Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Video/Film: From Communication To Community (3) Final Installment

Please see previous entry, last paragraph before reading this.

The ambiguity is produced through an important contradiction: as outsiders we can learn only so much about the reality of the Fogo Islands. We learn about these people through images, which do not provide us with a transparent connection to the subjective and highly complex views which the Islanders may hold of themselves. Neither their language nor the language of images have the kind of transparent relationship to the real which the Challenge for Change film and videoworkers so deeply desired. The voice of an Islander or for that matter of anyone interviewed or filmed talking in front of a camera is a transformed voice. In the same way to be filmed into the status of an image is to be transformed. The question is, with what result?

It is a characteristic of Western culture to presume a link between seeing and knowing. The role of sound must be added to that and we don't have to look any further than the notion of a tape or video recorder to get an idea of the underlying assumptions at the heart of the technologies of film and video. The specific practices which re-enforce the links between seeing, hearing and knowing are embedded in conventions which displace cross-cultural encounters into a relatively neutral register. In order to succeed these conventions must be carefully used so as to avoid any dilution of their authority.

Thus it is immediately apparent that the Fogo Island Films have been shot by professional cameramen with the result that they have a specific look and feel to them. It is also clear that the National Film Board would not have allowed the films into its repertoire if they hadn't risen to the aesthetic level expected of Board films. This aesthetic space which is so closely linked to the way in which the Board and its filmmakers legitimize their professional activities is not, of course, a space which could be opened up for the Islanders. Their view of themselves, at the level of images, would have been substantially different but they would not have been able to communicate that with the same authority, since the production of images is not one of their central activities.

Perhaps in response to this and with the acknowledgement of many of these contradictions the Challenge for Change program undertook another experiment which I will comment on here, briefly, because of its direct applicability to the question of video.

The availability of half-inch video in the early and middle 1970's opened up another set of possibilities. Perhaps the instrument (given its ease of use) could actually be put in the hands of the people in a given community. Challenge for Change set out to test this proposition in the community of St. Jacques in Montreal.

Let us look for a moment at the choice of St. Jacques. It was a disadvantaged part of Montreal. It was an area with high unemployment and a variety of social and economic problems. Why did it lend itself, at least in the minds of the Challenge for Change professionals, to this experiment in the democratic use of video? In part the answer can be found in the community itself which had formed a citizen's committee to push for improvements in health and education. It had developed, at least to some degree the advocacy tools which it needed to promote its own cause and to link the community with political action. The result was that when the idea of a video was proposed the people in the community center inmmediately formed a committee and helped run the project from the start.

The result is a video which has become justly famous because it was such an early experiment with a new medium and because it seemed to prove that the 'people' given the proper chance and channel could, in fact, participate in all facets of the production of a videotape.

However an unforseen result of the process was the creation of a hierarchy of videomakers and Film Board people who slowly invested more and more time in a project which community leaders soon realised served an immediate goal but not a long term one. In order to make the video useful and effective it had to be placed into a pedagogical context and this required quite a different infrastructure than the one provided by a video crew. To some degree, some members of the community had learned how to use the medium to picture a set of problems which everyone in the community knew existed anyway. The pictures were in need of a utilitarian context, a promotional space to enhance their ideological value, to propagate their point of view, to encourage audiences to understand the need for social and political change.

But beyond a certain point the image is nothing more than a vehicle for and of communication and irrespective of everybody's best intentions there is something very ephemeral about the way in which images communicate meaning. The video screen is after all neither a simple reflection of the reality it depicts nor a window onto that reality. It is a highly aestheticized if not partially closed frame which must be used if it is to be effective but that use must have a measure of authority to it and the question is how is that authority to be achieved?

So, once again we are back to a similar problem which arose with the Fogo Island Films. The conferral of authority by both the videomaker and the viewer is not possible unless the process itself is given a far greater value than it can ever have. It can attain that value if it can achieve a certain degree of portability, that is if it can be taken out of the immediate community and effectively used a device to communicate the community's concerns.

But this is precisely a way of eliminating the context out of which and from which it has come. The video in effect can package the community into an effect for others but that packaging makes the task of communication all the more difficult. The specificity of St. Jacques has to be diluted in order for it to transcend the boundaries of place and culture which paradoxically means that the original process which engendered the video recedes into the background. Yet it is this original process, this experience of democracy which the video is trying to communicate as being not only fundamental but necessary for change. Its lack of specificity is the fulcrum upon which it loses that crucial component of its communicative intent.

I will end with the following thought. Images, whether they be video or film, generate the possibility of meaning and communication. They invent and reinvent more often than they depict.

These processes of transformation may not naturally open up discursive spaces for audiences, may not lead to the kind of exchanges and interchanges which produce the possibility of social and cultural and political change. In fact, an argument can be made and perhaps it is high time that this argument enter into the discussions which film and videomakers have among themselves, that the medium itself may not have the importance which is so often attributed to it by social and cultural commentators, analysts and practitioners. We may all have fallen for the technological line, a classically twentieth century obsession, which suggests that the image (constructed by the right people) has enough authority to transcend precisely the very contradictions which it engenders. Or, put another way, if we interpret VTR St. Jacques and the Fogo Island Films with a bit more of a jaundiced eye we may discover that their aesthetic structure and their communicational concerns are more closely linked than may be apparent. This linkage transforms not only the reality under examination but the potential value of the entire process.