Reflexive Commentary

Word count: 913

Making my film, from conception, through to filming and editing, was a deeply personal process. In looking at the relationship between my brother and I, I wanted not only to explore an aspect of my life that had shaped me, but also to provoke the audience to reflect on their own experiences and relationships. Due to this theme, my presence and intention as a filmmaker inevitably pervaded all aspects of the film, and so requires a deeply reflexive methodological and theoretical approach, something that has until more recently been a taboo in visual anthropology (Ruby, 1980) (which my film tackles directly). The idea of objectivity in visual anthropological productions is a fallacy (ibid). As a remedy to the pervasive objective ideal in documentary film production, and in order for the audience to formulate a critical understanding of anthropological film, Ruby (1980) advocates that the anthropologist ‘reveal’ themselves and their methodology as the tools for data production. He asserts that maker and their work are one, and this is particularly relevant for the deeply personal nature of my film.

Yet this personal involvement and acknowledgment is not ‘self-therapy’ (Rabiger, 2004) or indulgent as a worried it might be, for in addition to my personal motivations I have a clear anthropological intention to evoke the challenges of familial relationships through telling the story of one English family that happens to be my own. Neither is it narcissistic, as I have intentionally and explicitly revealed my position throughout the filmmaking process in order for the audience to develop a critical view of the film and better form their own interpretations. In this way, film is more than communication, as the filmmaker creates a particular relationship between audience and film subject (Ruby, 1980).

Cinéma vérité claims to produce a ‘truth’ of reality by acknowledging the presence of both the camera and filmmaker and their interactions with the subjects of the film, avoiding any sense of pretense of situation. From my experiences, there is not ‘truth’ of reality in film-making, rather different perspectives and interpretations of the same scene, and so by revealing my position within the film-making process I can explain my intentions for certain approaches. My close family relationships with all the subjects in my film enabled me to access more personal information and facilitate a sense of comfort and ease whilst filming. Furthermore, I used a participatory approach, pioneered by Rouch, whereby my brother (and to a lesser degree my parents) shaped the content of the film, including: the locations where we filmed together, the kinds of information they revealed which shaped the overall narrative, and finally influenced which clips were used during final editing (for example, after showing him a first draft of the film he commented that he didn’t want a certain part of the interview included as he did not want it broadcast to a public audience). I often set the camera up to keep rolling without me behind it so that I could interact with the subjects as naturally as possible (not necessarily to recreate a ‘truth’ of reality, but rather a different perspective and situation than if I’d stayed behind the camera). In a few instances I showed my mum (with often funny consequences) how to use the camera and asked her to film my brother and I climbing and when I was looking through our box of family memorabilia.

Despite some arguments that the camera can reproduce ‘truths’ of reality, filmmaking is a complex process and subjects can employ their agency at different points to shape the film, whether during the editing stage as part of an invitation for a participatory approach, or through filtering what they reveal in the presence of a camera.  Furthermore, I argue that in the context of my film, that the camera also acted as a tool to create the story not just observe it. This was in part to an acknowledgement of the intersubjectivity of all human experience (Jackson, 1998), including in film-making, and the participation of my subject. More significantly, this was due to the fact that the presence of a camera had actually enabled my brother and I to talk about our past, as using it was for a creative process and product which would strengthen our relationship. Thus, the camera is a powerful tool of provocation, which can both inhibit and encourage the communication of a film subject. Collaborating with my brother in the film shaped all parts of the process, and I feel that there was no other approach that would have been appropriate in a film that was based on our relationship.

Film-making does not just transmit information and images but creates a ‘way of looking’ which also reflects the filmmaker (MacDougall, 2006 cited by Colusso, 2017). In this way film is an “extension of the self towards other” (MacDougall, 1998, p.29). This resonates not only with the sentiment behind my film, but also my methodological approach, such as my decision to appear in the film, both by suggestion (i.e. my hands or voice during certain parts) and fully visible. Producer, process and product are a coherent whole and should be revealed in order to have a critical understanding (Ruby, 1980). Furthermore, the subject will always have agency, and film-making will always be shaped by an intersubjective encounter. Participatory film-making is one method which acknowledges this and upholds the ethical responsibility that anthropological filmmakers have to their subjects by rejecting the objective fallacy of traditional documentary films (ibid).



Colusso, E. (2017). The space between the filmmaker and the subject – the ethical encounter. Studies in Documentary Film, 11(2), pp.141-156.

Jackson, M. (1998). Minima Ethnographica. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, p.1-36.

MacDougall, D. 1998. Transcultural Cinema. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

MacDougall, D. 2006. The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rabiger, M. (2004). Directing the documentary. Amsterdam: Focal Press.

Ruby, J. (1980). Exposing yourself: Reflexivity, anthropology, and film. Semiotica, 30(1-2).

© 2018 by Madeline Spencer.

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