“That vase represents the rape of the past”: Looted Mayan gods at the RAI Film Fest

So the other week I had the pleasure of attending the 14th Royal Anthropological Institute’s International Festival of Ethnographic Film in Bristol. I was only able to pop along for the final two days (thesis joys), but that was just enough to get the gist of the overall shindig. At first the RAI Film Fest appears chiefly academic in flavour with its tradition of research based ethnographic screenings, but there’s also space here for commercial and international features (for example The Look Of Silence opened the festival). This mash up was a nice and welcome surprise: seeing the low-budget research documentaries juxtaposed against industry commissioned features really highlights the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches and platforms (is it for research, the classroom, television, the cinema, or can it cross-over?) and reminds us that ultimately a good story will trump high production values any day.

Q&A with Ed Owles (The Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers) at the 14th RAI Film Festival
Q&A with Ed Owles (the lovely director of The Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers) at the 14th RAI Film Festival. (Photo: K Rogers).

The schedule was pretty packed so in the end I mostly stuck to one stream, the “Material Culture and Archaeology Film Prize Screenings.” Even so, that was still a stack of films, so instead of detailing them in one long rambling post, I’m going share them with you one by one – so check back for more RAI Film Fest reviews over the coming days.

Easily the best film in the archaeology stream was Dance of the Maize God by American filmmaker David Lebrun. And so it should be given Lebrun’s evident skill and long term dedication to anthropologically informed documentary filmmaking about Indigenous American cultures (he’s been at this game since the 1960s and seems the be an audience favourite in the European archaeology film festival circuit).

Promotional Still: digger lifting looted vase from trench (re-enactment).
Promotional Still: digger lifting looted vase from trench (re-enactment).

Dance of the Maize God is a thoughtful exploration into the world of looted Mayan vases. Local villagers, ex-looters, archaeologists, dealers and museum curators each weigh in as equal speakers, telling the story of how these vases came to be discovered, traded, displayed, rejected, hidden, and re-assessed by various stakeholders. The title of this blog entry comes from one of the statements an archaeologist makes in the film, and admittedly, while comparing the looting of objects with the act of rape is a problematic analogy to say the least, it’s a statement that does express a genuine sentiment that’s passionately and regularly raised in international heritage. Looting causes irreversible damage that cannot be undone, even if the artefacts are recovered. And so, Dance of the Maize God asks, can we ever really know what the beautiful Mayan artwork on the looted vases means? Is an artefact taken out of its archaeological context really so (scientifically) worthless? Is it wrong to conduct research on looted objects? Could doing so fuel further looting? What are the responsibilities of archaeologists who hire and train local workers to identify artefacts and sites, but provide only short term employment to these vulnerable communities? Also, what actually happens to the looted artefacts that are rejected by museums and galleries?

Promotional Still: Two views of Maya vase, King with Shaker.
Promotional Still: two views of Mayan vase  depicting King with shaker.

This is a tangled story told with sophistication that both a public and professional archaeological audience can readily enjoy. Lebrun competently marries an account of Mayan mythology and culture (ancient and modern) with the ethical debates about museum policies and the micro-economics of looting. The latter is kind of funny and revealing actually, for example, the initial monetary value of vases here is designated according to whether the depicted characters are sitting, standing, gesturing, etc – an interesting take on artefact categorisation! There’s also a good news story here too, with the skills of former looters recognised and re-purposed through sustainable employment as heritage and environmental custodians, because after all, who would know how to read the landscape and counter future looters better than a former looter? And while state-run museums and galleries may reject artefacts without provenance, in this case we see that those artefacts can still find a home and be valued for their cultural significance and educational use in a local community owned museum.

Promotional Still: Lebrun filming interviews in the jungle.
Promotional Still: Lebrun filming interviews in the jungle.

My main quibble with Dance of the Maize God is that I would have liked to hear more opinions from Hispanic archaeologists and Mayan stakeholders, as there was the usual dominance of english speaking white (and male) archaeologists. But to be fair, this seems to frequently be a problem in archaeology documentaries, and probably reflects the fact that the discipline is still very white and very male at the higher levels (especially in fieldwork), rather than a failure on the part of the filmmakers to find more representative speakers. And yes, in terms of storytelling there is the odd blurry re-enactment and experts interviewed in front of book cases and fire places that might make you roll your eyes, but there’s substance and style here too. In particular I liked the use of minimal animation and thoughtful cinematography to highlight the artworks on the vases and the stories they depict. For example, in one instance, the clever use a jump-cut sequence really does bring the Maize God to life, dancing on plates to the beat of a drum, no animation needed, just pure, skilled editing.

Promotional Still: Mayan plate showing the Maize God dancing (this needs to be a gif!)

Ultimately Dance of the Maize God is the sort of archaeology documentary we need more of: less focus on archaeological method (that’s what lectures and textbooks are for) and more on the social and political context of archaeology, the ethics and practice of the discipline itself through sensitive but investigative documentary filmmaking.


Do you see what I see? Virtual Reality Storytelling at Sheffield Doc/Fest

So it turns out there’s more to this Virtual Reality shindig than meets the eye – and I’m not the only one to see the potential here for archaeology.

