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STRANGER WITH A CAMERA
by Larry Daressa
( Reproduced with permission from Cineaste, vol. XXVI, No. 3 page 48)
Produced and directed by Elizabeth Barret
When a distributor reviews a film he distributes, some explanation is probably in order. I'm convinced that Stranger with a Camera is a film no one concerned with documentary can ignore-as much for its failures as for its achievements. Named "Top of the List" of the editor's choice of best videos of 2000 by the American Library Association's Booklist, the film offers an ideal opportunity to reexamine the idea of community-based filmmaking. Producer/ director Elizabeth Barret, an Eastern Kentucky native, is to be congratulated for posing a question all documentary filmmakers should ask themselves: 'What are the responsibilities of any of us who take images of other people and put them to our own uses?' Media critic Jay Ruby has labeled this issue of who represents whom as "a conundrum which characterizes the postmodern era. "Stranger with a Camera revisits an event-the 1969 murder of a National Film Board of Canada director by a Kentucky land owner-which is surely one of the most dramatic incidents in the 'politics of representation.'
One of the many strengths of Elizabeth Barret's film is that it locates this event within what might be called the iconography of Appalachia, a region she describes as "inundated with picture takers." By 1969, the mainstream media from the BBC to The New York Times had made the region a cliché for persistent poverty in the midst of American affluence. Liberal politicians like LBJ and Robert Kennedy found in the creeks and hollows of Eastern Kentucky the ideal 'poster children' for their War on Poverty because it was homespun, white, and rural-not threatening, black, and urban.
As is usual in discussions of ethnographic film, Barret divides the world between 'insiders' and 'outsiders,' the observed and the observers. The outsider was Hugh O'Connor, a widely-traveled, highly experienced director for the National Film Board of Canada. His reputedly empathetic reporting reflected the spirit of the NFB's legendary founder, John Grierson, who claimed that cinema should be a pulpit for social change. At the time of his death, O'Connor was working on the cutting edge of documentary, making an "exhibition film," a precursor of IMAX which used multiple projectors and mattes to present a dialectical or polyvocal sense of reality.
For 'insider' Hobart Ison, a lifelong resident and landowner in Lecher County, Kentucky, image and reality were one and the same. At his trial he made the novel claim that he had shot O'Connor in self-defense in order to avoid character assassination by camera: "I had to do it. What would he have done to me picture-wise and all?" Ison not only owned the land, but he clearly believed he owned what was said about it and about the people who lived on it. Barrett tends to conflate local resentment of condescending coverage of Appalachia with Ison's specific attempt to avoid criticism as a 'slumlord' to coal miners. Ison's lawyers succeeded in framing his case as a conflict between insiders and outsiders, rather than between the rights of coal miners to have their stories told and the interest of landowners to suppress them. Unable to find an impartial jury, the prosecution accepted a plea bargain so that Ison ultimately received only one year in prison for the murder.
During the trial, local notables fulminated against the Canadian crew as "beatniks" and "outside agitators," charges already familiar from the civil-rights struggle in counties not too far away. While it was obvious that the White Citizens Councils did not speak for African Americans, no one seems to have objected to the Chamber of Commerce speaking for the poor of Lecher County. This underscores American blindness to class distinctions and acute sensitivity to racial difference. It is, at the same time, revealing to hear sheriffs and local businessmen sounding like postmodern cultural critics accusing the outside media of imposing universal values on their local culture; cultural relativism can legitimize every social inequity.
At least one insider, Mason Elbridge, the man whose image was at the heart of the murder, favored this outside intervention: he hoped the film might attract badly needed factory jobs to offset those lost to automation in the mines. The editor of the local paper, The Mountain Eagle, agreed that sometimes it takes an outside point of view to recognize injustices which have come to seem 'natural' to insiders. The ideal of community can gloss over deep fissures of class, race, and gender; community could even be defined as a group of people joined together by the differences they take for granted. One need look no further than Harlan County, U.S.A., made only a few miles away and five years later, for a view of Appalachia deeply divided along class lines. Barrett's film tells us Hobart Ison's story, but what about the story of the Mason Elbridges? A filmmaker can never simply 'speak' for an entire community since every community is comprised of multiple, often contradictory, voices and interests. And even if a community could be persuaded to speak in one voice, why should we regard that voice as any less historically determined, self-serving, and self-deluded than any other?
