A Question of Perspective
By Farihah Zaman
In the murky waters of documentary ethics, responsible filmmaking is not always a question of authorship, but of perspective. It is not just about who is behind the camera, but who is seen through its lens. There are of course tricks of the trade to mimic authenticity, but a failure to center the voices that most urgently need to be heard is difficult to mask entirely. Intentions have a way of leaving an imprint; from the questions that are asked in interviews, to who gets to speak and who does not, to how the director chooses to acknowledge their own presence. As questions around who has the right to tell which stories are rightly turned over (with a notable push from the 2020 uprisings and the attending cultural reconsiderations that followed), those who suggest even posing such questions means only allowing people who are from a particular community to make art about that community are missing the larger dialogue around craft and process, and fail to acknowledge that building relationships with and supporting underserved communities through listening, and centering the subject as the primary narrative voice, often results in stronger filmmaking.
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a spectrum of approaches to perspective was on display. On the affirming end is I Didn’t See You There (pictured above), Reid Davenport’s personal essay film about life with cerebral palsy and the world’s look/don’t look relationship to disability. Perspective is radically channeled through the director’s eyes as Davenport thrillingly rejects the conventions of what many a film school student has been force-fed to believe is the only path to “good cinematography,” instead allowing us to experience the world as he does, often from his wheelchair. More than through his eyes, in fact, it could be said that we experience the film embodied; rolling, shaking, hip-level, falling down, lifted up, it is not just a point of view but total sensory immersion heightened by Davenport’s exquisite attention to detail.
With the collaboration of editor Todd Chandler, the film also contextualizes Davenport’s perceptual experience through revealing moments of gentle conflict with family members who wishes he lived closer (Davenport chose to move from Connecticut to the Bay Area because of its greater accessibility), interactions with strangers both well-meaning and callous who inflict a thousand tiny paper cuts as he navigates a world not designed to support his basic needs, and first-person narration. Davenport’s idiosyncratic thoughts, about the history of the freak show, and America’s simultaneous fascination with and rejection of bodies that differ from some vaguely defined norm, create a steadfast current against reductive archetyping that might have been reified by a voyeuristic viewpoint. This is not a “portrait of a young man with cerebral palsy”—this is a graciously extended invitation to ride along with Reid Davenport.
Of course, director and subject need not be one and the same in order for this kind of synchronicity to exist. In his Sundance intro to All That Breathes, the story of two New Delhi brothers running a soap dispenser business in order to fund their true passion, saving Black Kites that fall from the sky due to injury and air pollution, director Shaunak Sen said that, stopped in his tracks by one of these dignified yet overlooked birds one day, he imagined making a film that used the bird as a symbol of the city’s political and ecological health. What could have been an imposition of high concept onto real people instead feels like a beautiful and organic collaboration in which Sen teases these ideas out of the brothers' experiences, musings, and intimate conversations. The film employs a mix of interviews; vérité sequences that showcase days of offbeat brotherly banter and nights spent nursing birds back to health; lyrical narration; and cinematography from Ben Bernhard that expresses the brothers’ belief in the interconnectedness of animal and human existence. The broader context of rising pollution, climate catastrophe, and the Islamophobic sentiment ripping through modern day India is ever-present as the subjects work tenuously towards their dreams—dreams that gently, poignantly begin to diverge as time passes—yet it never overpowers them, or the film.
Unlike Sen, Isabel Castro does not hail from the same city and distinct ecosystem as her subject Doris Muñoz in Mija, but she was able to achieve the same intense alignment of perspective. Muñoz is a first-generation twenty-something Angeleña who seeks success, stability, and fulfillment managing other Latinx musicians while dealing with complicated responsibilities at home, as the rest of her family is undocumented. Her perspective is expressed through vulnerable, self-reflective, first-person narration, and stylized cinematography (Castro also shot the film), from the intimacy of a bedroom to the sun-kissed glow of Los Angeles at dusk, to the surreal magic of a photo shoot for one of Muñoz’s new artists, a magnetic singer going by Jacks who also knows the experience of being a U.S. citizen with undocumented immigrant parents. The centering of Muñoz’s experience allows the film to build to raw emotional peaks around identity, ambition, and intergenerational relationships, and heightens the sense that wonder and hardship are inseparable in this life.
