- 1 post-its
- 2 annotations
- 2.1 a program at the artspace Rib (Rotterdam)
- 2.2 On reading essays
- 2.3 The Aesthetics of Diaspora in Moving Image Practice
- 2.4 Injury and Repair: Kader Attia
- 2.5 'Image-writing': the essayistic/sanwen in Chinese nonfiction cinema and Zhao Liang's Behemoth
- 2.6 Essay films about film: the 'filmed correspondence' between José Luis Guerin and Jonas Mekas
- 3 thoughts on the character's objective
- 4 thoughts on the things I stayed away from
- 5 thoughts on confidence
- 6 healing
- 7 bib
- My mother once wanted to join the dance troupe
This annotation makes me want to make a film about my mother. When she first gifted me the Canon that I currently use, I tested it out by taking photos of her cooking in the kitchen. When I tried out my grandpa's analogue camera, my mother and I took a stroll on the street of Shanghai. I ran 10 meters ahead of her like a fashion photographer trying to catch a model in mid-action. We were in the French concession in Shanghai, the area filled with the old air of bourgeoise and colonialism.
In fact, I've always wanted to make a film with my mother in it. I find her youth and her calmness fascinating. I cry about her pain.
- I subjected myself to a prison
full ofguarded by the blind.
This is a note I am including in a recent moving image work, tentatively named "Quiet Times." I would like to show that work on a cinema screen because I think some images deserve to be very big, including this note.
- kindred over the yellow sea
The sea next to Shanghai is called the Yellow Sea. It has a muddy color because of the sediments. The first time I saw the ocean in blue was when I went to Australia in the 6th grade for an exchange. (There are places where the sea is blue in China. It's quite funny I went to Australia first before I saw blue seas in China.)
I find the kindred spirit here because the author, a Chinese woman who moved to the UK later in her life, spent the first few years in a fishing village and recounted her experience with the yellow (instead of blue) sea.
- Hukou and visa/caste
Hukou is the house registration system in China. I remember the moment I realized that not every country controls its own citizens like that. It is a way of population regulation (for governing and most importantly, taxation) during feudalist China, and was revamped during the forming of PRC, which has only been around since 1949, a result of the restructuring of the world post-WWII.
The most significant part of Hukou is the "place of birth." For example, since I was born in Shanghai, I was entitled to the city's education system and healthcare. People born in one province or provincial-level municipality^ cannot easily move to another province/provincial-level municipalities and share the same rights as a citizen. Social mobility is not something people take for granted in China. It is possible for migrants to change where they are registered, but usually that takes a lot of work or capital. I am probably not the first person to draw a parallel between Hukou and visa.
Also in Hukou, one is categorized as belonging to an "agricultural" or "non-agricultural" family. This is probably a legacy from the times when the state divided people for productivity reasons according to Marx's theory. (Then Stalin and Mao had a fallout, but that's another story. Poor Marx, all his ideas seem to be radicalized by people with their own agendas.) I think "heredity" and "composition" (terms mentioned in my thesis) was probably in Hukou at some point. These categorizations of people reminds me of the culture of caste in India, which I don't know much about. Some of these require further fact-checking.
It seems necessary to read about various systems of oppression and class-based discriminations in my further research.
How ironic it is that I moved from one visa system to another.
^There are four provincial-level municipalities in China. Shanghai is one of them. These cities are independent from province-level governance, and usually act as a hub of commerce, governance, etc.
- 1931-1956 --> purge/What did my grandpa do? He was born in 1939.
- I feel I am reading my own words.
I like this note. This is a feeling when I read Guo (Chinese) and Adichie (Nigerian). In my thesis I talk about identity as something not simply defined by one's origin, culture(s) or histor(ies).
My fascination and personal experience in diaspora, which spans from Exodus, to Holocaust, to slavery, to the refugee crisis, is crying out for a critical framework.
Mass emigration due to oppression and the oppressive lethargy of choiceless (see below)...
What kind of post-colonial literature do I read and contribute to?
- "You sound American" as compliment (and why)
- the change of language; half-caste becomes bi-racial
When people move to America they change their accents. Their vocabularies also change. What is called half-caste in Nigeria now becomes bi-racial. (Adichie)
America is this place that sucks your identity and rebirths it with pride and the ugliness that everyone sees but no one talks about.
- time in the library (I think of my own)
- American African; African American
- depression; "Illnesses Whose Name They Refuse to Know"
I read in more than one places that depression and other mental illnesses are defined in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Does something exist if it is not named? We are tapping into some old philosophy discussions here.
