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The Journal of Cinema and Media

Filmm and Media,
with Special Interest in POLITICS, PREJUDICE and FEMINISM.

The Sensory Ethnography Lab YEAR

Interview with J.P. Sniadecki, Stephanie Spray and Véréna Paravel
Scott MacDonald



The filmmaking nurtured by the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) defies traditional ethnographic (and
“ethnographic”) cinema, from Flaherty through Gardner and Asch, in several ways—most obviously,
perhaps, in its refusal of didacticism: in the films of Barbash/Castaing-Taylor, J.P. Sniadecki,
Stephanie Spray, Véréna Paravel, and Arno Danusiri, no narrator presumes to provide explanation
or present conclusions. Indeed, many of these films often seem less like documentaries than like
contributions to a particular development within what continues to be called “avant-garde film.”

The past quarter-century has seen an increased commitment on the part of some filmmakers to the
contemplative representation of Place: cityscapes, landscapes, in all their complex variations and
imbrications. Early premonitions of this development include Henwar Rodakiewicz’sPortrait of a
Young Man (1931) and Ralph Steiner’s H20 (1929), and some decades later Nathaniel
Dorsky’s Summerwind (1965) and Bruce Baillie’s All My Life (1966)—though the development of
what had been a very sporadic approach occurs in the early 1970s with Larry Gottheim’s single-shot
films—Fog Line (1970), for example—and the feature Horizons (1973), Robert Huot’s Snow (1971)
and Rolls: 1971 (1972), J. J. Murphy’s In Progress (1972, co-made with Ed Small), Peter
Hutton’s New York Near Sleep for Saskia (1972), Images of Asian Music (A Diary from
Life) (1974), New York Portrait, Part I (1977), and James Benning’s 11 X 14 (1976) and One Way
Boogie Woogie (1977). All of these films involve sustained contemplations of particular
environments, often in shots of extended duration.

This particular development can be understood, on one level, as an implicit reaction to the increased
homogenization of American place in the wake of the completion of the interstate highway system
and the resulting development of national, then international, restaurant and retail chains. As they
became increasingly threatened, the particularities of specific places seemed increasingly worthy of
cinematic attention—indeed, of a kind of salvage ethnography. On a formal level, these films were
reactions to the acceleration of commercial media during the 1960s and 1970s and the increasing
overload of images per minute in commercials and commercial movies—as well as to the implicit
training in hysterical consumption provided by this acceleration. These new contemplations of Place
were/are about slowing down and seeing/hearing—considering—where we are.

By the 2000s, this cinema of Place was emerging as a major force in independent film and video.
Peter Hutton—Time and Tide (2000),Skagafjördur (2004), At Sea (2007)—and Nathaniel Dorsky—
Four Cinematic Songs (1996-2001) and Two Devotional Songs (2002-2004)—continued to build on
the accomplishments of their early work; and, like Hutton, James Benning and Sharon Lockhart
continued to mine the potential of the long-duration image. Benning’s 13 Lakes (2004) and Ten
Skies (2004), and Lockhart’s Pine Flat (2005) are made up of series of 10-minute shots; and
in NŌ (2003) and Double Tide (2009), Lockhart creates the illusion of even longer shots (30

but what they can see from their position within a specific community that recognizes them—peceives them as well as being perceived—and understands what they are doing. in NŌ. Chaiqian (Demolition. high-tech capitalism. like himself. part 2. their films are exhibited at the Harvard Film Archive. and Paravel usually hand-hold their cameras. then moves to a farm in central Sichuan. with few exceptions. and in fact had endured more than 130 water pollution accidents in the previous months. and Lockhart always work with a tripod. Spray. small town kids. but as a subtle emblem of their presence. Stephanie Spray has made all of her videos in rural Nepal. Barbash/Castaing-Taylor. With a single exception J. Spray. each of the SEL filmmakers articulates this connectedness in somewhat different ways. 45 minutes. and Hutton as well. 2008). Barbash/Castaing-Taylor. Sniadecki. Implicit within the activities Sniadecki records and within his framing are issues of class difference and of social control: when a policewoman sees the laborers being filmed by Sniadecki in a public square. the river had recently been the site of a massive chemical spill that had halted water supplies to tens of millions of people. are regular visitors to Cambridge (Lockhart made Double Tide while on a Radcliffe Fellowship. 