At first blush it may be tempting to see only the similarities between Castro and Muñoz that have allowed for a unified vision—that this is one first-generation Latina artist telling the story of another. As Castro has been quick to point out, however, the deeper specificity of Muñoz’s identity—as an Angeleña and a Chicana—did not line up neatly with her own background, so she had to craft ways to ensure it was appropriately represented. The filmmaker was sensitive enough to recognize nuances of identity and sharp enough to respond to them by collaborating with her subject on the narration (Muñoz receives a writing credit on the film) and going a step further by hiring additional writers who also understand the language and culture, so the film’s voice can ring true to Muñoz’s experiences and resonate with her larger community. This care in communicating Muñoz’s interiority results in a film that captures aspects of the first-generation experience with rare and affecting granularity—the delicacy of a young person coming into their own when they sometimes feel that, with undocumented parents and siblings at home, they may not allow themselves to center their personal dreams; the stakes too high, the obligation too great.
In sharp, head-scratching relief to the sense of subject agency felt in these documentaries, there was Jihad Rehab. The documentary follows four Yemeni men who were detained and tortured at Guantanamo for allegedly engaging in terrorist activity and are now part of a self-proclaimed center for terrorist rehabilitation sponsored by the government of Saudi Arabia. The de facto (if unacknowledged) narrator of the glibly titled film is its director, Meg Smaker, who is not from the region but spent several years based there. It is an experience she has widely discussed— including in her Q&A after her virtual Sundance premiere—as changing the way she initially saw Muslim people, inspiring her to make a film that “humanizes” “them” for “Middle American audiences” “back home.”
Apparently, the experience did not change her enough to allow her subjects to drive the story, or to center their experiences. At every turn her presentation seems at odds with her stated intention, compounding rather than interrogating the conflation of “Muslim” with “extremist.” Each of her subjects is referred to as a terrorist or Al Qaeda operative, and the filmmakers do not share that their subjects were detained illegally, never given trial, and cleared of all charges. Nor do they clarify the nature of the center or how access was granted, even though Smaker, having made herself a very present figure in the film, had ample opportunity to do so. There is no investigation or mention of the geopolitical factors that have shaped the rise of Islamic extremism, the War on Terror, and the disenfranchisement of Arab nations—all the more jarring because the film opens with a dizzying, archival-driven history lesson that manipulatively culminates in a tornado of words and images from those who celebrated the violence of 9/11. “You have these stereotypes of these men, and you think you know them, but you do not. Here they are telling their own story,” she is quoted as saying in IndieWire. It is unfathomable how she can imagine that this is the story her protagonists would like to tell, or how this set-up works toward changing hardened hearts and minds about them.
The film posits that terrorists are people too, and so, by pure definition, they are. However, it leaves no space for the filmmaker or audience to question the very nature of this assignation, how terrorism is defined and by whom. Smaker’s interview style seems to presume guilt in a way that is both ethically reprehensible and oddly bland, hewing a little too closely to the interrogation style her subjects experienced for years in detention, fixating on their alleged crimes rather than the content of their character. The men are never asked about anything beyond their speculative relationship to Al Qaeda and what they are going to do about it now—never asked about their lives and loves, about the people they were before being shattered by violence and war, and even the broad strokes of her subjects’ personalities are imperceptible in the wake of Smaker’s laser-focused questioning. She pushes the men to recount evil deeds, with several follow-ups of “but what did you really do?” This aligns her perspective with the rehabilitation center and a government with a history of human rights abuses by suggesting the [cleared] charges are a truthful starting point and that she is the shepherd who might herd these wayward souls back to redemption.
