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In late 2012, I participated in a crossover event at RMIT University, Melbourne, called NonfictionNow 2012. The organisers described it as ‘one of the world’s most significant gatherings of writers, teachers and readers of nonfiction’. They would say that, wouldn’t they – but in this case, the hype was justified. Organised in partnership with Iowa University and Barbara Bedell, the Copyright Agency, Wheeler Centre and ABC Radio National, it was a rich and stimulating event, as ‘400 conference delegates joined an additional 400 members of the public for three full days of panels, exhibitions, readings and public events centred on the practice, thinking, communication and writing of nonfiction in all its forms… The event enabled a diversity of leading Australian voices to be heard in this unique conversation, which bridges between the academy and the arts and industry.’
David Shields kicked things off with a witty and well judged provocation that revisited themes from his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, about remixing, plagiarism, non-fiction, reality, and the culture of appropriation. He quotes Malcolm Gladwell in “Annals of Culture”, New Yorker, on the thin line between legal and moral plagiarism: “When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to “match” a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else’s idea. But had we “matched” any of the Times’s words – even the most banal of phrases – it could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of minor differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.’ Shields calls this ‘Trial by Google’.
Falling in behind him in the (very long) line for drinks on the first evening, I pressed him on the serious issues behind his breezy bricolage. In Reality Hunger, Shields assembles other folks’ memorable thoughts and aphorisms as an enjoyable enquiry into contemporary cultural forms. But what if, I asked him, someone gouges juicy bits from a non-fiction writer’s hard-won research, and recycles them, thinly veiled, as their original fiction? Is this remix or rort? He frowned, confessed a lack of knowledge of Australian copyright law. Morally, though, he offered a judgement. If the usage of the ‘borrowed’ material was transformative – that is, if it was not used in a similar context as the original, pertaining to similar activities and situations, or for a similar purpose, then, Shields told me, it could arguably be acceptable re-use, justifiable in the service of creating a totally new work of art. Otherwise not.
We reached the counter, where he confronted a new dilemma – whether to tip the bar worker who handed him a can of VB beer. That, at least, was easily decided. No, the waitress said. But her reply needed historical context. I quickly filled him in on the stonemasons who in this very city in 1856 had won the world’s first eight-hour working day, ensuring a tradition of respect for working conditions that had led to award wages that would be the envy of the diner waitress we met in Chicago in 2011, who had to rely on clients’ tips to supplement her menial $2.50 an hour wage. The morning we had breakfast, five tables of Danish students and their minders had just stiffed her. By this stage, Shields was looking edgy, so I ceded the space to his circling fans, and headed to a corner of the rooftop terrace to contemplate the view of Melbourne below, and the rubbery nature of ‘remix’.
Next day I joined ABC radio/online producer, film-maker and RMIT lecturer Kyla Brettle, RN producer and ABC Pool co-founder Sherre DeLys, and University of Iowa scholar Jeff Porter for a panel on Sonic Writing: Radio Nonfiction, chaired by Professor Ross Gibson of University of Technology Sydney. We were there to discuss the expressive nature of sound in relation to other media in the context of radio nonfiction, a genre that shares with literary journalism and documentary film the common goal of examining and constructing unfamiliar worlds that have special relevance to a broader understanding of our collective selves.
Radio nonfiction (particularly the radio documentary) is unique for asking us not to read or gaze at its subjects but rather to hear and listen to their divergent voices and unique soundscapes. This panel discussed the emergence of the radio documentary as a noteworthy turn in the growth of contemporary nonfiction. In particular, the focus was on the way sound interacts with words and influences the meaning of a radio text in surprisingly powerful ways. As many sound makers testify, spoken language is only part of the mix: the editing and layering of sounds, music, voices, and ambience more often than not will reshape the narrative dynamic of any documentary radio text. More by serendipity than design, the presentations extended and complemented each other, though the too-brief time for questions afterwards was disappointing. AUDIO of panel here. Order: Kyla, Siobhan (15 minutes in), Sherry, Jeff.
Later in the week, Helen Garner, as surprised as the rest of us to find she’s almost 70, revealed delicious trade secrets. Age only deepens her insight, her writing these days a killer combination of observation and understanding, as she teases out complex human dramas with wisdom, anger and compassion. Video of her talk HERE.
Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic and former staff writer for The New York Times, responded drily to her fulsome introduction by quoting the French writer Collette: ‘what a wonderful life – I wish I’d noticed!’ The Chicago-raised African-American tackles head-on cornerstone issues of US society such as race, and told us she wants to reclaim ecstasy in cultural criticism: the ecstasy of curiosity, and of loathing. Margo’s talk here.
