Adam Curtis: Bitter Lake

Adam Curtis’ Bitter lake is a unique documentary which explores the history of the relations between Afghanistan and the USA through archived footage. Curtis has carefully edited the footage to take the viewer through a linear poetic/linear documentary. The narrative follows conventional expository techniques for example ‘Historical documentaries in this mode deliver an unproblematic and ‘objective’ account and interpretation of past event’, whilst the execution of the documentary- poetic which ‘moves away from continuity editing and instead organized images of the material world by means of associations and patterns, both in terms of time and space.’ Curtis’ storyline has especially appealed to me as it exposed the relations between the west and the orient, arguably through the opposing perspective to western media. Curtis uses his footage in a way which rejects the conventional western broadcasts of the orient through using archived ‘local’ footage of Afghani citizens who suffered during the war. His intentions of highlighting the USA and Britain as the real ‘enemy’, who essentially established the foundations of the war is also strengthen by including footage of hooligan western soldiers who aimlessly murder innocent people. The main underlying theme could be viewed as exposing the Orientalist perspective, defying the strength of western media and it’s influence in polluting western people’s views towards the east.

This theme is something I aspire to project through my documentary, as I intend to present the perspective of first generation of Iranian’s who left Iran in reaction to the Islamic Revolution. The people I will be interviewing were all anti-Shah during the revolution, mainly for the reasons that they felt the shah was allowing the west to control Iran. It will be interesting to watch/listen to how these people interpreted the revolution and understood it as opposed to how western media reported it during the time. Other than the theoretical aspect of Bitter Lake, I found the way in which is was displayed extremely interesting. Using archived footage to cover over 100 years of history was a visually fascinating and informative as it had the ability to make the audience feel as if they travelled back in time, experiencing all these events-therefore creating a closer connection with the narrative. As I have previously mentioned, surprise is vital in story writing in order to obtain the audiences attention. Curtis perfects this as he specifically locates shocking scenes in unexpected places, as although his narration is linear, the footage jump cuts between the two different perspectives quite often- from western to eastern culture/location. From this technical aspect, I have been inspired to incorporate this into some of my scenes of the interviews with the subjects. I contemplated using found footage of the protests of revolutions of 1979 to begin the documentary with, to set the scene. However this would completely object my initial idea of making it look naturalistic ‘window into a world’ idea, therefore I have rethought how I can include some found footage without it looking overly stylised.

I want the audience to view a glimpse of how extreme the protests were and gain an understanding of what the documentary subjects have experienced and lived through. Furthermore to achieve this, I have constructed a certain scene which consists of the family sitting around the sofa whilst footage of the revolution plays on the television. This conforms to my intention of prompting discussion regarding certain subjects, whilst making it look un-staged as it if the situation has naturally occurred.  I hope this will influence the subjects to discuss their recollections of this moment in time, thus informing the audience of their varying experiences. This scene could be seen as the start of their journey since leaving, which I aim to capture through this documentary.

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Devising Questions

My methodology behind the structure of my questions are somewhat contradictory, aiming to specify on certain themes yet making the questions quite general in order to for them to discuss and debate-to seem like a conversation. I have constructed a few question which will not be included in the audio thus appearing to the audience as if they are listening into a conversation regarding the subject matter within the family.

Some questions I have devised to fit the brief are:

-Discuss some of the factors which lead you to make the decision to leave

-How did you interpret the uprising of Khomeini during the demonstrations

-What were the implications of the revolution for example restraints, challenges to previous society

-Which of these affected you the most

-Discuss the journeys and the challenges you faced adapting to a different cultures

All these questions are intended to be discussed in a way which everyone can talk about and add too, seeing as they all made the journey together, the individuals can add to parts of memories of others adding missed or additional information from the time. I will ask these questions and participate from behind the camera, giving the family prompts to either expand on their information or move onto a new question, as this can all be edited out in post production to look like a naturally flowing conversation. Kalow argues that by limiting the pre-composed structure to follow ‘Shortening the amount of scripted narration invariably leads to a more valid, lively, and visually interesting portrait. When actual community members give voice to their experiences and perceptions, we have more of an opportunity to become engaged in their story’ (Kallow, 2011). The question’s I have devised are quite broad and therefore provides the audience with the illusion that the conversation is naturally taking place. Additionally, all the questions guide the interviewee in an order which discusses their journey from start to finish, which is what I am to present on my documentary. The physical and cultural journey they have experienced.

