The Autoethnographic

The ‘autoethnographic’ in Chantal Akerman’s News From Home, and an Analysis of Almost Out and Stages of Mourning

In this essay I explore Catherine Russell’s writing on ‘impure’1 Structural Film and the autoethnographic,2 which I draw on in my discussion of three works, Chantal Akerman’s, News From Home, (1976), Jayne Parker’s Almost Out, (1984) and my own film Stages of Mourning (2004).

In the 1970s, whilst the high Modernist Structural film movement sought to eradicate any trace of the personal or the subject as author, in the wider frame of  Visual Art, the feminist art movement was making famous the slogan ‘The Personal is Political’.  In fact the impact of feminism in art criticism was major, and feminist critique and practice succeeded in shifting the parameters for what could be valued as art.  The consequence was that the frames of reference for artistic debate expanded, so emphasising the intersection between the ‘personal’ and the wider social and political context.  An important point here was that the shift was as much in the criticism as in the practice.

In her book Experimental Ethnography, Catherine Russell compares the relationship between ethnographic cinema and avant-garde film practices, the key connection of which is the question of looking.   She proposes that Structural Film be read in the wider context of the history of representation and visual culture, and re-visits Structural film from the perspective of post-modern ethnography.3  She acknowledges the challenge that the Structural Materialist film theories of Peter Gidal4 and Malcolm Le Grice5 pose in terms of unsettling the passivity of the spectators’ otherwise voyeuristic gaze.  This challenge to provoke a more fluid viewing experience where the spectator becomes both passive and active, as seeing subject and observer, she incorporates and develops in her critique of ‘impure’ Structural Film.  Gidal and Le Grice’s discourse to blur the distinction between theory and practice, intellectualising and perceiving, subject and object of the gaze, is echoed in her writing on the autoethnographic   Following on from Constance Penley6 she argues that because of the desire invested in looking, the spectator of Structural Materialist Film is not ‘freed’ from the technology of the gaze.  Russell extends Structural Materialist Film theory where the subject is understood in universal terms (and therefore the subjects’ viewing experience) to embrace a confrontation with looking that is not divorced from the socially differentiated ‘embodied’ subject.  In her chapter on Structural Film, she describes the work of a group of filmmakers that she sees as marginal to Structural Film because voyeurism is confronted literally as a ‘content’ or as a mode of representation, rather than as a ‘disciplinary techology’7 that she ascribes to the endeavour of Structural Materialist Film.  Ackerman’s News From Home is given primary place in her analysis of ‘impure’ structural film works.

The experimental autobiographical work that arose in the 1908s and 1990s in film and video in the Us, Russell has defines as autoethnographic or domestic ethnographic.  In general this work has diaristic elements but the author and his/her claim to truth or objectivity is put into question, as is the idea of a self as ‘whole’, self-knowable and fixed.  Understanding moving image practice as the medium best suited to explore questions of a de-centred subjectivity, she points to the critical value of a practice that tests the limits of self representation as the autobiographic becomes autoethnographic.  This is the point where the film or video maker understands his or her personal history as implicated in the wider social and historical framework.  As distinct from autobiographic work that retains an essential self that is fixed and is revealed as a singular and known ‘truth’, the autoethnographic instead stages the self as a performance, the self is objectified and as such is acknowledged within the social world.  In this staging of subjectivity, subject is fragmented as a consequence of the inherent quality of the medium.  It is a simultaneous crossing between the spheres of the private and public world where the subjects of documentation are the artists themselves (often also their family or friends).  The framing of this ‘self’ acknowledges that the ‘other’ within the self already undermines self-awareness.  This idea of the ‘other’ within the self, as the splitting of self between image/sound, subject/object, and past/present is explored within this self-reflexive approach to autobiographic artists film and video.

In News From Home, the voice-over of the filmmaker’s mother’s letters to her while she was away from her home in Belgium, is overlaid with extended duration static shots of New York streets and subway.  Following from her previous films Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), the marginal world of the women’s household work is a key element.  The letters recount the mundanity of daily routine, medical ailments and economic worries which are interspersed with the mother’s declarations of love and sadness at being separated from her daughter asking her to write back and return soon.  The mother’s emotional outpouring is in marked contrast to the anonymity of the public space of New York street life, which serves to intensify the sense of a mother’s closeness.  The personal is shared with the viewer and is thus made public.  The presence of the mother becomes all pervasive.  The reader barely pauses for breath, the continuousness of the reading being paralleled with the continuousness of the actual and ‘real’ time of the profilmic and the viewing experience.  The voice-over alternates with a silence, which in turn is set against the presence and absence of traffic sounds and of filmed streets that alternate between busy and empty, of people or of traffic.  Extremes of closeness and distance are conflated so that uncertainty is evoked; is in the relationship between the mother that is alienating or the New York metropolis?  A sense of being in transit is literally shown on screen but is also expressed symbolically by the letters.  Throughout the film, it is the profilmic that is in transit (the people, the traffic), the displacement of the filmmaker is only suggested in the underpinning autobiographic narrative ie via the letters.  However, in the final shot, the filmmaker’s transience is literalised as the camera/filmmaker very slowly pulls away from the shore, and in the long tracking shot pulls away in real time in the boat, until Manhattan is far in the distance.

