No transaction is without interest, a key tool for survival in the largest metaphorical sense of the word.
During my seven year stay in the field in Namibia and Angola, filming and photographing various communities, of which, often times the family of the king in whose homestead I had a base camp, the question arose several times per day, every day.
On my annual three week returns to Paris to keep my admin afloat, I had long discussions with Jean Rouch on this complex issue and many others encountered in the field. It is understood, we felt, that one's very presence is already a contracting feature in terms of any result. In fact, that very idea is what made me want to further my studies with Jean Rouch shortly before I went into exile from South Africa in 1984. (It is more interesting to me to film reality as evoked by my presence than to pretend to be able to film it as is. Jean Rouch). There is no objective reality. But there is ethical discernment and there is responsibility for the people one decides to film.
People in the field in Namibia and in Angola would often say, 'you are studying our culture, you are filming us, but what are giving us?' There is no easy answer.
However, during my seven-year tenure in the field, I helped find funding for training for young farmers, for consolidating drinking water installations, renovating community rest camps, for educational materials for the school, for the building of extra classrooms, for the building and equipping of a community cultural and educational centre. But I always declined requests for anything, money included, directly related to my work, filming, recording, photographing. It allowed me to accept or decline filming events without too much pressure. Often times, I got up in the middle of the night and drove for several hours through unfenced countryside to get a child to the nearest hospital. The sum of my investment, made people understand that I was a participant member of the community, and that my work with them was not negotiable through material or other means. A fine line and one hard to maintain.
Since my return to Paris, now many years ago, I started filming Parisian and French culture, the popular, the erudite, the artistic, the famous, and what I learned is that people are people, more of the same. People in the Western world may be more media savvy, especially the well-known and famous, but the problems are similar. When one writes with the image, moving and still, unscripted, unrehearsed, improvising story based on reality, one is confronted with human nature and need; one is responsible for the people one is filming.
And yet, whilst I've been asked to provide gratis clips and images from people that are versed in using the image to communicate, and only heeded to this demand when made by instances of need to source funding for an activity to continue, people have generally accepted me in their midst filming for very long periods of time, some for several years now, and that without ever asking to be paid or become a vetoing partner of my work at any level. It goes without saying that I do not diffuse any media of these sometimes several year long works in progress without their permission, being of the opinion that I do not have the right to do with people's lives as I please. In that sense, it is a partnership, lifelong.
The vital question is to teach young people to think ethically: 'Do not do to others that you will not do to Mama,' and to be able to discern: what and how at any point in time?
Filming someone does not make him disappear as a real live human being. The image is powerful; it can destroy lives.
My work in Namibia and Angola is held by the French National Library and some of the films are available through DER (ASP, Kanopy, etc.)
The body of work undertaken in France since my return to Paris in 2004, is now being inventoried and appraised in order to be preserved, processed and communicated : The Rina Sherman Files
A few notes and thoughts on this vast topic and the subject of my current writings, from Paris where I've been living in self-confinement since March 17, 2020.
The Voices portraits are often feature length films composed of four or five close up shots, the Witnesses of Our Times are longer, extensive projects on which I often work for many years, e. g. filming with Michou for 3 years in Montmartre, or Swimming the Blues, a film and breviary that will be released in the fall of this year for the centenary of Jean Rouch's birth (2017_2004), or filming as I have for the past three years with Claude Mollard to retrace his intervention in many of the major cultural projects in France over the past fifty years.
In most of these cases, I film alone a person of which I know a great deal, little or nothing. At times I have the opportunity to prepare, other times, not. 'Prepared' or not, at some point prior to filming, sometimes a day before, sometimes a few minutes before, I stop thinking about it in any way. And when I start filming, I go blank. I may keep a Bristol card with key words nearby, but essentially, once I film, for me, it is a work of feeling, of ebb and flow of 'vases communicants'.
The way in which and when one keeps quiet is often the best way to allow the filmed person to fill that sensitive space and best decide how and what they want to share. Another key is to ask 'synthesis questions' if you were to ask questions at all (which I try to avoid, preferring queues), that is, questions that avoid lengthy anecdotes but rather provide concise answers.
To provide but one recent example, last week I filmed Michel Zink, a specialist of medieval poetry, and I asked him something to the effect of 'how would you describe the evolution of the human being from the end of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the the Renaissance?' He mumbled bravo, swallowed a breath of air and went on to provide a brilliant ethnographic summary of a period of history that stretches over several centuries.
In essence, for me, it is a work of improvisation and feeling, being able to think on your feet.
But improvisation is not improvised.
You have to be at the ready, physically in great shape, mentally clear minded and psychically open to all eventualities; a state that takes years to achieve, if ever... a fascinating process.
My portrait work is in an oblong manner an outcome of many conversations with Jean Rouch about the use of commentary and music. Rouch was critical of 'talking heads' style filmmaking in which a long interview would be sausaged up and gaps filled with real life vignettes, more or less staged. Which is what makes up a great deal of documentary filmmaking of today as dictated by TV editors. He was also critical of furnishing the filmic space with music whenever the talking heads became quiet. I kept saying to him, it may be true that the talking heads we inherited from radio and then tv is not a procedure that best uses what the film medium can offer, but it can also be said that there is little more photogenic than the human face in close up talking. Hence the Voices collection of portraits.
