by Lu Wilson (she/they)
Anthways, 2023 © Lu Wilson
This video mentioned in this piece can be watched here.
Disclaimer: All the images in this piece are excerpts taken from said video,as such no captions/titles were given to them to not disrupt the natural flow of reading and get as close to the watching experience as possible.
In this essay I reflect on making a queer collaborative documentary We Leant Into Our Queerness to argue that queering documentary provides tools to both decolonise documentary filmmaking and dismantle the master’s house (Lorde, 1984). I previously argued that visual anthropology needs to be decolonised from its colonial past and the white supremacist and heteropatriarchal power structures in which it operates (Wilson, 2022). I define queering as sharing power (Moffat, 2009) and advocate that documentary can be decolonised by queering the typical power dynamic in knowledge production between dominant anthropologists benefitting from passive subjects. I argued that documentary can be decolonised by queering (sharing power) at all stages: having activist aims, using autoethnography to queer the filmmaker-self/subject-other divide and using collaborative methods (Ibid). ‘We Leant Into Our Queerness’ is an 11-minute collaborative documentary made by myself and two queer friends Joaquin and Polly.
This essay reflects on using my queer method to decolonise documentary and visual anthropology. I argue firstly that activist aims decolonise documentary as anthropologists share power through balancing competing social justice and academic aims. Secondly, autoethnography can decolonise documentary by ensuring anthropologists reflect on having power over their story which drives the desire to share power with collaborators. Finally collaboration shares power and means anthropologists reflect on and challenge their own thinking from Anthropology and their positionality. I advocate for a queer, collaborative and engaged visual anthropology to dismantle the master’s house by sharing power towards social change.
I use bold font to show when I use autoethnography in this reflection, and use the terms documentary and visual anthropology interchangeably for the purpose of this essay.
To decolonize anthropology, anthropologists can share their power by sharing activist aims with their research community. I am writing from the position of multiple identities: a queer, genderfluid, white, middle-class person, an LGBTQ+ youth worker and inclusion trainer, and a queer-visual-anthropologist-in-the-making. As I am part of my queer research community, I share social justice aims of equity and deconstructing all power systems. I try to be aware of my relative privilege and share the belief that anthropologists have a responsibility to consistently reflect on the direct and indirect impact of their positionality on the communities they work with and in.
In this project, I had competing aims related to my multiple identities. Firstly, I needed to submit an ethnographic video and reflection piece for my Masters. Secondly, one of my activist aims was to make videos to show representations of LGBTQ+ joy and self-acceptance to the LGBTQ+ young people I work with. I often use film in my youth work and have noticed a lack of positive videos about LGBTQ+ people. For example I had been planning to screen BFI Flare’s #FiveFilmsForFreedom with an LGBTQ+ youth group, but questioned the ethics of showing them. I ultimately decided that three films about parental rejection, mental health issues and detention centres may have been aimed at an older audience and could be triggering for young people currently living through similar experiences. Equally whilst there are queer anthropological documentaries like Moffat’s Mirror, Mirror (2007), many are too academic to appeal to younger ages. Thirdly, I wanted to decolonise the extractive power dynamic of anthropologists benefitting from their research community by aiming for my collaborators to somehow benefit from the filming process. I was inspired by Cabezas Pino’s Esta es mi cara (This is My Face) as collaborators felt the participatory photo process liberated them from the shame associated with having HIV. Having activist aims helped decolonise my filmmaking as I consciously balanced competing anthropological and social justice aims. I reflected on my position as a visual anthropologist and to what extent I was using my power to benefit myself/Anthropology or my queer research community.
Autoethnography is a powerful queer tool to decolonise documentary filmmaking. I previously argued with Moffat (2009) that autoethnography decolonises documentary by queering the binary between powerful anthropologist-self and submissive subject-other (cited in Wilson, 2022). By doing autoethnography for my collaborative film I realised it is an even more powerful tool.
