated dialogues on camera. For example…

Silver’s interviewees remain conscious of the fact that they do not know who will see the film or where — some only volunteer part of their names, and others state that there was much more they could have said, or said differently, but not on camera. Nor is there use of Rouch’s informant-feedback method at the end of the film, where all those filmed gather at the end to watch themselves at a screening and comment on the final product, only to have their gathering and statements included in what then becomes the really final product.

But of course very much like Rouch, Silver draws attention to the created and narrative character of film as text. Like Rouch, the camera technique is somewhat familiar, placing the camera very close to the person’s face to create a sense of intimacy, of creating a small world within the wider, buzzing and bustling world around them. There is improvisation in both films, and in both films the interviewees become characters, we begin to relate to each of them, we may even develop “favourites,” those we feel closest to. So for myself, the three who stood out the most, and with which I could most identify, were the worker in the wool hat, the little old man with the navy cap, and the Latin American man with the sad eyes who has been jobless for a year, giving his full name and address at the end of the film. But I found all the faces, and all the statements, to be striking and engaging. The film makes time fly past quickly, and when it ends, one wishes it hadn’t.

As always, ethnographic film like this challenges us to think about what we envision as ethnography, as doing ethnography. I think such films widen our notions of ethnography, transporting them beyond the stereotypical methods, the rigid definitions, and the customary locales. For me the film was a big breath of fresh air, even if it was New York City air, even worse, inhaled through Montreal smog.

On a personal note, I would add that I think Shelly Silver’s film re-“masters” Rouch & Morin’s Chronicle, not in the sense of touching up an original, or imitating an original, but learning from an original and then doing a better job of what the original sought to do. Chronicle is filled with doubt, of course, the filmmakers were doing something relatively unique and experimental at the time — but they did not even know which questions to ask on the street at first. In Complete World is a far more elegant, fluid, and coherent vision of Chronicle, as if Silver had figured out what Rouch & Morin really wanted to do (they struggled with that very question), and then she did it herself. I could not have, so naturally I am impressed. Now the two films form a couple across time, and they should be shown together. I think the organizers did a great job in having the insight to do so tonight.

On the issue of being heard: This is why I had those slips of paper distributed to each of you, to be handed to me at the end, if you will. I would like you to write down one sentence or phrase, as legible as possible, stating what you thought about the film, knowing that the filmmaker herself will in fact be reading your comments, and I leave it up to you whether to write your name or not. Also, instead of writing what you liked about the film, you might instead choose to answer one of her questions — like, do you feel responsible for the government you have, and your statement should clearly reflect which question you are answering, rather than just writing, “No”. I will then reproduce all of the statements, and send Silver the link to the printed version of this presentation, and she will thus be able to read your comments, and possibly respond since it will appear on a blog titled “Open Anthropology,” which is otherwise my place for making myself heard.

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Voices to be heard: The audience participates in making the film experience

(These are presented in no particular order. For the reader who was not present: many of these comments respond to questions asked of the interviewees in the film, thereby extending the film into the “audience.” Other comments are reactions to the film as a whole. Like the interviewees in the film, some volunteered their names.)

  1. “I think nobody gets the same opportunities because everybody gets a different past and different capacities. But we can’t forget color problems, racism, segregationism. We can dream, imagine a world and a system based on capacities, and only capacities of people…”
  2. “I do really feel responsible for what is going on in the world (for my government, for global warming, wars and so on). I think that the best thing the government could do for me personally is to bring peace and to make people as equal as possible in the world, because it is a too heavy burden to live with everyday (I mean, to know that people are dying everyday). I’m scared when I’m old to realize that I haven’t done anything to change the world, that I’ve done nothing to make our world better for the future generations” — Aurelia Ishitsuka, 19 years old.
  3. “A very interesting and informative look into the United States. The election of President Obama begs for a sequel to this film.” — Gerald Romanow.
  4. “As an American, this film made me regain some faith in the (United) States and its people. It’s refreshing to learn that there are others who are critical, who are thinking and working to do their part. It makes it easier to realize I’m not alone.” — Sofia Danna.
  5. “We are all responsible to a certain extent for the governments we have.”
  6. “What I find interesting is how people fear being alone when living in an individualistic society, even though many have come from collectivist cultures. We need to ask more questions and listen more. I am responsible. Thank you.” — Naomi Lasry.
  7. “I found the movie very interesting and showing the general and particular point of view of their own society. Americans can be so heterogeneous than we can see it in the movie. Thanks to show us the different faces of America’s/New York’s people.” — Maria Valdes (Concordia).
  8. “NYC is a great city of many thoughtful people, but unfortunately it is not representative of the United States.” — Benedict.
  9. “Do you (Shelly Silver) feel your film is dated? Why? — What question produced the most answers that surprised you? Why? — Why do feelings really matter?” — Robert.
  10. “Great film. Diverse expression is the beauty of NY! What should we/you do about the future might be a good question. Thx.”
  11. “Great knack for dialogue, and complex reflection in the most simple way: the image! (Bravo.) That knack ‘gives’ in many ways: it’s generous citizenship.” — Pascale C.A.
  12. ” (* The most optimistic thought I have about America is that the Empire will soon collapse.) — Shelly, I enjoyed the film — touching, sad, defiant. Is this really the most powerful and wealthy country in the world? In truth, these voices are no doubt very similar to what we might have heard from earlier generations too. My great hope is that we can work to create a new generation of young people who come about the issues themselves, speak their mind and not submit to the ideology of hatred, racism and class warfare. I’m an American living in Montreal who has not given up on my countrymen.” — Mark.
  13. “The movie covered a lot of different questions, from the personal to the United States Federal Government, of opinions from those of every walk of life. [illegible segment]…not making watchers of the movie reach some definite conclusion, but leaves the viewer in an ambivalent state. Well made. Congratulations.” — Gaso Sernaz, Montreal.
  14. “Thank you so much for doing this film. I’m an American, and I’ve felt so alienated from what I thought democracy was, and what I was taught it was. To hear these New Yorkers express the same lamentations that I’ve been having for eight years now, really made me feel connected again. It’s been just as inspiring as Obama’s new presidency, since I really know I’m not alone and that change is really coming. THANKS!”
  15. “I thought I would hate it, but I loved it.” — Lesley Johnson
  16. Am I happy? Yes. — But, it is a constant struggle with my consciousness, to be so. In the sense that my instinctual way of thinking is negative and pessimistic. I constantly have to try to remain conscious of the fact that I am not my surroundings, my outfit, not the perception of me by other people, not my body or my university degree (or my GPA). But, I must say that I have been successful in taking my own advice (to be positive) and more and more it is less of a conscious effort, less of a struggle. I loved ‘In Complete World’.” — Katherine Flanagan
  17. “The film is a great capture of the attitudes that led up to the major change in getting Obama elected. It would be interesting to interview the same people now or next year, in the new era of Obama.”
  18. “Thank you so much for this movie. I should do the same thing in my country.”
  19. “Do I feel responsible for the government? No. — Fabulously done and portrayed. Interesting and clever intro to project.”
  20. “I am most scared of stagnation. Of becoming satisfied with a certain situation or a certain ‘way that things are’ instead of restlessly asking for more of myself and of the world that I live in. I am scared of getting stuck in a context or a job or a marriage or a life that does not excite me, scared of rationalizing to myself day after day that the hand I was dealt is the hand I must play. This all raises another fear, though: that one day I will be blindsided by the fact that I have not enjoyed that which I did have, having overlooked it in the search for more, and having to suffer that self-imposed isolation. I guess I am mostly scared of myself.” — Marlee McGuire, Concordia University anthropology student.

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