A New Language of Dissent: The Poetics of ‘Film’ as Verb in Women’s Auto-Ethnography

by: , May 22, 2019

© Screenshot for a Video White Wednesdays Facebook: ‘Another brave woman waving her veil in public protesting compulsory hijab’

For decades, women practising subjective nonfiction filmmaking have worked to develop a language that speaks to their individual perspective while also inviting and including differing perspectives from other women. Feminist nonfiction media is indeed an inherently political form of filmmaking, even implicitly. Subjective-cinema theorist Laura Rascaroli explains, ‘To speak ‘I’ is, after all, firstly a political act of self-awareness and self-affirmation’ (Rascaroli 2009: 2). However, the individualism present in subjective filmmaking, despite its radical politics of self-affirmation, does not come without a cost and also coincides with neo-liberal notions of individuality (Hughes 2012: 236). Documentary theorist Michael Renov states in The Subject in History: The New Autobiography in Film and Video that ‘history belongs to those with the power to re-present it’ which has for years eliminated the voices of many women without said power, despite commendable attempts at creating horizontal and inclusive accounts of history (Renov 2004: 109). The power Renov addresses refers not only to status and/or finances but also access. However, access to easy-to-use smartphone cameras, extensive use of social media to distribute video and photography, and the cultural value placed in low-resolution images allows for untrained media-makers to become a part of the media landscape. The acknowledgement and study of this type of media potentially opens the door for new ways to consider collaborative feminist media-making, creating an opportunity for un-trained, anti-capitalistic women media-makers to begin sharing their subjective perspective on the events happening around them and to become a part of the media landscape. This type of media-making, which returns the word film from its noun form to verb form, should be identified as a new method of collaborative feminist praxis which utilises the political potential of improvisational sousveillance distributed via social media as an ethical form of auto-ethnography.

To exemplify this, I look to a particular women’s movement in contemporary Iran. Since the Islamic Revolution almost forty years ago, it has been compulsory for women to wear hijab in public, remaining covered from head to toe. In December of 2017, many women of Iran staged protests during which they stood atop public telecom boxes, removed their headscarves, and waved them on sticks. Many of these protesting women were documented through photos and videos by individuals on the streets with smartphones. These protests resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of at least 29 women. Masih Alinejad, a New York City-based exile, is an Iranian activist behind a number of campaigns directly related to compulsory hijab-wearing in direct response to the December 2017 protests (Dehghan 2018). Alinejad and other activists do not call for the removal of all headscarves, they call for an end to the forced wearing of the hijab. As she states, ‘Forcing a woman to wear hijab in order to stop a man from getting provoked is an insult to men as well’ (Londhe 2018). One of the most prominent methods of protest regularly happens on Wednesday in Iran: some women choose to enter public spaces without their headscarves. Also, veiled women who wish to show their disagreement with compulsion don white hijabs in solidarity with those uncovered. The women document with their smartphones their experiences and harassment and then post these videos to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, tagged with hashtags such as #WhiteWednesdays, #MyCameraIsMyWeapon, and #StealthyFreedom.

In many of these videos, women recorded their experiences because they felt that they had to record without knowing what was going to happen, a form of improvisation. By capturing visible evidence on their smartphones as the events unfolded, they participated in creating active art by the people for the people. Their understanding of their lived experience and subjectivity as an event–something worth seeing–and therefore worth recording, allowed for them to be emboldened at that moment, rather than victimised (Jurich 2015: 11-12). This type of media-making does not give the maker power over the subject, but it does give them power over themselves and their own perspective of the experience during the improvisatory production process. The Iranian protestors who choose to record their experiences during these protests that are impacting them and their community undoubtedly relate to the type of media discussed here and should be considered pioneers in this form.

For women working in auto-ethnographic media, a return from the noun form of the word film to the verb form acts as a political revolt against the process being negated by the product. The feminist idea of an individual as a ‘human being’ avoids a patriarchal, solidified identity and directs the form towards one in which identities are ‘neither fixed nor completely in flux’ (Nielsen 2013: 10). The Iranian women protesting who record their negative encounters with others are unprepared and not necessarily there to make documentaries, but these are documents of historical moments nonetheless. Film as a verb does not call for an aestheticisation of women’s auto-ethnography; it calls for an appreciation of the improvisatory process of making auto-ethnographic work and what the choice and ability to make that work does for women media-makers. To develop a new tradition that breaks with the patriarchal language of fixed documentary frees women auto-ethnographic media-makers from the stifling formal qualities and methods of critique and analysis which focuses instead on the completed film-product. By utilising easily-accessible technology like smartphone cameras and the internet, first-person media-makers like those in Iran can change that language from one that focuses on the film-product and instead focus on the relationship between the auto-ethnographer and her process of making.

