Camera in hand, idea in head: Notes from a video blogger

The first video blogger for the New Statesman reveals his project to create a full-length documentary of the anti-cuts movement. In a new world of cheap digi-cameras and easy upload, he highlights some of the best video platforms online, and offers his perspective on the changing nature of the documentary medium.
Michael Chanan
23 February 2011

We Will Not Pay from New Statesman on Vimeo.

For the last few weeks I’ve been out and about filming moments in the developing protest movement against the unconscionable coalition government and its programme of swingeing cuts in every department of social provision.  After the first two or three, the New Statesman invited me to become its first video blogger. The idea I have is to build up a picture of the movement as it evolves, aiming for a full-length film that documents three or four months of struggle. The focus is on the arts and humanities, on and off campus, but this is a movement which is making connections on all fronts, so my filming does too. My latest video blog for the New Statesman, above, features comedian Josie Long, the New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan and False Economy's Clifford Singer at the Progressive London conference, and covers UK Uncut's actions against Barclays Bank.

My method is simple: to return to Glauber Rocha’s formula for Cinema Novo in Brazil in the 1960s—to go and make films with a camera in the hand and an idea in the head. (Too simple for the section on methodology in a grant application, and there’s no time for that anyway, so I’m not making one.) The model I have in the back of my mind will not surprise those who know me—it has to be Patricio Guzmán’s historic documentary of the last year of Allende’s Popular Unity government, The Battle of Chile. This may sound like chutzpah but what makes it possible for a single person to attempt to emulate that film today is of course the decisive shift into digital film-making which has created, inter alia, the video blog. 

Indeed a huge amount of video has been pouring onto the Web to give a very different picture of the protest and resistance movement from the way it’s presented by the big mainstream media. You can see a personal selection of them on a youtube playlist I’ve assembled under the heading ‘Resistance’ here. Doubtless this is an idiosyncratic list—anyone’s would be—but it represents a wide range of different approaches with varied provenance and intent. If the result of this profusion is the difficulty of seeing the wood for the trees, it also facilitates my own endeavour, since I am able, as I start out, to draw not only on moral and intellectual support from my colleagues at Roehampton University, together with the support of the New Statesman’s engaged journalists, but video activists ready to share footage, including Reel News and visionOntv

One thing that has struck me, as I go and film public events, is that my camera is always only one of many. Not just that, but you can quickly see what other people have made of it, precisely because the results are rapidly posted on the web. This is fascinating—the society of the spectacle being subjected to a prismatic reality check, which has the effect of placing any individual version in question. 

If this of course includes my own, what I hope it nonetheless succeeds in showing—because documentary is subjective and objective at the same time—is what an interviewee in the episode on the Netroots conference, Martin Tod, says about video: that it can show ‘the real feeling there is about the situation at the moment’, it can ‘show people that other people feel the same way’, because ‘if someone’s got something really authentic and real and true to say, that will come across’.  

This accords with my own view about video as a documentary medium, that it’s as much about the voice as the image. In other words, it’s not my intention to provide an explicit commentary of my own on the movement, but rather to capture the way people understand the situation we’re in through their own discourse, obviously shaped by the way it’s all edited, but in a more coherent and cogent manner than the mainstream media allows.

It remains to be seen whether the thinking part of my brain, which tries theoretically to comprehend the nature of documentary, will keep up with the desire of my fingers, as I sit editing at the computer, to respond to what my eyes and ears discover in the footage. I’m having to adopt a novel work rhythm.  In the old days you would go out and shoot a film and then come back and edit. This was a reflective process.  I used to start by looking through the rushes to decide what sequence I would use to end the film, and then go back and work out how to get there. That’s obviously not going to work in this case. Firstly there’s no ending in sight. Second, I have to go out and shoot, come back and edit very rapidly, post up the results, and then repeat the process every week or so. This, in other words, is a situation where to paraphrase another Brazilian, the critic José Carlos Avellar, the camera is an actor within the reality which it films, and that reality is the co-author of the film.

For my earlier reflections on the uses of video on the web during the general election see Election videos, while New spate of agitational videos offers a provisional assessment of just that at the beginning of December last year.

The working title for the resulting full-length film is Chronicle of Protest. I expect it to be ready in about a month.

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