1 Communicating Positionality in Documentary Work

Ryan Dratler

The documentary tradition is rooted in “extractive  storytelling,” where an “objective outsider” “looks in,”  producing a “filmmaking based on ‘savior-ism’ rather than solidarity,” says filmmaker Ligaiya Romero. In 2020, a group of filmmakers, educators, and scholars launched a dialogue at the International Documentary Association to support documentary filmmakers to work in responsible, ethical ways.  They formed a Documentary Accountability Working Group and generated a collection of guiding principles and ethics to inform documentary practice. One of those principles is to recognize that filmmakers have power and that non-fiction storytellers must examine their own positionality.

“As a filmmaker, you assume the ability to shape and interpret stories – your own and those of others. A values-based filmmaking practice requires an acknowledgement and deep examination of your lens, preconceptions, and the responsibility you hold as a steward of stories. Regardless of the power you possess in your daily life based on your own intersectional identity, when you pick up a camera you wield power.”
–from the Documentary Accountability Working Group’s Core Values for Ethical and Accountable Nonfiction Filmmaking

This principle recalls the concept of social location discussed by Robert Coles in his text Doing Documentary Work.  Coles describes social location as who you are, where you live (and have lived) and every other social and contextual factor that shapes a person. “We notice what we notice in  accordance with who we are” (Coles, p. 7). The particular social location that filmmakers occupy shapes what they make, meaning that a transparent understanding of the work they craft is only possible when social location is recognized. Documentarians have the responsibility to be transparent about their positionality with the audience and with the participants in their film(s). There are many ways that filmmakers can deeply examine their location and positionality, and then communicate that awareness in their filmmaking. Some include specific details in the film itself and/or open up about it in post-release interviews. By acknowledging positionality, filmmakers grant those who witness their creations the opportunity to understand the preconceptions, experiences, interpretations, possibilities and limitations that inform the film’s making. It fosters a greater level of empathy and understanding between audience, production crew, and filmmaker. And in doing so, it pushes back against generalized stereotypes of social identity. The Documentary Accountability Working Group defines acknowledging and deeply examining positionality as a best practice for non-fiction storytellers to create responsible and ethical work and in this chapter, I consider how this value is put into practice in the making of two documentary films: “Landfall” and “Cameraperson.”

Through shard-like glimpses of everyday life in post-Hurricane María Puerto Rico, “Landfall” examines a devastated world at the brink of transformation, spinning a cautionary tale about climate, capitalism, and government corruption for our times. Director Cecilia Aldarondo acknowledges her positionality in several different ways.  One of the ways Aldarondo engages this value is by recognizing the expertise and insight of people living in Puerto Rico and navigating the aftermath and corruption, rather than rely on or privilege the views of “experts.”

Not using experts. In an interview with Ruth Somalo of DocNYC, Aldarondo cites her intentional avoidance of experts in “Landfall” as a way of grounding the narrative in the people of Puerto Rico, whom she describes as “crisis experts.” She tells Somalo that she did not want to establish a “knowledge hierarchy,” instead desiring to “acknowledge the collective knowledge of people living in the crisis.”  In doing this, Aldarondo implicitly recognizes her power as a documentarian. She uses this power to center the voices of locals, rather than experts or her own voice, by making space and opportunity for them tell the story of their experiences of their government and other social institutions. In one scene, a group of  young adult Puerto Ricans are around a table dining and talking about the Hurricane, animated, frustrated, yet hopeful about their role in shaping a more just future. Certainly, Aldarondo’s film is critical of the multiple disasters bearing down on the island, but by bringing viewers to the table of a group of friends, she allows space for hope and possibility, so that viewers see Puerto Rico differently, not only through the lens of crisis and colonialism. Viewers see this hope visible in the smile of one of the friends at the table, even as her face is stained with uncertainty. This is a departure from most “disaster documentaries.” In this way, “Landfall” defies tropes within disaster films focused on suffering while also exhibiting the complexity of the human experience in Puerto Rico.

 

Woman smiling at dinner table with friends
Screenshot from “Landfall”

Co-creating the film with La Le. Another way that Aldarondo recognizes and critically examines her positionality is through prioritizing collaboration and co-creation with a local resident. When describing this in an interview with Good Docs, Aldarondo references her own social location as part of the Puerto Rican diaspora. She tells listeners that the film “is personal.”