Filmmaker and theorist Ariella Azoulay writes, ‘Photography is an instrument given to everyone, making it possible to de-territorialise physical borders and redefine limits, communities and places (processes of re-territorialization)’ (Azoulay 2013: 130). In this form, the borders of what can be called documentary or nonfiction production shift to include access to the untrained producer/consumer. The images produced by women in Iran are sometimes shaky, out-of-focus, and often do not follow anticipated horizontal aspect ratios, breaking the rules of traditional and patriarchal documentary convention. By focusing on the process instead of the product, the cultural value of these imperfect or ‘poor’ images must also shift. The ‘poor images’ made by these women, as German filmmaker and media theorist Hito Steyerl argues, ‘can be made and seen by the many’ (Steyerl 2009). Steyerl also states ‘The economy of poor images … enables the participation of a much larger group of producers than ever before’ (Steyerl 2009). This harkens back to Cuban film director Julio Garcia Espinosa’s future ideas of imperfect cinema as a ‘folk art’ that blurs the distinction between those who produce media and those who consume it (Espinosa 1969 & 2005). The concept of the ‘producer as consumer’ has been theorised for almost a century. German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin suggests in his 1934 essay The Author as Producer, the task for the committed artist is to adapt ‘the production apparatus’ on behalf of the workers. ‘This apparatus will be better’, he continues, ‘the more spectators it turns to collaborators’ (Rose 2014: 207). Through digital technology, this is precisely what is occurring in Iran.

Because of the ease of digital technology, women can share their own life experiences without formal training, become empowered through their subjective process, and politicise their experiences for the spectator and each other. Digital formats offer the ability to record freely and then delete freely which allows women media-makers the opportunity to record without knowing whether or not they will capture events of cultural importance. Improvisational theorist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi states that in the improvisational process, ‘For actions to merge with awareness to such an extent, the activity must be feasible’, indicating the importance of the maker’s ability to create the work both physically and technologically (Czikszentmihalyi 2015: 152). This concept of improvisatory first-person media-making is made possible through access to consumer-grade equipment (smartphones), distribution platforms, and digital media. Film artist and scholar Michelle Citron notes the importance of including more voices in nonfiction media which is made possible through this access: ‘The autobiographical film or video can break the silence and by doing so lessen the isolation and despair that we often experience, both personally and culturally’ (Citron 1999: 272). Due to this ease-of-use as well as lack of concern over expensive materials, women have the opportunity to fully explore the radical politics inherent in improvisatory media-making.

Improvisation, whether it be through music, performance, or art-making, has always had roots in subverting mainstream culture. Many studies address the political and cultural possibilities of improvisation that can be derived from improvisational music, namely jazz. Jazz exists in the margins of composed and recorded music and has historically functioned as a political tool for the repressed African communities in the twentieth century United States. In its purest form, jazz is musician-based, centred on community action, and anti-capitalistic. African-American music critic, Amiri Baraka, a.k.a. Leroi Jones wrote in 1963 that jazz, appropriated by whites in the mid-twentieth-century, was transformed from its verb form, a reaction to and participation with music–into a category–a noun (Baraka 1963: 8). Improvisation scholar Daniel Fischlin states that returning jazz, and more broadly creative improvisation, to its verb form ‘linguistically accentuates action among a people whose ability to act is curtailed by … constraint’ (Fischlin 2013: 51). Implicit relationships between the history of improvisational jazz and the potential for improvisational media-making create exciting opportunities for women whose voices feel silenced by the documentary tradition’s focus on film-products.

To develop a new language, one that speaks corporeally and addresses the bodily encounter during the improvisational autobiographical process, this new form must adopt as its poetics the middle-voice: that which ‘does not focus on the subject and object but rather on the subject and the verb’–in the case of the #WhiteWednesdays videos, not the media-maker and her film-product shared to social media which reduces subjectivity and exploits objectivity, but the media-maker and the process of filming (Eberhard 2006: 126). This practice relates directly to autobiography, which embraces the idea that life is a process that occurs alongside the autobiographical process. To quote cultural critic David Levi Strauss in The Documentary Debate, ‘[w]hen Benjamin wrote that “the tendency of a work of literature can be politically correct only if it is also correct in the literary sense”, he meant that the way something is made (its poetics) is political’ (Strauss 2013: 107). Because this middle-voiced language has not been utilised by anyone in autobiographical filmmaking, it can easily be adopted as a form of feminist praxis.