132.” Sichuan Triptych records three separate locations: part 1 was filmed in Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Western Sichuan. not as a means of drawing particular attention to themselves-as-artists. Sniadecki. and generally they record sound and imagery in sync. Benning. and Paravel. Sniadecki. creating a series of videos— SONGHUA (2007). Further. significant differences between the films of Benning. Spray. Hutton. including in each location. and have been an important part of the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s screenings. on one hand. On the other hand. as well as with some boys who ride bicycles on a half pipe next to the rubble. and 59 seconds. they are more fully connected to both their subjects and their equipment than Benning. evocative of the formalist avant-garde—his sound-image compositions are inventive and suggestive—and. and Lockhart and Hutton are listed as “associates” of Robert Gardner’s Studio7Arts in Cambridge). From time to time. they have learned to work with extended shots in comparable ways with comparable effect. but the officer makes clear that workers are not allowed to draw a crowd in a public place. and he captures a wide range of people who. filming with several families she has gotten to know over a period of years. Hutton and Lockhart—though.minutes. by presenting a series of extended views (the first three shots are 93. and Lockhart. P. and the videos of Barbash/Castaing-Taylor. and Double Tide. Sniadecki works (as filmmaker) beside the men and women who are separating cement and metal and loading the harvested rebar onto trucks. are types. Part 3 begins in the city of Chengdu. and Paravel become characters. In contrast. the human beings seen in the videos of Barbash/Castaing-Taylor. The fundemental difference is that the Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers do not assume a position of detachment from the world they record or from the people who are experiencing this world within their imagery. where Sniadecki records a family watching the opening of the Beijing Olympics on a tiny black-and-white TV—capturing the immense gap between an older generation of Chinese workers and the new. Spray. Pine Flat. Hutton. according to Chinese state radio. This difference has a number of formal dimensions. but the challenges of working there (for him and for Chinese workers) are regularly in evidence. on several of the Gayek women working in gardens. a woman clamming. Monsoon- Reflections (2008). and Hutton’s At Sea. he interacts with these workers as he shoots. she intervenes.Sichuan Triptych (2010)—that function as visual synecdoches of a culture in transformation. Benning. at the same time. 2008. respectively) that gradually allow this complex environment to cohere. when we see any. a policeman who tells him that filming is forbidden. In the films of Hutton. By the early 2000s. As in Songhua Sniadecki’s approach in Sichuan Triptych is. generally seen in long-shot: for example. Sniadecki provides the pleasure of growing to know the river and its immediate surround. Hutton. That is to say. . Sniadecki’s fascination with and affection for China is obvious. Chaiqian explores a city block in Chengdu where a building has been demolished to make way for a major new construction project. grooming each other. where the Chinese presence is represented by a cadre of soldiers who are seen and heard marching through the town. respectively). of course. and Lockhart. If the Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers have not been as extreme as Benning and Lockhart in their use of duration. Sniadecki. this durational approach to Place was finding appreciative audiences: a Film Comment poll published in May/June of 2010 named Dorsky and Benning the Top Filmmakers of the previous decade. Sniadecki has worked in China. and in most cases they record sound separately and post-sync their films (Hutton’s films have always been resolutely silent). during breaks for meals and when Sniadecki and several workers spend an evening exploring Chengdu. Songhua was filmed in and around the Songhua River as it flows through the city of Harbin. and Paravel are recording not what is out there. Benning and Lockhart. Japanese farmers. people with personalities as individual as their environments are particular. however. Kale and Kale (2007) focuses on two men nicknamed “Kale” (Dharma Singh Gayek and Ram Bahadur Gayek) and their daily activities. are using and enjoying the river and the activities around it—before revealing at the conclusion of Songhua that. the Best Film. and Lockhart. unlike Benning. the human beings (and animals) we see. Benning’s entry into digital video allowed for shots of virtually any duration: Ruhr (2009) is made up of six 10-minute shots and one 60-minute shot. engage individual Chinese on a personal level: Sniadecki interacts with various individuals. There are. The men explain that Sniadecki is a Harvard graduate student. “people will think something is wrong. at the site of the massive earthquake that struck Qingchuan County in northern Sichuan in May.

