Conversations with Julia Meltzer and David Thorne (formerly the Speculative Archive)
Beginning in early November 2007, I corresponded with collaborators Julia Meltzer and David Thorne for this special issue of Millennium Film Journal. This written exchange builds upon our prior conversations while engaging a number of issues: how their working processes have affected the development of individual pieces; problems that arise from the term “experimental documentary”; and the issues, feelings, and difficulties that have informed the work they produced during their residency in Syria. What also emerges from this conversation is a tension between my desire to produce over-arching critical structures to explain and contextualize their work and the organic ways that David and Julia research issues, discover appropriate forms, and develop emotional registers in their works. They patiently critique my assumptions throughout. The (edited) conversation reflects upon the four major works they have produced so far, described below.
It’s not my memory of it: three recollected documents (2003) is a documentary about secrecy, memory, and documents. Mobilizing specific historical records as memories that flash up in moments of danger, the tape addresses the logic of the bureaucracy of secrecy in the current climate of heightened security. Three events are analyzed: 1) a former CIA source recounts his disappearance through shredded classified documents that were painstakingly reassembled by radical Muslim students in Iran in 1979, 2) a CIA film documents the burial at sea of six Soviet sailors, and 3) digital images reference a publicly acknowledged, but top-secret, U.S. missile strike in Yemen in 2002. These records are punctuated by fragments of interviews with “information management” officials from various federal agencies.
We will live to see these things, or, five pictures of what may come to pass (2007) is a documentary video in five parts about competing visions of an uncertain future. Shot in 2005–06 in Damascus, Syria, each section of the piece—1) the chronicle of a building in downtown Damascus, 2) a recitation anticipating the arrival of a perfect leader, 3) an interview with a dissident intellectual, 4) a portrait of a Qur’an school for young girls, and 5) an imagining of the world made anew—offers a different perspective on what might come to pass in a place where people live between the competing forces of a repressive regime, a growing conservative Islamic movement, and intense pressure from the United States.
not a matter of if but when (2007) and epic (2008) were developed in 2005–06 in Damascus, Syria. This period of time was marked by momentous events: Rafiq Harriri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, was assassinated; the Syrians were pressured to withdraw from Lebanon after a 30-year occupation; the Cedar Revolution came and went; elections were held in Iraq and were followed by a descent into civil war; and Hezbollah strengthened its position in Southern Lebanon. These events produced widespread anxiety and anticipation about the potential for imminent change in Syria: regime change, internal reform, internal collapse, civil war and the increased power of fundamentalist Islam. Over a period of several months, the artists worked with Syrian performer and filmmaker Rami Farah to record short sequences in which he responded to a prompt or a written text. Through a combination of direct address and fantastical narrative, Rami’s improvisations speak to living in a condition of uncertainty, chaos and stasis.
[For another reflection on David and Julia’s work, see Pablo de Ocampo’s piece in this issue. —Ed.]
Hi, David and Julia:
So, one question I have is about your decision to explore distinctly different forms in making what I’ll call “experimental documentary,” for lack of a better term right now. …
Your first two pieces are multi-part videos that use different formal strategies within each part. It’s not my memory of it has three distinct sections, four distinct strategies of telling stories, and it explicitly addresses how different kinds of documents (official and unofficial) and different forms of media (paper, 16mm, video, digital photographs, etc) come to produce different kinds of “truth.” We will live to see these things uses five distinctly different strategies, which we once discussed as utilizing and interrogating a number of “traditional” documentary strategies (talking head interview, direct cinema, lyrical form, city film, etc).