Mental illnesses (or unwellness) are regarded and talked about differently in different cultures. Therapy carries a stigma in certain countries (Japan & Turkey), but perhaps more common among certain classes or within certain subcultures.
When Adichie enables her character to observe her own changes — from having vocabulary about what depression is to acknowledging the lack of knowledge about mental wellbeing — that is a moment of recognizing one's agency to choose their own frame of reference.
- America: idealized reality v. reality (a slice)
- nuances of "origin", class, race: "Maybe when the African American's father was not allowed to vote because he was black, the Ugandan's father was running for parliament or studying at Oxford"
- accents, foreignness, xenophobia, violence, race (Halima says her son is beaten at school because of his African accent, no accent no problem)
- How does Patel feel about her Indian/Africans? (Ifemelu does not think the book Things Fall Apart is about Africa, it's about the longing for Europe of an Indian man born in Africa, 190)
- race, origin, you should tip well because they don't expect black people to tip well, liberals can discuss racism but cannot stand if you tell them you had a racist experience (Ifemelu on the assigned blackness on Africans in America)
Americanah is a fascinating book to me because it deconstructs the myth of superiority based on nationalism.
Americanah can be read in so many different ways. One thing Adichie successfully does is to give substance to sticky terms such as "race" and "xenophobia" — what it means within the American society, what it means to African immigrants.
When I read comments on her work, titles like "Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Purple Hibiscus" and the Paradoxes of Postcolonial Redemption" catches my eye.
I think her work is one of the entry points to find vocabularies for my critical framework.
- oppressive lethargy of choicelessness
Obinze thinks of this phrase in Americanah. This is the reason he leaves Nigeria (wants to, at least, before he gets deported back to it.) He is a Nigerian in the UK without a work permit.
I underline this phrase every time I see it.
Oppression can come directly from the state (BLM protest police violences) and the institution (prison). However, it is more likely that oppression permeates through institutional regulations (borders) and normalized culture (traditions).
Lethargy is the reaction of the body. When the body lacks agency, it can still walk, but it doesn't feel like itself.
Choicelessness. People are not being prosecuted. They are being governed, restricted, censored, watched, surveilled. So they limit their choices to feel a bit more at ease.
- the English lady might have to worry about her visa, but never with an "anxiety wrenched at her spine"
- behind the intellectual debate, he does feel betrayed because she is not listening to him
- falling into the strange familiar in your home country
- KAJAL AHMAD birds (183, Heart of the Stranger)
The poem begins with:
"According to the latest classification, Kurds
now belong to a species of bird
which is why, across the torn, yellowing pages
of history, they are nomads spotted by their caravans."
- FARHAD PIRBAL Waste (294, ibid)
"I was born in Hewlêr, I got to know Lenin in Baghdad, I began feeling my statelessness in Tehran, my Kurdishness in Damascus, I opned my eyes in Spánov, I got my passport in Aalborg, in Copenhagen, I faced thoughts of suicide, in Stockholm, for the first time, I slept with a European woman, in Pairs, I got my first foreign dipoma, in Kraków, my ears were purified by the music of Chopin, in Santiago, with love, in Düsseldorf, with hatred...
Now I want, like the Austrian-Jewish businessmen of World War II, to go work for a while in Canada and then marry a Brazilian woman, then come back to Europe and publish a book in London, finally I will go to Amsterdam to kill myself: my corpse, like rotting sack of potatoes, tossed into a dumpster, known to no one."
- in the conversation so far Malcom tends to "engage" while Dyer tends to "lecture" (he did find "common ground" but kept on his name-dropping)
Interviewing each other's work and worldviews on the platform of a magazine — to me this is a productive space for contextualization.
What are other forms of mutual annotations? (See also: essay film correspondence)
- cinema brings material form to world-making; images obtained v. poetic imagining
In my own films I make the world of the inner space visible.
- reminds me of the spirit world of Buddha
- narrative coherence v. collection of observational instants
Documentary is a way of framing reality... Reality becomes material. I think of short stories based on personal experiences — names are changed, events re-arranged, expressions chosen...
- Have the same words been uttered by another? Sounds familiar.
"My strategy was to collect material, images and sounds, which in some small way seemed necessary to college... I then edited the film the way you make a collage, moving things around until you reach eureka points of alignment. For me, a film is really made, a sculptural collage in time, space and sound, un shackled from the tyranny of being fully conceived at the start" -- Ben Rivers
- annotate with pen and note-taking with camera
When I read, I annotate with a pen as a way to think with the author.