In an early seminar, I showed – with embarrassment – a short edited video in which I reflect about hating being photographed and filmed, adding that it feels hypocritical to ask people if I can film them when I hate it:
In the following weeks I worked on my ‘official’ autoethnography about how finding out from my mum that I have a queer elder was a moment of queer self acceptance for me. I felt even more anxious showing this video because it felt personal and exposing. I had read that autoethnography risks being narcissistic if not linked to social, cultural and political contexts (Chang, 2008:54) and feared falling into that trap. Equally, I had no idea if getting dressed into my suit ‘counts’ as anthropology. Thankfully I felt validated by my tutor – the representative of Anthropology – that it did count as autoethnography and anthropology so breathed a sigh of relief. However the sigh was short-lived when my tutor added ‘but I thought you said you hated being filmed, you look totally confident’. I felt embarrassed and slightly annoyed – was he doubting my words, my story? It felt particularly jarring given the subject matter because he was a cis, heterosexual man. However, on reflection I realised he was right, much to my surprise I had enjoyed making the video and was happy with the result. But how could that be when I have always hated having my photo taken? I realised it was for two reasons. Firstly, when I had my photo taken as a teenager I hated the expectation of looking feminine and ‘pretty’ because due to my queerness it didn’t feel like me. I reclaimed my queer appearance in the film:
More importantly I realised that I actually hate having my photo taken because someone else is in control of my image/narrative. In this film, in contrast, I had power over what story I told, how I told and filmed it, and how I edited it together: what I made visible and what remained hidden. I had complete power over my narrative and image.
This process showed me first-hand how autoethnography benefits participants ‘in terms of self determination and empowerment’ and ‘constructing one’s own subjectivity’ (Coppens, 2012:132). This is particularly powerful for queer people who construct our own subjectivity in a heteronormative world (Allen, 2011). Autoethnography made me reflect on my positionality as a visual anthropologist, and directly guided my approach to collaborative filmmaking. I was aware of the power I held as a white, middle-class anthropologist/filmmaker and wanted to share this power so that Joaquin and Polly would enjoy telling their own stories and constructing their own subjectivity as I had.
Overall, autoethnography proved an even more powerful queer tool to decolonise documentary than I had expected. Autoethnography queers the filmmaker-self/subject-other power dynamic. But more importantly, autoethnography made me reflect on the importance of having power over one’s story and image, reinforcing my desire to decolonise knowledge production by relinquishing power to my collaborators for their stories. I included my reflections in the film to show my journey of acceptance and understanding because it drives the story behind the queer method:
There is a wide range of what collaboration can involve in Anthropology and beyond. In 1969, Arnstein developed a ladder of citizen participation which ranges from low participation through manipulation and informing, to high participation through delegation and citizen control. Similarly in Anthropology, traditional research methods including participant observation and interviews are collaborative to some extent because research communities’ voices may be included however ultimately the Anthropologist holds the power in knowledge production. In contrast, in the ethnographic film Esta es mi cara, Cabezas Pino documents a highly collaborative storytelling process which uses participatory photography with a group of men living with HIV in Chile. Whilst the film itself is not very collaborative with Cabezas Pino making the filming and editing decisions, the film clearly shows that the research collaborators hold the power over their stories. They decide which parts of their stories they want to tell through their photos and have full control over how their photos are taken and then exhibited.
Because collaboration is on a spectrum from anthropologists holding the power to produce knowledge to horizontal relationships between anthropologists and collaborators, I will describe my own approach to the collaborative filming process. I initially explained to potential collaborators that the only given was the theme of queer self-acceptance, and that we work collaboratively to film it. Joaquin chose to talk about music, composed a piece of music based on self-acceptance and did an interpretive dance to his composition. I edited the video because of Joaquin’s time restraints but as seen in the film, I showed it to Joaquin and was completely open to all edits. Polly had almost complete power in making her section of the film: she decided the theme of chosen family, chose to write a poem, did the majority of the filming – asking me to film anything I wanted – and made almost all the editing decisions asking me to do the technical editing. Collaboration is a queer tool to decolonise documentary filmmaking because anthropologists actively share power with ‘subjects’, who become collaborators.
Dominant Collaborators, Submissive Anthropologist
When Joaquin said that music helped him with self acceptance, I felt some tension in me. As someone who is not very musical, I couldn’t relate to his experience and worried that the young people I work with wouldn’t be able to either. I felt a similar tension during editing when Polly discarded many of my favourite videos. In moments like these I felt confused and stressed, because I wanted to do things differently.