In the Virtual Reality Arcade at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015. Photo: Kate Rogers.
Kiya by Nonny de la Peña (2015). Plugged into the Virtual Reality Arcade at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015. Photo: Kate Rogers.

The Virtual Reality Arcade, which was co-curated with Sheffield’s Site Gallery, seems to be a new addition to the Doc/Fest (or at least, I can’t find any references to it in prior years) – and I hope they make it a permanent fixture synched with the Crossover Summit because there is so much to be inspired by here. Exhibiting a variety of immersive projects from experimental media to fully formed documentary storytelling, one can’t help but wonder if that big dark cinema will soon be replaced by these daggy goggles and headphones. It’s also refreshing to see not only game-like pixelated worlds featured, but observational filming out in the real world. Here’s a selection of my favourite works:

Oscillate (2015) by Brendan Walker. Photo: Kate Rogers.
Oscillate (2015) by Brendan Walker. Don’t look down! Photo: Kate Rogers.

Oscillate, created by UK engineer Brendan Walker, is an immersive art experience that fuses the classic playground swing with Oculus Rift technology. In short: as you swing so too does the virtual world you find yourself in – it moves with you. And it’s a funky world: M.C Escher meets minecraft in space is the best description I can give it. I kept expecting Labyrinth-style David Bowie to appear through the crumbing wall before me, if only I could swing a little bit further to peer around that distant edge. Be warned though: swinging high when blind and deaf to the real world is kind of alarming – it’s easy to forget that there are people around you and a hard floor below. Especially when that floor is replaced by swirling star-filled space. Oh, and did I mention you have no body? You look down and there’s noting there – no you, no swing – it’s like an out of body experience – in fact that was the case in all the VR projects I saw. Psychedelic much?

Clouds Over Sidra (2015) by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora. Promotional Still.
Clouds Over Sidra (2015) by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora. Promotional Still.

Clouds Over Sidra was easily my favourite VR project and I was pleased to see it win the Interactive Award at the festival. Co-created by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora and a whole team of “artists, technicians, thinkers and innovators,” this project combines traditional short-form documentary filmmaking with 360’ filming and Oculus VR technology. Commissioned by the United Nations and Samsung as part of an advocacy exhibit at the World Economic Forum in Davos 2015, Clouds Over Sidra tells the story of a 12 year Syrian refugee Sidra who lives in the Za’atari camp in Jordan, along with 84 000 other refugees. She narrates and shares her day with us in her own words, introducing us to her home, having breakfast with her family, going to school, playing with the other kids, and tells us how she wishes to return to where the clouds come from: her home in Syria. Interestingly she is dubbed into English (although you can hear her own voice beneath) – which makes me wonder how subtitles might fare in this new technology. That’s a technicality though. Ultimately, Clouds Over Sidra’s simplicity makes it a powerful piece – Sidra’s world is brought to life in a thoughtful, gentle and emotionally affecting way – demonstrating the real potential for using VR as an immersive storytelling device to drive social and political change. The VR technology here is serving the story, not the other way around. Check out Milk’s TED Talk for a taste of the film and the philosophy behind it, and the Creators Project for an interview with Arora for the more on the making-of this inspiring work.

Clouds Over Sidra screening at the World Economic Forum at Davos 2015.
Clouds Over Sidra screening at the World Economic Forum at Davos 2015. Promotional Still.

But what does this mean for archaeology documentaries? Well, Clouds Over Sidra certainly gave me ideas for filming archaeological stories – but damnit Bikini Atoll beat me to the punch. Directed by Phil Harper, Bikini Atoll is a short 360’ film depicting the archaeological and environmental research conducted at the WW2 shipwrecks of Bikini Atoll (in the Marshall Islands), which later became a US nuclear test site. Thus the film takes us to two place we might never get to visit otherwise: underwater wrecks in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, and a nuclear test site (is that even safe?). There’s no scientific description of the research here – nor a clear documentary story driven by character development or change – rather its more of a poetic portrait of the site: you can all but feel the tug of the current as you twist and turn to watch the divers at work. But ultimately it feels like a promise of more to come, rather than a final finished product.

Bikini Atoll (2015) by Phil Harper. Promotional Still.
Take the plunge. Bikini Atoll (2015) by Phil Harper. Promotional Still.

“We’re on the brink of a simply enormous change in visual communication.” – Sir David Attenborough
To me it VR also seems to be a promise: even though the technology has been with us for several decades now, it seems only recently to have begun pushing into fields other than gaming. Now there are stories here that it feels like only VR can tell, and other mediums – particularly the flat-screen of the television or cinema with its distant stereo speakers – will soon be unable to compete in the documentary quest for capturing actuality. And with pocket 360’ cameras and VR headsets now entering the consumer market, perhaps VR stories soon be cheaper and easier to make as well. Will the coder replace the editor? Will that shared communal experience of the cinema become a distant memory, traded in for personal immersive experiences (if that hasn’t happened already)? What are the ethical implications for our audience if such immersive stories become difficult to discern from reality? Will documentary modes change to suit the new vision? And most importantly, how can we eat a choc-top if we can’t see our hands?

Well, that’s a wrap on Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 for this blogger. I came, I saw, I spilled some vodka. And now it’s time to get back to my dusty dell at uni and a ever-growing pile of readings, paperwork and chapter drafts. But please share your thoughts on what you’ve read here – comment is free – and stay tuned for more musings, informal reviews and news on the constantly changing but always inspiring world of archaeology docs!

