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ISSN : 2092-674X (Print)
ISSN : 2092-6758 (Online)
Asia-Pacific Collaborative education Journal Vol.7 No.1 pp.25-32

Layers of Visuality: Storytelling in the Era of Instant Cinema

Boris Gerrets
Internationally acclaimed documentary film maker
Received Date: Jul. 06, 2011, Revision received Date: Jul. 20, 2011, Accepted Date: Jul. 31, 2011



Boris Gerrets, People I Could Have Been and Maybe Am, Film Still of Sandrine Correa, woman # 1

 The development of the camera from an unwieldy wooden box to a pocket-sized electronic device is the story of an ever-narrowing gap between the event and its cinematic representation. As any moment becomes filmable by virtually anyone and every event turns into potentially worthwhile subject matter, a huge expansion of narrative possibilities occurs. The camera can go places it never went before and spontaneously tap into the stream of life, making it instantly available for consumption. One may wonder whether this is good or bad, whether this will eventually create some exciting knowledge about us as human beings or simply produce an enormous heap of visual trash - bringing about the trivialization of one’s experiences and the gradual erasure of memory of one’s lived history. The questions are manifold, the terrain is untested and the only certainty we have today, is that one cannot stop the trend.

 The mechanical reproduction of imagesi has set in motion a self-amplifying progression of image-based culture. What can be observed is how the facility to produce images has created an insatiable hunger to multiply the desire for even more images. This has triggered a fundamental cultural shift in the importance of image versus text, also known as ocularcentrism. The visual penetration into ever-deeper layers of worlds that have never been seen before has profoundly changed the way we see reality and ourselves in it. In a climate where we are ready to record anything, we need to also be ready to be recorded at any instance. The encroaching loss of privacy that comes with the pervasiveness of the camera has made of everyone a public persona. Millions of cameras are at this very moment recording just about anyone, anything, anywhere, for a wide range of applications such as surveillance, intelligence gathering, medical, industrial, scientific, military, pornographic and recreational – all of which is stored on hard-drives. The omni-presence of cameras - hence the profusion of electronic images - create a world of confusion and disembodiment. The social consequences can already be felt. The speed and ease in which the recorded image then enters into the mainstream of available imagery is directly proportionate to the speed in which they become redundant, as they are instantly superimposed by new images. These pictures and clips of video footage form hybrid layers of image artefacts that can be found floating in the digital cloud, eventually becoming de-contextualised, nameless orphans in the ghostly shadow world of cyberspace. It will prove to be a monumental task for future cyber-archaeologists to decipher the character of our times.

 If power was once rooted in the domain of words, the emergence of visual technology has accelerated a shift towards the domain of images. They now determine the master narratives that underpin political and economic systems. The speed of their distribution and scope of their circulation has turned the visual into a continuous battleground. In consequence, fundamental questions arise about how images reproduce and represent events in reality, namely: how do they relate to that reality, what is their authenticity, their trustworthiness, what has been tampered with, what was left out, why do we have to look at them, where was the one who was filming, what was the situation that lead up to the event and what happened after? These are precisely the type of questions that are consistently put forward by cinema audiences after any screening of a documentary film. They subvert the tacit understanding, encouraged by the media industry, that things happen the way they appear. Things however rarely happen the way they appear. Anything that is framed by a lens is always an interpretation. It is the contextual circumstances of filming that convey the true realm of the story. In other words, the real story is located somewhere in-between the questions I have just mentioned.

 As a documentary filmmaker working with people and events in reality, my challenge is how to integrate the circumstantial ‘metadata’ into the narrative, without disturbing the emotional connection of the viewer with the story. This means building a story that takes into account my position within an event, including the presence of the camera as an essential part of that event.

Boris Gerrets, People I Could Have Been and Maybe Am, Film Still of Steve Smith, man # 1

The making of People I Could Have Been And Maybe Am

 At first glance, filming with a mobile phone seems no different than filming with any other camera. There may be a greater temptation to use its lightness, flexibility and small size in an impulsive, spontaneous way and seek extreme angles. However, that style can very easily become a trap. Since the advent of small cameras, it has already turned into a stylistic cliché. So by itself, this approach does not produce particularly interesting pictures, especially when imagining your film on a large screen.

