Tales of a Video Blogger

In a guest post for OJB, cross-posted from Putney Debater, Michael Chanan explores his experiences of video blogging for the New Statesman and how it differs from conventional documentary.

Being written for presentation at ‘Marx at the Movies’, these notes address the topic from an angle which is rarely treated in film and video scholarship, that of the peculiar labour process and mode of production involved. 

When I started video blogging on the New Statesman, I don’t know if either the NS or myself quite knew what to expect. The main reason for not knowing: it was December 2010, it was clear that something momentous going on, that the protest movement was building, and the idea I had, which the NS agreed to go with, was simple enough: to go out and film stuff that was happening from a sympathetic point of view, and thus, almost week by week, build up a kind of ongoing documentary record of the events. I was thinking in terms of Glauber Rocha’s formula for Cinema Novo in Brazil—to go and make films with a camera in the hand and an idea in the head. I also had the idea from the outset of bringing these blogs together sometime later into a single long documentary (which duly appeared as Chronicle of Protest).

The process was to be rather different from more conventional documentary shooting. Making documentaries is always a largely open-ended affair because, in brief, you have to respond to the unforeseen. Nevertheless you research and you plan, then you shoot and then you come back and edit. A crucial part of editing is finding the film’s ending within what you’ve shot, and thus shaping retrospectively the trajectory that gets you there. What I was now proposing was a kind of participant reportage where you didn’t need research (beyond deciding what to film and getting access if necessary) and you could hardly even plan. And almost by definition there was no ending—no conclusion to be drawn, even provisional—because you’re in the middle of something ongoing. You’re editing episode by episode while the events unfold. Three months along, when it came to the big demo on 26th March last year, I realised that as well as constituting a video blog on its own, this would make for a good final sequence to the long film, and so it turned out.

This plan also meant that I couldn’t do what I’d done on a couple of previous occasions, and apply for academic funding, because even if I could have found an appropriate way of framing it as a piece of research-as-practice, there simply wasn’t the time available for the rigamarole required.(Perhaps a collaboration with the NS ought to count under the rubric of ‘impact’ beyond the academy—except not of the kind they’re looking for, because it’s unquantifiable and non-commercial.) In any case, being in a university meant I enjoyed academic freedom.

From the NS’s point of view, the idea of hosting a video blog was a natural enough extension of running a website that expanded what is possible to do in print format. Although the magazine runs on a very tight budget (hence they didn’t pay production costs, and this was a zero-budget project),  I was told that their publisher was keen on developing the magazine’s web presence, and newspapers like the Guardian were already engaged in video journalism.

For my part, I was happy with the arrangement for a couple of reasons. First, because posting on the NS gave the videos a different profile than an academic blog: a political identity within the independent left, and a potentially more broad-based audience. Second, because the locus of a current affairs magazine also has useful legal implications, since current affairs is legally exempt from certain copyright requirements; in particular, it allows the fair use of footage taken from sources like television without prior clearance. (Of course among video activists it’s good practice to make arrangements to share material when you can.) The use of this kind of found material was part of my strategy—and perfectly acceptable to the NS—from the outset, not just to plug narrative gaps but also to contrast the mainstream media representation with what it didn’t show. At all events, when the University agreed to pay the costs of the DVD edition, due diligence required that they didn’t take the word of their own Professor of Film, but sought legal opinion. The lawyers viewed the film and replied that yes, the film fell under fair dealing, adding, to my amusement, that it would remain so until ‘the austerity measures are no longer a matter of public debate’.

A second reason for not knowing what to expect is that video blogging is a term without a precise meaning. The point of calling someting a blog is to flag it as the work of an individual, but like written blogs, video blogs cover a huge range of subjects, styles, genres, and purposes. Practically the only guideline we agreed on was not to exceed a length of about 15mns at most—and that’s already pretty long for watching video on the web. The other main parameter was fast turnover: one or two days filming, one or two days editing, so that each blog would be up within a week or less of the events portrayed, rough edges included.