As the conversation continues Im sure that they will talk about other situations they faced and they may in fact go off track, however the more footage I film the better. Having more content will allow me to specify the most informative shots/scenes to include in my film-furthermore determining and following my intended narrative.

Search For My Tongue

Poet Sujata Bhatt, writes a poem which explores the difficulties she has faced in maintaining her ‘mother tongue’ Gujurati her first language, since living in the west. Key themes within her poem focus of loss of identity, through inheriting the surrounding cultures of her environment, becoming ‘Americanised’. She speaks about the two languages ‘mother’ and ‘foreign’ as if they are battling to consume her mind, but in her dreams she regains the sense of her ‘mother’ identity, which is able to flourish and put her at ease:

‘You ask me what I mean
by saying I have lost my tongue.
I ask you, what would you do
if you had two tongues in your mouth,
and lost the first one, the mother tongue,
and could not really know the other,
the foreign tongue.
You could not use them both together
even if you thought that way.
And if you lived in a place you had to
speak a foreign tongue,
your mother tongue would rot,
rot and die in your mouth
until you had to spit it out.
I thought I spit it out
but overnight while I dream,
it grows back, a stump of a shoot
grows longer, grows moist, grows strong veins,
it ties the other tongue in knots,
the bud opens, the bud opens in my mouth,
it pushes the other tongue aside.
Everytime I think I’ve forgotten,
I think I’ve lost the mother tongue,
it blossoms out of my mouth.’

This poem relates to some of the themes I aim to convey in my documentary- cultural preservation, loss and the attempts to retain cultural identity through visual and audio clips. Language is a key contributor to the shaping of ones cultural identity, therefore language in my documentary will be a prominent element which will be explored in how the family adapted to different societies by overcoming the language barriers and how it has shaped their modern identity.

Orientalism in the Media

Orientalism, a theory devised by Edward Said in the 1900’s focuses on the Eurocentric views towards the Orient- mainly the middle east, in a uncomplimentary way. Said argues states “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’” (Said, 1978 cited in Sim, 2012, p246). Furthermore Orientalism has been founded off the basis of western discoveries as a result of expeditions to the Orient. Thus social, cultural and political conventions and norms in the Orient were compared and scrutinised due to the lack of global cultural awareness. Said believes the Occident-Orient divide has been manifested in the projection of western imagination of the Orient ‘On the one hand there are Westerners, and on the other there are Arab Orientals; the former are (in no particular order) rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion; the latter are none of these things’ (Said, 1978 Sim, 2012, p.241). Moreover these objective views towards a varying culture, led to the dismissive opinions regarding the Orient on behalf of the framework of western society and values. Said has understood this oppressive viewpoint of the Orient as a discourse which has been translated in post-modern media and how It has in fact reinforced and normalised Orientalist notions. Most commonly seen in the news, Orientalist discourse is still prevalent within modern day media, due to the framing of the middle east in a light which Friedmann argues builds barriers between nations and cultures, thus ‘it determines how people perceive, interpret, and live their lives’ (Sim, 2012, 246). Traditionally, living in a western society, I am aware of how some media outlets such as newspapers and televised news broadcast reports regarding the orient in a way which outweighs the positive stories with the negatives. I feel like it is rare when I am exposed to a story which reports on positive stories within the Orient, making it very easy for western citizens to comprehend that region of the world as uncivilised.

Generally, Said theory draws on the misunderstanding or misinterpretation between the two societies, which is something I aim to incorporate within my film. By breaking down and distancing the misconceptions which lead many to identify Orientalist views with race. By providing the audience with a unique and detailed insight into a middle eastern families life, opposes the conventional discourse of Orientalism within television/ or media. As Freidmann argued that Orientalist thought promoted the divide between nations my documentary will act a visual paradox to this, and instead aim to de-rail these boundaries in order for the audience to acknowledge the subjects not as the ‘others’ but as people.