Barret's goal of accurately representing her community is made even more difficult by the fact that communities are not only divided but also dynamic. Communities are constantly 'under construction,' caught up in a constant cycle of birth, evolution, and destruction, subject to competing visions of their future. Community-based media, like ethnographic film in general, has had a tendency to fossilize the cultures it documents. The ethnographer has an investment in that community's 'difference,' usually the degree to which it has resisted a globally hegemonic modernity. Unhappily, this sometimes results in folkloric ethno-kitsch romanticizing the past while ignoring the tough questions of the future.
Barret is a product of one of the oldest and most respected centers for community-based filmmaking in the country, Appalshop, a media-arts center set up precisely to empower the Appalchian community to tell its own story. So strongly did some Appalshop members believe in community self-representation, Barret reports, they thought Hobart Ison "had stood his ground, and, in doing that, was a kind of hero." The films we see Barret working on emphasize local color-immersion baptism, herbal salves, quilting, fiddling, and women miners. But they don't address such pressing problems as Eastern Kentucky's inevitable integration into a global economy. They seem to consider what separates Appalachians from other working Americans more important than what they share. This may be an example of what Freud called the "narcissism of petty differences," the tendency of ethnic groups to fetishize minor cultural variants as the basis of their identity while ignoring underlying similarities.
Elizabeth Barret's ultimate answer to the question she poses is "to tell fairly what I saw; to be true to the experiences of both Hugh O'Connor and Hobart Ison." In other words, if communities or events contain diverse points of view, the filmmakers should attempt to represent that diversity. This formulation comes uncomfortably close to the shibboleth of 'balanced journalism,' which has so often been used as an excuse for excluding point-of-view work. It seems to assume that the independent filmmaker's responsibility is simply to represent the status quo in all its cacophony. Barret seems to retain a naïve belief in the possibility-and desirability-of objectivity, despite the fact that the significance of any event ultimately reflects the viewer's point of view rather than emerges from the event itself.
It is surprising that Barret is painfully aware of her responsibilities to her community, the historical record and her two principals, and therefore, it is surprising that she nowhere discusses her responsibilities to her audience. Filmmakers obviously and unavoidably provide their viewers with a point of view, a way of framing events. Point of view is doubly significant in the case of independent documentarians, since it is precisely the independence of their points of view from those found in the mainstream media which gives their work its special value. In this sense, the subject of every film is the subjectivity, the point of view, of its audience; in framing its content, media also shapes its real-time context, its viewers. Independent, social-change filmmakers should reveal the interstices of possibility in the seemingly impenetrable wall of the present; in other words, their films are 'proleptic' rather than representational.
The great virtue of Stranger with a Camera lies in Barret's courage to speak in the first person, to let us share her doubts and aspirations. She avoids the pitfalls of too many personal narrators who grind their axes on the retinas of the defenseless viewer, turning filmmaking into the most expensive form of psychotherapy known. Barret always speaks as a socially engaged filmmaker responsible to some larger community; she allows her personal history to intrude only insofar as it illuminates that larger role. At the same time, her authorial reticence, if rigorously enforced, would deny her the opportunity to take sides in the issues shaping her community's future.
Despite Barret's description of herself as a storyteller, Stranger with a Camera is not a story but an essay on the responsibilities of storytelling; not a straightforward chronicle or propagandistic rant but an expertly edited counterpoint of different perspectives around an elusive core. In the end, it is this tension between the always ambiguous image and Barret's attempts to describe it fairly which gives the film its integrity. If her film merely restates rather than resolves the 'conundrum' of postmodernism, she deserves our thanks for clarifying the problem. It remains for other filmmakers not merely to represent communities but to participate in communities' continual reinvention of themselves.
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