By marrying theory and practice and addressing auto-ethnographic media as its verb form to film instead of its current understanding as a noun film, the subject-auto-ethnographer can remain centred in her work and the action of her work. When experience–whether filmed or not–is considered as an ongoing process, the typical conception of experience ending in static knowledge is challenged (Nielsen 2013: 6). Italian literary critic Umberto Eco also implies this in the text The Open Work:

This should in itself be enough to make us reconsider certain aesthetic concepts, or at least to lend them greater flexibility, in particular those concerning the productive process and the personality of the author, the distinction between process and result, and the relationship between a finished work and its antecedents (or, more broadly, what led to it) (Eco 1989: 109).

Autobiographical documentaries, like those from Iran which focus on the lived experiences of the subject/maker should, inherently be considered experiences, not products which emphasise closure and the end of an experience or movement.

This middle-voiced language is particularly useful for women recording auto-ethnography in a colonised, politically compromised, or war-torn state. The women recording their harassment during protests over compulsory hijab-wearing in Iran ‘blur the boundaries between online activism and public disobedience’ as well as ‘boundaries between so-called women’s issues and the universal struggle for freedom’ (DemDigest 2019). These women act and record as a type of community action despite their political constraints. They film their improvisatory process/experience unaware of the outcome of their filming, despite the hope that it may enact awareness in others. Also, these videos are not produced with capitalistic ends in mind as they are shared freely. By searching through the hashtags, one can see that these videos have been produced over many months, again adding to the understanding of continued experience, focusing on the process, not the end-product. The Iranian women make media that assert their rights under a government that, when provoked by the original December 2017 protests, shut down Iran’s access to several popular social media sites (MacLellan 2018). The continued production of these first-person documents functions as counter-narratives, which are at their root democratic improvisation.

Sousveillance, a type of media-making coined by Canadian researcher and inventor Steve Mann in 1998, literally means ‘to watch from below’ (Bollier 2013). Sousveillance functions as an alternative to mainstream journalism and documentary media due to a vast difference in aesthetics as well as its explicit relationship to radical creative improvisation. It refers to records of events created by average cultural participants like those in Iran. This is in direct contrast to most contemporary mainstream documentary which is disseminated to the public in a top-down model, relying on capital from wealthy benefactors, corporations, and governments. Sousveillance is subjective media-making and a vital element of its intent is the process of its making. Much of sousveillance is distributed through social media, creating a horizontal relationship between makers and spectators. Social media scholar Peter Hughes explains, ‘[Internet] technologies have the potential to disrupt “top-down” models of discourse through their potential to foster collaboration between individuals’ (Hughes 2012: 236). Fischlin states that what is at stake in relating improvisation to rights struggles is:

The need to rethink the very places and spaces where we look for knowledge, to understand that the creative practices associated with aggrieved peoples confronting systems of oppression are vital repositories of history and memory, and enduring documents of hope, resilience, and determination (Fischlin 2013: 41).

In the case of the media produced by Iranian protestors, the media is searchable by hashtags such as #WhiteWednesdays and #MyCameraIsMyWeapon.

Sousveillance allows the average person the capacity to record, share, and shape the media around them. Several conditions have created the need for sousveillance and allowed for its growth as a nonfiction form. For example, activist and writer, David Bollier advocates, ‘Sousveillance at least has the virtue of empowering ordinary people to protect themselves and to hold power accountable’ (Bollier 2013). This directly relates to the improvisatory media-making occurring in Iran. Through the videos, the ordinary women protesting compulsory hijab-wearing draw attention to other citizens who feel it is their right to harass and threaten them directly. Also, sousveillance can work against distrust in both political power and mainstream media. Much like subjective essayistic cinema, sousveillance facilitates a ‘wish to communicate directly with the spectator, to bypass the obvious constraints of an apparatus that involves unbridgeable gaps between the three phases of filming, editing, and projection’ which is possible through social media and mobile internet (Rascaroli 2009: 191). Likewise, media consumers can view media filter-free via social media sites and draw their conclusions.