References

Said, E (1978) cited in Sim, G. (2012) ‘Said’s Marxism: Orientalism relationship to film studies and race’, Discourse, 34(2-3), p. 240-259

Filming Techniques of Accented Cinema

‘Home’ is an integral part to the placement or situatedness of diasporic or exilic people, as ‘deterritorialized’ space which enables people to inhabit their homeland cultural practices, connoting a place of security and comfort. Thus it is important it include places of belonging in Accent films, signifies parts of peoples identities, for the audience to understand. To visual convey this, as part of my storyboard I have decided to include the front doors of each house that I will be filming in, showing the surrounding scenery in order for the audience to view the environmental surroundings which all demonstrate what country I am filming in. For example in Dubai, it is visible that the front door is located in a warm climate due to the exotic plants and the ambient sound of the crickets, whereas in architecture and the number plates of the car indicate in the London house that it is being filmed in England.

Marino describes the significance of ‘Liminal spaces’ as a space which is intended to supplement for another one, but does necessarily replace it. Furthermore she argues that ‘Immigrants are often stuck in this space “in-between” the home – alive in the memory – and the host society -where they work and live’ (Marino, 2014, p132). This not only demonstrates the difficulty in relocating in physical space but also the psychological effects affiliated in this liminal state of mine in which the space which cannot be fulfilled. Comparing these environment contributes to narrative as the varying cultures within the two countries demonstate how diasporic people have dealt with leaving their birthplace. For example Dubai is much closer to Iran, physically and culturally. Therefore it could be understood that living in Dubai could enhance the ability to regain their original sense of cultural milieu and live in a way which more closely resembles the structure of their homeland.

Thus this liminal space can be portrayed by presenting shots which represent the conflicting integration of two varying cultures, through the contrast of clips of separate cultural value. Some Idea’s I have had to convey this is film:

-Desert

-London skyline

-Ornaments within the each house with represent cultural significance

-London highstreet

-Front doors/ exterior of the houses

I feel that these idea’s will portray the mix of cultures, by primarily filming inside the homes and occasionally the surrounding environments (so the audience has a clear understanding of place and location) it follows the narrative of displacement, as Marnio states the ‘idea of rebuilding a “home away from home” gives back a sense of ontological security (Giddens 1991) that is essential for immigrant’s lives (Marino, 2014, p132). Ontological security can be understood  as the individuals experiences which derive from a sense of belonging. Moreover I feel that these shots will depict the ontological security, especially with the shots cultural significance for example art, ornaments and traditional Iranian items which Accented cinema commonly include.

References

Marino, S. (2014) ‘The role of the refugee and the impact of fragmented identities in Diasporic filmmakers. A review of Dogville by Lars von Trier’,CINEJ Cinema Journal, 3(1).

Screenwriting and emotional Rhythm

Documentary may seem as an un-structured genre of film, appearing to directly present the truth of a reality to an audience. Although this to an extent is true, as exploring unmediated topics/situations relies on the information provided by the subjects of the documentary, much organisation is conducted pre-filming in order to create a film which has the ability to grip the audiences attention. The spontaneity of documentaries are usually reflected through the footage of film, as it is the closest form of film which presents reality. However all films have a narrative, a planned narrative which takes the viewer through a journey, an emotional journey which aims to draw the viewer into another world, to the point that they are so immersed in this world that they begin to engage with either the plot and characters. David believes ‘the experience of watching a ‘bad’ film is often a matter of being painfully aware of the passing of time; of observing the passing parade of colour and movement without getting involved. In effect, the emotional rhythm has dried up.’ David:2014,p50).