When I film, I take footage with the camera ("collect materials") that is tangentially based on an idea (e.g. home). I find the narrative afterwards. Once I have the narrative, I think of new shots that will actually tell the stories.
What information do the shots offer? Does it open up the world to the viewers? These are questions I am answering now.
a program at the artspace Rib (Rotterdam)
"Taming the Horror Vacui, unfolding the practice of artist Haseeb Ahmed at Rib, is also an artist publication. Edited and designed by Piero Bisello, it will consist of 9 issues to be released after each of the events with Ahmed's guests in the program. Participatory in nature, the publication will build a system of annotations in which a central image sourced from Ahmed’s work at Rib will be commented by external contributors, including workshop participants, citizens of Charlois and Rotterdam, artists, curators, scientists, and more." - https://www.ribrib.nl/projects/taming-the-horror-vacui-publication
I like the phrase "a system of annotations." I might steal that for my own practice of annotation.
I think of annotation as a way of communication between the author and me. And later, when I become the author, the annotations (organized, written out, etc.) become the materials for the readers.
On reading essays
This is a chapter from the book by Nicole Wallack, Crafting Presence: The American Essay andthe Future of Writing Studies. I like the epigraphs.
"The critic's moment of destiny... is that at which things become forms — the moment when all feelings and experiences on the near or the far side of form receive form, are melted down and condensed into form." — Georg Lukács, "On the Nature and Form of the Essay"
"...We cannot enter the texts we read, but they can enter us. That is what reading is all about." — Robert Scholes, Protocols of Reading
Interestingly, I think it's through annotation that I enter the texts I read. During the course of last two years, I have certainly become a better reader.
Wallack notes that the goal in essays is "to explore an idea in a way that both reveals the unique imprint of its writer's presence and invites the reader to speculate on the implications of the idea for him- or herself and others." (61)
"[Essays] accept readings that account for the integral interrelationship between the idea and form, which means to refuse the easy and false dichotomy between reading for something called 'content' and something else called 'form'." (61)
Reading essays in its literary form and making films that are contingent on the contemplations are productive for me.
I have been thinking about the term "artist moving image." At the last assessment in year one, I said that my goal for the second year would be to create a substantial project with which I could professionalize in the space of "artist moving images."
People who make "artist moving image" usually call themselves filmmakers. Filmmaker in that sense is someone who uses the medium of film. Whether or not the filmmaker operates in the architecture of film production (determined by the operations of film funding bodies, the hierarchy of a producer-director relationship, the use of a crew, etc.) is not entirely set in stone. From my talks to Simon and Barend and from my encounters at IFFR, I learned that producing for cinema is a whole animal by itself. (A concrete implication is that for Nederland Filmfond asks for very different expertises/documents than those required by Mondriaanfond and Stimuleringsfonds. I will come back to the topic of essay and essay film before I digress further, though I do think how funding bodies shape the makers is a topic deserving more discussion.)
To read "efferently" is to take information out of the reading. To read "aesthetically" is to understand how the materials work. (61) The reminds me of the practice of writing synopsis, where the reader assumes the role of a note-taker.
Wallack cites a few teachers and scholars in writing studies. Mariolina Salvatori believes "the dialogic and dialectical nature of the relationship between writing and reading." Reading becomes "analogue for thinking about one's own and others' thinking, about how one's thinking ignites and is ignited by the thoughts of others." (Salvatori 1996, cited in Wallack)
I find this comment useful to think about my own writing. In which space am I writing? "The creative writers are too caught up in their desire to keep the effects of a text they are reading mysterious, and the cultural critics are impatient with a focus on their own practices that can distract from the social or political or ethical dilemmas that the texts raise for readers." (62)
Wallack cites Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus's concept of "surface reading" — "a method for textual analysis that frees us from seeking what is 'symptomatic' in our objects of study." I have been noticing a lot of "symptomatic reading" first in my own way of working and, later, as I become more aware of it, in group critiques. Best and Marcus define symptomatic readers as those "when [focusing] on elements present in the text... construe them as symbolic of something latent or concealed." Surfacing reading, on the other hand, "delves into 'what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through.'" (Best and Marcus 2009, cited in Wallack)
During the course of this Master's, I find the introduction of certain methods similar to "surface reading." First, seeing the image as it is (before inferring what it suggests) — this was done in Steve's class on image analysis and through Ine's approach in her tutorials (What am I looking at?) I have been implementing these methods proactively in tutorials and group critiques, by resisting the tendency to explain/justify/conceptualize for the viewer before I show my work. I find this training useful and necessary for anyone who uses images in their work.
