“Language […] is invariably interlocutory, ghosted, laden, persuasive, and tactical.”
“Wild Sounds” is the name of this fall’s 2016 Flaherty NYC screening series, showing every other Monday night at Anthology Film Archives. Curated by Chris Stults and Genevieve Yue, the series offers a chance to see the work of a number of too-rarely screened international artists exploring women’s domestic and political lives. While the term “wild sound” typically refers to non-synchronous audio recorded for subsequent use in a film, here the usage is more focused and more figurative. Rather than the overall soundtrack, works in the series draw attention to voice, particularly the articulated female voice in some of its wildly complex and performative manifestations. Taken as a whole, the program sharply interrogates the wild, tactical, interlocutory processes by which women represent and transform themselves through voice and language.
The series’s three final programs illustrate this conceptual exploration of female voice. “Word Play,” “Woman’s Work,” and “Talk Back” each deal with the political implications of what it means to perform selves in the tangled skeins of vocalized, gendered and embodied language. Who can speak? To whom and in whose language? What form must our stories/voices take to be recognized as stories and voices? Is there a hierarchy of authenticity in speech? How and where can an individual voice emerge from the socially constructed and clichéd narratives we were given as tools? Through performance pieces, diaries, found video and straightforward or hybrid documentaries, the “Wild Sounds” series gives these questions eloquent form.
As Jerome Bruner has argued, we rely on narratives much more than on logic to make sense of the world. Moreover, we are, according to Bruner, self-narrating creatures, constantly (and often unwittingly) re-narrating and re-performing ourselves in our daily lives. Yet the language and rhetorical shape of our stories are provided to us by the communities we live in and interact with. As Judith Butler puts it in Giving An Account of Oneself:
The very terms by which we give an account by which we make ourselves intelligible to ourselves and to others, are not of our making. They are social in character, and they establish social norms, a domain of unfreedom and substitutability within which our “singular” stories are told.
We embody the voices which, in specific social and historical contexts, we have learned or been coerced to perform with and for others. The tension between the constraints of available narratives, our frequent impotence in the face of others’ stories, and the transformative potential of being listened to while countering these is made palpable across these various films.
One of Brazil’s most revered documentarians, the late Eduardo Coutinho made works that often slip into the liminal spaces between fact and fiction, or between the world depicted and the construction of that depicted world for the medium of cinema. Playing, or Jogo de Cena (2007), literally stage or theatre game, was the central work in November 14th’s program “Word Play,” and in it he uses the interview format to elicit the life stories of various Brazilian women living in Rio de Janeiro. In fact the film begins with the casting call he placed in the newspaper looking for women over eighteen who wanted to participate in a documentary. The rest of the film is a series of life stories elicited by Coutinho’s interview questions and shot on a classical theatre stage, with each woman facing the camera that frames her—not against the proscenium, but instead, against the large, empty auditorium behind her. Already we are made ironically aware of the performative and conventionalized nature of the interview form. The empty seats of the theatre are there for us: indeed, we are about to watch ourselves watching a performance.
The life stories of a random group of struggling middle-class and lower middle-class women are not typical fare for this theatrical space, nor even for a documentary, since these usually focus on clearly delineated issues or communities. If Coutinho’s film is interrogating an idea, it is the idea of self-presentation and the conventionalized forms this tends to take. Undermining the invisible mise-en-scène of most interviews, accentuating the performative nature of both setting and script, Coutinho also has some of the life stories intermittently re-performed by professional actresses without the audience knowing which is which. Our faith in (or desire for) documentary’s power to reveal a unique and authentic human truth is unsettled when one realizes how easily one is duped. Deftly, Coutinho manages this while at the same time manifesting indisputable respect for his subjects and generosity toward their stories. Whether “ordinary” citizens or well-known actresses, whether consciously performing or simply trying to piece together a life narrative, the diverse women of Jogo de Cena create an illuminating portrait of female resilience in a male-dominated society while also revealing our shared and naive faith in rhetorical and cinematic norms.
Paired with and preceding Jogo de Cena is Wu Tsang’s Shape of a Right Statement, a short video in which the artist cites and performs part of autism activist Amanda Baggs’s video manifesto “In My Language.” The latter raises crucial questions about what gives certain ways of communicating, thinking, and using language social legitimacy while “it is only when I type something in your language that you refer to me as having communication.” Baggs’s use of a voice generator is mimicked by Wu Tsang as she performs the “linguistic” parts of Baggs’s manifesto and not those expressed through gesture and touch. Shape of a Right Statement interrogates the political valence of “right” and the stakes of the “shape” that must be conformed to in order for one to be heard. Next to Coutinho’s film, Wu Tsang’s piece suggests that the Brazilian women, whatever the circumstances of their lives, are quite adept at conforming to familiar generic shapes that titillate viewers with the “right” (and perhaps thus easily reproducible) kind of stories.
“Women’s Work,” screening on November 28, brings together three films that link labor and self-expression in radically different contexts. Elisa Giardina Papa’s short need ideas!?!PLZ!! (2011) creates a collage from a number of YouTube videos in which young girls address their audience requesting assistance and inspiration for future videos. They must perform themselves, but they need ideas. If YouTube offers the right “shape” and place for contemporary self-expression, the actual “statements” to be made are more elusive. The work of self-narrating and self-expression takes place, and takes place online, but what story is to be told? Is this the simply the conundrum of youth or of the 21st century: platforms for self-expression abound, while “content” is no longer found. Is anybody listening?