Another difference from conventional documentary which this mode of production implies is in the labour process—a topic almost totally neglected by academic film studies because the field has little appreciation of the questions of political economy. (It was, however, the subject of my own first published work of film scholarship—a history of trade unionism in the British film industry.) The labour process of the individual video blogger contrasts starkly with both the conventional mode of documentary production and also the more egalitarian collective practices of political film-making thirty or forty years ago. Both involved small crews and a given, although flexible division of labour, combining specialism with creative collaboration. The video blogger, thanks to digital technology, is able to work alone at all stages of production. This gets very close to the concept of the‘caméra-stylo’ introduced in the late 1940s by the French avant-garde film-maker Alexandre Astruc, the idea of the camera as a tool to write with—indeed twice over, first when you shoot and then when you write the film on the timeline. But this solitude also becomes a liability, because it deprives you of the creative feedback that goes with teamwork. Added to which, when you work alone you also tend to work unsocial hours and to take as long as it needs to do the job without bothering to count the hours. Think of it as the epitome of aesthetic labour, which is essentially unquantifiable: there is no rule that says how long it should take to write a poem or a song—and no determinable relation to the exchange value, if any, eventually earned. (Just don’t give up your day job.)

I wasn’t always working alone. On a few occasions, there were two or three of us out on the streets filming, each independently but sharing an implicit sense of the shooting style needed for the results to be amalgamated. Editing was governed by a single basic principle: no commentary, no voice on the soundtrack, first person or otherwise, but a form of reportage without a reporter interpreting the events. The camera functions as a witness, the interpretation of its images becomes a function of editing and montage. The words and the discourse are to be those of the participants, speaking to others or to the camera. There is no pretence to some kind of specious objectivity. The problem with the norms of the mainstream media is that their assumed objectivity operates as a block on the unsanctioned discourses of the street, the opinions and positions of the protestors themselves. These (and not my personal evaluation of them) were what I wanted to represent, and not just in sound bites of a few seconds but something a little more sustained, like a paragraph. The reward of this approach is the discovery that lots of people are very articulate.

The idea of the camera as witness and documentary as testimony is as old as political documentary. What is perhaps distinctive about it in the new context of street video lies in the relationship between the videographer, the situation, and their place within it as perceived by those in front of the camera. This relationship has been altered by a change that has taken place over the last decade and more, as video cameras have become commonplace and acquired multiple forms, especially their incorporation into mobile phones and the concomitant rise of citizen journalism. The collectivity brings about a potential space of disalienation in the relationship between the subject and the person filming them. The citizen journalist is not objectifying but sharing an experience, an event, an attitude. This is not unlike the family video diarist of the 1990s, say, but here projected into a big public arena. One thing that struck me from the very first time I went out shooting (the Turner Prize Teach-In on 6th December 2010) was that at public events like these, my camera was always only one of many—and most were not professional photographers or television crews. Protestors fully accepted, even welcomed our presence, and didn’t worry about their image being captured by a camera they regarded as one of theirs. (Out on the streets, it could even be an insurance if a camera caught something happening to you.) Sometimes, for example at one of the libraries protests, people invited the camera to let them speak their piece. They wanted to be represented.

In short, there has been a great deal of participant observation going on, a new version of Mass Observation transposed into a novel digital arena of instant sharing. The converse of the multiplicity of cameras is that you can quickly see what other people have made of the same event you filmed, because the results are rapidly posted on the web. This is fascinating—the society of the spectacle being subjected to a prismatic reality check, which has the effect of placing any individual version in question (including of course one’s own). This is less of a problem, however, than the peculiarly asocial nature of the so-called social media, which both connects people and disconnects them, as they become fixated on their screens even in the midst of hurly burly. The virtual audience is highly atomised, dissolved into the the virtual soup of the web.

The blogger nervously checks the number of hits they get (which are never that many), and is left starving for real unmediated eyeball to eyeball human contact. This, however, you can only get by returning to the mode of cinema, that is, projection in front of an audience, and reviving the practice of political film groups of earlier times, of discussion with the audience at the end of the screening. The politics have changed but this practice is not anachronistic. Judging by the numerous small venues up and down the country where this is now happening, it isn’t just the blogger who has this hunger. For my part, taking Chronicle of Protest on the road over a three month period was a fruitful experience because of the debates, which became pointedly more reflective as the events receded without political resolution. The experience also served as a corrective to one of the myths about the web’s universal powers. A video doesn’t need to go viral to be efficacious (and numerous viral videos are empty-headed) but you need a moment or two of dialogue with a live audience to see it working.

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