But when I started working on a portrait of Claude Mollard, who has been Jack Lang's right hand man for decades and who has been influential or implemented all the major cultural projects for the past fifty years – a living memory-, such as Christo's wrapping of the Pont Neuf, Centre Georges Pompidou, Colonnes de Buren in the Palais Royal... I told him that talking about cultural engineering is not photogenic, we have to show it 'en train de faire' (busy doing, developing, constructing) for the projects that are happening, such as the Jardins d'orient (IMA, 2016) or the Memorial de Jeanne d'arc (Rouen, 2014), and revisit with past actors projects of the past. Hence we filmed with Claude Mollard and Jean-Hubert Martin who did some of the first hangings at the Centre Pompidou, or with Daniel Kahane, architect responsible for national buildings in the attic of the pavillon Marsan at the Musée d'art décoratifs, or again with Renzo Rossellini at the exhibition at La ferme du buisson during the exhibition around Roberto Rossellini's film of the beginning of the Centre Pompidou. It is certainly more tricky to film more than one person talking and moving without knowing what they are going to say or where they will be moving, but the result is just so much more lively. So from these considerations, grew, on the one hand wanting to explore the mise en scène of speech and the human face, and on the other hand, to devise methods of filming that moves away from the interview talking heads method.
There are several ways of looking at and dealing with the *entre nous*
mentality of the "haves" holding on for what it is still worth by any means
to what they consider to be the right way.
One would be to work pro-actively albeit belatedly towards making it
possible for the largest number possible (fees, travel & hotel) to attend
this and other similar conferences, independent of international status or
not and independent of origin, tenure, etc. but rather on the basis of the
desire to learn, share and contribute.
Another would be to let them get on with their *huis clos* and create
alternatives, that is, to stop wanting to play in their yard and create
other avenues for sharing and expressing. Create a narrative worthy of
audience. Soon they'll be knocking on your door!
Admittedly, neither are entirely satisfactory, but in many areas of life,
the second option has been underway for decades, and eventually, the main
court will stop being so much of a draw, unless the general attitude
becomes more inclusive and unless a preparedness to accept a shift of
paradigm is developed at greater speed than the present.
In more general terms, it is urgent to establish a post-racial post-sexist
post-homophobic post-economic discrimination society, for yes, it comes
into play in the topic of this discussion.
"Life is unfair" is not a fatality. Society can be about ongoing checks and
balances rather than holding on to what no longer works entirely.
That is why,
I went from being a member of Possession Arts in South Africa,
to being an actress at Dhlomo Theatre,
and from there into exile;
it was my stand toward what was happening in South Africa,
one of the greatest and longest running crimes against humanity,
in which most, if not all Western countries, had at least in part, a hand.
Then again, life called on me to stand up,
when Didier Contant fell mysteriously from a building in Paris in 2004, before he could publish his next article about the death of the Tibherine monks,
to undertake action in justice and bring those to court who had partaken in the viscous slander campaigns that lead to his fall.
Today, again, it is time to reflect the times,
in the face of global military violence against civilians,
of which children,
rampant racism against people risking their lives in rubber boats,
and the all-round cynicism and corruption of politicians,
I say, Do Not Vote, Massively, do not vote. Rina Sherman
Pour les aventures de cinéma, pour mon film, Mesdames Messieurs les locataires, tu étais partant. Nous nous sommes rencontrés à Noisy-le-Sec en 1994, où j'avais passé neuf mois à faire de la recherche pour ce film sur la vie en ville.
Nous avons ensuite passé des journées inoubliables ensemble, avec Gilbert Artman d'Urban Sax, chez toi et dans un troquet, des journées bien arrosées à la mescaline à un tel point que jj'avais peur de perdre le point sur l'Eclair Coutant que m'avait prêtée Ody Roos.
Puis, tu es venu, avec Jean Rouch, Germaine Dieterlen et Françoise Foucault, et bien d'autres amis, pour le faux mariage d'un vrai couple mixte, dans la salle des mariages chanter Le Gris, et, ensuite à l'église, écouter le chant de Thierry Dubost improvisant en haut contre une version de ma musique, "Un air de Paris".
Avec un dessin érotique de ta main, accroché au-dessus de ta tête, tu nous as raconté comment ils ont jeté des Algériens dans la Seine, le 17 octobre 1961, un petit sourire en coin. Tu nous racaontais comment tu revenais à Noisy-le-Sec, en scooter, de Paris, le soir des jazz clubs ; tu disais, il fallait que ça roule pour tenir l'équilibre, et les feux rouges ?
Louis Armstrong & Mahalia Jackson
Just A Closer Walk With Thee
Recorded Live: 7/10/1970 – Newport Jazz Festival – Newport, RI
I first saw this film at the séance du samedi matin of Jean Rouch at the French cinémathèque, an unforgettably moving experience, that had a lasting influence on me and the way I filmed, especially when filming many years later on stage for three cnsecutive nights the South African musicians at La Villette Afrique du Sud Musiques de liberté. I also remember a conversation with Ricky Leacock over dinner with Jean Rouch on the rue de Grenelle about filming Monterey Pop, a film by D.A. Pennebaker, saying something to the effect of he stopped filming concerts because he became tired of filming up peoples' noses, that image has remained with me ever since.
How learning happens. It is all about transmission, "petit à petit".