“Abandoning Britishness” & How Not To Pitch Your Academic Ideas. Sheffield Doc/Fest Roundup Day 5 & 6


Rehearsals - Promotional Still from Monty Python and the Meaning of Live (2014).
Rehearsals – Promotional Still from Monty Python and the Meaning of Live (2014).

Let’s start at the end: Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 wrapped up it’s final night with the European premiere of Monty Python – the Meaning of Live, co-directed by acclaimed filmmakers Roger Graef and James Rogan. Monty Python – the Meaning of Live is an observational portrait of the Python gang reuniting for a final live gig at The O2 in London in 2014, and event which creates a nice space for the men to reflect on the origins and legacy of Monty Python – but not without plenty of slap stick gags, old-men jibes and a sprinkling of social commentary. The whole thing is a giant in-joke – so if you’re a fan of the Python boys you’ll have a romp, but if not there’s little here to engage with (and there are better ways to be introduced to Python).

I’m not quite sure how this is a premiere when the documentary – commissioned by cable comedy channel UKTV Gold – was actually broadcast in November 2014. But never mind that – the real attraction here was the Q & A with the co-director Rogan and comedy legend Michael Palin. If you watch UK TV today you’ll probably associate Palin with more light-weight fare, such as history travelogues retracing Hemmingway’s journeys, or trips across the Sahara, Brazil or the Himalayas – productions that probably come under the fact-ent (factual entertainment) wing of television. But here, in obs-doc mode (observational documentary), Palin is no longer presenter but presented, and two storytelling art forms (acting and documentary) go head to head. And even though Monty Python – the Meaning of Live is more fun and affectionate than critical, it was very clear during the Q & A that a real tension existed between the stars in the spotlight and the “cheeky chappies” of the documentary crew waiting in the wings.

Rogan described the shoot as a two-stage process, where Graef (master of British institutional filming in schools, prisons and hospitals) began by following the Python gang through their rehearsals and meetings with a Canon D5, shooting a few sit-down interviews as well as observational footage, albeit from a distance of 15ft. The documentary crew also provided the 5 Pythons with camcorders for recording video diaries – a complete fail when it was revealed the actors instead gifted the camcorders to their grandkids (score!). Consequently, come the 10-day shoot of the live show, Rogan felt a level of intimacy and perhaps even honesty was missing and decided he needed “to be audacious and unapologetically intrusive” by physically getting closer (a obs-doc mantra). Or perhaps a better way of putting it, he “had to abandon Britishness”. And so he shot right up in the personal space of his participants (backstage can be cramped after all), planted go-pros in the dressing rooms and followed the cast running through corridors back stage. Interestingly, one of the co-producers is Holly Gilliam – Terry Gilliam’s daughter, and I wonder if this intimacy would have been allowed and achievable without her there to (literally) open closed doors. Graef apparently was very concerned the whole thing would blow up – but the gamble payed off, Palin was very complementary and “glad you did it in the end”, and the documentary does make you feel like you’re there, so kudos must go to Rogan for persevering and achieving a real sense of actuality.

I mention all this because – especially when you compare Palin in this film to his performances as a presenter and again as an actor – it becomes a nice example of the different levels of access and depth of storytelling you can achieve if you apply a different mode or approach (eg. obs doc instead of presenter/factual). Something worth considering for archaeology documentaries perhaps? (*cough* thesis *cough*).


DS30 projected at Dunston Staiths - Promotional Still (2015).
DS30 projected at Dunston Staiths – Promotional Still (2015).

The other film I squeezed in before the festival ended was DS30, part of Doc/Fest’s ArteFact strand. Commissioned by the AV Festival, DS30 was originally an art installation projected at the monumental coal wharf of Dunston Staiths near Durham, in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike. It’s a collage of raw sound, experimental music and film footage of mining communities and their work, gathered from the archives of the underground political group Test Dept, as well as the BBC, BFI and local collections. My knowledge of the miners’ strikes extends about as far as Billy Elliot, so I probably wasn’t the target audience for this film, although it did spur me to go google the events afterward, so snaps to the filmmakers for achieving that impact. It’s more experimental art than documentary: it’s very in your face, obnoxiously loud and angry – which is probably a fair representation of the actual events – but there’s little context or information provided nor characters to connect to. DS30 will either alienate or intrigue you, or impassion you – as it did an audience member in the Q&A who thanked the filmmakers and the academic behind the production for keeping the memory of these events alive – clearly this past is not past. DS30 is currently touring ex-coalfield venues in the north of England and Scotland.


How I felt at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Sigh.
How I felt at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Sigh.