However, I remembered my autoethnography and the queer aims of sharing power so I actively went against my own expectations and the power I would traditionally hold as a filmmaker. Grimshaw beautifully expresses ‘the necessary process of personal transformation which is the precondition for the new kind of ethnographic understanding. […] The film-maker […] must […] be prepared to submit himself to the experience’s disorientation, vulnerability’ (in Moffat, 2009:116). It indeed felt vulnerable and disorientating to give up power over the video, but in doing so we more honestly showed Joaquin and Polly’s experiences in their ways. Whilst I can’t relate to music helping with self-acceptance, perhaps others may relate more to Joaquin’s story than to my own. It was a powerful realisation about the kind of anthropology I want to do, a queer anthropology which agrees that ‘to know another is […] the most intimate act, and the queerest—as “a way of knowing it is also a way of being” (Ingold 2008, 83). This queer, this anthropology, depends on our desires to learn an/other way alongside others.’ (Weiss, 2016:634). Thus queer anthropology is an acceptance of the ‘other’.
Dominant Collaborators, Submissive Anthropology
When Polly asked if she could write a poem, I again felt tension but this time because I didn’t know if poetry ‘counts’ as anthropology given I had never seen poetry in ethnographic films. I knew that if I told Polly this, she wouldn’t write a poem, but then I felt even more tension because this would have been having power over Polly’s story. I replied something along the lines: ‘well I don’t know if it ‘counts’ as Anthropology, but the kind of anthropology I’m doing is queer and collaborative so if you want to write a poem, let’s go with it’.
I intentionally put my collaborator in a position of power over Anthropology. Adams and Jones write that both queer theory and autoethnography ‘ask questions about what counts—as experience, as knowledge, as scholarship, as opening up possibilities for doing things and being in the world differently’ (2008:5). I do queer anthropology, which embraces ‘an opportunistic stance toward existing and normalizing techniques in qualitative inquiry, choosing to “borrow,” “refashion,” and “retell” methods and theory differently’ (Ibid). What comes out of it is a more honest closeness to how Joaquin and Polly think about self-acceptance, and a more queer, creative, decolonised anthropology. Out of anthropologists’ reflexivity about and reactions to tension comes acceptance of ‘other’ ways of doing and being.
Submissive Collaborators, Dominant Anthropologist
Whilst I often queerly shared power during the collaborative process, at times I remained the dominant anthropologist. For instance, I edited Joaquin’s video and the film’s overall structure, although in the future I would love to explore more participatory and collaborative editing. Equally when Polly and I edited her video, I explained that the final decision was hers but from my perspective as an anthropologist-in-the-making I would like to include two clips including the clip below because it explains that the aesthetic style of the section was her choice:
Although I aimed to share power, I had not committed to what extent. I initially believed my role was to submissively facilitate, however I realised that I had learnt valuable insights about visual anthropology during my Masters which may aid how an audience understands the film. Equally, whilst I was advocating for a queer method which decolonises anthropology, I was not aiming to completely eradicate anthropology but rather adopt the notion of ‘collaboration described by Sarah Elder as « creating an open space for dialogue » (1995: 94)’ (Coppens, 2012:144). In retrospect, I think it could have also been interesting not to include the explanation as the viewer would have to work to understand the different aesthetic style but I prioritised wanting to show that Polly was involved in filming. I agree with Moffat that in collaborative methods ‘no longer does the ethnographer have the last word, rather due to being in a never ending dialogic encounter the participatory anthropologist’s position is gender ambivalent and queer’ (2009:1).
Collaboration is a queer dialogue which involved me constantly negotiating positions of dominance and submission.