 The first major difference – in the case of the Nokia N 73 that I used – lies in the type of images and sound it produced. They were high in contrast, low in resolution and very saturated in colour, hence giving an almost graphic novel feel to them. The resolution of 240 x 320 pixels meant that the aspect ratio is narrower then 3x4 and with around 12 fps, the flow of movement is mostly jaggedii. The mike’s characteristic is omni-directional, which means that it picks-up just about any sound around you and even though it has a wide frequency range, the recording contains all manner of strange electronic beeps and distortions. Moreover, it increasingly runs out of sync with the image, as the shot gets longer. Even though the automatic white balance was constantly shifting between blue and red and the gain was adding vast amounts of digital noise to the image, I felt the pictures worked their best at night and in low light situations. There was an atmospheric beauty and painterly quality that created its own visual code, conveying a sense of being beyond the realm of time.iii From the start, it was important to me to see these images in terms of their potential in creating a ‘cinematic space’iv. That means: a visual space that is imbued with a narrative quality and emotional vibrancy.

 As I prepared for this lecture, a dialogue about the aesthetics of cinema came to mind. It took place in Wim Wenders film-diary Tokio-Ga (1985), where the filmmaker was reflecting on the work of Japanese film director Yasujirō Ozu. Somewhere, halfway into the film, there is an encounter high above a Tokyo television tower. It is between Wim Wenders and another German film-director, Werner Herzog. Overlooking the sprawling mega-city, Herzog ponders about the lack of uncontaminated, serene and transparent images - describing Tokyo as an offended landscape cluttered with man-made structures, from where nature has virtually disappeared. He describes his views in these words: ‘There are not enough images that correspond to the innermost feelings of contemporary man’. v In order to find visual poetry, Herzog feels compelled to venture ever further with his camera, into the extreme experience of a war-zone or even to Mars or Saturn. Wenders’ response to him was that he found his images at street level ‘in the chaos of the city’vi. He embraces the kinetic experience of passing trains and multi-layered visual fields produced by the urban landscape. Wenders’ approach differs from that of Herzog’s, whose stance is more like that of a nomad, who sees himself pushed towards the fringes of the modern worldvii in order to survive. The two strands represent contrasting philosophies of being and distinct attitudes to present-day reality.

 Despite the fact that it was the mid-1980s when this conversation between Wenders and Herzog occurred and video art was already an established form, TV was at its height and the first small consumer video camcorders had been rolled out - it is evident that the artistic reference of both filmmakers was clearly celluloid film as a prime medium of cinematic expression.viii Seen from today’s perspective, when the digital electronic image has largely replaced film, the views expressed by both filmmakers seem obsolete. We now find ourselves facing a new visual landscape. Electronic image production and cyberspace has created a completely new reality both in terms of the exterior environment as well as the new consciousness of interconnectedness. Within this environment, another type of image emerges - one that no longer merely reflects the reality that is in front of the lens, but one that has become part of that reality and is in fact embroiled in it. I am especially thinking of all the footage filmed on mobile phones in situations of civil strife and war. Such new images are propelled by their own actuality in the knowledge that they can and should be instantly seen by the world. They seem to be a direct reflection of an experience in action and are rarely concerned with creating critical distance for thought or some sort of aesthetic or poetic experience. Often, the captured footage is highly emotional and urgent, inserting itself inside or alongside the stream of media as an insider’s point of view. This visual layer represents a type of image that is not about showing ‘geographic’ information, as I believe Wenders and Herzog were discussing, but is particularly concerned with social information. The telephone camera almost by definition embodies this social element as it is completely integrated into the personal sphere of the owner.