The rest of my last days at Doc/Fest were spent squeezing in as many panels as possible. It was a pain but I had to skip the pitching sessions and the more indie-like discussions, but I’ll summarise them here to give you a taste of the the subject matter Doc/Fest covers. Topics included: where journalism ends and documentary begins; censorship vs freedom of expression; the future of the television license fee; US/UK compliance; comedy in docos; selfies and the future of reflexivity; filming in war zones; filming with drones; the future of the fixed rig; women in industry; proposal writing; composing; lots on aesthetics and DOPs; the influence of digital and interactive on traditional distribution; social justice and impact filmmaking; filming in/with China, Brazil and Ukraine; and masterclasses with Joshua Oppenheimer and Jeanie Finlay among others. My favourite title for a session by far was “Indiegogo: It’s a Brave New World for Filmmakers, and Time for Payback,” which certainly captures the current mood among indie documentary filmmakers, at least from my perspective. If only I had a time-turner! Instead, I skipped all of these sessions (in the hope that they’ll get posted on the Doc/Fest Youtube Channel eventually) and attended most of the television commissioning panels (which don’t get recorded) and the interactive/multi-platform gigs. My goal you see, was to try and locate where archaeology is currently positioned in the industry and where it might be going.

I won’t go too in-depth here, but it’s worth noting that archaeology’s place seems undefined. At the commissioning panels the same archaeology programmes and topics were being rolled out across the streams of specialist factual, documentary, alternative platforms, history and science (I skipped arts and factual entertainment). Archaeology is a hybrid discipline after all, so it can’t be easy to lock it in to one category. Mind you, what the hell is “specialist factual”? Why and how is that distinct from “documentary”? Interestingly, the outlook for archaeology on television in the UK seems to be monopolized by BBC, Channel 4 and France Télévisions – presumably they’ve cornered that market and the other channels present (including Sky, ARTE, Discovery, Guardian, VICE, PBS, National Geographic) therefore have chosen not to compete in such a niche genre. In short, they each ruthlessly curate their content according to their target audience, their scale of production and for some, whether or not they have a public broadcasting remit. I wonder what the influence of these categories, the branding of the channels, and the personal preferences of the commissioning editors are on the content, storytelling and impact of the archaeology documentaries?

What isn’t new, of course, are the stories. The commissioning editors and some producers were very open and pragmatic about the fact that a lot of their programmes are basically recycled content ( “a surfeit of Pharoahs and Führers” according to the BBC commissioner), with their real efforts as television programmers focused on finding a new approach to storytelling and more diverse voices that reflect their target audience (ie. UK domestic). In particular they asked that pitches from interest parties include more female and ethnically diverse presenters: ‘Bring us the next Mary Beard!’ they cried. Which is good news for archaeology – we have plenty of potential new Mary Beards (a blog entry for another day). But what about the storytelling? Can’t we ramp that up too?


The University of Sheffield Presents: How to Pitch Your Academic Idea
The University of Sheffield Presents: How to Pitch Your Academic Idea at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015. Photo: Kate Rogers.

Which brings me to the final session at Doc/Fest: “How to Pitch Your Academic Ideas”, hosted by the University of Sheffield. Or perhaps a better name for it would be: “101 in How Not to Pitch Your Academic Ideas.” This session was more straight pitching than training, and it had some gems, but overall what I learned from it was that we academics desperately need to learn how to communicate better – SweetJesus – it was painful.

Here’s a few take aways, should you be thinking about translating your research to screen:

1. Do your research. Not just on your topic of study, but on your pitch and your immediate audience (in this case, the commissioners of Channel 4, Sky, BBC, Nat Geo, ITV etc). One of the pitchers managed to insult the entire panel of commissioning editors by complaining about how they hadn’t covered his area of interest (evolution) to his satisfaction, then launched in to a 15 minute lecture about the evolution of insect penises. The response was kind of entertaining itself: the Channel 4 editor began by asking, “do you actually watch TV?” then proceeded to list about 6 broadcasted series on evolution she had been involved in during the past couple of years. It does make you wonder exactly who’s misunderstanding whom. Needless to say the pitch fell fairly flat.
2. Know your story. In the above case it was clear that it’s not enough for an idea to be interesting or freakishly weird to get picked up for broadcast, there needs to be an actual story. And, yes sex sells, but don’t try to con a conman. Thinly veiled or patronising appeals to the lowest common denominator will fail if your audience knows better than you how to do what you’re doing.
3. Own your story. Even if the research has its own story – for example there was nice historical pitch about revolutionary families of the Irish War of Independence that came with it’s own beginning, middle and end – it’s not enough by itself. When one commissioner gave feedback to that proposal, she complemented the research but said “you pitched your subject matter, not yourself.” The researcher’s response was just slightly defensive, saying she was not trained (or prepared?) to be subjective. As academics if we want to use storytelling we have to respect storytelling conventions. And storytelling is subjective. Again, it’s not a lecture with moving pictures, it’s storytelling, it’s authored.
4. Have a plan. The best pitch of the session was from a couple of robotics engineers, who pitched for a series on the future of robotics in our daily lives. They had a great positive vibe, episode outlines, participant case studies, tie-ins with existing drama TV shows and popular events and a very distinct authorial voice. In short, they pitched a vision and a plan to achieve it (but were still open to adapting it). Their enthusiasm was infectious. They saw the pitch as an opportunity to collaborate – not to lecture – and they took full advantage of it. Win.
5. Evoke emotion. Your pitch should evoke the feelings you want your story’s audience to have (interestingly I’ve read the same about academic presenting at the Thesis Whisperer). The robotics guys again aced this: they had a toy seal that purred and bobbed its head when you stroke it, which they passed around to great effect. The entire panel and audience was smitten, giggling and grinning – I’m smiling now remembering and writing about it! Sadly, one of the commissioners said that she loved their idea but had broadcast something very similar several of years ago, and it had unexpectedly flopped – the audience apparently found it boring (she put it down to its lack of extreme-ness, toasters rather than terminators). Which brings me to:
6: Persevere. Commissioners also mentioned that even of those few programmes that are green-lit, only 1 in 10 make it through writing, pre-production, production, post-production, pilot, and finally to series. So try, try, try again.

