Cinema Politica recently put out a call for proposals to launch a new genre: documentary futurism, or speculative documentary. It was extremely difficult to put together a proposal for a genre that for the most part doesn’t yet exist, but what I ultimately decided was that this genre should be more about process than any kind of structure, aesthetics, or style (i.e., the opposite of von Trier’s self-indulgent “dogma” films).<
I’m thinking now about continuing to work on the writing that I started for the grant proposal, especially in light of Reina Gosset’s piece in Teen Vogue today:
“David France’s documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, premiered on Netflix last October 6 while the one I envisioned with Sasha did not get made. We had applied for a grant to at least one of the same foundations that France, a white cisgender gay man, had applied to, but it was his film that got funding and not ours. Long before France’s film premiered, Sasha and I had decided to change course and make a short narrative film instead of a documentary. After we learned that France was planning his film, we knew we’d we’d face significant challenges making a documentary with a lower budget and fewer resources than he had. We were hopeful that our community would continue to support us, and were thrilled when we were able to crowdfund our film through donations via Kickstarter. It was truly a community effort, and I felt my relationship with Marsha deepening as we continued making Happy Birthday Marsha!. We are so proud of the final cut, which will premiere in 2018.
But as France’s documentary starts to make its way to large audiences, I can’t stop thinking about the voices that have been pushed aside in the process. Too often, people with resources who already have a platform become the ones to tell the stories of those at the margins rather than people who themselves belong to these communities. The process ends up extracting from people who are taking the most risks just to live our lives and connect with our histories, and the result ends up on Netflix, a platform you have to pay to even access. It goes against so much of what I have been working towards.”
There’s a lot to talk about there in terms of resources and economics, but I feel like those are already ideas that people are having conversations about so I’m leaving them aside for now. Other issues that I think are more difficult to address, but that we also need to develop robust ideas around, involve credit, citations, and relations(hips).
Filmmakers, especially documentary filmmakers, don’t make films in a vacuum. Sure, most are at least vaguely aware of issues around building relationships and accountability, but there are many that really only give it lip service and/or ignore what awareness they have of these concepts and barrel through, extracting knowledge and labor without sufficient thought to or practices around reciprocity and respect.
One of the key things that is coming out of the way that activists and artists, starting with Gosset, are speaking to about David France’s film on Marsha P. Johnson, for me, is how documentarians don’t think deeply enough, if at all, about citational practices. Sure, they give credit to their protagonists, interview subjects, and sometimes may license one non-fiction book on the subject that they “adapt.” But what I know from my own practice is how deeply imbricated everything I do – and every idea I have – is with networks relations and work done by others.
For Pride Denied, I included a bibliography at the end of the film (something Pasolini amazingly does at the beginning of Salo), but I’ve always felt like that is not nearly enough. Of course a big part of this is who one chooses to interview and put on screen – those visible relations. But what about all the work and ideas that shape everything else, down to my very approach of the subject?
Here is some of what I wrote in my documentary futurism proposal, which draws heavily from the work of Joanne Barker and Kim Tallbear, as well as to the constellation of networks and relations we are all variously a part of:
Documentary filmmakers in North America, like anthropologists and workers in various other scientific disciplines, most often take as their subjects the poor and the powerless, telling their stories from a relative position of power in terms of wealth, access, and frequently as settler colonial subjects speaking to other (often presumably white and wealthy) settlers about communities these audiences know little about.
Documentary futurism offers an opportunity to reconsider these modes of knowing, production, and representation by flipping the script and taking instead colonialism, capitalism, power, and affluence as the object of study. I contend that the project of documentary futurism must necessarily engage with the dynamics of power in representation inherent in the industry of documentary production, from funding to access to who gets to tell stories as well as what stories make it on screen, how they are constructed, from what perspective(s) are they told, and to what audiences films address themselves. As such, documentary futurism as a genre, which necessarily builds on work done the fields of Aftrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism, should be fundamentally concerned with dismantling setter colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism, telling stories that turn the gaze back on colonizers, capital, and their institutions.
In this context, the notion of a documentary director as solo visionary and author becomes visible as a settler colonial construct. Documentary filmmaking, perhaps much more so than other genres, is relational. There is the obvious relationship between filmmaker and subjects (when relevant). But just as important are the relations between knowledge and ideas that frame a given project. Documentary filmmakers continuously engage with, rely on, and utilize the knowledge and experiences of others in the production of their films, and yet often there is little discussion of the process or recognition of the debt filmmakers owe to the work of others, especially when those others are not on screen.
As I have been thinking about my relations to the knowledge and ideas of others that haunt the screens on which I work, I have been playing with various modes of acknowledgement and credit (often directly drawing from citational practices common in academic research). But thinking through what new modes of production that documentary futurism could enable, I want to try something different: making my “being in relation” to the work of others part of the structure of a film itself.
This is, in a way, a version of “write what you know” that (I hope) extends beyond facile notions of experience that encourages a structural failure to acknowledge histories, knowledge, and relations that do not center whiteness. Failure on the part of white filmmakers in particular to consider histories and experiences beyond their own lead to productions like Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled, in which she chose to construct an all-white world in the civil war era south because, as she writes, “I felt that to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting.”
Similarly, for many settler documentarians, especially those who frequently have the power, racial privilege, and wealth (or access to it), writing what one knows – and treating subjects who live in ways outside that purview as objects of study, fascination, fetishization that can be mobilized for the cinematic pleasure of white audiences – is frequently another methodology for reproducing and maintaining white supremacy and settler colonialism. Thus, one crucial way to challenge the white settler hegemony of the documentary industry is for the genre of documentary futurism – as the Cinema Politica call for proposals articulates – to center and uplift the voices of filmmakers from marginalized communities. This is certainly crucial to ensure stories that reject the all too common practice of settler/outsider filmmakers coming into communities – and othering subjects for the pleasure and consumption of settler society – get made and actually make it to screens.
But I believe the call for documentary futurism also offers an opportunity to make demands for accountability from white settler filmmakers: that we listen to and attend to the concerns of those outside our own networks and communities without appropriating their stories and knowledge. It challenges us to incorporate what we learn into our own practices while giving proper credit and respect rather than appropriating that knowledge for ourselves or speaking for others, a practice of solidarity that filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha, for example, characterizes in both the content and form of her work as “speaking nearby.”
If David France had bothered to consider any of the ideas I raise here, perhaps it would have occurred to him that he would have been better suited to make a film about the long history of abuse and neglect, especially how it relates to people of color, queers, and trans women of color in particular. He could have used his position as a white gay man with tremendous resources and access to turn the camera back on power and the state and made that the focal point of his film, and Johnson could have been a part of that story. But instead the NYPD is more of a footnote to the story he tells, which takes from work of many others without citation or credit in the film itself, much less any kind of reciprocity or compensation for that work.
As a mode of documentary futurism, learning to speak nearby, rather than ignoring or speaking for, perhaps offers a path for reframing and refocusing the kind of work that documentary does and can do as part of the larger vital project of decolonization that all artists in the US and Canada have an obligation to contribute to.