Media scholar James Hamilton argues that to distinguish alternative media from mass media, the former must be de-professionalised, de-capitalised, and de-institutionalised (Hamilton 2000). Videos produced by women media-makers practising sousveillance do not read as highly composed, considered, or manipulated images shot to make a profit. Aesthetically, sousveillant images harken back to the historical form cinema vérité, a type of motion picture that avoids artificiality and artistic effect, made with simple equipment. Recorded with easily-accessible smartphones or consumer-grade cameras, the shakiness and lack of clarity indicate that these videos were shot improvisationally, in-the-moment, and were not pre-planned nor edited. One can easily identify the aesthetics in the videos with #MyCameraIsMyWeapon hashtags as ‘low-quality’ or ‘poor’ images with little regard to composition, lighting, or even–in some cases–proper horizontal aspect ratios. These images do not appear to have been photographed with high-end, expensive equipment, nor in a studio with proper lighting. They look like the urgent fumbling of women who recognise that they are in a remarkable situation who wish to film their experiences to share with others.

The ethics of ethnography, much theorised in documentary circles, boil down to the question of whether or not an outsider can step into an event and objectively record it without changing the event. Improvisatory dance practitioner Karen Barbour suggests, ‘Our task is to find the concrete practices through which we can construct ourselves as ethical subjects engaged in ethical ethnography’ (Barbour 2011: 52). Sousveillance could become one of these concrete practices. As ethnographic media scholar, Catherine Russell states, ‘A first-person film or video that explores not only the immediate subjectivity of its maker but also his or her implication in social and historical discourses, is ethnographic’ (Russell 1999: 276). Therefore, the protests being recorded in Iran function as ethical ethnography. The women protesting record while undergoing their subjective experience, already participating in the event. They create a form of auto-ethnography because they do not act as an outsider stepping in. These women tell their own stories through the sounds and images recorded on their smartphones.

The distribution of women’s sousveillant, resistant, and collaboratively-produced low-resolution videos on social media has the potential to alter current political and social climates. During an era of mistrust in mainstream top-down models of information, especially information coming from repressive governments, social media users are more likely to trust low-resolution images recorded on the streets by fellow social media users. For example, the Iranian video documentations posted to social media function as ‘social, cultural, and political instruments of immense power’ because of the sheer number of examples provided, the rawness of their aesthetics, and the risks associated with their sharing (Azoulay 2013: 131). Witnessing these raw, first-hand experiences via social media instead of viewing them through a washed-down, glammed up television news version not only allows for more people separated by distance to see the current situation but also allows for fellow protest participants to be encouraged by each other’s actions.

Social media can function as a tool for all oppressed people due to its ability to level the playing field for those with growing access to consumer-grade equipment and online distribution. As has been studied, in countries with larger gender inequalities in offline life, women are more likely to have a significant online presence (Magno & Weber 2014: 13). Social media serves as a ‘democratising force’ that gives victims a global platform they would not have otherwise (Miller 2018). While the internet was initially conceived to connect people to information, in the age of social media, its function has shifted to connect people to people (Hughes 2012: 235). In recent years, it has become an especially powerful tool for feminist ideals. For example, the Iranian women posting protest videos to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook have the potential to gain audiences from anywhere around the world in solidarity with their plight. Hughes asserts that social networking technologies provide space ‘for the marginalised to tell their stories and provide their analyses, including those with limited technologies or developed literary skills at their disposal’ (Hughes 2012: 238). Because of the cultural value of low-resolution raw images, professional-quality equipment and media literacy are not necessarily important tools for the sharing of this information.

Many have argued that social media has the potential to do more harm than good when it comes to creating modes of solidarity. Arguably, showcasing video diary entries on personal social media pages does appear to create a fragmentation of human experience. Rascaroli identifies the rules of the diary form, ‘It must say ‘I’, and it must say ‘now’’ (Rascaroli 2009: 119). The #MyCameraIsMyWeapon videos coming from Iran do seem to have this diaristic tendency when encountered individually. The women appear isolated, fragmented and focused on the self. This relates to the contemporary debate of feminism as individualism and feminism as collective liberation (Powell & Moncino 2018). However, it is important to note that privatised modes of consumption via mobile internet and the use of the hashtag in social media posts do provide stronger evidence of the latter type of feminism: one that focuses on community and solidarity. The Iranian protest videos perfectly demonstrate this through their use of specific hashtags related to the cause.