My grandmother died six months after the hurricane.  Like millions of Puerto Rican Americans living outside of Puerto Rico, I had to witness this really tragic event from afar. I was really dissatisfied with the way the media was portraying the situation. The media was really giving no background, and also, they engaged in “ruin porn.” Most mainstream media was residually fascinated with the destruction and the suffering of the Puerto Rican people. A lot was missing. In particular, people in Puerto Rico were not portrayed as agents caring for one another and saving each other’s lives but rather being pitied.  It was imperative to create a film in which people would have more agency. People were coming together in some of the most difficult circumstances and fighting for what they believe.
–Cecilia Aldarondo

In order to create a different kind of film, one that included people in  Puerto Rico as agents caring for one another, Aldarondo engaged with co-creative documentary practices.  “It was important for me to partner with somebody who lived their whole life in Puerto Rico with people who live this crisis in a way I do not and those who have belonged to political movements. That person is Lale Namerrow Pasto.” As co-creator, Lale’s voice and cultural knowledge was essential to the film’s shape and production. Acknowledging her positionality and social location, Aldarondo recognizes that she may not be the best person to tell this story. In recognizing this, and in her close relationship with Lale, she is transparent about her positionality with the participants in the film and with the film’s audience.

Being vulnerable with the camera. Interviews with Aldarondo provide further insight into the ways she intentionally and critically examines and recognizes the possibilities and limits of her positionality as filmmaker. Sharing how these considerations and experiences shaped and informed the making of “Landfall” is an act of vulnerability. An interview is usually meant to promote the film, but Aldarondo offers much more than that when she engages her positionality.

“I think right now we’re in a place where people will sort of check boxes of identity and will look at a filmmaker like me and say, “You’re a Puerto Rican filmmaker. Therefore, you are a part of the Puerto Rican community and will compel quote-unquote stories about them.” I would say that it’s far more complicated than that. I never lived in Puerto Rico. I’m a consequence of the diaspora like many other millions of Puerto Ricans and people. Migration is a side effect of colonialism. I grew up with a huge gap in my understanding of Puerto Rican history, day-to-day life. There was a lot that I was blind to and just kind of a lot of ignorance, even though I had a tremendous love for the place that my parents grew up. For me, embarking on this film wasn’t enough that I could say, “Oh, I’m Puerto Rican. I’m going to make a film about Puerto Rico.”
–Cecilia Aldarondo

In and beyond the film itself, Aldarondo engages issues of her positionality and her power as a documentary storyteller and provides one example of how to enact the value emphasized by the Documentary Accountability Working Group.


“Cameraperson” is a film about the ability and power of the one holding the camera to shape and interpret stories. In this film, award-winning cameraperson Kirsten Johnson becomes filmmaker, documenting her own unease and discomfort about this responsibility and the difficulties of enacting the work ethically and with care. In the film, which features footage Johnson shot as cameraperson for several films, she reflects at length on the difficulties, tensions, moments of uncertainty that raise ethical questions connected to positionality and power. The film makes the positionality of Johnson very clear and focuses in on the particular power and ethical responsibilities of the one holding, pointing, turning the camera on others. Everything from the bits of dialogue between her and those she is pointing the camera at to the name of the film reflect this intentional recognition. Johnson, much like Aldarondo, acknowledges her positionality in multiple ways.

“Another thing we consciously did in its construction was that we wanted the film to creep up on the viewer in the way my experience crept up on me,” Johnson continues. “It was really Nels [Bangerter, editor] who wanted to ensure that the initial shots of hearing me, seeing me run, breath, sneeze, talk about how I frame a shot—all of those things had to come early so that I am present for people. If they started to forget, then here would come my voice that would remind them that I was still there.”
–Kirsten Johnson, from Ron Deutsch’s “The Act of Seeing: Kirsten Johnson’s ‘Cameraperson’

Paying attention to her doubts. “Cameraperson” is both a story about the people whose stories she has shared and about Johnson’s own sense of her shortcomings in shepherding these stories.  Though rarely seen on camera, Johnson’s presence behind the camera is everywhere visible in the film as she wrestles with her responsibilities and history as a cameraperson.

“Regardless of the power you possess in your daily life based on your own intersectional identity, when you pick up a camera you wield power.”
–from the Documentary Accountability Working Group’s Core Values for Ethical and Accountable Nonfiction Filmmaking

Kirsten Johnson stands with camera amidst a crowd
Photo by Gini Reticker, from https://www.documentary.org/column/act-seeing-kirsten-johnsons-cameraperson