Davids essay ‘Screenwriting and Emotional Rhythm’ explores the theories and methods behind attaining audiences attention through the form of screenwriting. One main scientific fact which really caught my attention was the importance of surprise. Jonah Lehrer suggests that recent discoveries in neuroscience reveal that the human brain is ‘designed to amplify the shock of mistaken predictions’ (2009: 43). (Lehrer cited David:2014) Therefore if a narrative is too simplistic or predictable, neurologists have found that the observers loose interest as it doesn’t challenge their expectations. This statement seems obvious to viewers, as predictable story lines tend to evoke quite dull reactions, however when decoded as to why audiences feel like this, it clarifies the strong relationship between the emotion and narrative. Audiences need to be kept on their feet and feel the urge to know more in order to sustain their attention. Typically, these predictable narratives can be found in linear narrative- the beginning, middle and the end of a plot all set out in a the timely order. I have decided that as my documentary narrative will not be constructed in a linear sequence. My intentions are to film footage of conversations between families, whilst also record interviews of each member of the family and perhaps overlay them over other scenes of transition shots. The reason I want to organise my documentary like this, other than for the purpose of visual aesthetics, is to maintain the audiences interest by keeping them curious along to the sequel of events that are revealed. I believe that If I just structured the narrative in a linear mode of ‘A family from Iran left because of a revolution, now they are here and this is what they think of it, the end’- informatively it may be interesting although it would not encourage the audience to empathise or build a connection with the characters- which is vital for a successful film.

As the director/producer of this documentary, my duty is to determine the emotional rhythm within the narrative. The main emotions I aim to evoke empathy, shock and concern. Thus whilst constructing my narrative and story- boarding it is essential to constantly acknowledge my intended audience reaction/emotion as it is a main factor which drives the success of the film.

Risk assessments

As i will be filming abroad in Dubai, as well as in various locations around London, I have devised a risk assessment plan in order to attempt to overcome any possible threats to my project.

Firstly, as my project relies on the information given on behalf of real situations-experienced by real people, it is vital that I arrange a set time and location with the actors. I have chosen three locations to interview the subjects of my documentary, all in their own homes. They have all given their consent to this and have given my dates in which I can film them. I found that it was best to plan this as early as possible in order to decrease the risk of them overbooking or incase they had other plans to attend to. One main problem which I have faced very early on is that two of my main subjects will actually be in a foreign country until the 20th of April, meaning I will have to put their filming on hold until then. However I am able to film a number of scenes before hand, meaning I will have the majority of my content hopefully edited by this point. Essentially the interviewee’s responses shape the narrative, therefore I am massively depending on their availability to construct my documentaries intention.

Locations

I will be filming primarily in North London- Palmers Green, East Finchley and Whetstone. These are all areas in which my interviewees live. I want to film partly in their houses as I want the audience to acknowledge the cultural differences in regards to their sense of style. My grandmothers house is quite traditionally middle eastern looking, where as my mothers is extremely modern. The interior design visually reflects many aspects of themselves, from the era they were born in, where they grew up etc. This gives the provides the audience with another dimension to the interviewee’s life, providing the audience with a better understanding of their culture. I will also be filming some transition shots of the Iranian New Year event on the 21st of March, in order to capture the large Iranian community in London. I have spoken to the event manager and he said he was more than happy to film. Initially I was thinking about interviewing a variety of people to see how many different opinions I could receive, however then I decided just to stick to my brief and follow one family. I think it makes it more intimate situation, as I hope for the audience to develop a sense of empathy towards the interviewees and the family as a whole. Therefore I will only be shooting shots such as the community socialising, including my mother who will be attending. My aim is present this documentary as natural as possible, similar to Clare Levy’s Across Still Waters. Clare filmed her subjects participating in ordinary everyday routines such as walking the dog, eating dinner, at the pub, whilst having conversations relevant to the topic of Retinis Pigmentosa. I have thought about some shots which I feel would capture the culture and routines of the families life such as: cooking meals together, sitting on the sofa debating, talking in the garden. This scenery would be suitable for the demonstrating the reality of their everyday life.

Equipment wise, I will be needing a cannon 700d DSLR, a tripod, a Tascam microphone and potentially a steadycam frame. My filming will be shot on the DSLR, however I have a feeling that I may need to hire out two cameras and tripods as in Across Still Water, many of the scenes alternated from different angles. I liked this effect as it managed to include all subjects in the scene, making it feel like the audience was looking at one person to the other. It feels more inclusive and adds to the ‘window into a world’ effect, as if the audience are inspecting or eavesdropping into a conversation.  One problem I may face is transporting the equipment from London to Dubai. I assume I will be able to check them into a suitcase however in terms of renting equipment out from university, Im not sure about their policy regarding filming abroad therefore I need to arrange an alternative option If I am not able to take them. I do have friends with DSLR cameras who would be ok with letting me borrow it, its just the tripod and Tascam which are crucial to both the audio and the framing of my documentary.