Not only are the videos distributed with the hashtags #WhiteWednesdays and #MyCameraIsMyWeapon moving in and of themselves, when viewed as a group of similar but different experiences, they become even more powerful. Because of their lack of formal aesthetic qualities, and because the sousveillant images of harassment are corroborated by other women media-makers having similar experiences, they even read as more real than their hyper-aestheticised mainstream counterparts. Hashtag usage has no single directing force and no leader, creating an absence of hierarchy between the social media users posting materials and potential for intersectionality. The videos coming out of Iran directly address intersectional feminism, both in the protest itself as well as the harassment documentation shared to social media. The protests and videos include women from across regimes, economic classes, and social circles (DemDigest 2018). By distributing their improvisatory experiences via social media, they create a democratic, imperfect cinema that is less interested in quality or technique, and more interested in the rapid spread of information. Fischlin refers to this improvisational practice as a model for generating ethics of co-creation (Fischlin 2013: 198). The democratic hashtag organises the media and becomes the collaborative factor, which relates directly to Soviet filmmaker and theorist Dziga Vertov’s concept of visual bonds, a new language that ‘could not only inform or entertain, but also organise its viewers’ (Steyerl 2009). By posting auto-ethnographic material to social media, women media-makers collaboratively add to the horizontal meaning-making.

The sousveillant values seeing events from all directions and angles, contributing her own perspective to the collaborative social-media collage, which also allows for a more complex story to unfold and has the potential for corroborating experiences. As argued on the website for media theorist Lev Manovich’s collaborative project The Exceptional and the Everyday, ‘Analysis and visualisation of large samples of social media can provide an alternative to summaries of the events presented by historians, individual journalists, or groups of writers’ (The Exceptional and the Everyday).

Using a searchable hashtag allows for all potential spectators to easily seek out and/or link to media that relates to topics they wish to explore and also gives spectators an opportunity to encounter what people are seeing and experiencing on the ground (Bajak 2014). The ease with which these Iranian women can distribute media and connect it to similar media allows for the images to become tools for what Azoulay refers to as ‘the citizenry of photograph–whose citizens [are] equipped with the necessary tools for producing photographs, interpreting them, and acting on what they disclose’ (Azoulay 2013: 130). Seeing multiple women working together to end compulsory hijab-wearing in their country and posting their individual experiences with harassment on social media creates a more powerful experience than seeing it on the news with a single example included. It becomes much more difficult to ignore or dismiss women’s accusations when they are reinforced by other women’s similar documentation (Miller 2018). Although the spectator has the power to either view or not view the media, the spectator is limited in judgment because the videos function as ground truth and corroborated evidence of a very real social issue in Iran.

As media is created and posted to social media, it is also consumed. The media-makers in Iran are participating in a collaborative form of nonfiction storytelling that functions as a way for spectators to collectively react to what they are witnessing. This knowledge production occurs horizontally, thus creating a form of solidarity between the producers and consumers of sousveillance. Relating to the diary form, these videos embrace an imagined dialogue between the sousveillant social media user and her intended audience. This creates immense potential within the movement for adding more participants to the protest after viewing the videos online. According to data from 2018, Iran reports over 53 million mobile internet users and over 11 million landline internet users, which reflects 69% of the population, providing a rich opportunity for more men and women from Iran to be moved to participate (Jafari 2018). As social media theorist Mandy Rose explains, ‘due to the ease and convenience of sharing to social media platforms, there is a difference between publishing a post to communicate with friends and family and telling stories using rich media’ (Rose 2014: 206). A spectator that sees the immense power of auto-ethnographic media, particularly that made by the Iranian women confronting political oppression, could become involved either on the ground or remotely in its charge.

Improvised sousveillance distributed via social media restores the word film to its verb form and should be considered a new method of collaborative feminist praxis. As previously stated, improvisation has a long and dramatic history of people resisting top-down historical documents. These ‘assumptions of fixity’, as Fischlin refers, privilege the noun form of action–the completed action, the history of action, not the action itself–moving, current, ever-changing (Fischlin 2013: 56). Despite video’s fixity as a filmic record that does not change once it has been recorded and shared, it is possible to privilege film as verb by considering instead the process of its making as its truest form. A focus on the process allows for the inclusion of untrained media-makers producing sousveillant media, an ethical form of auto-ethnography which centres the subject in her work. This creates an alternative to mainstream journalism and documentary because of the measurable difference in aesthetics. By focussing this theory on the videos produced and shared on social media by women protesting compulsory hijab-wearing in Iran, one can see women becoming empowered through their improvisatory processes. This empowerment stems from social media’s lack of hierarchy through the use of hashtags and its implicit modes of collaborative solidarity. The great subjective filmmaker Chris Marker once said, ‘Contrary to what people say, using the first-person in film tends to be a sign of humility: ‘All I have to offer is myself’’ (Walfisch 1997). This is particularly true in the case of the #WhiteWednesdays and #MyCameraIsMyWeapon videos. Sometimes, to record instead of making a record is the true political act.


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