The women in Nicolás Pereda’s El Palacio (2013) are not as eager to constantly engage in the presentation of self. This film is a gift to those hungry for a cinema that still relies on the eloquent mysteries of mise-en-scène to communicate. Set in a lush, dilapidated old house filled with women of all ages who wash, cook, sleep, and seem to train each other for future jobs in housekeeping or care-giving, the film appears to be shaped by the collaborative story telling (and inventing) of its director and his subjects. Here, at last, a respite from words. Instead, the sounds of brushing teeth, washing dishes, and the quasi-inaudible background chatter of the all-female community against the barking of their dog or the songs of birds and insects. Living and working space are one, and the garden, corridors, and rooms and their doorways seem to embrace the inhabitants. But when words do suddenly emerge, they can be terse and trenchant, part of a training exercise. Scenes of instruction place us, the viewer, on the less than comfortable side of discipline and authority, alongside the woman “instructing” from behind the camera. A scene in which a young girl is trained in bed-making is heart-breaking, as are the final scenes in which several women are given harsh lessons in how to present themselves in an interview for a housekeeping job. In such a context, whether the scenes are experienced by us metaphorically or literally, self-narration has no romance and offers no solace. It must be exclusively tactical and conform to the desires of employers and the prescriptions of social class. The women in the world created by Il Palacio will not “find” their voice in the rigid norms imposed by existing economic structures. Perhaps, instead, they will find it in the creative process of projects like this, where they construct and deconstruct others’ versions of their lives.
Louise Carrin’s Venusia (2015) offers a counterpoint to the above films in that here the two characters seem eager to banter and have no problem coming up with things to say. In what seems to be the storefront office or break room of a Swiss brothel called Venusia, a cigar-smoking madame and one of her prostitutes, an attractive, loquacious, witty immigrant from former Yugoslavia, discuss work, clients, and their futures. The prostitute Lena defies stereotypes, social hierarchy, and a client-centered work ethic, and the two women seem to perform themselves for themselves, each other and us with gusto while simultaneously navigating their complex economic and affective relationships. Even if work here is not ideal and business is declining, at least in this room, the women creatively negotiate their self-presentations.
Finally, “Talk Back,” the closing night of the series on December 12, features work that for the most part is by filmmakers who, as some form of themselves, directly address the audience without intermediary. Mounira Al Solh, Cauleen Smith, and the late Anne Charlotte Robertson talk, and talk to us. While Robertson is known primarily for her prolific super 8 diary films which she often narrates, sometimes more than once so the voice-tracks collide, Smith and Al Solh play with self-representations that are defiant and constructed against stereotype, subverting the expectations placed on them due to race or national origin.
One of Robertson’s diary segments poignantly embodies an experience that will be familiar to most of us. While we watch the diary’s scenes from her daily life, eating, cleaning, sleeping, watching TV, and making art, often shot in single frame bursts and thus emphasizing her restless unease, the soundtrack is of a lengthy critique session in which two MassArt professors comment on her grad school work. The effect of the tension between sound and image here is to convey a young woman artist’s silencing. The somewhat pompous drone of male academic/art school commentary weighs heavily over the images whose raw, agitated energy screams to be liberated from this discourse. Robertson’s voice, however, is barely heard. She is quiet, diffident. Her response came later, in this film.
Robertson’s other piece in the program is the earlier Reel 23: A Breakdown after the Mental Hospital (1982). Here the visual diary suggests a period of isolation and breakdown, but also creativity and rehabilitation. Part of the voice track embodies fragments of inner monologue, obsession and confusion, while a second voice track takes a more aloof, descriptive tone. The latter evokes an “outside” of the image, a distanced self as it collides with and occasionally drowns out the voice of pain. In her screenings and performances while she was alive, Robertson would often talk over her diary films, place objects and images in the screening space, thus echoing a complex inner world of self-contested voices and narrative strands.
In Cauleen Smith’s early Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) (1992) and Mounira Al Solh’s Rawane’s Song (2006), these artists openly confront the stereotypical narratives imposed on them—in Al Solh’s piece the expectation that she should make her art about the trauma of Lebanon’s civil wars and in Smith’s work that she embody one of the myriad oppressive or romanticized versions of black womanhood. Al Solh coyly responds with stories of witty but failed attempts—which include compiling songs that are about romance rather than war and correlating ethnic background to breast size—and represents herself visually only through her pointy red shoes. Smith’s Chronicles combines stereotypical and iconic still images with both a male narrator and personal voice-over that beautifully evoke the process of tangling and disentangling established and imposed narratives to constitute a transforming self that responds to but is not limited to those stories. Smith will present two other works as well, one a series of “letters” to famous painters (mainly from the 17th and 18th centuries) interrogating both the subject matter and the aesthetic form of their representations of the world. In addition, she will premiere a new piece, again featuring her alter or co-ego Kelly Gabron.
What Judith Butler calls “giving an account of oneself” in her eponymous book takes place only within “scenes of address.” The films of “Wild Sounds” present a multiplicity of such scenes in which female subjects perform a version of themselves “for, to, even on an other, […] in the face of, the other.” And that other is also us. These programs do what astute curation, like stimulating montage, can do: dynamize reflection and self-interrogation through the collision and collaboration of parts. With in-person guests at each screening (Robert Stam and Kirsten Johnson, Nicolás Pereda, Cauleen Smith), this colloquy of films promises to be generative, perhaps even transforming our own inner and outer voices as they insistently recount and account for our mutating selves.
IRINA LEIMBACHER is an assistant professor of film studies at Keene State College and former curator of a Flaherty Seminar.