Smaker’s aesthetic choices reinforce a dark and disturbing perception of these men, each introduced with corny FBI’s Most Wanted style graphics that foreground the crimes they have been accused of and presenting them as fact. The gray, washed-out palette too often reserved for depictions of the Middle East—literally draining it of color—is accompanied by a tense, foreboding score to put one in a Zero Dark Thirty kind of mood. While the film includes descriptions of the psychological, physical, and sexual abuses that the subjects suffered at Guantanamo, these moments feel both sensational and rushed, as if ticking cursory social justice filmmaking boxes, and are oddly refracted through animation. The idea of “agency” is nearly impossible considering the power dynamic at play, which is only fortified by the fact that Smaker refuses to explicitly acknowledge that we’re seeing things only through her limited perspective. Smaker’s idea of “empathy” seems to be that of neocolonialists and misguided Western nonprofit organizations the world over, an implication that she feels she is best suited to inform her subjects and the larger Muslim community what they need, she will tell their stories as she sees fit, even in the face of strenuous concerns from the Muslim and MENA filmmaking community during production.
As controversy surrounding the film has only increased since its Sundance premiere, there have been some easy and, frankly, clichéd responses to the film’s vocal critics; baseless claims that they simply have not watched it (in this fawning piece in The Wrap) or that critiques coming from people of a Muslim and/or Arab backgrounds are somehow biased. Meanwhile the director of this film, who has much to gain from its success, is inexplicably treated as neutral, and thus able to have her stated intentions carry more weight than the reality of biases entirely visible in the film. In the same article mentioned above, Joe McGovern writes that the film has “drawn fire on social media for the fact that . . . Smaker herself is not Muslim.” The issues with Jihad Rehab lie not in the fact that its maker is not Arab or Muslim—although it is true her distance from the communities depicted in the film should have resulted in closer scrutiny from collaborators, funders, and programmers throughout the process of making it, scrutiny that might have prevented such reckless and reductive storytelling from being elevated to a Sundance premiere—but the centering of some imagined, homogenous Middle American audience which, if it existed, would surely benefit from seeing the fullness of the featured men rather than a regurgitation of their rap sheets.
The suggestion that criticism of the film is solely about Smaker’s identity falls back on that pervasive, knee-jerk, white-supremacist defense cry of “So, are you only allowed to make films about the community that you’re from?” The short answer is no, of course not, no one said that. In fact, other documentaries on offer at Sundance in which filmmakers explore communities and identities outside of their own still manage to depict the lives of others in complex and meaningful ways. Chief among these was Descendant by Margaret Brown, which follows the residents of Africatown in Mobile, Alabama, contemplating the meaning of reparations and healing as they work with divers, scientists, and historians to excavate the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to America. Though from a white director, the film interrogates history and trauma with a sensitivity and attention to the black community it depicts. (It should be noted that there were several films at Sundance, both nonfiction and scripted, from Black female directors sharing from their own experiences and communities—Aftershock, Nanny, and Master to name a few). Brown was raised in Mobile, as is established in her modern documentary classic The Order of Myths. During the making of that film, she became aware of the legend of the Clotilda, spoken of only in hushed towns among black residents of Mobile for fear of angering legacy white families in power. However, she does not shy away noting that her experience is different from those raised in Africatown, and everything from how the film is shot, to the subjective sound design, to recording Africatown residents reading accounts of their ancestors and Zora Neale Hurston’s documentation of the history of the Clotilda, works toward their visibility rather than Brown’s editorializing.
Of course, the filmmaker has the power to comment by helming the film itself, but the sense of “channeling” or assisting is visible in the work. Films such as Descendant—or Sierra Pettengill’s archival documentary Riotsville U.S.A.—show that it is possible to prioritize the perspective of subjects from a different background and serve as a vessel for narrative and conversation. The use of the word “vessel” here is by no means meant to be read as passive, or to diminish the artists’ work. If anything, these makers have a heavier artistic lift, which typically results in less fanfare, than a filmmaker like Smaker in her chosen approach to Jihad Rehab. I Didn't See You There, All That Breathes, Mija, and Descendant all investigate, complicate, and ultimately provide an open, honest platform for their narrators, even those that do not utilize formal narration, and even when the narrator is the filmmaker. The idea of empathy or empathetic engagement as a documentarian might do well to shift away from models of reportage and the fallacy of objectivity and toward more fully channeling those voices we claim to be amplifying.