Final session, ‘Out of Place’ had an (unexpectedly) delightful panel linked to Canberra (hence the unexpectedness). Partly due to the range of speakers, from the chair (cartoonist Judy Horacek) to the themes (Francesca Rendle-Short on her unusual family, Kim Mahoud on occupying a strange white/blackfella interface, Robyn Archer a forcefield on 100 years of Canberra). All rounded off by a brilliant presentation by Margo Neale, Indigenous art curator at National Museum of Australia, which showed, clear as the nose on your face, through juxtaposition of slides of remote Indigenous-occupied Australia and paintings and drawings of those scenes and locales that, as Margo said, Indigenous art is not about country – it IS country. Go Margo! Thanks for that revelation: simple but stunning.
That’s one of the topics up for no doubt heated discussion at a session I’ll be chairing next week (6 Sept) at University of Wollongong. The two-day Expanded Documentary public seminar questions where the boundaries of documentary sit these days, on a spectrum from art to journalism to performance to God knows where. Great range of speakers, including keynote Ross Gibson. Info here.
My session goes back to an old but hard chestnut: where do power, truth and creativity meet in engagement with the disenfranchised. Stories will range from the Mexican Borderlands (Colm McNaughton) to new SBS Online interactive documentary The Block in Redfern, to the broader Indigenous landscape (Susan Moylan-Coombs, NITV).
To get things going, I’ve put together this ‘provocation’. Love your feedback!
To ignore and exorcise subjectivity as if it were only a noxious interference in the pure data is ultimately to distort and falsify the nature of the data themselves. (Portelli 1997:80)
An award-winning 1974 analysis of African-American slavery, Time on the Cross, written by Nobel prizewinner Robert Fogel and his colleague Stanley D. Engerman, focuses on the economics of slavery: the conditions under which slaves worked and the efficiency and organisation of Southern American slave plantations. Among their painstaking data, they note that slaves tended to be whipped an average of 0.7 times a year. That’s a fact. But it bears little relation to reality. Because NO slave could ever have been whipped 0.7 times. You were either whipped or not whipped.
Former slave Frederick Douglass was less in thrall to facts. When he set out to write his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892), he was advised by well-meaning abolitionists to stick to the facts, so as to gain credibility. Instead, he included observations and opinion, discussing for instance, not just how often he was beaten but the degree of sadism with which the beatings were executed. Far from being irrelevant, his judgements are both liberating and illuminating, contends the Italian oral history theorist, Alessandro Portelli. ‘The discovery of difference, especially inner difference, is the first step toward recognising the humanity of one’s oppressors and thus affirming their own, which their oppressors deny: ‘I therefore began to think that they [white people] were not all of the same disposition…’ (Portelli 1997:80)
So is difference a positive or a negative force when it comes to one person documenting another’s lived experience? And how do different differences play out in the recorded exchange: gender, class, age, culture, power?
Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer prize-winning American broadcaster and author, recorded some 9,000 interviews with people from all demographics. He did not see the everyday lives he revealed – clerks, hookers, conveyor belt workers – as ‘ordinary’, but as ‘uncelebrated’. He did not see the exchanges as interviews, but as opening ‘the sluice gates of dammed hurts and dreams’. (Terkel 1972: xx) A white, leftist, secular Jew, his work documents quintessential themes of American society, from race and class to war and capitalism, from a multiplicity of perspectives.
One of his biggest discoveries was that listening matters. Not so much WHO listens, but the act of being heard. He often talked about a poor black American woman he impulsively recorded one day. Seeing her, with two or three children, staring into an empty shop window, Terkel politely asked what she was looking at.
‘Oh, dreams, I’m just looking at dreams.’ So I’ve got my tape recorder and I switch it on and I say ‘Good dreams, bad dreams?” And she starts to talk… and when she stops talking after eight, maybe ten minutes or so, one of them [her children] says, ‘Hey mom, can we listen to what you said?’… so I play it back and she listens to it too. And when it’s over, she gives a little shake of her head and she looks at me and she says, ‘Well until I heard that, I never knew I felt that way.’
(Terkel in Perks & Thomson 2006:126-7)
So, a sense of validation can be a positive outcome for a subject of the documentarian impulse. But what if her story had been found in the archives and used as proof of, say, the fecklessness of an unemployed welfare recipient? Does the documenter elevate, mediate or misrepresent the raw data he/she gathers? And how do we know, if we only see the end product?
What of the documentarian’s duty to interpret? As Italian scholar Luisa Passerini observes: ‘All autobiographical memory is true; it is up to the interpreter to discover in which sense, where, [and] for which purpose’ (Passerini 1989:197). Does this dictum bridge the gaps across power, class, race, culture?