In collaborative filmmaking, the participatory anthropologist’s position is queered because collaborators, anthropologists and Anthropology ‘alternate between dominance and submission, the masculine and the feminine, the articulated and the silenced’ (Moffat, 2009:160). Collaboration is a queer tool to decolonise documentary because the authoritative anthropologist actively shares power. Collaboration requires energy to constantly and consciously navigate positions of power and means anthropologists actively reflect on, question and sometimes work against the assumptions and expectations that come from both their own positionality and Anthropology. As Coppens argues: ‘The boundaries between teacher and students became permeable; everybody was involved in a learning process and shared their knowledge and skills. This kind of reciprocal exchange may have transformative potential and reveals an effective way to deal with «the moral burden of authorship » (Ruby, 1995)’ (2012:147). Collaboration decolonises documentary filmmaking because anthropologists relinquish the power and collaborators become more active, powerful agents in their own storytelling process. Again I deliberately included scenes showing the collaboration in the film:
This leads, I hope, to a queer decolonising of anthropology which is inventive and creative, and which retells methods and what ‘counts’ as anthropology.
My queer tools (activist aims, autoethnography, collaboration) decolonised my documentary filmmaking and helped me achieve my aims.
Firstly, I made a film for my Masters submission. Whilst my tutors will decide to what extent I was ‘successful’ anthropologically, I have argued that it certainly ‘counts’ as queer anthropology.
Secondly, I now have a positive video about queer self-acceptance for my youth work. I plan to screen them in late May so cannot comment on their reception but I think they will be useful tools for my future work. I may show them as separate clips as the anthropological reflections may not appeal to children and young people but I am pleased to have started a project making films about positive LGBTQ+ stories which I plan to continue. I can use the ‘final product as crucial for public intervention and social change’ (Coppens, 2012:133).
Finally ‘the process […] can often take precedence over the final circulated product’ (Wachowich, 2020:108), so I will now reflect on what collaborators thought about the process. I included Joaquin and Polly’s reactions to watching their sections in the film:
Similarly, when I showed my film-in-progress, I sent Joaquin a photo of him on the big screen. He replied ‘it’s beautiful, I love it! Thank you so much for including me in this idea. I love it, it’s amazing. I’m so happy to be on the big screen’. Finally, I had asked Polly about dedicating the film to Jules, her partner who had passed away a couple of years previously, and she loved the idea. After spending a day editing together, she said: ‘Thank you for today. I’m so happy with what it all looks like and it feels like a real tribute to our fam’. Polly also asked me if we can screen the film at a memorial event for Jules next year.
I similarly felt self-acceptance filming and seeing my queerness on screen:
I experienced that ‘this construction of the self by means of audiovisual methods and narration is a creative and somehow therapeutic process’ (Coppens, 2012:142).
Queer acceptance was our film’s method and theme. By queering my method and actively sharing power with collaborators – meaning actively negotiating against the tension of my own assumptions and Anthropology’s expectations – I accepted my collaborators and their experiences. Acceptance is shown in the film through the stories, collaborations, my collaborators’ reactions, our emotions and our close relationships which grew in the filmmaking process:
To decolonise documentary, we should prioritise the process as much as the product and use methods which share power and lead to acceptance, emphasising ‘the importance of the creation process and […] the emancipatory effects that can be gained through it’ (Coppens, 2012:133). A queer, collaborative visual anthropology is a powerful tool because anthropologists relinquishing power to facilitate people telling their own narratives leads to acceptance of the self and the ‘other’.
These queer tools decolonise documentary filmmaking, but queer anthropological tools can also be used to dismantle the heteropatriarchal, white supremacist master’s house more widely. We must ‘root out internalised patterns of oppression within ourselves if we are to move beyond the most superficial aspects of social change’ and ‘use each others’ difference to enrich our visions and […] joint struggles’ (Lorde, 1980). Activist aims provide vision for our joint struggle, as long as we take an intersectional approach: ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree’ (Lorde, 1997). Autoethnography, or deep self-reflection, makes us reflect on our position and internalised patterns of oppression to share privilege with more oppressed communities. Collaboration requires us to reflect whether our beliefs come from oppressive power structures and hegemonic ideologies. It requires us to root out internalised patterns of oppression and accept ‘other’ ways of thinking, doing and being as not inferior, but rather different ways to enrich our joint struggle. This queer method taught me that music, chosen family and queer elders can lead to self-acceptance. But more importantly I learnt queer tools to relate across difference and use my privilege towards acceptance and shared equality.
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