Cue googoo sounds to seal the deal.
Cue googoo sounds.

All of that said – and keeping in mind that pitching/storytelling tips listed above will stay more-or-less the same across platforms – is TV our only path to getting our stories to our audiences? Back in 2007 Peter Fowler remarked “if you want to play the TV game you have to play by TV’s rules,” but is that still the case? With the rise of digital production and distribution can we do what so many independent documentarians are doing and bypass the broadcasters and get our stories out via alternative platforms? Interactive documentaries? Virtual Reality storytelling? Or, if we want to stick with the broadcasters, is there more leeway now for different approaches and values in storytelling? Will shifting from factual television to other modes and formats take our stories deeper? Show ourselves and our audience something new?

Check back for the next entry on the future of archaeology documentaries according to Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015!

What does space smell like? Sheffield Doc/Fest Roundup Day 3 & 4

First things first: the films.

“Smell is like a road” – Lucie Tremblay (Producer). Promotional still from The Empire of Scents (2015).

Day 3 of Sheffield Doc/Fest for this intrepid archaeologist kicked off at 10am with the UK premier of The Empire of Scents by Canadian director Kim Nguyen. An audio/visual journey into smell? Is that even a thing? Well, here it is, and somehow it works – and surprisingly well. The Empire of Scents is a essay-like journey into the world of smell and its vital role in synesthesia (the mingling of the senses, memory and emotion in human experience). How does smell work, why does it matter and what would life be like without it? The story of smell is told through the weaving together of the personal passions and experiences of various olfactory experts, including perfumers, a chefs, truffle hunters, saffron harvesters, an astronaut, a botanist, an Alzheimer patient and a tea ceremony master.

This journey is a gentle one, humorous and affectionate, with lots of small, unexpected hooks, twists and turns along the way. Most affecting is the story of a young woman who, having survived a car accident but suffering brain damage, found she could no longer smell. Gone was her sense of taste, her awareness and enjoyment of her environment, and even her memories of loved ones. Can she ever recover her sense of smell? Also, what does space smell like? Can the smell of a truffle also unlock its sound? Do flowers fall in love with each other through scent? Do humans? And is the secret ingredient of perfume really whale vomit? Personally I would have also liked to know if it’s true that archaeologists who specialise in coprolite analysis really can smell the health of said poop’s owner – but maybe that was a little to much on the nose for the filmmakers. Get along to The Empire of Scents when it arrives at your local cinema: this is a bouquet of stories worth savouring (and if you’re in the US you might even get to scratch and sniff your way to an answer at the films premier later this year).

“I’ve been dreading this for a rather long time” – Parvez Sharma (Director). Promotional still from A Sinner in Mecca (2015).

I also had the privilege of attending the European premier of A Sinner in Mecca by Indian/US filmmaker Parvez Sharma. Shot primarily on iPhone (there’s some b-camera, animation and archival to plug the narrative gaps), Sharma tells his own personal story of how he made the dangerous Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Over two million pilgrims make this journey every year – the largest annual gathering of people in the world, including the elderly, the frail and families with children – so how can it be dangerous? Especially when there’s a Starbucks within shouting distance of the Kaaba? Well, in Sharma’s case the danger is very real and very personal: Sharma is an openly gay documentary filmmaker who has been publicly labelled an infidel (for his last film A Jihad for Love) and who now lives with his husband in New York. Both filming within the Hajj sites and homosexuality are strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, the latter punishable by death, as testified by a friend and witness of such an execution in the opening minutes of the film. And yet Sharma must go on the Hajj in order to fulfill his spiritual duties as a Muslim: “I am now faced with a crisis of faith, I need to prove that I can be a good Muslim and be gay”. That conflict makes this is a dangerous spiritual journey as well – is Sharma’s faith strong enough to survive the disapproval of his family, the personal test of his character and the modern political conditions literally dictating his movements?

By filming chiefly on an iPhone not only do we share Sharma’s journey on an extremely intimate level but the filming itself is allowed to be gritty, raw and human. There are few polished crane shots of crowds circling within The Sacred Mosque as you’ll see on slicker films, instead we are down in the scrum, on the ground amid the crush and debris of millions cramming their way through the physically and mentally arduous rituals of the Hajj.

This is a terrific film and one that will no doubt be discussed and debated in film schools for years to come, throwing up questions of ethics (how do you get a release form signed when you’re shooting under cover?), reflexivity and impact (like The Look of Silence discussed in the last post, A Sinner in Mecca is banned in the country of origin, and so is being distributed in Saudi Arabia non-commercially by DVD and digital download through grassroots channels). The most powerful moment I experienced in seeing this film was during the Q&A when a young Muslim woman up the front of the cinema burst into tears thanking Sharma for the film – no-one else in the room was so affected. Her words drove home to me that the Western reception of this film is going to be very much secondary in importance to its Muslim reception (even though the commercial success may be the opposite) and I look forward to reading how it is received by Muslim communities and critics around the world. Stay tuned for more on A Sinner in Mecca.