 In his book, ‘The Reality Effect: Film Culture and the Graphic Imperative’ ix Joel Black writes about how the line between reality and fiction has become obscured as a result of interplay between movies and real-life events - almost amounting to a kind of synchronicity. In one example, Black draws a parallel between David Cronenberg’s film ‘Crash’ (1996) preceding the car crash of Diana, Princess of Wales on 31 August 1997. Our contemporary consciousness is populated with cinematic images that have visually prepared us for catastrophic events like the 2004 and 2011 Tsunami and 9-11. These horrific events have also profusely been recorded on amateur cameras and mobile phones, becoming almost iconic in demonstrating the erasure of the line between reality and fiction.

 There is an odd, reverse proportionality between pixel density and its relationship to our perception of the here and now reality. The coarse low-resolution of a time-lapse CCTV camera or indeed a mobile phone gives us a sense of the actuality of the event. The ever increasing picture quality of modern camera platforms potentially propels the image into hyper-reality x. Here we begin to discern the complexity of the reality effect. On the one hand, the perception of ‘reality’ relates to the refinement of our senses that goes hand-in-hand with technological development. On the other, in the case of the grainy documentary footage, it relates to the contextual information telling us that the camera has actually been there as a witness. In a curious way these two modes of perception of reality, or rather two modes of believability also point to the two different narrative strategies employed by documentary and fiction. Today, we are at a point where these various media-strategies and narrative techniques crossover between platforms such as YouTube, internet-TV, cinema, interactive gaming and genres like journalism, documentary, fiction, reality show, and entertainment.

 Although the retinal effect of perceiving real space in high-resolution digital images is spectacularly enhanced and approaches the sensation of what is seen with the naked eye, this does not necessarily impact on the sense of actuality in terms of how this image relates to real events. Ultra High Definition, Dolby Digital and 3D may enhance the sensorial thrill factor of a film, but it won’t necessarily increase our sense of reality. Their perfection will also have the viewer forget the eye behind the camera. This points to a correspondence between the ‘anonymity’ of the cameraman and the ‘objectivity’ of the observational camera. This objectivity is not only in the notion that the situation occurred as seen, but also that the presence of the camera should not interfere in the intimate relationship that is built-up between the viewer and the subject. A device as personal as the phone camera however accentuates the continuous presence of the person behind the camera. Therefore, what is behind the lens is as much an integral part of the story as what is in front of it, embracing the totality of the situation. This overt subjectivity adds to the reality effect, as it emphasises the awareness that indeed the situation has been filmed.

 Towards the last stages of editing, I invited a friend of mine to watch through the film. He is a veteran editor and the first thing he asked me was: ‘What effect did you use on the image to create this kind of quality and atmosphere?’ It came as a surprise to me when I realised that it had not been evident to him that the film was shot on a mobile phone. It was the start of a very interesting dilemma for me: should or should I not provide this information to the viewer from the onset? I decided to put a caption in the very beginning, making the viewer aware that the story was captured on my mobile phone. I thought it important, if not crucial for him or her to understand it from the very start of the film. I became convinced that it would play a crucial role in the way the viewer perceived the events and was vital to understanding the story. The upshot of this decision however was that the viewer would at first be rather sceptical about what to expect from images of a phone camera in part because it had so far, rarely been employed for cinematic purpose.

 What draws me most to the mobile phone camera is the different psychology it involves – especially when compared to filming with a conventional camera. I found that working with a mobile phone results in a totally different mindset. It was easy not to expect anything, as the camera was always there ready to be deployed. But nevertheless I felt the pressure to ‘perform’ and to extract something meaningful on a different level every time the camera was rolling. It was like walking a tightrope between being inside and outside of the situation, between me as a person involved in my own and other people’s lives and me as a filmmaker and storyteller, responsible for coming-up with a narrative interesting enough to watch. Eventually the borderline between the observer and the participant became blurred and that ambiguous area then became the very terrain of the film.