One thread I see running through all four pieces is that they all seem to be dismantling traditional documentary forms by making those forms operate in conversation with one another. Of course, this ”conversational” thread operates very differently in the new work not a matter of if but when and epic, the pieces that’ll be in the Whitney Biennial this spring. I felt very personally and intimately addressed by Rami, the actor with whom you improvised the series of “monologues” (on the always indeterminate future of Syria) that comprise both these works. It’s a very unusual address (and a very unusual form) for “documentary.” Part of it is the way your actor addresses his viewer. He’s very focused on the “you” of the audience, so much so that it was very difficult for me to remain distanced as a spectator. I felt pulled into a conversation about a place that I know little about—alternately accused, seduced, mocked, performed for—in a way that was both pleasurable and perplexing.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
All of your thoughts and questions are about form: the forms we use, the overall “form” we are developing (across multiple and very different works), and, indirectly perhaps, about the form of “traditional” documentary. …
While there is a bit of rhetorical flourish to the claim that our work is “documentary,” we make the claim because the documentary tradition is a “tradition” we are interested and invested in, and documentary is the mode in which we work (from research to finished piece) even if we adopt the strategy, form, and language of fiction within the telling of a certain story. Tradition for me implies neither a set of rules nor progress nor a logically unfolding historical development, but rather suggests a field or, to lapse into militarism, a theater of operations.
Our recent works are “fact-based films that depict actual events and persons.” Perhaps it is hard to read that sentence with a straight face, but the quoted fragment from the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of “documentary” already points to a falling apart of objectivity: fact-“based” means based on facts, it doesn’t mean “facts”; “depicting” actual events and persons means to represent and thus alludes to interpretation and manipulation. … My point is that there are facts, and there are fictions; they are a team, and they are pulling together. It seems silly to me to think or work them separately when they are as inextricably intertwined as they are in our psychic lives, which for each of us is a “real life.” This is how we are approaching our recent projects, working these things together.
But it is not a blending, in my view, even though there are audiences that are perplexed. “I am not sure what is true and what isn’t, what you’ve invented and what is real.” (How, then, do we respond to this perplexity?) There are also, I would say, audiences that are now primed to expect fiction and invention to the strange degree that they mistake the “real thing” for a “fake.” …
We are interested in exploring different forms within specific works (in, as you mention, It’s not my memory and We will live) and different forms more generally. What form or mode or address or presentation makes sense around this or that set of ideas, or for these questions, or with this or that body of images and texts? What does this research about X suggest in terms of form? What forms might effectively narrate these ideas? And what do we want to do and to learn about in this process through the taking up of certain forms? These are questions we might ask at the very beginning of a research process or a discussion around ideas and possibilities and that we continue to ask across the development of the work, when we are structuring material, editing, working with a composer, and so on. In a certain sense, there are very few “knowns.”
In making We will live, for instance, we did not begin from a place of saying, “OK, this piece will have five parts, and each will take up a different form, visual approach, and mode of address.” This only became important and interesting mid-way to late in the process, and then there was a constant revisiting of earlier decisions in light of more recent ones and working on an overall sequence, structure, and tone through which five different stories and forms would hold together. But the process I have just described is not particular to our work; I think it is a fairly commonplace methodology. Perhaps what is different in It’s not my memory and We will live is that we did not settle on a singular form for the various stories. Each work became, as you suggest, a piece in which a number of forms (and ideas) are held in a kind of conversation or are structured together in relation to one another. For me, this process does not involve a negation of documentary conventions, or a “dismantling,” as you put it, but rather a putting of things into relation in ways that open up possibilities of both form and content. (How would you describe the overarching “form” we seem to be developing? How would I describe it? Is there one?)
In not a matter of, though, we determined a singular form very early on in the process: an actor, a white background, a series of monologues, a strategy of direct address. But this approach developed out of the same field of research and questions that produced We will live. We call this piece a documentary as well, but perhaps here the term is more of a stretch or more of a suggestion about expanding the range of possibilities marked by that term. We wanted to make a record of a particular place at a particular time, through a particular form of speaking that bears direct relation to the ways one finds to speak in a situation where speech can not always be direct. It was around this kind of indirection—working in metaphor, allusion, and fantasy, and in a range of speech forms (curse, promise, threat, and so on)—that we structured both the texts and prompts provided to Rami and that we structured the edited piece. The result is, in some ways I hope, quite open in terms of the questions, “What is he talking about?” and “Who is he speaking to?”