It was expanded on-line with Paravel and Sniadecki. I went to the interview and showed Lucien a film I had made as an undergrad at Grand Valley State (I’d been out of school for four years)—an activist film for a prison education program. Spray positions herself on the ground. again on several members of the Gayek family as they manage their daily lives and converse about their experiences—including in one instance a remarkably candid conversation among several women about dildoes! Untitled (2009) is a single. which could take several semesters even if they were able to let you in—undergrads must be given priority for VES [Visual and Environmental Studies] courses. compared with other SEL films. Arthur Peleshian. Lucien showed films by Sergei Dvortsevoy. I’d wanted to make films that were experiential and not didactic. vehicles and people. about the immense junkyard at Willets Point in Queens. In each of these videos. which would be the first-ever graduate-level production course. P. It is divided into four sections. a feature-length collaboration between Sniadecki and Véréna Paravel. implicitly within the circle of the group she is recording. I drove truck. along with Tacita Dean’s Banewl [1999]. Sensory Ethnography immediately became the most galvanizing and important thing in my life. as if her filmmaking is just another daily activity (which. who was living in Nepal. for example. on their video work. I think those three-four years of traveling and observing the world really shaped my filmmaking. and subsequently with Spray.talking. but no one there was supportive. for both Spray and her subjects). I brought courses in philosophy and film history into a medium-security prison. This composite interview with three of the Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers was begun in April. Spray records in sync. though we hear footsteps approaching through the water for more than a minute until an old woman. unless you lobbied to get into an undergraduate production class with Robb Moss or Ross McElwee or Alfred Guzzetti. and I had a desire to get involved with filmmaking. 2011 as a conversation with Véréna Paravel and J. With the exception of Sweetgrass. continuous fourteen-minute shot of a man and a woman sitting in front of their dwelling. and contemporary art practices. I’d already learned that there was nothing available for graduate students. the first focusing on their experiences at the SEL. and then in 2005 started at Harvard as a MA student in what is called Regional Studies: East Asia. it is. how did you get involved in the Sensory Ethnography Lab? Sniadecki: I’d graduated with BA in Philosophy and Communications (mostly film and video courses) from Grand Valley State University in Michigan in 2002. Traveling helped me imagine what these experiential films might be. enters the frame. artists. In Untitled Spray sits in front of the drunken couple. That autumn. and that I should apply. and anthropologists. and post-production stages. At the first class meeting I was excited to learn that the course was designed to be a confluence of anthropology.” Foreign Parts was instigated by Paravel’s 7 Queens (2008). The first day of Sensory Ethnography. called “Exploring Culture through Film. Chet Kumari Gayek. the gorgeous hour-long 16mm film she shot during an eclipse in Greenland. and provides Sniadecki and Paravel with several memorable characters. we were to go away for the summer with Panasonic HVX-200 camera kits and shoot something more substantial. MacDonald: What did you do between finishing at Grand Valley State and matriculating at Harvard? Sniadecki: I worked many different jobs. And I spent a lot of time traveling: I would work. atmosphere.. Paravel’s cinematography and editing in Foreign Parts—like the editing and cinematography in7 Queens—are frenetic. then go off. I washed dishes. During the second shot of Monsoon-Reflections. which snakes through a series of ethnically diverse neighborhoods.” I was new to Harvard. On the Sensory Ethography Lab MacDonald: J. during the summer and fall of 2010 and the winter of 2011. production. with no real idea of what it would be like—except that each of us would see a film through the planning. We made little pieces for the course—exercizes in image and sound—and were constantly screening wonderful work by filmmakers. somewhat drunk. including Willets Point. though quite fitting for this particular neighborhood. these were the kinds of films I’d always wanted to see and to make. through the four seasons. make some money. of course. after the first semester. New York—soon to be demolished to make way for urban “renewal. but is particularly interested in working with off-screen sound in a manner similar to James Benning. and As Long as There’s Breath (2009). At Grand Valley. The experience was stunning. Like Sniadecki. The complex automobile culture within Willets Point provides a fantasmagoria of image and sound. pass behind Spray and her camera—heard but not seen. Lucien told me that in the spring of 2006 he was going to offer a course called Sensory Ethnography. Then. Spray’s camera is positioned so that we see only a rice paddy. something that we would edit over the following fall semester and that would . the following three. some of whom are acknowledged by the couple. honed my attention to gesture. during which she recorded scenes along the Number 7 subway line in Queens. and sound-scape. I went to a lecture course that Lucien [Castaing-Taylor] was teaching.P. nonfiction filmmaking. I taught English in China. with her back to a street. I was lucky enough to get into the course. Sniadecki during their visit to Colgate University to show Foreign Parts. the most widely seen film to come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab is Foreign Parts (2010). goofing around.

