Conversations behind the movie camera

CINEMA / Through long-form conversations, Pamela Cohn offers a global collection of discussions on film and video as an essential medium for conveying the world's most urgent concerns.

Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers
Author: Pamela Cohn
Publisher: OR Books,

Lucid Dreaming consists of art journalist Pamela Cohn’s conversations with 29 documentary and experimental filmmakers. The author gives a voice to fascinating, unique artists who deserve more attention but are relatively unknown to general audiences. Pamela manages to both engage in revealing discussions about filmmaking and capture the intimate atmosphere in which the interviews took place.

While reading the book, one is immersed in a collective discussion. Suddenly all these voices matter – Pamela’s descriptions, the filmmakers’ statements, their cinematic expressions, and the authors they quote. Different words and images meet to complement, challenge, and provoke each other. Although I can’t mention every filmmaker’s name or their fascinating works in this article, I will address three fundamental questions that all of them are occupied with – who speaks, about what, and how.

Multiple voices

In 1975, British film theoretician Laura Mulvey created the term «male gaze», which means that the audience watches from the male point of view. Since then, the question of who is observing who has become crucial in film theory. The first interview in Cohn’s book is with the legendary American filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who passed away last year. The queer artist’s work has always entered intimate territories and offered her a special way of seeing. While making Synch Touch (1981), she even took the camera in bed with her. Other women are offering their versions of «female gaze» as well. Finnish-Egyptian filmmaker and performance artist Samira Elagoz has created several works dealing with this question. In some of her films she deliberately chooses to observe only men. However, she doesn’t just offer a reverse version of «male gaze», but asks men to actively participate in the creation.

Lucid Dreaming introduces us to «black gaze», «indigenous gaze», «ex-Yugoslavian gaze», and other marginalized perspectives. Donal Foreman goes even further. When discussing his essayistic documentary The Image You Missed (2018) he offers a «multiple gaze» theory, claiming that in every one of us there are different voices speaking.

the question of who is observing who has become crucial in film theory

However, it is not only the speaker but also the audience that matters. African American filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary expands the question «who’s gaze?». She deliberately addresses her films to black women, black queers, or black men. The artist points out that it doesn’t mean her works are not accessible to white, Asian or indigenous people, but she can’t speak for everybody at the same time: «Storytellers are supposed to be universal. But we only get to the universal by being extremely specific».

Lucid Dreaming-Pamela Cohn-post
Pamela Cohn

The amount of violence

All of the artists presented in Lucid Dreaming have a strong political agenda. They address topics of race, gender, war, genocide, corruption, climate change, and power games. Director Donal Foreman quotes Godard: «The important thing is to make films politically, not political films». The decision of how much violence to show on the screen becomes a political statement. How many images of nudity, rape, and murder are needed to address an uneasy topic?

Filmmakers deal with this question differently. Ossama Mohammed’s and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s documentary Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014) contains highly disturbing war images. The film is composed of found footage material – bloody war videos from Syria uploaded on the internet. One of the film’s producers, Orwa Nyrabia, rejects any kind of censorship and defends the filmmakers’ right to experiment with material that is considered unwatchable by many. He asks whether it is the violent moments that define the film or is it something else? Director Ja’Tovia Gary chooses to go in the opposite direction. She leaves blank spots for imagination. Her filmic collage Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) (2017) addresses the murder of a black person. We see the incident but don’t see the dead body. The artist argues that it would be re-traumatizing. There are too many violent examples of showing dead black bodies on screen and in photos.

All of the artists presented in Lucid Dreaming have a strong political agenda.

But what about the violence that the artists have experienced themselves? Cock, Cock… Who’s There? is a performance by Samira Elagoz. On the stage, she talks about her own rape. Elogaz claims that there are certain expectations on how a rape victim should act. She doesn’t live up to these expectations. The female artist continues to provoke with her body and addresses the violent topic without tears. The reason for this is a feministic one – our rape culture produces fear, it doesn’t protect women but controls them.

Challenge and explore

Mainstream fiction and documentary films normally explore a very limited range of cinematic possibilities. They still mostly operate by the narrative formula Aristotle wrote over two thousand years ago for theater. The action is focused on the main hero, the conflict and the obstacles to overcome in order to achieve the goal. Experimental filmmakers follow a different path. The artist Kaltrina Krasniqi addresses the problems of film and art schools who still offer limited possibilities of telling a story or creating an artwork. It takes time to free oneself from this prison.

The filmmakers Pamela Cohn interviews mix genres, explore new methods, re-enact and re-mix material, sleep with their cameras, and take long journeys. They address not only conventional ways of storytelling, but also the usage of different aesthetic elements. In the essay film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016), director Brett Story and composer Simon Gervais experiment with sound/image causalities. Filmmaker Travis Wilkerson raises the question about the usage of intertitles in movies. He wonders why artists are not thinking about intertitles as strongly as they think about images. «Why is it that people add text at the end, or the music at the end? Why do they not see it as something more profoundly organic and interconnected?» Yes, why, indeed? There are no conventions that can’t be broken. The cinema is not dead or finished. It has so many possibilities to offer. It is our fantasy that has adjusted to the mainstream. Time to get out of the cage.