The Address from Beyond the Grave: The Female Spectral Voice
by: Roz Mortimer , October 5, 2023
by: Roz Mortimer , October 5, 2023
As films that come out of a feminist ethnographic methodology, Juanita Onzaga’s Our Song to War (2018), Penny Siopis’ Communion (2011) and my own film The Deathless Woman (2019) share a commonality in how they utilise experimental approaches to spectrality, subjectivity and spectatorship in the creation of hybrid documentary works that operate as socio-political film.
This video essay The Address from Beyond the Grave sets out to critically explore how these films use spectrality as an experimental methodology to build believable and affective worlds that ultimately challenge hegemonic paradigms in both the construction of documentary film and the formation of historiography. The female voices in these hybrid documentary films speak to us from beyond the grave. They are spectres, ghosts, spirits. They are those who have died violent and unjust deaths. They are those who society has chosen not to remember.
Onzaga’s ghosts are of 119 villagers who were killed by a bomb in the 2002 Bojayá massacre in Columbia whilst sheltering in a church. My ghost is that of a Roma woman buried alive in 1942 by Nazi soldiers in a forest in Poland. Siopis’ ghost is that of an Irish nun, Sister Aidan Quinlan, who was killed and cannibalised by her parishioners during the ANC Defiance Campaign in 1952. These are unresolved and political deaths. Deaths that are surrounded by silence. As filmmakers we employ strategies to break this silence and return agency to those who have been victims of genocide, injustice, or political forgetting. Returning agency is the most powerful act that we can offer.
It is the silence of the witness’s death, and of the witness’s deadness, which precisely must be broken, and transgressed. (Felman, 1992: 219)
For a ghost to have agency, she needs to have a voice. In these films, the spirits speak to us. They are unruly spirits and will not be confined—either to their graves or to silence. They address us in the first person, reclaiming their agency and lost citizenship, and through this process they reposition themselves from victim to witness. These ghosts are what Primo Levi terms the ‘complete’ or ‘submerged’ witness. They are those that have experienced atrocity from both sides—life and death, inside and outside—they are the only true witnesses, yet they have been unable to testify for themselves (1989: 63–4). These are the witnesses Agamben terms superstes (1999: 17) and positions within ‘the dynamic of an afterlife, a life that has outlived its own duration and yet persists through that expiration’ (Trigg, 2012: 267). Agamben is hinting at an afterlife, whether it be in the memory of the surviving witness, or perhaps we can argue for an actual afterlife for the superstes, the ones who do not survive.
As filmmakers we build on literary strategies such as prosopopoeia or more unconventional strategies such as spirit writing to challenge the impossibility of the dead bearing witness and challenge the notion of event-without-a-witness to create, identify and give voice to the dead. The notion of the ghost as not just a witness to their own death, but as an active participant and narrator in a documentary film is ethically challenging. This doesn’t mean we should shy away from this hybrid and experimental form of working—a methodology that results in works that can be framed within Sadiya Hartman’s critical fabulation—where fabulation is both a mode of address and a methodology for critically reframing history (2008: 1–14). We fabulate the ghost with the express intention of challenging existing hierarchies of knowledge within society and within historiography. Within these feminist ethnographies, the ghost becomes a strategy for the critique of ‘positivist assumptions’ and established (failed) modes of knowledge production (Visweswaran, 1994: 23).
As an audience we do not look at these ghosts, rather, we travel through the air as the ghost – the disembodied camera privileges us to experience the ghost’s point of view. Our position as spectators is challenged as we travel as these spectres—they surround us, yet are never in front of us, never available for our objectification or scrutiny (Barthes, 1989: 182). We hear them, but we cannot see them. It is they that are scrutinising us and this is an intentionally uncomfortable position for the audience. In The Deathless Woman and Our Song to War, the subjective perspective of the ghost is established through the employment of a variety of camera devices—the gimbal, the Steadicam, the jib and the drone. Each selected as part of a visual strategy to represent a spectral perspective. These spirits are not bound to earth, human height or point-of-view. They move in a determined, yet fluid manner that appears alive and inquisitive. The Deathless Woman has two modes of spectral spectatorship—firstly from up high as she either looks down on the world, or moves between locations, and secondly a more voyeuristic, intimate perspective when she descends to get close to and forensically scrutinise her objects of interest. This visual strategy is underpinned by sound design that aurally reinforces the camera’s presence as the ghost. There is the sound of a constant (but almost imperceptible) breath, diegetic sounds as she moves through space (the swishing of a body or the snapping of twigs), and a defined re-positioning of aural perspective as she moves up and away from the earth and the sounds of our world recede.
In her essay on Polish spectral cinema, Matilda Mroz describes the voyeuristic camera of Aftermath (Pasikowski, 2012), a film that presents the haunting of a Polish village as it’s hidden traumatic history is brought to light years after WWII. Mroz suggests that the spectre must be both material and immaterial and Aftermath achieves this through combined ‘visual and aural techniques [which] draw on a long tradition of horror and thriller films to suggest something, which appears to be weighty enough to draw breath and snap twigs, but which is also invisible’ (2016: 46).
In both Aftermath and The Deathless Woman, although the ghosts remain ‘unseen,’ sound and image are used to give material presence to these spectres of the Holocaust. In this way the films confer absolute presence to their ghosts whilst denying us their image. This is what Avery Gordon terms ‘visible invisibility’ (2008: 16) and in this she is drawing on Toni Morrison’s position on the ghosts of slavery that ‘invisible things are not necessarily not there’ (Morrison, 1989: 136)—a questioning of the positivist dominance of visibility and rationality in western culture. In this way, these filmic ghosts can help us to understand the world. They are not bound by time, they can exist in the past, present and future. They do not seek justice, or to take us back to the past—rather they bring the past forwards to us—to warn us about the crisis of the present and the future crisis to come (Rothberg, 2000: 165).
Agamben, Giorgio (1999), Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, New York: Zone Books.
Barthes, Roland (1989), The Rustle of Language, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Felman, Shoshana (1992), ‘The Return of the Voice: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah’, in Dori Laub & Shoshana Felman (eds), Testimony: Crisis of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, New York: Routledge, pp. 204-283.
Gordon, Avery F. (2008), Ghostly Matters, 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hartman, Sadiya (2008), Venus in Two Acts, Small Axe, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 1-14.
Levi, Primo (1989), The Drowned and the Saved, London: Abacus.
Morrison, Toni (1989), ‘Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature’, Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 1-34.
Mroz, Matilda (2016), ‘Spectral Cinema’, in: Niamh Downing & Ruth Heholt (eds), Haunted Landscapes: Super-Nature and the Environment, London & New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Rothberg, Michael (2000), Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Trigg, Dylan (2012), The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, Athens: Ohio University Press.
Visweswaran, Kamala (1994), Fictions of Feminist Ethnography, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Aftermath (Pokłosie) (2012), dir. Władysław Pasikowski.
Communion (2011), dir. Penny Siopis.
Our Song to War (2018), dir. Juanita Onzaga.
The Deathless Woman (2019), dir. Roz Mortimer.
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