The Other Film Festival

August 20, 2010

The question of ethics and the way in which we understand “the Other” through visual media, and more specifically through film, is something that is often touched upon (though not always in as much depth as I’d like) in the writing here at Liminal Vision. The idea that when we sit down to view a film we enter into an unspoken “contract” whereby we agree to substitute reality for spectacle for the duration of the film is a fundamental in spectatorship theory and a kind of “given” that possibly isn’t contested as often as it ought to be. There is one text I’d like to mention in which earlier models of spectatorship theory are brought into question through a theoretical discourse concerned with ethics, as expressed through both the content of any given film and also through the ethics that inform the act of viewing any given film: Michele Aaron’s Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On. The most significant phraseology, for me, to come from Aaron’s writing is “responsive responsibility”.

Although Aaron’s writing is applicable to and engages with all modes of visual media, it bears particular relevance to two films I wish to discuss here and that are featured in the upcoming program for The Other Film Festival; a festival of “New cinema by, with and about people with a disability.” What It’s Like To Be My Mother (2007) and Blind Loves (2008), both focus – though in remarkably different ways – on the question of assuming responsibility, in equal measure, for the content of that which we do and do not see.

What It’s Like To Be My Mother: More than just raising an awareness surrounding what it is like to live with disability, What It’s Like To Be My Mother actually asks the viewer to think about what it is like to live being seen by Others as disabled. Featuring a film within a film, What It’s Like is knowing in its express implication of the viewers’ role in constructing a notion of “otherness”.

When  Julia’s film about her disabled mother Monika qualifies for a Warsaw festival of “disability and art” she soon learns that the ownership of the film is not entirely her own; the subject, her mother, claiming equal if not primary concern for its exhibition, tells her daughter that exhibiting the film is not her decision to own “because you’re not disabled.” Being made to feel “naked” as viewers look on but importantly do not experience her disability it becomes clear that whilst Monika attributes the ownership of film as object to her daughter, “It’s her masterpiece, not mine”, she is painfully aware even before Julia verbalises the sentiment, that the film only exists in lieu of Monika’s indomitable spirit, “But you’re the masterpiece.”

Often using humour to distract attention from herself as a “disabled woman” in the first instance, Monika opens up to her daughter and, vicariously to us. Through her honestly we might begin to understand the complexity and contradiction within the limitations of what we see, “I would be happier if people didn’t notice me…You see when you look, but you don’t look.” Through Monika filmmaker Norah McGettigan successfully conveys the complex ethical implications involved in seeing an Other, specifically as it pertains to the way in which they are conveyed or shown on film; Monika’s honest answer to the question, “Did losing your legs change your life?” being that it is “a feeling”, and moreover, “one you won’t capture on your camera.”

Blind Loves: Broken up into four vignettes each focussing on an interpretation of love and “blindness” (both as a physical and metaphorical affliction), Blind Loves interpolates the space between screen and viewer, providing an acute awareness of the act of watching individuals who themselves cannot see.

Peter is a music teacher who is blind to obstacle and whose love for music allows him to create his own liminal space between fantasy and reality. Miro is passionately in love with Monika but he is blind to her parents’ concerns for their interracial relationship in a small village where people talk. Elena is blind to the power of how much love she is capable of giving to the life she has created, questioning her own ability to mother and afraid her newborn will be taken away from her. Zuzana loves being a regular teenage girl but her kindness is a form of naiveté and she is blind to the prejudice of Others.

In simultaneously highlighting “sameness” and “otherness” as it exists in individuals with disability, these films ask something significant of their audience, something far more piercing than “acceptance” or “awareness”. What these films are asking is The Ethical Question. Not just our responsibility to the Other, but also in viewing, our responsive responsibility to the images we have just seen.

“An ethics of spectatorship requires us to think about how we are positioned, and interpellated, with regard to the morality, immorality and amorality of film. It does not just acknowledge how we consent to our submission to the spectacle, but asks us to consider how we are rendered accountable or not to what we have consented to, and part of the contract of spectatorship, of course, is that we do not renege on the deal.” – Michele Aaron, Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On (2007)

The Other Film Festival runs Wednesday August 25 to Sunday August 29 at the Melbourne Museum. The festival is in association with Arts Access Victoria and as such all films screened during the festival will be captioned or subtitled and audio described and all public areas are wheelchair accessible.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision

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