 On 30 June 1952, Guy Debord showed his first film Hurlements en faveur de Sade in Paris. The film consisted of long moments of black frames and nothing but the cracking of the empty optical soundtrack. From time to time, it was interrupted by moments of white frames and a dialogue. This play with pure cinematic darkness and pure cinematic light was very hard even on the Parisian Rive Gauche intellectuals at the ‘Avant-Garde Cine-Club’. It created one of cinema’s infamous scandals. What Debord did with his film was to have the viewer turn on himself, leaving him/her alone with only the least possible amount of clues on how to read this minimal texture. French director Olivier Assayas, who studied Debord’s work points out that what he did in cinema, was what others painters, playwrights and musicians had done before him in their respective fields, namely to create a cinematic point zeroxi. Malevich was challenging the idea of Russian icon painting with his monochrome black or white suprematist paintings (195-1918), while Duchamp questioned the nature of the art object in his first readymade piece called ‘Fountain’. In music it was John Cage, who with his piece 4′33″ (1952)xii created music with silence.

 Somehow though, in film this gesture of defiance towards walking the beaten path seemed more radical. Debord deprived his audience of a story and instead gave them an opportunity to reflect on their own expectations. The viewer was left alone in a dark screening room and it was up to him or her to fill the minutes of black frames with his/her own thought-process, instead of having the film do the thinking for him. Close to a decade later, British filmmaker Derek Jarman – who was struggling with blindness and passed away the following year - did something equally radical in his film Blue (1993) -but this time there was a continuous soundtrack. I was aware of these antecedents when I decided to use the bluish electronic noise of the Nokia camera-black to cover particular moments in the film. It is interesting to observe how within a narrative structure these moments can enter into conflict with the stream-of-consciousness set-up by the pace of the story. They only sustain a particular length, before spoiling the flow of the film.

Camera black

 It is actually with the camera-black how the film begins. The idea was to introduce the rough image quality and also to emphasise the importance of the audio layer of the film. That same noisy camera-black, I then use as a surface for the text-captions that contain a running commentary, which is my own reflection on the events They replace what otherwise, might have been the function of a Voice-Over. I see these captions in the tradition of silent movies that had explanatory text pages in between the scenes but also alluding to SMS text messaging. These text captions allow me to have a presence in the film without imposing myself too much on the events or colouring the film with false emotions.

Caption nr. 16

 For those, who know my work, it will not come as a surprise that my position as a filmmaker seems firmly set in Wenders’ camp - namely finding images on the street-level of the urban environment. It is the world of artefacts, human relationships and worldly desires. The city is in many ways a reflection of who we are, what we crave, how we want to see ourselves, representing our best and our worst moments. It connects us, and at the same time isolates us from each other in the vast amalgamation of territories within territories and spaces within spaces. People I Could Have Been And Maybe Am is about drifting through these psychogeographicalxiii spaces trying to uncover the personal longings and aspirations, the projections and thoughts that remain private and unseen, in the public space.

 The fragments of telephone conversations that are heard throughout the film are real conversations recorded more than 15 years ago by British electronic musician Robin Rimbaudxiv. The idea was that they would reflect that constant superimposed network of people that together represent the voice of the city as a ‘third’, ever present character.

Pedestrian crowd , London

 The title of my film, People I Could Have Been And Maybe Am describes the moment of breaking through the invisible wall of the ‘Other’, the thought that perhaps we are who we are by coincidence, by a chance moment in the drift of genes. This conceptual idea, although rather abstract and poetic, was a very important baseline to guide me to the process of filming. For me it was an experiment in cinema as well as in life, which meant it had a strong element of performativity. The reverse side of that performativity was that most of what happened would not have happened, had there not been the idea of making this film. As I went towards those who became the protagonists in my film, their story became part of my own and the film turned into a space for encounter. My cinematic approach had been motivated by the belief that the camera is an interactive tool that enables a social dynamic between filmmaker and protagonist. Film has the potential to bring worlds together which otherwise would be kept apart.

 Worlds that are perhaps within each other’s view yet do not touch.

 London, 26 June 2011

 ⅰ Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. 1936 Suhrkamp Berlin.