Portelli recently published a forty-year study of Kentucky coal miners (They Say in Harlan County, 2011). He is white, Italian, middle-class, male. His interviews with poor American miners,both black and white, male and female, in his second language, are an exercise in Otherness. Even his transcriptionist was so far removed from the territory she misheard the drawled word ‘serpent’ as ‘servant’. Yet perhaps because of this striking difference, rather than in spite of it, the book is an exemplary portrayal of an isolated community.
Fieldwork is by necessity an experiment in equality based on difference. There must always be a line of difference across which the exchange becomes meaningful, but there must also be at least a line along which we can communicate the desire for a common ground and language that makes the exchange possible – our deep-rooted common human nature.
(Portelli 1997: 60)
So how does this axis of Otherness apply when telling Indigenous stories in Australia? In 2000, Aboriginal filmmaker Darlene Johnson advised SBS that ‘issues of appropriation, of respectful cultural representation, of equity and creative control are particularly pertinent to collaborative processes in relation to Aboriginal stories.’ (Peters Little 2002). But not all Aboriginal filmmakers believe that only Indigenous people should tell Indigenous stories. Frances Peters Little, Indigenous filmmaker (The Tent Embassy) and historian, argues thus:
The notion that Aboriginal filmmakers possess a certain connection to truth and instant rapport with any Aboriginal community or individual is naive. To think that Aboriginal filmmakers can shoot any Aboriginal community and capture the core of their history, politics, culture, personal relationships and social interactions without offending or misrepresenting anyone is presumptuous to say the least. Conversely there are many examples of white filmmakers (who) have made strong connections with Aboriginal individuals asking them to expose the internal disputations within Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal filmmakers while they share in something that is essentially Aboriginal by necessity or nature does not guarantee that they make stronger, more accurate or beneficial films for the Aboriginal community or individual than non-Aboriginal filmmakers. Questions of filmmaking ability (are) involved.
Some argue that ‘prosumer’ film-making will redress power imbalance: anyone with a smartphone can theoretically make a film these days, distribute it online and even have it financed by crowdfunding. SBS is actively developing democratising initiatives in the user-generated field of documentary, as online producer John MacFarlane can testify. Other practitioners, such as Hegelian Marxist and radio documentary-maker Colm McNaughton, eschew film in favour of sound, in order to mitigate issues of trauma and power. Liz Jessen, a Danish radio feature maker, also believes radio to be a far subtler form of storytelling:
In the close-up of a talking woman we see her big mouth, strong nose, narrow eyes, strange hair-do, unfashionable clothing, or whatever else we might decide to comment on as viewers, either to ourselves or to the other people watching. Every tiny impurity in her face is magnified and may distract us. Television can turn into (social) pornography when it moves in on the favourite genre of the radio feature: close-up recordings in which people speak from the heart or body. The beauty can disappear when projected from the screen. (Jessen 2004: 5)
But how do art and aesthetics marry with politics and ideologies? These are key questions this session will raise. A final thought from filmmaker Ken Burns:
You know it’s often said that the digital revolution that puts a TV camera in everyone’s hands makes everyone a filmmaker. It’s bullshit… What makes someone a filmmaker is somebody who knows how to tell a story … I’ve been doing this for a long time, almost 40 years that I’ve been trying to tell stories with film and I still feel like a student…. and that means that it requires a kind of lifetime of devotion. It isn’t enough just to be there when something happens. It isn’t enough just to record whatever happens. We have to be storytellers and it’s just logical that only a few of us are going to be able to do that … I’m learning. I’m learning. I’m learning.
(Ken Burns 2010)
Burns, K. (2010). “Why Everyone Is Not a Filmmaker “. Retrieved 3 September 2010 from Big Think website at http://bigthink.com/kenburns
Jessen, L. (2004). “All you need is Love, God, Power or Money — an essay on radio narrative”. Retrieved 3 December 2009 from International Features Conference website on http://ifc.blog-city.com/essay_on_documentaries__lisbeth_jessen.htm.
Passerini, L. (1979). “Work ideology and consensus under Italian fascism”. History Workshop. No. 8: 82-108.
Peters Little, F. (2002), “The Impossibility Of Pleasing Everybody: A Legitimate Role For White Filmmakers Making Black Films”, Art Monthly
Portelli, A. (1997). The battle of Valle Giulia: oral history and the art of dialogue. Madison, Wis., University of Wisconsin Press,
Terkel, S. (1972). Working: people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. London, Wildwood House.
Terkel, S. (2006). “Interviewing an Interviewer”, in R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader, 2nd edn, London, New York, Routledge, pp123-128.