Speed Sisters Promotional Still
“What are we supposed to do, stop living?” Speed Sisters (2015) promotional still.

On Day 4 of Doc/Fest I attended the European premiers of Speed Sisters, a romp of a film with a great soundtrack about Palestine’s (and the Arab world’s) first all-female speed racing team, directed by Lebanese/Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares; and How to Change the World by Jerry Rothwell, an archival/talking heads film about the origins of Greenpeace. Unexpectedly, according to Rothwell during the Q&A, the latter film was not instigated by the NGO, but brought to a rough cut stage before the key figures were invited to be interviewed (therefore, and refreshingly, it’s not really an institutional/ized film). Now, this blog entry’s getting a bit long, so suffice it to say that if either of these show up at your local cinema, or more likely on your Netflix, then you should definitely check them out, they’re both humorous, moving, and enjoyable viewing and nice examples of thoughtful but bold storytelling with a social justice edge.

And now to business!

I attended quite a few panels on commissioning and multi-platforms, but I’m just going to talk about one particular panel today:

“It’s better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” Jezza Neumann [far right] (Filmmaker, True Vision Production). Screen capture from Meet The Natives (Channel 4). Very bad iPhone photo of the panel, courtesy K. Rogers.
The most interesting panel I attended over these two days was definitely ‘Imperialism of Inquiry: How Fair is Our Foreign Filming’. This panel dealt more with the current affairs/journalism end of documentary filmmaking for television, made for white, western and predominantly UK audiences. It started off with a discussion on the importance of ethics in investigative foreign filmmaking, and in particular addressed informed consent (what happens when you loose control of your participant’s image to unscrupulous internet trolls or advertisers, an inevitability in digital broadcasting) and differing censorship standards (eg. UK documentaries cannot legally film or broadcast the testimony of UK child rape victims, but they can do so of African child rape victims – so which country’s broadcaster’s code/legislation is more ethical?). When do your duties to your participants, local crew and fixers end? Certainly not come final cut, nor post-broadcast, but the consensus was: as long as necessary, even if that means years of litigation battles and individual or community sponsorship. Hence the importance of having the support of a production company, broadcaster or distributor with a sturdy legal department, and having someone checking over your shoulder to dot your i’s and cross your t’s before release. Also important, as pointed out by Jezza Neumann, was being prepared to change your story as conditions on the ground dictates.

But what is “fairness” really?

I’m not even sure if fairness is a good word. To me fairness implies equal treatment rather than duty of care – and maybe that works for some forms of journalism, but this is documentary storytelling. I’m not sure if all participants should be treated fairly. Or who should be the one to decide what is fair (directors? commissioners? producers? legislators? participants? the audience?). Just as there’s a power discrepancy in life, so to is there in filmmaking (although the power usually rests in the hands of the filmmaker until release). For example, if Sharma’s film was “fair,” there would have to be interviews – or at least attempts at interviews – with the Saudi Royal family, clerics, police and executioners – to hear their side of the story – putting Sharma’s life directly at risk. Is that truth? Is that really fair? Is that really the story that needs to be told? Are there exceptions or special cases? Should we be aiming for fairness on an individual person-by-person basis, or on a larger, meta-story basis?

Which brings me to the matter of representation. Strangely, no one seemed to acknowledge the fact that this whole discussion was being held by a mostly British, mostly white panel of filmmakers and commissioners, to a mostly white audience in the UK (no Skyping in to Sheffield?). So no surprises that there seemed to be many questions unasked and unanswered.

Fortunately there was one voice that cut through the others: Nigerian director Femi Odugbemi (DVWORX) seemed to be a late addition to the panel (he was not listed in the programme) and he raised the question of why UK broadcasters insist on sending white British presenters and crews to cover stories instead of employing experienced local filmmakers who are already on the ground. He also shared his frustration that foreign filmmakers insist on filming the worst and the poorest scenes in Nigeria – one of the slums in Lagos even has a fixed filming permit fee, thus making filming revenue part of the local economy. In Odugbemi’s personal case, although he works in Nollywood as a director, producer and festival chair, when he is employed by European crews (including one BBC story) he has been reduced to being a fixer and driver, and excluded from seeing the treatment, seeing the final cut of the film, and even told to keep his opinions to himself. The rest of the panel were fairly shocked by Odugbemi’s account – some even implied that that’s not meant to be case – kind of discounting his perspective. But aren’t documentarians supposed to be expert listeners? Personally I would have preferred a whole panel of filmmakers from Odugbemi’s position – then perhaps we could really get the low down on ‘How Fair is Our Foreign Filming.’

At one stage it was mentioned that the job of a documentary filmmaker is to give your participants the chance to use their own voice, not to give your voice to their problems – but I don’t think that’s possible unless your participants are co-directing, producing, and really owning the production. But then, what would that mean for the authorial value of documentary? Again, is this a case of different rules for different subjects materials? If we want equality in filmmaking, to address the power discrepancies between commissioners, producers, filmmakers, participants, and audiences perhaps we have to be more than “fair”.