Readers, when reading surfaces, "[defer] to them instead of mastering them or using them as objects." (ibid) This provides room for humility, as Wallack suggests, and reduces interpretations. (I.A. Richards Practical Criticism and Sontag's Against Interpretation are cited here.)
Wallack suggests a few essayists who talk about the practice of reading: Montaigne, Emerson, Woolf, William Gass, bell hooks, Jeanette Winterson and Vivian Gornick. (I have read some of them and will take note of the others.)
Wallack comes back to the idea that "one of the ways that we can focus [the reader's] attention is by providing them with a sense of the kind of essay they are reading." (65) She speaks about this in a pedagogical setting. As for the writer, I am reminded of writing the introduction for my thesis. I think there is value in outlining explicitly what I am going to say for the benefit of the readers.
"If the work of essayists from Montaigne through the New Journalists provides us with any guidance, it is this: as readers of essays we need to try to understand what the factors are that visibly affect the creation of a writer's presence in an essay, and how the writer manages his or her evidence in order to appreciate the full complexity of the essay's idea." (66)
Wallack cites Sontag in her introduction to an essay anthology, who suggests there are two types of essays: essays of Ideas and essays of Identity. A question to ask the reader is "what kinds of thinking or consciousness [the essays] require of the writer and his or her readers." (67)
This is a question I now ask myself as a writer and filmmaker.
The Aesthetics of Diaspora in Moving Image Practice
Injury and Repair: Kader Attia
'Image-writing': the essayistic/sanwen in Chinese nonfiction cinema and Zhao Liang's Behemoth
I encountered this book chapter when I was researching, for the first time, about essay film. The 'Sanwen' and 'Chinese nonfiction cinema' in the title surprised me — I never set out to search something that had a relation to China, a place towards which I had complicated feelings and about which I had been critical. However, the term 'image-writing' was the exact sort of thing that I wanted to inquire. So I decided to give it a read.
Yu combs through the history of essay film both in the west and non-west. The essay film in the west is linked to "the French Rive Gauche filmmakers, or Nouvelle Vague filmmakers such as Chris Marker, Alain Resnais or Agnès Varda" (Elsaesser 2017, cited in Yu). (This gives me a useful historical framework since Marker and Varda come up often in my readings regarding film.) Yu points out that the aesthetics of Chinese nonfiction film (yingxiang xiezuo, a.k.a. 'image writing') links to "Chinese literary essay tradition, cultural expression and the socio-political conditions in China."
What interests me most is the formal link between essayistic film and Chinese literary essay tradition (and to a lesser degree, cultural expression). I grew up with and was trained to write essays according to such tradition up till the age of 18. At 19 I learned to write academic papers at an American liberal arts college, where I also took a creative non-fiction writing class. I continued taking creative writing classes after college in the US, including two playwriting workshops (weekly, lasting for 1.5 years). I am influenced, if not shaped, by American literary tradition. To a degree, the shift of language and the rhetoric and structure that come with the shift has determined my current way of thinking and expressing. I am curious about what revisiting Chinese literary essay tradition adds to my awareness as a filmmaker.
I do not regard the social-political conditions of contemporary China as an aesthetical influence for my current work. This makes Zhao Liang, the filmmaker Yu analyzes in the essay, and myself two authors with different intentions. (I still took some notes on the social-political aspect, as the emergence of the Chinese "image writing" is inseparable from political expression, something I learned from this essay.)
I agree with Yu that "current criticism and theorisation around the essay film... is largely rooted in western cultural and social contexts" (173). This awareness is an awareness of the Western gaze. Yu does not criticize it in her writing. She draws on similarities of western and non-western aesthetics and uses the Chinese literary tradition and other cultural aesthetics as a way to expand this discourse. I read attentively as she unpacks the process of 'screening-writing' with practices of 'image writing' by Chinese filmmakers, using Zhao's film as a subject.