What the film addresses above all is a collision between the private and public that questions the assumption of what is subjective and objective, but also of who is at home and who is foreign.  The passers by the on the New York streets are of diverse racial heritage. Binary power structures of both gender and race are here exposed in terms of expectations of traditional ethnographic film, that is, the voice-over as objective and at home, which is re-inforced with what the camera shows, that is ‘other’ and not at home.  Here camera and voice-over are disjunctive.  The anonymity of the cameraperson is partially maintained, until in the final very long take where the person behind the camera is, we realise, on a boat, and we assume is leaving the city she has been living in to return home to her mother.   The film’s resolution brings the autobiographic and the professional together as it is the person behind the camera who is in transit and displaced, and who is exposed in terms of her private and social autobiography.  The questions of displacement that the film addresses resonates in terms of the filmmaker’s Jewish heritage.

Similarly, in Almost Out (1984) by Jayne Parker, the video centres primarily on a relationship between  the video maker and her mother who sit in full view in an editing suite naked, and talk.  The issue of looking is central to the video.  Modernist elements of reflexivity are evident as image (the editing suite) and as voiced dialogue.  A cameraman is present in the first half hour or so, as voice only, and his camerawork is discussed between the three.  There is a laying bare of the video making process as the performers react and respond to camera frame and zoom during the process of shooting  The video was made at a time when nakedness in feminist quarters had become a taboo so this video was a bold attempt to challenge the an idiologue which was that women were necessarily dis-empowered by being naked for a camera.  Issues concerning the gaze and questions of power are discussed as the cameraman for example comes in close on the artist’s react, saying that the camera can be brutal, and the question of whether the camera can hurt is voiced.  The filmmaker’s success here is not in simplistically negating this point but in moving beyond the problem by talking through it, ie talking through the potential ‘harm’ a camera can do to a body simultaneously as the camera frames.  The artist here is crucially both objectified body as well as speaking subject who directs the cameraman.

The durational element is important for the ultimate reading of the video, which sets up a context between seeing and listening to a body/subject.  The viewer’s relation to the womens’ nakedness changes during the viewing and listening as the initial shock of nudity subsides.  As the video progresses, the discussion becomes solely between the mother and daughter.  The question of trust is raised as the mother explains why she has chosen to be naked in front of a camera for her daughter.  Her reason is that she wants to give whatever she can to her daughter and that she understands it is important for her.  Her trust and generosity cannot at this point be separated from the way in which we see the mother’s naked flesh.  The discussion continues more specifically on their relationship.  Whilst the mother is given the space to questions which she does at times, it is the daughter asking and the mother answering, offering her time, her body, her honesty, her thoughts.  There is a sense that the filmmaker’s lines are semi scripted and that the mother’s are not.  Also, that the questioner wants  to draw something from her mother, as if something is being tested.  The harder and more direct the questions become, the harder it is to listen, yet the harder also to stop watching.  The closer the intimacy between the mother and daughter, the greater the involvement of the viewer.  The daughter asks the mother where she came from, and the mother shows the camera an daughter her abdomen  At this point the separation between the material body and the psychical seem the most disparate.  At the same time the sense of necessary failure in being ale to return to the place of ones origins is most crystallised.  The illusion of unity that the language of video brings in the suture between image and sound is brought to the fore in this moment of failure for the evidence to satisfy.

My recent film Stages of Mourning, was made soon after the death of my late partner the filmmaker Sandra Lahire.8  The film is a compilation of footage and photographs that I had lying around after her death (some were shot as private footage, some for a public audience).  The seventeen minute film consists of me performing in front of the camera in silence in a home cluttered with large and small photographs, a 16mm projector, video and a computer that all bear her images.  My intention for the film was to highlight the sense of fragmentation that occurs when confronted with death.  I enact through the representational mediums of photography, film and video, processes of a splitting of the self as image, images that split between subject/object, past/present, and private and public.  The question of authenticity in terms of the truth between representation and real object was a key concern; the truth of the performance, which is both staged and authentic, and of the truth in terms of the self which here appears scattered.  A sense of fragmentation is played out to the camera as I re-stage a pose in a photograph, move inside the photo or film projection, or sit at a computer screen whilst orchestrating the performance of my late lover with the click of a mouse.  Whilst the film is also an emotional lament about my loss, there is at the same time a self-conscious striving, that is staged to camera to pull the scattered fragments together, to re-live the past in the present.

