Before delving into the corpus of this book, I want to share a personal experience that provided me with the urge that fuelled this research. Some years ago I worked for the VRT (the Flemish Broadcasting Cooperation) as a documentary maker. I had finished my studies in Film Production at the Art School in Brussels and my anthropology studies at the universities of Ghent and Berkeley, and was given the opportunity to make some independent films, before ‘getting into the system’, the world of television production.
As I wanted to explore this system, I worked for an independent production company that offers programs to different channels. Because of my anthropological studies, my employers wanted me to work for a documentary series that was sold to Canvas, the second channel of the VRT, profiled as ‘high quality, high standard television for critical viewers’. The series dealt with different themes such as love, friendship, living, youngsters etc. and was designed as a cross-cut, a format that edits different stories in one program so as to build in a more dramatic structure. The story line I was asked to create needed to deal with a family of Turkish descent who were looking for a house. Before I started my research, my series editor, to my utmost surprise, handed me a detailed script in which not only the specific scenes were described but the quotes of the main ‘characters’ were written as well.
In the script, stereotypically, this family lives in a scrappy house with lots of relatives, the women are veiled and they all encounter many racist situations. For instance, they fall victim to villainous persons while they are looking for a buyer for their old house and are asked an exorbitant price for their new one. “Make it happen”, my series editor said, clearly affirming that I needed to model my interaction with this yet unknown family in such a way that I made
them fit the script. “Of course, otherwise we couldn’t have sold the format” he answered when I asked him whether he was serious. The story quickly ended: I encountered a very interesting family with whom I made a documentary, without connecting to the script, so obviously this experience resulted in my dismissal.
When I tell this experience to friends, or to audiences when I lecture, I have noticed several specific reactions. They were of course surprised to hear how a documentary ‘fact’ is being manufactured. A script, quotes, characters, crosscut,
all these narrative techniques seem out of place in a documentary context. They were even more astonished to hear that such a “renowned” television channel operates in this way. It is the context of this channel that provokes the strongest reaction.
From the perspective of the ‘viewer’, it seems that crucial information about the production process is obscured. Images are not critically contextualized the way written texts, the audience therefore seems to depend on the status of the channel to evaluate the truthfulness of the images they see. In this case that is precisely what shocked them: they never expected such a prestigious channel to resort to such methods.
Furthermore, from the perspective of the Turkish family, – the ‘other, this script seems absurd as they were unwelcome guests in their own script. There was no room for any participation or collaboration on their part in the creating of their image. The script is as a mirror image of the producer’s reflections, but there is no relation with the family it purports to show.
What if I were to fit the script, what would it entail for the Turkish family? How would this affect their lives and their social context? I noticed that my listeners were relieved to hear that I was fired eventually, so that I wouldn’t be strangled by this system. From the point of view of the ‘author’, me in this case, the story questions the process of production as a site where authors, producers and editors are tangled up in a web of values, responsibilities and audience rating.
In general, this anecdote prompts several questions. First of all, why is the translation from reality understood as a representation? Secondly, how is this transformation manufactured? What does this process entail with regard to the ‘other’ that is filmed? Next, which information is obscured from the ‘viewer’ and what are the consequences? Finally, how can the ‘author’ prefigure the ‘viewer’ within the process of production in a way that (s)he has a critical position in the film? In sum, how can we understand the interactions between the ‘author’, the ‘other’ and the ‘viewer’ in (documentary) filmmaking during the production process?
I evaluated this questioning of crucial importance in researching (documentary) film production: it is precisely this process of production that presents an enormous potential as a site of critique. Being a filmmaker myself, and having ‘been there’, I consider myself somewhat of an insider who on the one hand, can provide and assess information that would otherwise be more difficult to obtain. On the other hand, throughout my research I question the importance of the production process and thus the value of an ethnography of production: these formal aspects are examined in view of a hyphenated framework that builds on notions provided by anthropology and media & cultural studies.
As such, the present book focuses on the ethnography of production not only in terms of what type of information it offers for media researchers, anthropologists and ‘viewers’ in general, and thus on how to use the production process as a site of critique: it also examines how ‘authors’ create new strategies and methods to suggest the (context of) interaction, hence presenting concrete possibilities for filmmakers, visual anthropologists and practitioners in general.