Yu uses 'screen-writing' in the following way: ' Screen-writing' for essayistic cinema includes a complex on-going process of filming or collecting, (re)writing and (re-)editing moving image materials and 'image-writing': [I]mage writing' inherits the aesthetics of the scattered vision and ideographic expression of the Chinese language essay, sanwen, literally meaing 'loose text' or 'scattered writings'. (Handler-Spitz 2010, cited in Yu)
In Yu's definitions, 'screen-writing' is a higher level term for essay films in the western sense (for this she cites Corrigan, Rascaroli, Bazin — see abstracts below) and 'image writing' is a practice of Chinese filmmaker as they make essayistic films.
the Chinese literary traditions
The Chinese prose forms of sanwen (scattered writings), suibi (the brush follows) and xiaoping (small appraisals), "established in the Tang and Song dynasties (c. 618-1279) and proliferated in late Ming China (1573-1644)," share the same timeline and literary qualities as Montaigne's Essais (c. 1570 - 1592). The qualities are: "scattered quality, inclusiveness, spontaneity and temporary mode, aiming to raise thoughts and provoke questions rather than offer conclusions" (Pollard 2000, Kafalas 2007, Handler-Spitz 2010, cited in Yu). (175)
It's interesting to note that, according to Handler-Spitz, in early modern France and Ming China, essays responded to "large-scale transformation occurring in both societies." (175)
Yu regards the development of "image writing" in China a form of response to social change, drawing on literary forms developed during Ming China and the China Republic in the early 20th century. (175) She points out that 'image writing' is an intellectual practice in China and is male-dominated, a reality shared by Chinese independent cinema. The Tian'an men crackdown in 1989 is a mark of the state's shift on "furthering economic developments as well as de-emphasising the political reform and ideology." Film employing "image writing" has since become a space of mediation.^ (176)
"Capturing images is similar to taking notes or making suibi, that is, letting 'the brush follow'." ^^(176) Several Chinese filmmakers compare editing to writing, and the writer deals with both duration and space. One filmmaker, Kang He, also observes that image writing becomes an extension of the writer's identity. (Kang 2017, cited in Yu).
a few key western text on the essay film
I find Yu's comparison of "image writing" and essay film in the western sense useful. It offers me a breadth of positions as a Chinese national (indicated on my passport) shaped by Euro-American texts, pedagogies, intitutions. Yu cites a few key texts in essay film:
Timothy Corrigan: essay film has "an expressive subjectivity, commonly seen in the voice or actual presence of the filmmaker or a surrogate" (Corrigan 2011, cited in Yu)
Laura Rascaroli: in essay films, "'I', the author,... reflecting on a problem and shar[ing] my thoughts with you, the spectator." The essay film is "a specific form of textuality, and narration is a constitutive element of its epistemological and signifying strategies." (Rascaroli 2009, cited in Yu)
André Bazin: Chris Marker's Letter from Seberia is "an essay documented by film" "the primary material is intelligence... the image only intervenes in the third position, in reference to this verbal intelligence." (Bazin 2017, cited in Yu)
Yu observes language's function "for forming, acquiring, analysing, interpreting, theorising and communicating our knowledge." She and the authors she cites suggest that the language in the essay film "constructs thoughts, which could be expressed through or as moving image." (177)
These authors help me clarify why I do not intend to make my own films essay film. I always intend for a story that hint at human nature. Some themes I have touched so far in my films: loneliness, loss, comfort/discomfort, searching for home. I am always looking to evoke humanistic qualities — sorrow, compassion, the instance of being moved — rather than commenting on socio-political changes.
Yu cites Christa Blümlinger's comment on how the essay can prevent documentary images from drifting into the picturesque, "cast[s] doubt on the univocity of photography." (177) I gather that "the univocity of photography" here refers specially to the picturesque and spectacular. It seems a simplified way of looking at images. I would argue that the language of the essay in an essay film guides the reader/viewer's interpretation especially when the image is ambiguous. As a filmmaker I see certain ambiguous images (e.g. extreme close-ups, abstract landscape) as the space for contemplation, and a source for affect.
Yu uses Trinh T. Minh-ha's films as an example for 'accented cinema.' (Naficy 2001, cited in Yu) Minh-ha's narration as well as word play in these films is in English, while her the subject of her film is female repression in Vietnam. "[T]hese films indicate her position as a transnational intellectual, placing postmodern thoughts onto the seemingly more distant culture of Vietnam, the other side of her 'self'." (178)
Yu comments that contemporary Chinese filmmakers have also educated themselves by watching (pirated) Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Issac Julien and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and reading the recent dissemination of Bresson and Rascaroli. (178)
Issac Julien (1960) is a British-born filmmaker whose parents migrated from St. Lucia. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a Thai filmmaker. I infer that Chinese filmmakers who practice "image writing" are influenced by world cinema.
the retorical devices in Yu's analysis of Zhao's film: Behemoth
Behemoth is Zhao's first film that departs from a vérité aethetics. Zhao films the change (destruction) of the landscape due to mining in Inner Mongolia and the subsequent social changes. The film implicitly mirrors the structure of Dante's Devine Comedy. The narration is sparse. (Devine Comedy is mentioned once.) (179-181)
There is an absence of human voice. Emphasis on the mining noises (drilling, swinging, shovelling) and silence among the landscape. The filmmaker did interview miners when he researched for the film but decided to not use any direct speech from those sources. (181)
Two figures are recognizable throughout the film: a nude male in the landscape and a coal miner as a mute guide.