Overall, I think that I have arranged specific events quite early into the project therefore I should be ok with filming my desired footage. But people can be unreliable so the only scene I would not be able to re-film would be the Iranian New Year event. Whereas with my family, if I need to reshoot some footage, I can ask them to take 2 on the spot- as they would have agreed to dedicate a certain amount of their time to my project.

Initial Documentary Topic

As part my Dissertation module, for the last few months I have been researching the Iranian revolution of 1979, when the Shah was overthrown my extremist Islamic leader Ayatollah Khomeini. My dissertation focuses specifically on how women are using the internet as a platform for women’s rights activism, since the country began abiding by Islamic laws written in the Quran. In order to understand modern day Iranian culture, it was imperative to my research to explore the origins of where it rooted from. Since reading about the 1979 uprising’s of campaigns and protests against the Shah, by the Iranian people-and discovering the consequences of these demonstrations of what they thought would positively reform the country, has made me want to explore personal accounts of people who lived through the revolution.

Being half Iranian myself, has sparked my interest towards this topic. Reading books and memoirs which recite personal events during the revolution such as ‘Iran Awakening’ by human rights activist and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, has not only taught me about my countries heritage and history (which I was previously not as aware of) but also inspired me to speak to my family about their experiences.

My mother was born in 1962 and was the second older out of four children. All her siblings were born and grew up in Tehran, the capital of Iran- until 1979 when her and her eldest sister were sent to a boarding school in England.

A brief history of Iran 1953-1979

Until 1979, during the reign of the Pahlavi family, more specifically when Mohammad Reza Shah was appointed by the USA and UK as the ruler of Iran in 1967 during a coup d’etat overthrowing Mosaddeq, as he had nationalised the oil industry in Iran, rather than in the hands of Britain and the USA. From this day forwards the Shah would be nicknamed the ‘Puppet of the west’.  The Shah introduced a development programme called the ‘White revolution’ which aimed to modernise Iran, for example roads, aeroplanes, education- however he was criticized for transforming Iran into an increasingly westernised country by inheriting western culture from America.

Although the reformations were supposed to increase his followers ands strengthen the his countries support, it was clear that the Iranian citizens public interest was not his priority. Many Iranians became increasingly frustrated with him as they felt as if he was neglecting their needs, especially the lower class. One particular event which outraged people was the celebration held in Persepolis in 1971 which commemorated 2500 of the Pahlavi family reign. This excessively extravagant event costing $40 million aggravated Iranian citizens as it undermined poverty, unemployment and homelessness which were very prominent problems in society at the time. Iranian wanted a new leader who would actually acknowledge the needs of Iranian citizens and society, instead of abiding to the orders of the West to keep them happy. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, with sweeping support (over 10,000 people on the streets) overtook the Shah’s role as leader of Iran. From books such as ‘The return of Ayatollah Khomeini’ and ‘Iran The Illusion of Power’ it seems that there was no other opposition. Shirin Ebadi said that although she was anti-Shah, before she knew it she was pro-Khomeini without even realising it. As Khomeini was the only opposition, Iranian people sided with him- under the false pre-intentions.

During Khomeini’s deportation from 1977, he published a book named the ‘The Liberation of Means and Islamic Government’ in which he denounced any government in the muslim world which did not strictly obey the Quran- and the ruler being a tyrant. Heikal has presented Khomeinis ideals in his book ‘The Return of the Ayatollah’:

  1. Takhiliya: getting rid of the obsolete ideas and practices and Tahliya- the sweetening process, adding of new things
  2. Introduction of Faqaha: an islamic jurisprudence and Islamic law
  3. Imams: An islamic leadership position- the worshiping of leaders of mosques to replace government officials.