All the best
… In each of the pieces that we have made over the last 4 years, our questions have begun with a journalistic impulse. In It’s not my memory, we were curious about the methods, processes, and thinking behind declassifying historical documents. In the interviews we conducted, we sought answers to specific methodological questions. Similarly, with We will live, we were interested in what was happening in the present moment in Syria vis-à-vis the Bush doctrine. Our reading and focus on post-September 11th U.S. foreign policy brought us to Syria, and it was from this vantage point that we entered and began constructing a piece.
With all of these works, we wanted to capture the emotional register of the events and circumstances of a bureaucracy, a place, or a way of thinking and speaking. Surely, this is what almost any film hopes to do at some point or another, so it is not so unique. We want to move people to feel something, and we also wanted our viewers to understand something about a complicated psychic state of affairs that was not clear or comprehensible. In terms of our thinking about how to create this feeling, our influences go to narrative fiction films and novels. … Our way of having more control over our viewers’ emotional response to a story leads us to write the stories that we have been researching.
I sometimes feel that we fall back on our segmented approach to a structure because we are unable to find or commit to a single story. I feel that we arrive at this structure partially out of our strange and sort of haphazard way of doing research. That being said, I do think that we have been able to make the pieces work in this section-based approach. In terms of “dismantling” a more traditional documentary form, I don’t know. We do not set out with this as our mission.
It also might be worth mentioning here that we each bring different skills to the craft of filmmaking. As you know, I was never trained in any traditional/formal film school setting, and David never made a film or video or anything time-based before he met me. Thus, the projects really come out of a background and interest in writing, 2D image-making, book projects, and some strange theory-based hackneyed approach to filmmaking that I learned at Brown and then further developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Regarding not a matter of, we wanted to capture the way that people speak about politics and an uncertain political situation. I think we both knew that this way of speaking would not come across in an interview, and even if it did, it most likely wouldn’t operate at the emotional level that we would be satisfied with. This is what led us to ask our friend Rami Farah to experiment with us. The project with him is, and continues to be, an experiment. We have an idea about situations, stories, events that we want to translate to the vernacular. We bring these ideas to Rami, sometimes in writing, sometimes not, and we talk. We spend quite a bit of time talking and working our way to a thread that allows him to spin something. He often doesn’t know where he will end up, and we don’t either. You, as a viewer, are supposed to feel accused, seduced, drawn in, violated, etc. The trick is that it works for many different situations and audiences. Who exactly Rami is speaking to is never clear: he might be addressing the regime, the Israelis, the Americans, his friend or his family.
Dear David and Julia:
In watching the pieces you’ve produced over the past four years, I’ve always had the impression that those representations come out of the material and your process of investigation. However, it’s interesting to read about the way you work in more detail, and how the process of constant questioning and re-examination continues throughout the production process. The “sections” of each piece speak to one another, but they also intersect with the themes, forms, politics, emotions and material situations referenced in your other pieces.
When I used the term “conversation” to describe the way your work operates, I was thinking of it as the way in which a “number of forms (and ideas) are held in a kind of conversation, or are structured together in relation to one another,” as David writes. … I suppose the term “conversation” also applies to the on-going conversation between the two of you as you research, re-conceptualize, and rework your ideas in relation to a material political situation that is also in constant flux. I also was thinking about the ways in which your work talks to that of other artists—people who are invested in what it means to represent political and social situations where there is a lot at stake.