- paibi 'parallelism'
"Paibi or paralle is often used in Chinese literature to reinforce an argument or a meaning through listing three or more similar situations. In the cinematic context, these techniques become important as part of cinematography and editing when images are arranged." (184)
"Zhao's voice-over [in Chinese] comments, 'the crew spends all night daubing on dusky make-up.' By means of paibi or prallel editing, three workers' faces are shwon in close-up. Zhao continues, 'what decides they are "nongzhuang danmo" (translated as 'caked with poweder or getting a light touch-up' in the film's English subtitle) depends not on their mood, but on how fast the wind blows." (182, stills from film on 183)
- hongtuo 'juxtaposition'
"Hongtuo is a narrative technique in traditional Chinese calligraphic painting and writing to accentuate an object or a character, or to render a feeling 'visible' by adding something around it."
"After a sequcne that nostalgically depicts traditional Mongolian nomadic life in the green pastures, the film cuts to a point-of-view shot taken from the windscreen of a lorry, entering the massive open cast mines. The noisy machinery, the black, smoky landscape and the uninformed workers wearing masks are in direct contrast to the images of nomads and sheep in open green spaces." (184)
I easily associate the description of these scenes with montages of contrast. While I appreciate the author's effort to draw attention to "Chinese literary strategies and aesthetic traditions to express the impressionistic and the ideographic," (186) the still images included in the essay do not convey that aesthetics. (I actually get the feeling of Ansel Adams in the landscape shots.) I wonder if the Chinese literary strategies mentioned here become merely an alternative framework of reference for the author's analysis rather than a truthful reading of the materials themselves.
- jiedai 'metonymy'
mentioned as a device but not analyzed
- fanyu 'irony'
In the last part of the film, which mirrors Dante's 'heaven', the scenes portray a landscape engulfed by real-estate development. These high-rises symbolizes capitalism's dream. (185-186)
^ I think of the images from the current BLM protests in the US. A lot can be said about "documentary" v. "documents" (see Aperture issue 214, "Documentary, expanded" spring 2014). When there is fear of expression, direct cinema (I might need to find a more precise terminology) is not an option. Social comments are "translated" through "image writing."
^^ Note-taking here is documentation rather than annotation. I have developed the latter as a key component of my practice. (I did write a lot of suibi for home assignments in middle school and high school, but don't remember what they are about.)
Essay films about film: the 'filmed correspondence' between José Luis Guerin and Jonas Mekas
thoughts on the character's objective
One of the first lessons I learned from writing plays was this: each character has objective. The playwright must be crystal clear about what the character wants.
The common things new students — and I was one of them — utter in workshops are usually: he doesn't want to change the status quo, she doesn't want to say more, she doesn't want to go, he doesn't feel comfortable.
"You are telling me what she DOES NOT want, but what DOES she want?" The teacher asks.
"She does not want to agree with him."
"You are still telling me what she does NOT want. What. Does. She. Want."
"She wants... She wants..."
After some struggle, the student says, as if out of defeat, "she wants him to listen to her. She wants him to acknowledge her."
"She wants to be acknowledged by him. She wants acknowledgement from him."
"She wants acknowledgement, specifically from him. And that's something she's not getting. That's the conflict, and that makes the play."
I went through the process of identifying the character's objective on a weekly basis for a year and a half. I read about the process again in David Mamet's On Directing Film, a collection of lectures when he taught at the film department at Columbia University in 1987. (He had very similar conversations with the film students as the ones I had in the playwriting workshop. Reading the book, I thought he was approaching film as a dramaturg rather than a director. See the synopsis)
I learned to see through my characters in order to write them. I learned that their wants, when spoken out loud, were simple. The process of finding out the objective is a training to understand human beings — to get to the core of our desires, disappointments and insecurities. I wonder if it was a coincidence that I was talking to my therapist during the same period of writing plays. Only in therapy, I tried to figure out myself.