“sensory ethnography lab. Anyway. I was admitted. I think the term. My dissertation was on evolving forms of correspondence between scientists from the seventeenth century to today.A. Sniadecki: What I found really helpful was that one day Lucien and Jeff would argue about a project from a seemingly very clear perspective. and tabla [a popular Indian percussion instrument. talking to the guy sitting next to me. I was taking the Sensory Ethnography class. he’s doing exactly what you want to do. So I came to Sensory Ethnography very circuitously. I mentioned that I wanted to make films.. and I did a post-doc at Columbia. I’m not a cinephile. totally unplugged and image-deprived—in a cocoon. I’d worked closely with philosopher/anthropologist/sociologist Bruno Latour. and Jeff and Lucien would often come from opposite ends of the theoretical spectrum.D. Paravel: A very different path brought me to the Sensory Ethnography Lab. Buddhism. As Véréna suggests. What becomes most important for practically everyone involved is producing something with these tools.become our final project for the course. in the second run of the course in 2007-2008. so I ended up back in school. Every morning. Angela Zito—would ask me what I was “working on. the person I was talking to would tell me. used in Hindustani classical music]) and was on what became a decade-long quest to stay in Nepal. history. people—Faye Ginsburg. but that I had a very precise idea of a particular film I wanted to make. At the time. basically a mix of anthropology. both theoretically and in our practice. with two secondary fields—Film and Visual Studies and Critical Media Practice. for experimentation and inspiration. MacDonald: What was Castaing-Taylor like as a teacher? Paravel: Lucien had a very strong posture. sociology. and philosophy—in France we don’t have the same strict distinctions between anthropology and other fields. you should talk to this guy at Harvard. because it’s a laboratory with tools and space for seeking out the new. In the end I decided to do a Ph. print-outs.P. and documentary in general. He seemed reluctant to let a theology student with no real film background into the course. and Society.P.D. Lucien Taylor. equipment. but in the end. how did you find your way to the Sensory Ethnography program? Spray: Serendipity. so it seemed logical to apply to religious studies programs where I thought I’d be able to get funding to continue my travels. but something really solid. his way of pushing the boundaries of ethnographic film. I was starting to feel trapped in my program of study—so damn textual and discursive!—and about halfway into my first semester I was scouring the online course catalog for something that would give me creative outlets (I’d been involved in the visual and performing arts as a youngin’ in high school).” A typically American question! I’d explain that I was working on a paper that I wasn’t interested in. along with J.. and this common emphasis on the creative process makes the experience feel very democratic. and speak Nepali. My husband and I moved to New York. MacDonald: Stephanie. every time I had this conversation. it allowed for a rebirth of sorts. Every morning I would wake up with a film in mind. he was teaching the class with Jeff Silva. I grew up in Africa. it’s all about experimenting. We went through a process of having the conceptual rug pulled out from underneath us again and again. “Oh.” is very appropriate. in the end it allows you to find your own vision. After finishing. in Anthropology. I transferred to the Anthropology Department in 2007 and am pursuing a Ph. with two kids and a full-time job. I fell in love with Nepal in 1999 (studied Tibetan language. Before I knew it. in the study of religion at Smith. which gave all of us in the seminar a certain freedom of movement. though I hadn’t as yet touched a movie camera. in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard in 2005. Back in France. The Sensory Ethnography Lab saved me from my initial aversion to Harvard—for me the speed and privilege with which Harvard functioned was a larger culture shock than living in China.D in STS: Science. Lucien comes in with stacks of books. During this time. You have cameras and microphones. but increasingly felt as if I were getting a slow divorce from academia. It was Lucien’s very specific vision. and the next day they would shift their positions and critique the project from a very different angle. news about art exhibitions—and films to show.” One day I was sitting on a bench in Harvard Square (we had moved to Boston). I found I had no desire to turn my thesis into a book. In my bubble. . again like J. but without having to get an office job—I really just wanted to hang out.D. and the guy keeps asking me questions and finally I learn that this is Lucien Taylor. study music. my obsession. in Spring 2006 and was. Technology. but somehow. but no one’s telling you that you have to make films this way. academia was the only route that seemed viable. not a paradigmatic posture. but while that can be a destabilizing process for awhile. I had gotten a B. My thesis focuses on the world of independent documentary film in China—no title yet. from various epistolary genres up to email and the web. I got a Masters of Theological Studies at the Harvard Divinity School in 2004 and then started a Ph. I stumbled upon the newly listed course in Sensory Ethnography and had a ten-minute appointment with Lucien in the fall of 2005. In the end. I had completed a Ph. that made me want to stay at Harvard.

