Film artist Shaina Anand is describing the response her younger self had to making traditional documentaries. Travelling around India with her mentor, filming a documentary about life in villages for the anniversary of Indian independence, she described how they’d turn up in jeeps, find the subjects, and ask important questions for the nation.She became increasingly disillusioned by what she saw as the repeated orchestration of finding a subject, interviewing, zooming in, asking questions until the subject ends up crying. We’re at the Flaherty Seminar, which is a fitting place for analysing the relationship between filmmaker and subject. Shaina echoes the question hovering over so many discussions here: Who speaks for the subject and from where?
CAMP came together as a group in 2007, initially consisting of Shaina Anand (filmmaker and artist), Sanjay Bhangar (software programmer) and Ashok Sukumaran (architect and artist) in Mumbai. The intersection of their skills and different backgrounds created a vital spark in which to experiment with technology and ask deep questions about form and ways of making radical political work. It gave Shaina the platform to eschew conservative approaches to documentary with “the colonial male gaze.”
In CAMP’s work screening at the Flaherty in upstate New York in June, I felt that every part of the process of documentary making had been deftly unpacked and put back together again to reflect vital contemporary political concerns within the actual structure of the work or its distribution, not just its content. The films also gained a startling intimacy with the subjects.
Al Jaar Qabla Al Daar (The Neighbor Before the House) arose from experiments they had already made with CCTV (closed-circuit television) in 2008 in Manchester when the group managed to gain access to the CCTV control room of one of the largest shopping centres in the UK. In 2009, they used the same crass, cheap technology, using it to pan, zoom, and crash in on a neighbourhood in Jerusalem where Palestinians had been evicted, a place in which it would otherwise have been impossible to film. The sense of community of a neighbourhood had been violated and transgressed by grotesque occupation and conflict. CAMP used technology not only to reinforce a victim/ occupier narrative but to challenge it intrinsically with the method of making the work.
CCTV cameras are set up to film the houses where eight Palestinian families had been forcibly evicted and are linked to remote controls in new homes or refugee places where the families now live. They were then able to zoom and tilt the cameras to spy up washing or went about their business. The complexities of thepower relations between the observer and observed are dazzlinglydeft and agile, giving energy to the otherwise hopeless situationof displaced Palestinians in Jerusalem.There is a breezy, defiant cheek in a work that gives theconstantly watched and patrolled the ability to return thegaze on the very people whose presence and visibility hasevicted them from their homes. Those who film remainunseen. We only hear their voices as they trace the lines ofpersonal memory in their old neighbourhoods or stalk thenew inhabitants of their former homes with the remotelyoperated CCTV placed on nearby rooftops. We see soldierstraining, Orthodox Jews going to prayer, a boy skateboarding,roofs, water tanks, a veranda built by their own families. Theirbodies exert a ghostly presence on the very image we see onscreen as a small boy exhorts his mother to “zoom, zoom”– to spy on one of the new inhabitants leaving the house.“Dad, come and see how we caught the settler from theinside,” the boy says to his unseen father as we see an imageof a man in a garden. The camera may be stuck, the viewermay be impotent to change the situation. But nonethelessthrough the active manipulation of this technology they have“captured” a settler.
The act of wrangling the technology to record the voices of the camera operators while simultaneously filming does create a power shift. The Palestinian families may be physically invisible in the places they once lived, but their voices and ability to control how we see with even the crudest of cameras, exerts its own pressure. It acknowledges and celebrates the democratisation of the camera and makes us question the veracity of all the other images we have seen about Palestine. The everyday domesticity of the imagery contains silent belligerence. We hear details about the neighbourhoods, how the evictions happened through impossible laws or enforcements as the displaced families observe how the new families don’t clean the stairs or water the lemon tree. As the settlers go about the business of occupying both the frame and the space (three people now reside in a home which used to house 15), we can’t help but wonder at the settlers’ lack of acknowledgement of the people they displaced.
The film manages to avoid what Shaina calls the “Palywood” of clichéd documentaries about Palestine. Its evolution may be a clue here. Initially it was conceived as an artwork where the very act of filming was the piece. The footage was made available online and could be used by others as a resource for other work. Interestingly, the art world gave CAMP a freedom that couldn’t be found in documentary so easily with its insistence on narrative arcs and character driven stories. The documentation of the artwork was then edited into a feature film but the spaciousness of the edit is already contained in footage which is alive with the presence of the subject in a physically embodied way. Literal geography keeps them out but this world evokes an alternative space where the subject of the film shows how they actually see.
A similar privileged perspective into the worldview of another is contained in the film From Gulf to Gulf. Yet again it is a document of a much richer process that began as an artwork/ community provocation/ friendship built over four years between CAMP and a group of sailors from the Gulf of Kutch. Initially CAMP produced radio programmes culling material from sailors’ songs, conversations, phone calls etc. and also produced work which documented what the boats carried as they made their crossings to Somalia and other places heavily laden with 4×4’s, incubators, hospital equipment, milk powder, macaroni, prayer mats.
This evolved into a film that showed this totally different space in a radically fresh way. It is composed of footage of their journeys and extended selfie films shot by the sailors on their long voyages, often accompanied by songs which they bluetooth to each other. A totally different world order is revealed in the geography of their journeys which reference an economy and worldview unknown to most of us, where the narrative is not about conflict or poverty or religious strife but about men, work, fish, love songs and trade links which unite disparate people. This work doesn’t “give others a voice” in a superficial or condescending way but is built around the wild and inspired films of the sailors. Men cook for each other, sleep on deck, play cards, ham up their sea chart navigation skills for the camera, or watch casually as another boat sets on fire as they take goods from Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates to Somalia. There is no huge drama here though. Fireworks appear in Dubai; live goats appear on board in Somalia;someone catches a huge fish; boats are overladen. A man looks at a cruise ship “cooling his eyes” on it. No, it will only “heat them up” quips another, someone dances. The language is rich, poetic, metaphoric and their way of seeing constantly surprises and delights. The story remains free of any social moralising from the edit. The names of the boats are carefully subtitled and put on screen, giving a sense of character and narrative to each of them.
Shaina mentioned how, for her, the most radical and exciting approaches to documentary were in the 60s. Since then, what has changed? CAMP’s work provides a sense of new possibilities as it steals back technology to shift our perspective closer to the subjects, by “troubling” the traditional methods of creation and dissemination and empowers both the viewer and the viewed with a fresh perspective.
Link to From Gulf to Gulf: