<Documentary Review>

Revisiting Flaherty’s Louisiana Story. DVD. 64 minutes. Patricia Suchy, James Catano and Adelaide Russo, producers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University 2006.

In Picturing Culture, visual anthropologist Jay Ruby made some wry comments about discussions that follow films screened during academic conferences. He identified two common “tropes:”

(1) Aesthetic judgments about the work, as in “I really liked your film…” or “I was bothered in your film by…,” and (2) questions about particular details of the life portrayed—what I call the “Do the Eskimos really do that?” variety (24).
Ruby lamented the absence of a third trope during such discussions: “…the contribution the film makes to anthropology.” At the risk of inhibiting my own impulse to say what I really liked about Revisiting Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, I invoke Ruby’s work in part because of his decades long interest in connecting Flaherty with ethnographic film (“The Aggie;” “A Re-examination;” Picturing Culture); in part because of his equally longstanding engagement with reflexive ethnographic practices (“Ethnography”) and, in part, because the concluding chapter of Picturing Culture (itself a revisiting of an essay first written in 1982) filters the practice of ethnographic film through the medium of performance studies. Each of these—the status of Flaherty within the discipline, creative, reflexive research methods, and the relation of performance to ethnographic film—are factors in Revisiting Flaherty’s Louisiana Story and they suggest a response to a question about the project’s contribution to Performance studies.

As the opening narration and credits of the project indicate, Revisiting Flaherty’s Louisiana Story had its genesis as a class project. Researched, shot and edited in three weeks, the project included three professors, three graduate assistants, a visiting independent film maker and twelve students, with sponsorship by Louisiana State University’s Program for the Study of Film and Media Arts, its Centre d’études françaises et francophones, and the Performance Studies program’s Hopkins Black Box Theatre. The result initially was a 64 minute DVD that introduced the project and the six segments or “visions” produced by students working in pairs. In the time frame allocated to the project, students did historical research on Flaherty’s original Louisiana Story, acquired basic skills in documentary media production, and visited locations used by Flaherty some sixty years earlier. The project was premiered in the Hopkins Black Box Theatre at LSU, was screened at the National Communication Association’s annual meeting in Chicago 2007, and again at PSi (Performance Studies International) 14 conference held in Copenhagen, 2008. The project has recently been included as part of the “Documentary Expression and the American South” series of the journal, Southern Spaces (Suchy and Catano “Revisiting”). This online version of the project includes contextual framing of the project by two of the producers, along with still images relevant to Flaherty’s original production, and streaming video segments. The material from the original DVD is now more or less complete in the online version, but it has been segmented into clips of one to nine minutes duration. The distribution choice gives prominence to the components produced by the students and, of course, makes the work much more widely accessible. The online version also includes additional material such as clips from early film depictions of Cajun peoples, substantial reflections on the experience from producers Suchy and Catano, and an extended, contemporary interview with J.C. Boudreaux, who was Flaherty’s young star in 1948. Boudreaux made a cameo appearance in the original DVD but this interview has been edited since the original production, and the inclusion of his experience with Flaherty adds an important element to the project given its broader interest in media representations of Louisiana.

The DVD’s introduction establishes a critical frame of reference for the project: the ambivalent reception of Flaherty’s work as drama or documentary; the hegemonic legacy of ESSO, the film’s sponsor; and the politics of representing Cajun peoples as natural, naïve subjects living in close contact with the land. Each student segment of the project is introduced with prefatory remarks from the filmmakers who playfully and inventively explain their concerns and objectives when interviewed before the camera. Produced following Hurricane Katrina, the motivation of the project is heightened by the distortions and caricatures produced by national media coverage during and following the hurricane, and by the insult of subsequent state and federal inaction. Such timing gives the project a poignancy that surfaces in the filmmakers’ passionate engagement with issues of representation and identity. As Suchy says, “When we set out to revisit Louisiana Story, however, it wasn't so much out of a rhetorical urge to correct Flaherty's vision as it was to re-envision our own context, which had been further ravaged by images spewing out of Fox and CNN” (“Re-storying”).

So, to re-phrase Ruby’s lamentably, rarely asked question: what does Revisiting Flaherty’s Louisiana Story contribute to Performance studies? Reading individual segments of the project as performance “texts” or trying to classify Revisiting Flaherty’s Louisiana Story as a performing/performance/performative documentary (Bruzzi; Nichols) does not produce a satisfactory answer. Yes, the project represents performances (musicians at festivals, interviewees telling family folklore and jokes, the filmmakers’ reflexive comments as they perform mundane tasks of recording, etc.), but revisiting the ways “documentary” and “performance” have been juxtaposed in recent decades is not the same as asking if this project advances that dialogue beyond textual and representational concerns. This project makes at least three contributions to the field: as an arts based pedagogical experience; as a way around the representational crisis in which documentary seems perpetually embroiled; and finally as a non-representational, multisensory practice.

1. As Arts Based Pedagogical Experience

Thinking about this project as somehow being a completed work, a finished project, a documentary, or even six documentaries, is to paddle a pirogue in the wrong direction. First (and perhaps finally), it is a “project” (something collectively made, sent outwards, a process of making an image appear), one that documents the creative process of student producers. As a project, it is not complete, or at least it need not be thought of as completed. There is no reason why this project as an instance of critical pedagogy could not be repeated term-after-term, year-after-year, with new groups of students creatively engaging issues of documentary practice through the prism of a dominant text such as Flaherty’s (or always Flaherty’s) and exploring the performance potential of new technologies as they evolve. What an audience sees is an iteration of that process, one that raises interesting and valuable questions about teaching performance, about creatively and performatively engaging with representational texts, about using critical strategies of juxtaposition and imagination that engage with representations on their own (mediated) terms.

In essence, this project is a variety of what has sometimes been referred to as “re-photography” or “repeat photography” (Rogers, Malde and Turner). This form of photography has been seen as a method with some degree of rigor employed with the aim of providing a rationale for entering a field site, for the comparative measurement of changes to a place or topography, and so forth. Although with one or two exceptions, these students did not try to track down and replicate shots or scenes from Flaherty’s original Louisiana Story, they did attempt to put themselves in Flaherty’s position. From the perspective of Performance studies, re-photography is not simply about replicating a shot or image taken from a locale or scene at a particular moment: it is about reenacting the embodied experience of making such an image. It is about placing your body in the same position, trying to recover a sense memory of the attendant experiences, and understanding such restored experiences as necessarily and inevitably different.

2. Nanook of the South

Frances and Robert Flaherty’s 1948 film Louisiana Story is a kind of “Nanook of the South” (Hall): it shares something of Flaherty’s documentary method (immersion in a cultural region; working with local people to represent—through dramatic narrative—traditional qualities of their lives), as well as some of the subsequent, representational anxieties that have been projected onto his earlier film. Is it fiction? Is it a documentary? Is it ethnography? Although Nanook of the North has frequently been identified as foundational to the development of both documentary and ethnographic film genres, it shoulders that legacy along with 85 years of uncertainty regarding the authority or authenticity of its representation. Faint echoes of such anxieties can be found in this project’s introductory narration. Did Flaherty get Cajun culture right? Is his dramatization of bayou life in some sense real, or is it (like most representations produced prior to our intellectual moment) in need of critical analysis? Can contemporary members of the culture write/right Flaherty’s wrongs by making representations that are accurate, truthful, real, etc. (in this intellectual moment)?

There are several presumptions to this anxiety: that Flaherty’s film and this project are (merely) representational texts; that Flaherty’s dramatization was not true (or worse, somehow not real); that he did not base his film(s) on substantive cultural knowledge; and finally, that somehow it is possible to make a representation that overcomes all such limitations, that engages in a critical/creative practice that deconstructs the text or offers alternate voices that are somehow more real, more true or more representational that the original . As folklorist Barry Ancelet says when interviewed in the project, “The only way you could have a truly representative film about say, south Louisiana is to film the whole thing, all the time, everywhere.”

Ruby makes it clear that despite Flaherty’s use of narrative in Nanook, Louisiana Story and other films, it is not productive to consider his films as fictions. Ruby also makes it clear that despite Flaherty’s lack of professional training as an ethnographer, he was able to approach his films with the intention of setting aside his own cultural perspectives in order to show his subjects “as they saw themselves” (qtd. in Picturing Culture 87). And finally, despite both his lack of access to contemporary critical theory and his complicity with corporate sponsors (Revillion Frères in the case of Nanook of the North, and Standard Oil in the case of Louisiana Story), it is still possible for Ruby to view Flaherty as “a pioneer in participatory and reflexive cinema” (Picturing Culture 83), and to suggest “that the problems with which Flaherty grappled are the problems of today’s image makers and that his solutions are illuminating…”(91). Or as Stella Bruzzi says, “Who would have thought that, at the very end of the twentieth century, even the methods of Robert Flaherty would be revived?” (8)

Ruby sees Flaherty’s work as having been “trapped in the false dichotomy,” one that pits the rigor of academic discipline against the art of visual representation (Picturing Culture 4). As sympathetic as Ruby is to this work, he is also aware that, “Mainstream cultural anthropologists see film as having value only as a teaching tool” (264), not as a substantive, expressive form that reflects or advances practice and theory in the field. It is futile for performance studies to take up and reproduce anxieties that another ethnographic practice has worked so steadily to shed.

As part of his solution Ruby looks to Performance studies—and not I hasten to add, to performance or performativity. He cites Howard Becker and Dwight Conquergood and others involved with developing performance as an embodied medium for ethnographic research. He finds an affinity with a common interest in the non-traditional communication of ethnography (258), of representing “the embodied and sensory experience of ethnographic research” (264). He suggests that performance and film face similar dilemmas in training that require the combination of ethnographic and creative skills, and they face common obstacles within a logocentric academy.

3. Re: Visiting as Non-Representation

Michael Shanks has suggested that “Performance is about re-iterating, re-mediating, re-working, re-presenting, re-storing” (150). The more I reflect on this project, the more I am drawn to the eddy and flow of the prefix, “re,” the re-visiting of Flaherty, the re-stored copy of Louisiana Story used by those involved in the project, the videographers’ multiple re-flexive gestures that in a sense negotiate their choices with the audience. This in turn re-phrases the question about this project’s contribution to Performance studies in Schechner’s language: is there a sense (or senses) in which documentary is re-stored behavior, or re-stores behaviour?

There has been another re-visiting of a Flaherty film. In the late 1980s, two documentarians working for French television went to Inukjuak, the location of Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North (Huhndorf). They screened the original film for the descendent community in order to gather legends about Flaherty and to draw out distortions in the original film. The result, Nanook Revisited aimed to debunk the documentary status of Flaherty’s text (Massot and Regnier). The difference in “re-visiting” here is instructive: theirs is a re-visit frozen in the debate on the Nanook’s textual authority. The same occurs in the more recent 2008 PBS documentary about Louisiana Story, Tika Laudun’s Louisiana Story: The Reverse Angle. The title suggests a similar impulse to represent the real that was behind the camera rather than what Flaherty constructed in front of it.

An alternative approach centered within Performance studies considers re-visiting in terms of inventive practices that characterized oral interpretation, as Paul Edwards describes it, the re-writing (“Performance of”; “Staging Paradox”) and re-spectability of adaptation (“Adaptation”). As Edwards says, “an adaptation typically draws upon a range of pretexts that interact unpredictably…” (Adaptation 369) and, thinking of the “performing body as communication technology’ (“Performance of” 145) performers question “through the medium of their own bodies the very limits of textual authority” (148). Perhaps it is more productive to engage the unpredictability of “re-visiting” by thinking of it as adaptation, “…an everyday art and a ubiquitous communication practice of digital consciousness, playing in improvisatory ways beyond the boundaries of the identified, sustained art work” (“Adaptation” 375). This does capture the mix of creative, reflexive, personal, and critical engagements that characterize the components of this project. If documentary is a form of adaption, then perhaps one of this project’s contributions to Performance studies is in restoring the performing body to documentary practice.

     — Brian Rusted, University of Calgary

Works Cited

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--- “Staging Paradox: The Local Art of Adaptation”. The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies. Ed. S. Madison, and J. Hamera. London: Sage, 2006. 227-251.

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Ruby, J. “The Aggie Will Come First: The Demystification of Robert Flaherty.” Robert Fhaherty: Photographer/Filmmaker. Ed. J. B. Danzker. Vancouver: Vancourver Art Gallery, 1979. 67-74 and 94-96.

--- “Ethnography as Trompe L’oeil: Film and Anthropology.” A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. Ed. J. Ruby. Philadelpha, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press 1982. 121-132.

--- Picturing Culture: Explorations of Film and Anthropolgy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

---“A Re-examination of the the Early Career of Robert J. Flaherty.” Quarterly Journal of Film Studies 5.4 (1981): 431-57.

Shanks, M. “Three Rooms: Archaeology and performance.” Journal of Social Archaeology 4.2 (2004): 147-180.

Suchy, P. “Re-storying Louisiana.” Southern Spaces 27 April (2010). 31 July 2010.

Suchy, P. and J. Catano. “Revisiting Flaherty’s Louisiana Story.” Southern Spaces 27 April (2010). 31 July 2010.

Thrift, N. “Performance and Performativity: A Geography of Unknown Lands.” In A Companion to Cultural Geography. Eds. J. Duncan, N. Johnson, and R. Schein. London: Blackwell, 2004. 121-136.

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