a case of environmental pollution in northeastern China made international headlines. You learn by being unsafe. Americans are constantly complimenting each other. among others. but for me his unrelenting insistence that we expect more from ourselves and our work made him a great teacher. Jana Ševčíková’s Old Believers [2001] made me believe in God for a moment. blunt criticisms of your tentative. The summer months were transformative for me. dismissive. and so the discussion could be more conceptually driven. which were critical conversations following screened rushes or edited work. which prides itself on being the space of contestation and disputation. A plume of nitrobenzene from a . in class and at the Harvard Film Archive. telling one another “Great job!”—even in academia. each of which has its own brand of provincialism. he could be incredibly generous. Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare [1977] blew me away.Paravel: Part of the process is learning the courage to occupy an unsafe position. To enable this. by losing your footing and bearings. the closest cinematic analogue to seeing spirit that I know (Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen [1953] is a close second). Steve McQueen. And I discovered Dvortsevoy. Andy Warhol. In the spring it was a crash course in critical viewing. This structure allowed students time to mature as a group and the opportunity to make strong work as individuals. It was the beginning of a cognitive and creative revolution for me. Lucien’s opinions about work and his approach to teaching weren’t agreeable to everyone. and getting to play with a camera and sound recorder. and the scarification scenes struck me as some of the strangest and strongest film sequences I’d ever seen. Hammons and McQueen are from the art world. But if had to name just two works from that course that fucked with my mind. Jean Rouch. plus revision upon revision of treatments for the projects we were to do in the summer. We also saw The Nuer [1971]. documentary. The fall was our time to sort through footage and make something of it. since I focused wholeheartedly on the task of shooting in Nepal. I was also sitting in on Lucien’s course on the history of transcultural film during the same period. where you take risks and often receive harsh. J. Pedro Costa. which is so bizarrely cut off in the U. Jana Sevcikovic. culminating in screenings in the winter. and that when colleagues talk about your work. and the way to begin to feel some slight confidence in what you’re doing is to work through the criticism and push yourself in ways you wouldn’t have imagined otherwise. a number of us were shooting in High definition video in 2007 when the rest of the department was still working in Standard def. during which the maker remained silent. which made him demanding and sometimes. groping efforts. Paravel: The first film I saw on the first day of class was Peleshian’s The Seasons [1975]. and Rebecca Baron (who taught one semester of Sensory Ethnography in spring 2008). reading eclectic works that gave you a theoretical grounding. Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss [1986] is ninety minutes of transcendental bliss. Occasionally they would participate in the crit sessions. The ritual of excluding the maker from the circle made the discussion less personal. Sniadecki MacDonald: What was the instigation for Songhua [2007]? Sniadecki: In the autumn of 2005. The class turned out to be the perfect balance of screening films that provoked you in a multitude of different ways. that you don’t have one particular approach or set of conventions to rely on. This generosity offset the onerousness of the standards he set for himself and his students. Over the two semesters we saw hundreds of films. Jean Rouch’s Jaguar [1969] is also way more fucked up and surreal and revolutionary than most people realize. the Turtlelike [1995] was mind-bending. since he wanted students to find their own ways of making. MacDonald: Stephanie. Many of us were holding a camera for essentially the first time. what aspects of the Sensory Ethnography course were most important for you? Spray: Lucien encouraged us to make work that would have a life outside the classroom. the works screened and discussed as a class. as it put emphasis on the work independent of the maker’s intent or expectations. from the soi-disant avant-garde. and I adored Richard Rogers’ Quarry [1970] and 226- 1690 [1984]. He wasn’t one to commend students for effort alone. And Vincent Monnikendam’s archival masterpiece Mother Dao. P. This ambiguity was perhaps conceptually rooted in a critical. since she was not addressed and made to defend her work. Sniadecki: It’s important that you don’t have a safe place. just as I was starting the MA at Harvard. going to great lengths to provide the best equipment possible. Werner Herzog.S. and the ritual of the group crits. experimenting to figure out new ways to encounter and evoke the Other. when disappointed. skepticism toward purported disciplinary and genre boundaries between ethnographic film. The most important aspects of the course for me were its structure. Leonard Helmrich. Lucien never explicitly proposed any one way to shoot or edit. David MacDougall. maybe even hostile. since what was most important was the quality of the work. Anri Sala. punctuated by a series of exercises in recording and editing. and art. Stephen Breton. A number of these makers were invited to class. Tacita Dean. no punches are held. and we were a ready-made community of critical viewers and thinkers engaging works by filmmakers and artists such as Petter Hutton. they’d be David Hammons’ Phat Free [1995] and Steve McQueen'sGirls Tricky [2001]. That’s pedagogically worse than useless. James Benning.