We do not identify our objectives clearly in real life. We certainly do not write our own stories out all the time. Sometimes the things we want the most are also the most unidentifiable, precisely because it pains us to touch our desires, disappointments and insecurities. We lose our clarity as we try to spell them out. To articulate what we want all the while knowing, consciously or not, that we do not have what we want, that is anguish.
We are afraid to see through ourselves.
If we could, we would have.
We haven't, because we are convinced we are not going to get it.
thoughts on the things I stayed away from
I found filmmaking difficult in the beginning. It was this big thing about which I knew very little.
In my first year at the Master's, I stayed away from what I enjoyed, which was writing. I wrestled with this tendency to keep its place in the things I was trying to make. It felt that I quite abruptly tried to restock my knowledge. I subjected myself to the much less comfortable medium of film.
In making film, I stayed away from intuition, which I saw as the notion of freedom that "I can make whatever I want." I tried to learn proper forms. That was my research. It was excruciating. I watched online tutorials and asked more experienced peers for the "correct way" to operate a camera and a sound recorder. I learned to stabilize my camera with my tripod. I learned to use premier. I was stressed the first time I had to sync the audio with the video.
I called this process a penance — I was choosing to do the things that pained me and exhausted me. I felt insufficient around the medium, not to mention the craft of it. In order to overcome my clumsiness I tried to make things constantly, all the while aware, annoyingly, that what I made wasn't good enough. The uncertain and unknown nerve-wracked me. What I knew — from life, from writing — felt irrelevant in the vastness of new knowledge. I placed a heavy weight on feedback from tutors. I felt I relied on others to see, because I was not sure if I was seeing what I saw, or if I could now express what I saw.
I took on an editing project with a graduating MIARD student and felt quite shit as I went through the materials. It was labor, mental and physical. During the same time, I interned at a bakery. I always had a romantic association with being a baker. (I was a home-baker in the US.) It turned out that standing on your feet for 10 hours a day while lifting 10kg flour bags would be the opposite of romantic.
I felt I was never doing enough. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, and I knew there was something wrong with this kind of thinking and doing. The feeling of being insufficient came from the shame that had plagued me. I was in a kind of darkness whose end I tried to see and whose space I tried to feel.
In making film, I also stayed away from essay films, or — from the days I did not look into this term — films with a clear presence of a voiceover. The second film I made during the Master's had a voice component. I didn't want to do the voice and asked someone else to do it. I wanted the voice to be the voice of a character... I ended up doing the voice after Simon commented the voice felt totally detached, "a voice of a BBC announcer where what you are looking for is a whisper." I felt I did not want to expose myself like that after recording the voice.
At the time, essay film seemed quite narcissistic. I disliked a voice on top of montages. Sometimes they sounded like pretend poetry. Sometimes there is a story — I call it an outcry — too much telling, too much declaring, too much imposing words onto images and making images pretty illustrations...
In the second year, rather than staying away from things, I started to approach them.
thoughts on confidence
I received the feedback that I put film on a pedestal more than once. I was told that I needed to develop a confidence in the images I was making. I did not always know what that meant. I usually felt lost for some days after these comments because I did not what to do with them. My impetus to read as much as I can was my way to diffuse this confusion.
Confidence is not rooted in grandiose language. I read International Art English and a book on good art writing in the first few months of the program. I would later call a certain way of speaking/writing: speaking/writing for a discourse. Confidence within a discourse (a.k.a. knowing its jargon and history) is different from confidence in making, or confidence in seeing. I valued the theory bits, but with some helpful nudges (i.e. Simon's comment on the bureaucratic institutional art language),
I distanced myself from seeing what I did within any theoretical framework. I also did not feel that I had to become erudite about art history as much as I set out to. I became less eager about reproducing the kind of language for an art exhibition. "Didactics" and "ontology" became less interesting way of speaking.
Confidence comes from opening up to uncertainty and the recognition of failures.
I started doing yoga in college. I found momentary peace in that practice when I worked a lot. I mediated in an ashram a few times. A main device is the body scan, where the teacher guides the students through relaxation, starting from the the feet, to the calves, legs, hips, to the lower back/abdomen, middle back, upper back/chest, shoulders, lower arms, upper arms, hands, neck, head, face... Each unit can be further divided based on the length of the session. For example, foot: big toe to little toe, back of the foot, ball of the foot, heel, ankle... Another device is pranayama, which is broadly translate to "energy work" and is done with different techniques of breathing.