I’m also thinking about the way your work converses with Syria and Syrians, at least in terms of the community of artists and intellectuals with whom you intersected while there. (I think you said some of them found the work too “American” in its point of view?) You are people who came to Syria to teach and make work, and who, while there, entered into conversations with a group of people who have been engaged in an on-going process of speculation about the future in a situation where that kind of speech “can not always be direct”: the speech of dissidents, architects, actors, teachers, moderates. Understanding the kinds of constraints under which speech operates in Syria right now makes me think about how you utilize “metaphor, allusion, and fantasy, and a range of speech forms,” to capture the tone of a specific situation in which those aesthetic modes are already in play. Perhaps that can be a transition into talking more specifically about the ways in which the recent work engages with the political situation and the theme of “futures”? …
The way you engage with your subject matter and enter into this future-oriented political conversation situates your attempts to make a record of a specific place and time in a more intimate place. You engage with vernacular forms through your own conversation and collaboration with Rami in not a matter of. … The process does allow you (with and through Rami) to capture the bitter, playful, ridiculous tone of people talking about the future in private, intimate conversation—the mixture of hope, revenge, fantasy, and absurdism that evolves in the spinning out of worst-case scenarios and best-possible turns of events. For me, the Syrian work captures the way the two extremes of possibility—disaster and utopia—get mixed up, so that every seemingly concrete event becomes an evidentiary “sign” of one or the other.
I was thinking that it might be useful to have you guys talk about what’s going on in Syria right now for readers (and people like me) who don’t know very much.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
However ambitious it might have been, we wanted to make a piece that did not attempt to “explain” a situation for viewers, but rather we wanted to translate an emotional register and a feeling of a place. Both David and I thought that there is/was no way to make an expository piece about Syria and its uncertain future in any way that would satisfy us. In other words, we did not want to string together interviews along with a written script that laid out a history of Syria, or an explanation of the regime and how it functions, or even what people think about it directly. What would satisfy us would be to make something that made people feel something of what we felt in Damascus at that particular moment.
That being said, I do think that people here in the West or in the U.S. who come to see our piece are still left with some justifiable questions about Syria and what goes on there. People come to the screening, in part, because they want to know something about a place about which little is known. I imagine that our piece leaves some very frustrated because we don’t give up the sort of information that people can take home and relay to their roommate, friend, or spouse. “This is what is happening in Syria now.” I hope that some of that type of information can get conveyed in Q&As, which is when we often try to offer contextual facts that provide a bit more grounding for the emotional landscape that we have laid out.
In regards to the topic of “futures,” I think that we have shifted to this focus in part because of conversations that we have about a leftist tendency to look back to a more idealized moment and how crippling this tendency can be. Additionally, the event(s) of September 11th and the devastating policies that were enacted as a result brought front and center a crisis of how we are living and being in the world. Bush and the neo-cons were looking forward and conjuring up evidence that they wanted to see and using it to forward their vision of the world. The Democrats, progressives, and moderates were unable to envision anything at all. In part, it was this crisis that pushed us to go to Syria to understand the effect of these policies. And, in a shift from our previous work, we had a strong desire to look forward rather than to look back. I think we were both tired of a process where we mulled over archival documents as a way to say something about our present moment.
We see the two new pieces—not a matter of and We will live—as flip sides of the same coin. Both pieces attempt to make a record of the feeling of a particular moment, but the approach is very different formally and conceptually. In both pieces a feeling of waiting, anticipation, and uncertainty come through. When we returned in August 2007 to work with Rami again and to show the longer piece to a select group of people, we found the situation in Syria to be very much changed. There was no longer a sense of potential change or of uncertainty. Instead, there was a feeling of extreme oppression and depression in the air. There was no doubt as to who was in charge—portraits of Bashar Al-Assad were everywhere in Damascus, as he had just been “elected” in a referendum. The city was unbelievably crowded to the point of being stifling as there are 2 million Iraqi refugees there who have fled the violence in Iraq. It was very different, and the change was not positive. The people we spoke with did not have an ability to see beyond this situation. Everyone told us that they will wait until 2008—until the election here in the U.S.—for some change to occur.
Happy new year,