yet also fascinatingly unique: a river park. we were greeted warmly and put up in an apartment by one of the students of Ding Yi’s mother who was now a very successful local pharmacist. we made a stop in Harbin.” but this wasn’t our sole motivation. his mother. the picnicking families. We began shooting in Shanghai. focusing mostly on Ding Yi’s parents and their friends who were also “sent-down” youth. and that it would be my responsibility to officially invite Ding Yi to the United States so that we could edit the film together at Harvard. which we had heard about from the nitrobenzene spill eight months earlier. the karaoke singers. as a member of the first cohort of Sensory Ethnography. I decided to end the collaboration. a Saturday that coincided with the 85th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party (in Songhua. the horseback riders. she was producer. the kite-flying couples. we grew more and more frustrated and fatigued by the overbearing hospitality of our hosts. I remember reading media descriptions of city residents flooding into supermarkets and buying out every available container of drinking water within an hour. the swimmers. After seeing Ed Pincus’ Diaries [1980] and the work of Alain Cavalier. At this. Ding Yi. expressed his aspiration to actually be the film’s director rather than a film-subject. We wanted to see the relationship between the city residents and their “mother river. but also solidified my cinematic voice. floating in the water in the long wide shot of the men fishing with the net in the river). and collective as his parents’ experience. When we got to the small city of Yingchun. andForeign Parts have all been responses to a visceral and intuitive attraction to environments. The film hinges on open-ended perception. and everything under the sun.processing plant swept through the Songhua River and flowed on to contaminate the Amur River. the architecture. where Songhua was filmed) but also to the government and the inhabitants on the Russian side. but also to visit with Ding Yi’s mother’s family who still live there. who was accompanying us on the journey north. Harbin. It just so happened that this layover day was July 1st . His mother. all the nonfiction films I’ve made have been motivated by a sense of place. an architectural waterway. sleeping in a dingy guesthouse on the other side of town. my friend Paola. public squares. I’ve recently been filming . recording the fishermen. Also. We worked. what drew international attention in this particular case was the fact that the Chinese authorities delayed issuing a warning not only to the residents of towns and cities along the Songhua within the Chinese border (most notably. who came of age during the ever-expanding material culture of the post-1978 economic reforms. for her part. galvanizing. After much discussion. and urban spaces that are both expressive of their cultural context. for an experience in his own upbringing as intense. I was so thrilled to be shooting something spontaneous that I became totally absorbed. on a quiet experience of being and atmosphere. which spills out onto the river promenade. atmospheres. which lies east of Harbin along the Russian border. the BBQ-ing Uighuyrs. We were shown around the new schools. This kind of accident happens along the Songhua and other Chinese waterways on an alarmingly regular basis. mostly separately. a worksite. I can see that the joyful and liberating shooting experience of Songhua not only helped me recover and make sense of what had transpired with the failed collaboration. the capital of Heilongjiang province. She wanted to get acquainted with the equipment and I was still tweaking my preferred settings for the Panasonic HVX200 camera. I reluctantly gave them to her just before Paola and I boarded the train back to Harbin. On this layover. when the Harbin government realized it had no choice but to report the pollution. the material items along the river did not make demands on me. Demolition. there is a red banner celebrating the party’s birthday. In the summer of 2006. recording the scenes you see in the film all day long and. The people. and I had brought a Sensory Ethnography sound recorder for her to begin this inquiry. conducting informal interviews and gathering footage of conversations about the past. and where his parents were stationed as revolutionaries to serve the people as schoolteachers and learn from the peasants in the countryside. and for the most part I did not ask anything of them beyond being. as it has been transformed into large tracts of farmland and some industry). along the Songhua River. in hindsight. comprised of a montage of small gestures and fleeting moments in public space. I set out to make a film in collaboration with my Shanghainese friend Ding Yi that hinged on his parents’ experience as “sent-down” youth in the Great Northern Wasteland. and roadways. and a New York junkyard. Paola had to drag me away from the river so that we could keep