More on Sheffield Doc/Fest in the next post, and I realise this post has been light on archaeology – but I’ll bring it home soon!

What if the Nazi’s had won? – Sheffield Doc/Fest Day 1 & 2 Round Up

What would it be like to live in a country where the perpetrators of a genocide had not only won, but were celebrated as national heroes, while the survivors continued to live in fear?

Those familiar with Joshua Oppenheimer’s first work The Act of Killing will be familiar with this question, which Oppenheimer returns to in his second film The Look of Silence, which (finally!) had it’s UK premier last night as Sheffield Doc/Fest’s opening film. Both Oppenheimer’s films were shot in Indonesia simultaneously, but where The Act of Killing reveals the “fever dream” perspective of the aging perpetrators, The Look of Silence instead focuses on the stories of the victims and their descendants. In particular we follow optometrist Adi who, one by one, confronts those responsible for his brother’s disappearance and death in 1965. Through Adi’s gaze, at once compassionate and furious, Oppennheimer also targets and confronts us – a Western audience – and our refusal to see the consequences of our global fight against “communism”. As an Australian who has visited and has great affection Indonesia and who knows some of what has happened there and Australia’s part in it, I found the film powerful and personally very affecting. And as a companion of mine said afterward: whatever your preconceptions, it still manages to live up to the hype. The Look of Silence is a masterpiece and cements Oppenheimer’s reputation as one of our most important filmmakers today. I also understand it’s having a ripple effect on a local scale, creating a space for a dialogue in Indonesia that wasn’t there before. Still, the stakes of this film didn’t really hit me until the credits rolled and the screen filled with “Anonymous, Anonymous, Anonymous, Anonymous, Anonymous”. The personal risks that Adi and the other Indonesian crew members have gone to – literally putting their lives on the line – to get this story out to the world drives home how imperative it is that these stories to be told (Oppenheimer too stated in the Q & A that he is now banned from Indonesia). The festival could not have opened with a more powerful work that also reminds us of the real world impact and potential of documentary storytelling.

That potential extends beyond traditional documentary filmmaking as well: two of my favourite niches of the festival thus far have been the interactive exhibition and the cross over summit: both exploring how new technologies can allow new approaches to storytelling. The interactive exhibition was a blast: like a playbox for digital buffs with the latest in all the toys which we archaeologists love to document our sites with, here out on show for visitors to test out (some only as prototypes, so a bit glitchy). The ones that really caught my eye included the Parrot Bebop Drone with Skycontroller (a commercially available drone that streams live aerial footage and can be controlled from 2km away); the Lytro Illium prosumer field camera (change the focus after you shoot or create a 3D shift); the Intelligent Headset with 3D audio (makes you think zombies are coming up behind you – really #&!*ing terrifying); and the Youtube 360 pocket camera (what it says on the tin). I’d post pictures here for you but I don’t pay WordPress enough for that privilege, so just check out the links below for more details.

The rest of the exhibit addressed how all this technology can actually be applied to interactive documentary storytellling, from slick eBooks to an installation neurogame (it literally hooks you in) to a half live-performance/tweet-based poetry generator (there’s also a VR exhibit but I haven’t explored it there yet). But this is where the real test lies. In the end, the work that struck me most was a little exhibit up the back in the corner called That Dragon, Cancer. That Dragon, Cancer is an immersive interactive story game which is set up and works like a typical video game with a playstation console and chapters instead of levels. It follows the journey of infant Joel Green as he fights against cancer. Joel was a real boy, who passed away at 5 years old, and his story as told here is written and programmed by his parents Ryan and Amy. When they began telling this story through a game playform they believed Joel would survive and the game would be a testimony to his battle, but since his passing the game instead has become both memorial and memoir. It’s simple and beautiful: poetic, reflexive, dream-like, familiar and it hits you in the gut. It’s still in production but as with Oppenheimers work, shows that the most powerful works, no matter the platform, must always find their strength in story.

In other news: cool projects featured at the crossover summit include an interactive comic book tackling India’s rape crisis, and academics using social media to curate serendipity for research. Meanwhile, the jury remains undecided on whether Claude Lanzmann (director of Shoah) is megalomanic at the ‘Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah’ screening and Q & A. And finally, a panel on risk assessments becomes a lot sexier when you’re risks include going undercover, protecting your fixer from persecution after filming, and sneaking rushes illicitly out of a hostile territory.

Favourite phrases of the day:
“There are artists who make stuff and sit back and wait for something to happen; and then there are artists who make stuff and rush it towards the world.” Jake Witzenfeld (Independent Filmmaker) at the ‘Getting a Foot in the Door: Next Steps for Young Filmmakers.’
“What does a large camera on a tripod look like in a war zone? (What does your equipment say about you?” Jezza Neumann (True Vision Production) at ‘This Form Could Save Your Life’ panel.