In 2015-16 my therapist helped me recognize the physicality of emotions, that is, I became clearer and clearer about the physical sensations of emotions. For example, sadness to me is a tightening in the chest, a flush in the face, and constricted throat (before tears). And calmness and open-heartedness feels like something uplifting, warm, something that makes me big and my posture upright, and I usually look up at the sky.
In 2017 I went through a yoga teacher training. I studied the human anatomy intensely. There I also followed a rigorous schedule of meditation (waking up at 5:30am every day. having tea and meditating for 45 minutes, before asana practice).
In 2019 I started doing yoga regularly again. I became a fan of yin yoga in which I rest my attention on how the body changes in the long-held poses. I currently enjoy lessons with a teacher who is also a manual therapist who works with soft tissue methods. I have experienced and read about somatic therapies. "Tremoring," for example, has been used to release the emotions (mainly, fear) from the body. It's been used for veterans who suffer from PTSD.
At the end of 2019 I became a Buddhist. I went through a ritual which they call "transmission" at Plum Village in France, a monastery established by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Master. I first read his work on reconciliation via my therapist's recommendation (in NYC) and sequently visited one of the monasteries under the Plum Village lineage in upstate NY. My history with Buddhism started with family influence, which I dismissed as superstition. I acquired a great amount of Buddhist knowledge through my undergrad architecture thesis, for which I designed a nonsectarian Buddhist meditation center — that was a period where I tried to get to the root of Buddhism (and prove my atheism). I learned many things along the way... and here I am.
Having done many different styles of meditations, I find the Plum Village meditation most elegant, in which breathing is the means and end. It is also quite relaxed (as opposed to certain schools of Japanese Zen practices.) There are not many techniques as in the Vedic meditations or the modern guided meditations I partake sometimes.
After that, during meditation, I can feel pain manifesting in very specific ways. I register inherited trauma (and, as a result, trauma that has happened to myself) as a heavy feeling in front of my heart. Shame and fear usually register on the right side of my heart, close to the center of my chest. (Once I even went to the doctor to get this checked out, and she said this kind of pain is neurological, a.k.a. related to nerves rather than the cardiovascular system... It is consistent with how bodies register trauma.)
One time I was meditating during pain, I notice the pain migrate from the heart to under my left arm, near where the lymph nodes are.
One most recent development is the development of compassion. As I am able to extend that to other people now, I sometimes feel other people's pain. (Part of this feeling in front of my heart is pain from my ancestors and my parents.) I have noticed a couple of times that as I try to see the other as who they are (and see through their suffering), the pain usually starts from the heart/center chest, but then quite precisely lodge at the back of my right lung, near my right shoulder blade.
healing is my ethical position
At first I denied the presence of catharsis in my work.
Then, I decided to be radically vulnerable and got rid of any speculative, theory-oriented framework. And I realized that a lot, if not all my recent work, is based on catharsis. The thesis is a good example — I did not do it to feel better, but rather to find clarity.
The first and fifth mindfulness training: (from Plum Village, nonsectarian)
"Reverence for life: Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world."
"Nourishment and healing: Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth."
As a maker I have the responsibility to make images and write texts that do not support any kind of killing. This does not mean I reject portrayal of violence, sex, war — if they are part of what I make (first why?) how do I show them and under what context? (For example, I have been interested in this idea of "pornography as therapy" since I heard it from Alain de Botton...)
In terms of what I write... I find certain language common in academic and critical text trouble some. Words such as "investigate" and "interrogate," which I often see as the author describes their action to the subject, carry a connotation of criminality, authority, judgement. It's important for me to consider my word choices in my writing, because — words become thoughts, thoughts evolve into discourses, discourses build up epistemology... Where is compassion and understanding in epistemology? I am becoming more and more aware of the affects of the things I make and write, just as I am more and more of the actions I carry out in everyday life and the choices I make as a consumer and a citizen.
One ethical question I ask myself as filmmaker is: does this provoke any hatred, discrimination, dogmatism, apathy, cynicism, despair? (No.) Does this have the potential to heal? (Yes.)
Yu, T. 'Image-writing': the essayistic/sanwen in Chinese nonfiction cinema and Zhao Liang's Behemoth. In: Hollweg, B. & Krstić, I. eds. World Cinema and the Essay Film: Transnational Perspectives on a Global Practice. [Online] Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp.?-?. [Accessed 27 May, 2020] Available from: http://www.jstor.com/stable/10.3366/j.ctvnjbhnw.16
Attia, K. & Sassone, G.