Dare to Gaze Back

In my personal view, some of the best documentaries and films are ones that make viewers accountable for what they are seeing. To me it’s not really about being informative or being the most compelling story. I want a film to open my eyes to a new way of seeing the world. Perhaps a way that could help me to see change for the better. This may be idealistic, but even little ways that could challenge our current perceptions of even our immediate surroundings could go a long way. If there was only one way to arrive at a single conclusion or ending, what is really the point of seeking anything in our lives.

Enough about my idealistic wishes. I would like to talk about films that, put it bluntly, talk back to us viewers. I am not talking about instances when characters break the fourth wall for fun. I mean when certain representations are directed at us to make us evaluate our voyeuristic gaze. Hi i am Danny and I am a voyeur… We have to accept that when it comes to the audience and its relationship to the stories presented on screen, the audience does have somewhat of a privileged look. The images on screen are subjected to our gaze, therefore so are the people acting and living their lives within the frame. Or at least that’s what we end up walking away from the movie thinking. When we watch an informative documentary, often times we feel like we’ve gained some knowledge, like we know infinitely more about a situation or certain people, almost as if we have gotten smarter. With neatly packaged narrative films, we feel good about figuring out the underlying “point” of the story. I am not so sure, however, that we really know more just by watching a sequence of images. I mean to say, do peeping toms really know more about your life and your character just by peeping in?

Does this one representation of this person or this community or this race characterize entirely the multiplicity of identities they contain? Most likely not. Is there a certain violence done when we gaze in on the lives of others and make judgments about the characters on screen based on the narrative presented? Perhaps.

I think part of the violence is in the fact that watching any movie, whether it’s a documentary or a narrative film, is unidirectional. it’s a one-way street. The film medium is not an interactive medium through which the characters on screen can observe the audience and assess their actions of viewing. This is obvious because we all know that a movie is shot and recorded in a past moment, it is rendered through the many stages of post-production, and it is finally released and distributed via movie theaters, DVD, the internet, etc. Therefore, the characters on screen are just images representing what has happened in the past. Those images clearly cannot observe the spectator in the same way the spectator is observing the images.

However, a lot of times we forget this process ever exists. We feel so drawn into the compelling story of the movie, almost as if we are a part of it. And yet, occasionally we do feel the “safe” distance between us and the story world. For the most part, in traditional narratives and documentaries, we have the best of both worlds. We can be a part of the story without really falling victim to the conflicts represented on screen. We as viewers have this kind of power of observation, and that which being observed is usually unable to evaluate what WE do. We feel the power of seeing “all things” without ever being noticed. We are masters of “hide-and-seeing.”

Essentially, I started this discussion because this issue is something I try to tackle in my newest project, “Do Saints Really Sing How Heavenly.” I take the genre of documentary and I experiment on what a documentary entails. It chronicles the life of an aspiring musician who works a day job teaching kids how to play sports. Structurally, there are a few “interviews,” observational footage, and inter-titles that act as “guidance.” However, it doesn’t take much to realize that there is an attempt at subverting the more traditional modes of documentary filmmaking. It questions the level of performance that may be needed to please the audience (yes, there is performance even in documentary). The main character or subject questions why certain footage need to be shot. This brings up the question of violence in not only what is to be filmed but what eventually viewers will be able to see.

The constant talking back to the camera is shown in hopes of making viewers feel accountable for what they are seeing. As the film progresses, are the viewers thinking about the representations on screen? What do these representations say about the character? Do we really know who this person is by the end of it? Is his identity neatly packaged in this “documentary”? These are some of the question I try to raise with this experimental piece.

It is still at an unfinished stage, so anyone is invited to give feedback and (hopefully constructive) criticism that could help me complete the project. If nothing else, I hope there is at least one moment that all can enjoy or find it interesting.

Below is the link to the video.

Unfortunately things recorded in the past can’t really predict what viewers will end up doing as a result of viewing. They can only hope…

I think there is potential for us to take film watching to a whole new level. Sure we can continue to talk about all our different (and similar) opinions about movies and documentaries. But in the process, we should probably come to some consensus that one movie is just presenting just a few perspectives and representations of a person, people, or situation. There are at least a million other ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Not to sound too cliche, but i believe films can help to open the doors to diverse experiences. We have to decide what to make of them and which doors are fit for us to walk through. It would be great if sometimes we could take up a critical position and discuss whether certain representations and perspectives (in films) perpetuate or help to fight off awful marginalizing and dehumanizing stereotypes.

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