Unlike the previous two works discussed here, Stages of Mourning lays bare the life circumstance of bereavement for the filmmaker as a period of crisis.  The film opens with written text that is addressed to the deceased in the second person (you).  In this way the viewer is implicated in a position that is awkward and uncertain; shut out, as voyeur, or as empathetic bystander.  The film title Stages of Mourning is ambiguous in the sense that a stage is something both for a public audience as in the theatre and is an internal and private process of for example, mourning.  I wanted the film to encompass both sense of the word, as for an artist what is private and what is public is often not separate.  For the viewer, the mourning is real but it is being staged at the same time.  As I perform with the ghost of my late partners image in the lens-based material, I perform my desire for her image to be real; to elicit a truth from the image of her as if a trace of here could be a part of here.  In the moment of acting out this searching, the futility of the exercise is made apparent; the illusion is both real and not, it conveys a presence that is believable, even if at the same time this believability is a cheat.

The film stages an examination of the self, split between the here as viewer and there as screen, the here as living and the there as memory.  An oscillation is experienced in the shifts between different frames of time and spatial frames.  The viewer watches and maybe identifies with the performer as filmmaker and griever who is also looking at the image and her late lover.  Self and other are played out in multiple forma; present/past, self/representation, self/lover.  The close identification of the filmmaker and performer with the deceased lover suggest a collapsing of self/’other’ in this time of recent loss.

As a meditation the nature of the materiality of film, the film draws influence from the Structural Film concern of reflexivity.  The experience of repeatedly seeing two faces (myself and my late partner) for twenty minutes draws attention to the ‘stuff’ o the medium, as texture and as physical entity, as computer terminal, projector or to the physicality of the photography in terms of scale and colour.  As in Almost Out the performance is both actual and scripted,  I stage a performance for the camera whilst grief is being lived, so destabilising the distinctions between what is actual and what is staged  The desire to re-live the past I enact on film whilst also interrogating questions of the experience of the present, of self, and of making a film.   My roles as a human being, as an artist, performer, camerawoman and editor are thus conflated and exposed.

In the works I have discussed, the artists are engaged with the canonical avant-garde film and video debates, as well as with a combination of the autobiographic, and their subjectivity.  In these works, it is in the moment of the most personal or actual, in the moment of the most intimate and therefore subjective, that the self is opened up to the viewer most forcefully as a shared experience.  So what is apparently confined to the domestic and private, here switches place with the public.  These works exemplify the autoethnographic mode in a way that the intellectual and emotional are not separated out and the way in which the fragmentary nature of the medium of film is laid bare; in News From Home, a dislocation of voice-over with image, in Almost Out, the split between speaker, seer and seen and between an other and the self, and in Stages of Mourning, also the split between seer and seen, and between an other and self but with an importance emphasis on the present ad the past.  In each work there is an internalisation of an ‘other’ that is embraced as a part of the self.  Each work reveals elements of uncertainty between self and other, the stages and the actual, often creating a sense of disorientation the intermixing of different registers of communication, that is between symbolic and literal, abstract and indexical.  The films also undertake an element of risk in exposing what is culturally designated as private.  But also in the risk of the process of making, that is of combining artistic ‘objectivity’ from the emotional attachment that is inevitable in one’s ‘subjective’ relationship with one’s life.  And so it is in the interstices of uncertainty, in the confrontation of the unknown with oneself that the Other, which is both within and outside oneself, is most fully shared with the spectator in the risk to expose what is close but also uncertain.


  1. Catherine Russell, ‘Framing People: Structural Film Revisited’, Experimental Ethnography; the Work of Film in the Age of Video ((Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999)>
  2. Catherine Russell ‘Autoethnography: Journeys of the Self’ op. cit.
  3. Russell quotes from Stephen Tyler, who advocates for post-modern ethnography: to make ‘no break between describing what is being described’. Catherine Russell, ‘Framing People: Structural Film Revisited’, ‘Experimental Ethnography; the Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 162.
  4. Peter Gidal, ed.., Structural Film Anthology (London: British Film Institute, 1976).
  5. Malcolm Le Grice, Abstract Film and Beyond (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977); Materialist Film  (London: Routledge, 1989).
  6. Constance Penley, ‘The Avant-Garde and Its Imaginary’, Camera Obscura 2 (Autumn 1977) pp 3-33.  Also Constance Penley and Janet Bergstrom, ‘The Avant-Garde: Histories and Theories’ Screen 19 no3 (Autumn 1978) cited in Ethnography; the Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham and London: Duke University Press 1999), p160.
  7. Ibid, pp 159-160
  8. Sandra Lahire, Filmmaker 1950-2001

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