Heikal has argued that Khomeini was the right person at the right time, saying the right things, stating it was a ‘revolution for democracy, against autocracy, led by theocracy, made possible by xerocracy’ (139p)

In the years to come, Iranian citizens had began to realise how mislead they had been during the revolution by Khomeini’s objectives for the country. With the enforcement of the Islamic law, many women realised that many of their rights in society had been revoked, such as singing/ dancing in public, equal rights to men, the veiling of women. Khomeini was far more anti-west than anyone has expected, therefore cutting ties with America and England was a priority, thus leading to beginning of many sanctions imposed against Iran.

From my famillies point of you, over the years I have gathered from multiple discussions regarding this time period, that their main objective was to leave Iran as soon as possible. However due to hostile relationships between the west and Iran, it was extremely difficult for them to get Visa’s to leave. My Grandmother and her two youngest children essentially travelled to anywhere country that would issue them a visa, in the hope to get in England, whilst my Grandfather was still in Iran attempting to leave. Living in a variety of foreign territories for months at a time, not knowing the language, being exposed to drastically different cultures- whilst two of their children were alone in England, was an extremely stressful and daunting time for my Grandparents. Leaving their whole life behind in Iran- family, friends, jobs in a bid to escape the oppressive regime that they had though would positively reform the country.

Fast forward 37 years, and all the children have successful jobs and are living comfortably in different areas around the world. In my documentary I want to explore the different routes all the different children took since leaving Iran. I want to create an observational documentary which visually presents the memoirs of the family members. I think it would be interesting to compare the different paths all four children and the parents took since escaping Iran, and exploring their opinions towards the period of the revolution.

First Post of 2nd Project: Across Still Water

Last term, the class had a guest speaker come in and discuss future career options, relevant to our degree. Claire Levey- producer of award winning documentary Across Still Water, presented some of the work she had produced or been a part of producing. Claire has worked in a variety of different roles as well as different television shows, varying from Wife Swap to Life Proof (a documentary focusing on a serious relationship between two teenagers in a wheelchair). Across Still Water was the final and apparently the most successful film she showed us. The documentary explores the story of man living with Retinitis Pigmentosa- a degenerative eye disease which eventually leads to complete loss of sight. John (suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa) has a passion for night fishing, however with the deterioration of his sight, he is forced to make some serious changes in his life in order to remain safe.

The documentary is filled with many aesthetic shots of the dark lakes in which they fish in, which are a direct metaphor to the audience of how limited John’s sight is. Other than the beautiful shots of scenery, one of my main admirations of the documentary was the way in which the interviews were styled. The clips where information was projected to the audience, were coordinated in a way which appeared to the audience as if they were listening in to a private conversation. Therefore no direct talking into the camera or hearing the producer asking the interviewee’s question, it felt extremely intimate. Although the conversations included in the documentary looked very natural, Clarie did stress that much effort went into devising specific questions to ask in order to extract the maximum amount of information from the interviewee’s. Thus verbal prompts were necessary to achieve the ‘un-staged’ atmosphere. Additionally, the editing of material made the story line clear for the audience- positioning all the footage of these naturally styled clips in a certain way which clearly presents the objective of the documentary, exhibiting or evening accompanying John through his personal journey of coming to terms with his disease.

As an observational documentary, Across Still Waters did not completely follow the conventional observational documentary which usually include voice overs, music etc, however in terms of creating a sense of intimacy and feeling as if you are peeping in on someones life- a window into a world, it definitely ticks all the boxes.

The foundations of Claire’s works are extremely inspiring as they all raise awareness to modern day issues in society, which don’t necessarily have enough coverage on broadcasted television.

I was always certain that for my final intensive production piece I would produce a documentary, but I was unsure what style I would like to film it. Now I have seen Across Still Water, I am certain that observational is the best way for me as I wanted to stay clear of the conventional interviewee looking directly into the camera talking and informing the audience method. I will definitely be framing the informative footage in a similar to Claire, as I love how subtle yet effective they are in informing the audience.

Final Images

Here are my final images I will be displaying on my website. I am very happy with the way they have turned out, as I feel that they do resembled my initial concept of stylising them simmilarily to Robert Mapplethorpes Self-Portrait series.