 ⅱ On a basis of 30 fps, NTSC colour space, mp4 compression.

 ⅲ I really deplore that with technology constantly innovating itself, we will very soon lose this type of image. The new phones today are already recording in HD.

 ⅳ There may be various and wide ranging definitions of what the term cinematic space means. However, I refer to it as a visual field within a 2-dimensional frame that exists in time. Its content relies on a self-referential set of cultural and iconographic signifiers and a grammar that governs the temporal and spatial relationships of things within and beyond its frame. Thus it creates a space for collective imagination, a surrogate for dreaming and for nightmares, where anything represented within cinematic space transforms into an element capable of transcending reality.

 ⅴ ‘It is simply true that there are no more images left. When you look around here everything has been build up there are hardly any possibilities for images. It’s as though you have to dig with a spade like an archaeologist and you have to try to find something that is left you have to see how to find something in this offended landscape. Often this requires taking certain risks, which I would never shy away from. [And I noticed that there are so few people nowadays who would be ready to take risks to relieve our distress at the lack of appropriate pictures.] We absolutely need images that correspond to our level of civilisation and our inner, deepest nature. This can oblige us to go right into a war zone or wherever necessary. And I would never complain about the fact that sometimes it is difficult, that sometimes you have to climb 8,000 meters to reach the top of a mountain in order to get images that are pure, clean, and transparent. This is nearly impossible here. You really have to search hard. I would immediately fly to Mars or Saturn if there was a rocket that would take me there. […] because now it is not as easy to find something on this planet that shows the transparency of images that once existed.’

 Werner Herzog in Tokio-Ga 1985 by Wim Wenders.

 ⅵ Ibid.

 ⅶ This position later lead him to film the burning oilfields of war-torn Iraq, to Antarctica, into the approximately 32 000 year old Chauvet Cave in southern France and to Grizzly Man a documentary edited from footage shot by a grizzly bear activist killed in the remote wilderness of Alaska.

 ⅷ The celluloid optical image is defined by its photographic quality. The preciousness of the medium creates a special relation to time as a consequence of the limited length of a film roll and its and high costs including expenses for development etc. Time is money compared to the electronic image where that seems to be a lesser concern and ergo recording time also is a less of an issue. Imbued with the history of its own cinematic iconography the celluloid film image opens a visual space that allows reflection. A long shot, where nothing seems to happen somehow contains more content, because it is time itself that becomes the content.
Nam June Paik once pointed to the essential difference between the sequencing of 24 frames per second in celluloid based film and the way video records its images. According to him the continuous scanning of the video image reflected life better as an uninterrupted stream.

 ⅸ Joel Black, ‘The Reality Effect: Film Culture and the Graphic Imperative. Routledge New York 2001.

 ⅹ Sony’s prototype UHD video format has had its test run producing images of such high quality that the human eye struggles to distinguish them from reality: As the visual effect of the footage travelling down a road was so realistic, some viewers even experienced nausea as a side effect of seeing ultra realistic motion, but not physically feeling the motion. (Source:

 ⅹⅰ ‘Film had not met its Dadaist moment, its moment of having its system of representation and exposition submitted to an absolute questioning. And when Debord makes Hurlements en faveur de Sade, he has in mind, I think, very literally the idea of making the Malevich's White on White of film. ‘ The Hidden Work, Interview with Olivier Assayas. Remarks recorded in Paris by Enrico Ghezzi and Roberto Turigliatto, Guy Debord: Oeuvres cinématographiques complètes, a DVD box published by Gaumont in 2005.

 ⅹⅱ 4′33″ is a three-movement composition by American experimental composer John Cage (1912–1992). It was composed in 1952 for any instrument (or combination of instruments), and the score instructs the performer not to play the instrument during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements. The piece purports to consist of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, although it is commonly perceived as "four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence"

 ⅹⅲ Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." Guy-Ernest Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography.

 ⅹⅳ Robin Rimbaud, also known as ‘Scanner’ kindly let me use them for my film.