The Look of Silence: http://thelookofsilence.com/
Parrot Bebop Drone with Skycontroller: http://www.parrot.com/uk/products/skycontroller/
Lytro Illium: https://www.lytro.com/illum/
Intelligent Headset with 3D audio: https://intelligentheadset.com/
Youtube 360 pocket camera: http://www.pocket-lint.com/news/133202-do-google-and-youtube-think-360-degree-vr-like-cameras-are-the-next-big-thing
Interactive Exhibition at Sheffield Doc/Fest: https://sheffdocfest.com/view/interactive
Cancer, That Dragon: http://thatdragoncancer.com/
Priya’s Shakti: http://www.priyashakti.com/
Serendipity: http://www.serena.ac.uk/serendipitystories/

Aboard the Liminal Express

I’m writing this post from the Cross Country railway service between Southampton and Sheffield. It’s a beautiful afternoon: the sky is a hazy blue and the ivy clad trees rush away on my right. There are not enough words to describe all the shades of green in this country. I’m on my way to the Sheffield Doc/Fest – one of the leading documentary conferences and film festivals in the world – “Cannes for documentary filmmakers” as Indiewire described it. This is where documentarians go to talk shop, market their wares, brush up on their skillz, debate ethics and legals, and pitch their new ideas to producers and commissioners. BBC, Getty, ITV, PBS, Vimeo, Indiegogo, Channel 5, National Geographic, VICE, Dogwoof, NHK, Al Jazeera, Discovery, Channel 4, Arte France, SBS, the Guardian – all the big boys come to the table in the hopes of hearing that perfect pitch, or nabbing that promising new talent. It’s not all business though, Sheffield Doc/Fest also has an attached public documentary film festival showcasing classic docos, BFI archival films and the latest premiers – many with Q&As with the films directors, producers and/or key participants. And parties. There are also the parties – where the real wheeling and dealing happens.

In short = heaven.

But hold on – aren’t I an archaeologist? Two days ago I was troweling chalk rubble off an bronze age hut at Cranborne Chase – and now I’m going to a documentary festival?

Am I lost?

Well, I am a little. My research is liminal: I have one foot in archaeology and one in documentary. One in an academic discipline, and one in an undisciplined industry (Is it an Art? Is it a Business? No! It’s a Documentary!). (And yes – I had to look up ‘liminal’ in the dictionary just now to make sure I wasn’t talking about some kind of flooring). It’s an uneasy place to be – although I know I’m hardly the first to take this ride. Angela Piccini (ermagahdsuchafan) in her experimental film Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie found herself in the same position a few years ago (I’ll revisit Guttersnipe in depth in a later post – it deserves full spiel). Early in her film Piccini narrates:

‘This is not a film. I wanted to explore how to practise an archaeology through a video practice but I am not a video practitioner. I work in a university drama department but they think I’m just an archaeologist. I work in a university archaeology department but they think I’m just a drama type. What I do once a week is research and teach archaeology for screen media, thinking beyond the standard broadcast expository documentary. I don’t know about available light and white balance, but I am there in the shadows, on those screens, here now.”
(Piccini, 2009)

Piccini – and many of those archaeologists who have also doubled as documentary presenters, writers, researchers, producers and directors – have found themselves too, at this threshold where I now stand. As archaeologists we learn to see the world in a certain way – in particular, I think, time and space look and feel very different from our perspective. But added to that, those of us who moonlight in “public archaeology” also have this instinctive drive to test our boundaries and share our perspective with an audience – and we can’t shake it. It’s an itch that must be scratched. And for some of us, we decide that film really is the perfect medium for expressing such a multi-sensorial inquiry as archaeology. But which team should we bat for? Can we really play for both? And how should we go about doing it?

I wonder how many archaeologists have also ventured into a place like Sheffield Doc/Fest, and engaged with documentary filmmaking from its beginning? Certainly the directors and producers of archaeology docos have openly discussed their work there, and scientists, economists and other academics have previously led panels discussing their experiences of documentary filmmaking, good and bad. Surely Neil Oliver has downed a few pints at the Scottish Delegation Drinks? And will I see the Time Team gang at the Channel 4 party? Maybe I should just attached a massive trowel balloon to myself with an arrow pointing down saying ‘Archaeologists: Assembly Point Here,’ and see who comes my way.

I love these long English evenings – the sky is soft now and streaked with clouds above a patchwork of vivid green meadows full of yellow wild flowers. Sheffield draws nearer and so too the promise of answers. Or just as likely, more questions. Stay tuned.

Piccini, A. 2009. Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie IN Holtorf, C. and A. Piccini (eds.) Contemporary Archaeologies, Excavating Now. Peter Lang: Frankfurt).

Piccini, A. 2010. Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie. Online at: https://vimeo.com/30077905

Sheffield Doc/Fest Online at: https://sheffdocfest.com/

An archaeology of archaeology documentaries? Has it come to this?

So what’s the story with archaeology documentaries?

Audiences love them, broadcasters love to schedule them, and archaeologists love and hate them both at once – and that’s just TV! What about cinema? Newsreels? Ethnographic films? Experimental shorts? Interactive platforms?

This blog is about archaeology documentaries in all their forms: what’s out there, how can you watch it and can you trust it? Every week I’ll post reviews of archaeology documentaries (old and new), unpack the latest academic debates in the field, and share with you the gems I discover as I sift through the wealth of over 100 years of archaeology documentaries! (Basically all the stuff I can’t fit in my PhD – and some of the stuff I’m working out as I go along).

To get us started let’s go back to the start! Check out this newsreel from British Pathé, capturing archaeology’s greatest media event: the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922. The film itself is indeed a treasure, a ‘wonderful thing!’

Stay tuned for more!