With that responsibility and power, what has she done well and what raises ethical tensions? The film informs us about some of Johnson’s experiences through unused footage from her career, some of which stretches back decades. By acknowledging and opening up for consideration the dissonance and discomfort in some of her filming experiences, she engages with the guiding principle highlighted by the Documentary Accountability Working Group. Johnson deeply examines uneasy moments she filmed, like when she witnessed, behind the camera, a young child playing with a dangerous hand axe, a Nigerian midwife struggling to keep a baby alive due to lacking a piece of equipment she probably had in her trunk. Returning to these and other moments, she does not shy away from their ethical tensions. A values-based documentary practice, as the Documentary Accountability Working Group insists, requires acknowledging with honesty your “lens, preconceptions, and the responsibility you hold as a steward of stories.” In this film, Johnson reflects on the particular responsibilities of the cameraperson and illustrates the importance through examples of her own shortcomings and questionable decisions. By being upfront about her own mistakes and reflecting on them openly and critically, especially in the context of films engaging trauma, post-trauma, and conflict, she begins to complicate this conversation about documentary ethics and accountability.

“I want us to understand that it’s not that simple to film people with dignity, or to be decent as a documentarian. The camera comes with a whole extra set of dilemmas we don’t always acknowledge.”
–Kirsten Johnson

In bringing this into focus, including her own vulnerability, Johnson is recognizing her positionality and beautifully demonstrating this value in practice.

Being vulnerable with people she films. In an interview at New York’s Lincoln Center, Johnson opens up about her experience revisiting Bosnia after a film project years prior. She says “we do this thing of not revealing who we are to the people we film,” but explains that when she saw the Muslim family she had previously met and documented, they were overjoyed to hear the personal news that Johnson had twins. Sharing the story of her twins with this family, Johnson thoughtfully acknowledges the vulnerability in these relationships between image maker and  those on camera. Responsibility to acknowledge positionality as a storyteller does not end with the final cut of the film, but extends beyond it and into the relationships  between the storyteller and those whose stories are shared on  film. Being open with participants can be difficult. But in order to respect the dignity and agency of those involved in our films and center their humanity, documentary filmmakers themselves experience vulnerability.  This intimate, heartfelt exchange between Johnson and one of the Muslim women connects them through a shared vulnerability, through time, and also Johnson’s own humanity in new and revealing ways.

Grounding Cameraperson in the stories of others to tell a story about herself. The opening intertitle of “Cameraperson” asks viewers to see the film as Johnson’s memoire. The entire film is comprised of footage from past films on which Johnson served as cameraperson. Much of the footage speaks to her own experiences in that role. She filmed, she bore witness to these moments, those people. She could have told the audience about all of this in other ways, but she chose to root the film in the voices and experiences of those she documents. This choice has implications, and says something about Johnson’s awareness of her power as the one holding the camera, and the conscious ways she has attempted to center the experiences and voices of the people she films, to not do them a disservice by framing them as victims or without agency. Intermixed with all of this is fragmented video of Johnson’s own mother, who has advanced dementia, footage that in some ways highlights Johnson’s vulnerability and complex positionality.  “I’m implicating myself in the conundrum of this work of showing the lives of others by also showing my mother.” Expressions on her mother’s face are troubling for the viewer, and Johnson’s questions from behind the camera directed to her mother further suggest the uncertainty and pull of these moments behind and in front of the camera.

“I do believe that in certain moments and certain times it is critically important to show the most terrible things. But I also think one always has to question, Who is showing whom, on behalf of what? Is it exploitative? I’m very much an advocate for thinking about whether it is yours to show, and whether you’ve earned the right to show it or not.”
–Kirsten Johnson

“Cameraperson” does not answer all of these questions for viewers, but raising questions about power and agency are ways of engaging with one’s positionality and responsibility as a documentary storyteller. Johnson’s work calls to mind another film that poses more questions than it aims to answer, “Stranger with a Camera.” In this film, Elizabeth Barrett reminds viewers of this complex relationship and responsibilities. The camera is “like a gun. It’s invasive, it’s exploitative, and it is not always true.” Johnson understands this when she says: “You’re not just human when you have a camera with you.”


References:

American Documentary, Inc. (2000, July 11). Stranger with a camera: Film description: Stranger with a camera: POV: PBS. POV. Retrieved October 14, 2022, from http://archive.pov.org/strangerwithacamera/film-description/

Coles, R. (1997). Doing documentary work. New York Public Library : Oxford University Press.

Deutsch, R. (2016, September 9). The Act of Seeing: Kirsten Johnson’s ‘Cameraperson’. International Documentary Association. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.documentary.org/column/act-seeing-kirsten-johnsons-cameraperson

Wallace-Williams, S. (2021, October 21). LANDFALL Filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo details the process and emotional impact of addressing collective trauma in Puerto Rico in Hurricane María’s aftermath. GOOD DOCS. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://gooddocs.net/blogs/behind-the-camera/landfall-interview