our dinner plans with Ding Yi’s family and friends. not only to rest before heading into the Great Northern Wasteland (which isn’t much of a wasteland now. free of many of the more sticky ethical issues and personal entanglements of representation and collaboration. and “handled” at every moment by locals. who also brought along his own Handycam. Since then. and me around the nature of our collaboration. On the long and packed train ride from Shanghai. Four days after the accident. The film I had in mind would follow Ding Yi and his mother as they journeyed back to this far-flung corner of China and reconnected with her former students still living there. which forms a boundary between China and Russia. Stalin Park. Paola’s research focused on sound in Chinese society. I went back to the Songhua River the next day and filmed with the same elation and excitement until the hour of our train’s departure for the Great Northern Wasteland. at night. and reassured ourselves that we would be in the north soon and shooting more verite style scenes. claiming that she did not trust me to edit them. Our goal was to pass a day of exploration and experimentation. Paola continued south while I stayed for two weeks along the Songhua River. Constrained to shoot in a primarily interview format and never allowed to have a moment to explore on our own. and I decided to record images and sounds along the city’s Central Avenue and the Songhua River. and a meditation on the relationship between the environment and human development. I was still troubled by the falling out with Ding Yi and his mother. Another aspect of the film was to explore the relationship between this shared revolutionary past and the longing felt by Ding Yi. Songhua. revealed a prepared contract that stated Ding Yi was co-director. Ding Yi’s mother demanded the thirty-five hours of DV tapes I had shot. over these two weeks. We followed the bustling avenue to its end. Both Ding Yi and I were less than enamored with this quasi-talking-heads format. a misunderstanding began to develop between Ding Yi. The Yellow Bank [2010]. Songhua is a portrait of a place.

though I didn’t use that material in the film. Sniadecki: As a foreigner filming in China. one may discover many important or compelling details. I began filming with the two crews of workers (all from Renshou County in Sichuan). revelations. In terms of these more confrontational or antagonistic official obstacles to filming in China. without fail. We would have to explain that we were friends before these interlopers would leave us alone. negative reactions by people working in an official capacity are usually due to their concern that what I film will be posted online or used in such a way that may bring reprimand or punishment. the train workers or even the train chief him/herself will come down upon me and insist I stop filming. I tend not to pursue sensitive topics or places just for the sake of their status as spectacles or their potential for causing a stir—but in the process of shooting what I see as necessary for a particular film project. but rather a city resident using the space of the lot opened by the demolition process to access the other boulevard. Essentially. In situations like these. creates an optical illusion: a man seems to be sitting on a flat surface on the ground. bent over their tools. or tiny narratives in the corners. there were times when I would be filming a quiet moment with one person along the river promenade and crowded around behind me were twenty or thirty people. What in general is the experience of filming in China like for you. sweating on the mounds of gray rubble. an issue that comes up several times in the film. or a security guard. questioned. including your Demolition. every night I went out for a stroll with the workers from Chaiqian (Demolition)—we went out every night together—a plainclothes policeman. in fact. or even a citizen on the street would accost us and either demand to know what I was doing filming these men and women. This is entirely understandable. and concentrated when that opening shot transforms into the 360 degree pan that moves away from the moment you describe and sweeps across the worksite of laborers actually pounding and cleaving concrete from the valuable. In addition to concern over the potential loss of “face” in international media. bound-to-be-recycled rebar. in tank tops and flip-flops. not a worker. and Grierson was drawn to it as well. I quite like your reading. and I shot during that time. and sometimes even forced to erase what I’ve filmed. MacDonald: One of the things shared by many of the films that have come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab. no protective gear or hard hats. these people were trying to protect the national image of China and believed the foreigner with the camera should not be focusing on these uneducated migrants from the countryside. of people moving in and out of the city and in and out of each other’s