This week, I watched a masterpiece of a documentary entitled Paris is Burning. This work, centering on drag “balls” that took place in Harlem in the 80’s, was a stunning piece of visual literature that was bold evidence for the ways in which race, gender, sexuality, and class are constructed by society rather than existing in essence. While critics unanimously applauded the work for being empowering to those within the film and those watching it, some took a very different stance. bell hooks, for one, stated that though the work allows people marginalized by race, class, gender, and sexuality to create their own material, it was edited by someone not nearly as marginalized by them (the white director), which is problematic. hooks compares this to the ways in which slave writings were edited into anthologies by whites, ultimately giving the power to the dominant class.
This comparison made me think about an interesting way in which we could see who the “writers” are of documentary cinema. From this comparison, it seems that the basic writers of documentary cinema are those that are being filmed. Though they do are not seen as auteurs of the work, they do produce the basic text that is created. In fact, the more agency the filmmaker gives the characters (meaning the less the filmmaker relies on voice overs, subtitles, etc. for argumentation and lets what is observed make their own points) the more we can see the characters within the works as writers themselves. Every decision they choose to make in front of the camera becomes a fragment of writing. The way they walk down a hall is a sentence. The flip of their hand is an interesting use of punctuation. Every speech they give is like a paragraph or an addition to the thesis.
In this case, the filmmaker is the anthologist and editor, manipulating what they produce to form the best product; however the agency of the filmmaker can be so large that their manipulation of the text makes them a writer in themselves. For instance, when a writer does a research paper and only restates what they have found in other pieces of literature, are they much of a writer? No. But, what makes them a writer is when they can use what they found to craft a distinct argument, joining the writers that came before them with their own voice. This is the nature of documentary cinema that does not simply use images to support an argument but gives others a chance to create and then compounds upon that creation.
I think that this itself makes an interesting statement for how writers can see all of their work. For everyone who writes, there seems to be “writers” that came before them that either inspired or gave material to fuel their work. A writer must ask: how much will I let the writers that inspire me control the style of my work? How much will I restate what other authors said in their work versus focusing on my unique argument in this paper? How much priority will I place on being true to those that produced my primary materials? These are questions both stylistic and ethical that all writers (not just filmmakers) must ask themselves while crafting important work and I plan on doing just that in my coming creations.