Ritual Reconstructed (RR) is a Jewish LGBTQI community/academic creative project. It involves “factual filming,” focus groups, bricolage workshops, exhibits, and community screenings. My role on the project is that of filmmaker, and my background consists largely of factual filmmaking–poetic documentary to be exact. In recent years, my research has turned to the juncture of ethnographic film and poetic documentary, which led me to the RR project.
I worked alongside Surat Shaan Knan, the RR Community Coordinator, on my previous community work, filming his oral history project, Rainbow Jews. Unlike the filming component of that project, RR has required a cine-anthropological approach as well as talking head interviews.
Logistical planning for the RR filming really began in October 2014. At that point the films to be made had been agreed upon by the RR team, headed by Professor Margaret Greenfields of Bucks New University, and pre-production began in earnest. From the beginning, the productions were complex endeavours to organise; they required coordinating with community participants (thanks Surat Shaan!), reviewing ethical guarantees of anonymity with participants, organizing actual events to film, securing venue approvals and a crew, preparing the film kit, arranging transportation, and so on. Anyone who has made factual location films before will know the hoops one has to jump through, and when you combine a factual, talking head “magazine” style with a more cinematic approach to record a religious ritual… well it’s a lot to think about.
So, how does one go about filming anthropological ritual? In his polemical films and writing on cine-ethnography, the celebrated visual anthropologist, Jean Rouch, made it clear that film makers must throw themselves into the ritual they are experiencing and recording. They must participate, “ethno-look,” and “ethno-think.” In turn, communities–who tend to modify their behaviour on camera anyway–should use the opportunity to “ethno-show and ethno-think.” Ideally, in a democratic exchange of experiences, an “ethno-dialogue” is established between maker and subject, and knowledge is “the result of an endless quest where ethnographers and those whom they study meet” (see “On the Vicissitudes of the Self…” (1973) reprinted in Jean Rouch’s Cine-Ethnography, University of Minnesota Press, (2003)
Again and again, Rouch’s ethnographic films foreground the creative partnerships of the filmmaking “participant observer” and that of the community participants; their combined efforts can produce important results. In the case of RR, we are all attempting to live up to Rouch’s ideal of a creative interaction and synthesis. Filmed events are organised from within the LGBTQI Jewish Liberal Community. I, in turn, organise camera and editing with my crew at the University of Portsmouth (see below). Both sides of the creative equation are then discussed and agreed upon by all the stakeholders.
Once the creative approach has been determined, the scene is blocked (almost like a filmed dance would be), and the filming is ready to commence. For filming a ritual, I use two lightweight cameras–one for close hand held shots and another for wider master shots. Mikes are used on booms to provide maximum flexibility, especially for rituals that involve movement. All of these filming techniques aim to avoid any unnecessary disruption of the ritual. Participants are encouraged to explore and perform (on camera) rituals that are either already evident in LGBTQI Jewish Liberal practice, or those that are created spontaneously at the moment of filming–by tinkering with everyday objects and incorporating them into religious rituals. These objects are transformed, perhaps, beyond their original function and meaning through a process that Levi Strauss has called bricolage. Before or after the filming of a ritual, talking head interviews are recorded with its principal participants. These rely on questions that are drafted beforehand by Professor Margaret Greenfields, and then discussed with the rest of the academic team to ensure democratic agreement on format and content. At the editing stage, the interviews are intercut with the filmed ritual to highlight the salient points of the participants’ as well as the filmmaker’s meaning.
In due course, the films are put up on www.ritualreconstructed.com, and a cinema screening is arranged. All stages of the Ritual Reconstructed project process represent an on-going, meaningful, creative “ethno-dialogue” between filmmaker and participants.
By Searle Kochberg, filmmaker, PhD Candidate, MA.,
Writer, lecturer, School of Creative Technologies, University of Portsmouth, England.
This article first appeared in the ISA Visual Sociology Newsletter 10 August 2015 website is http://www.isa-sociology.org/wg03.htm