lives. and one very obvious way that people relate to their environment is through their labor. After all. we realize that the man is actually a distance above the ground. I’d just gotten back to Chengdu after being denied access to a film project in the north of the province. And. are these moments unusual or do they happen regularly—I assume the latter since they become a motif in Sichuan Triptych. In fact. The Lumières filmed people involved in labor. wondering what the foreigner was up to. Sometimes it is curiosity. I see that illusory moment you describe. but rather film the state-of-the-art infrastructure or stories of educated and wealthy Chinese that would bring international prestige to the country. I sometimes wish I had another cameraperson filming everything that is going on behind and around the camera. Such footage might make an interesting addition to a film. This is more a matter of “face” in China. and forming a theme of the film overall. it’s your camera.things in my daily life—chance encounters or fleeting moments—although I have no idea what I might do with these diary-like jottings. in the slow disclosure of space and event within each shot. though. You’re right about the issue of class in China today penetrating practically each shot of Chaiqian (Demolition). But the pedestrian you mention who reveals the actual depth of the space by stepping into the frame before this full-circle pan is. I do get stopped. I would imagine. asking other bystanders what was going on. Is that how you understand that opening shot? Sniadecki: As a relatively vague Marxist and a closet class warrior. they stayed on the site for three weeks. I did write about my experiences with Gao Jianqing for MEDIA FIELDS ONLINE JOURNAL. I have encountered this during the shooting of every film. I re-connected with a few of them at another site. is an interest in physical labor. that instigates the policewoman’s intervention. trying to steal a glance through the viewfinder. a policeman tells you to stop filming— and it’s clear that at the end of Chaiqian. or. Unlike some journalists or other filmmakers. economic inequality in China is conspicuous and so extreme in degree and scope that it’s reflected in practically every image one might take of China today. Other times the response is more prohibitive. sometimes these reactions are unavoidable. Sniadecki: Labor is super-interesting for cinema. yet typical demolition site. There you have the middle-aged migrant workers. MacDonald: The opening shot of Chaiqian. Sometimes they even bring me into their little office on the train and ask to review all . the camera of a visitor to China. where I filmed with him and his family. Scanning each long-take image. while the four managers perched atop of the skate park half-pipe structure stare down on this blow-out battlefield of demolition which they command. and recently on every shoot during production of my upcoming film on China’s railway system. Things may not be what they seem. as a cue or signal as to how to watch the entirety of the film. I encounter a range of responses. Sensory Ethnography cultivates an interest in people’s relationship to their environment. MacDonald: In each of the three sections of Sichuan Triptych. they are afraid they will lose their job. poignant. that the critique of class in China would be perhaps more legible. and all fields and layers of the image are activated. in some cases. and went back to the village of the man working with the blowtorch (Gao Jianqing). try to prevent me from filming. but when a worker walks into the image. In Songhua. the day after the building had been demolished. or perhaps could form the subject matter for another film entirely devoted to these various reactions to the politics of representation. in each of the several versions I've seen. I wanted Demolition to end with the sense of transience. Inevitably. when viewers are surprised that what they took to be a flat ground surface is revealed to be a much more complex and vacuous space. including at the end when the policewoman questions you and the workers. and happened to be walking in the center of the city when I came across that amazing. I read this as a metaphor for the realities of class structure in China. for example. while I’m filming on the trains.

it is hard to know what is considered sensitive or taboo. the Cultural Revolution. But the big no-no’s—Tibet. and Tiananmen Square—will read more always be taboo. since the political climate regularly shifts in China. the footage and demand I delete any footage containing train workers or any identifying markers. MENU MEDIA MURMURS 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 home journal archive subscribe about history contact submit . Overall. It’s all very ad-hoc. others are less concerned. And all this is mitigated by the particular sensibility of the individual I am dealing with: some officials are more paranoid and controlling. Xinjiang. such as the train number. Taiwan.