Performing Memory: Compensation and Redress in Contemporary Feminist First-Person Documentary

Uploaded 1 December 2001

Oppositions that once drove passionate debates during the heady, early days of feminist film theorizing and production have attenuated significantly in the past fifteen years. Feminism as a whole has witnessed some remarkable shifts, perhaps the biggest of which has been the discovery that not all women are white, heterosexual, and middle-class. In the area of feminist film theory, the psychoanalysis-driven concerns of the seventies and early eighties have broadened to include questions posed by critical race studies and queer theory. The sector of non-commercial feminist film production has likewise seen its share of changes. Gone are the leftist-activist, vérité-influenced films such as the Newsreel Collective’s The Woman’s Film as well as the “avant-garde theory films.” [1] Drawing on both of these filmmaking traditions and capitalizing on the aforementioned theoretical and political developments, first-person film and video has surfaced as a form with both popular appeal and critical acumen. Although it is not a new area for feminist visual expression, contemporary first-person film and video appears to reconcile earlier arguments and stand-offs and is also expanding, if catalogue contents at Women Make Movies and programming choices on public American television are anything to go by. [2] What are the reasons for the change in generic status? According to Patricia Aufderheide, the diminishing border between public and private is responsible for the recent increase in first-person work, which she describes as a hybrid genre that includes commercially-unfunded film and video as well as profit-making media like tabloid news, talk shows, and reality TV. While I am not so optimistic that such a range of work can be explained within a single essay, I will borrow her term “first-person documentary” to explore a somewhat more narrow media field. In this essay I want to explore independently-funded documentary film and video by women directors that features a first-person element, that has been made in the past fifteen years. [3]  I want to explore this work in light of major changes that have occurred during this period, in the documentary genre and in feminism.

Documentary: Developments and Theories

From a critical perspective, documentary has received a huge amount of attention during the last fifteen years. It has been the subject of numerous scholarly books and essays and of at least one major annual international academic conference (Visible Evidence, now in its ninth year), and has claimed space at the centre of significant academic discussions about truth, evidence, and representability. The notion of what counts as documentary is perhaps less clear now than it has ever been, with interpretations ranging from Dirk Eitzen’s reception-oriented one [4] to the discursive poetics definition promoted by Michael Renov [5] to Trinh Minh-ha’s all-out rejection of the term (“there is no such thing as documentary”), [6]  though such ontological uncertainties do not seem to have been detrimental to the genre. While the jury may be permanently out on where documentary’s limits lie, what is clear is that the genre includes a range of aesthetic forms and approaches, including experimental ones. [7] First-person work is a excellent exemplar of such hybridity, incorporating forms and styles typically associated with experimental media, within a rubric that is still called documentary. The experimental autobiographical videos by Vanalyne Green, Janice Tanaka, and Lynn Hershman, the “dyke docs” of Sadie Benning and Su Friedrich, and Leslie Thornton’s Bio-pics would certainly seem to stretch the limits of what counts as documentary, but in spite of this have all recently been assigned a space under the documentary umbrella. [8]

Perhaps the most interesting change documentary has recently undergone has been in its relationship to feminism and feminist theory. Whereas once the relationship between the two areas was one of mutual dismissal, there is indication that the situation is improving. The 1970s interpretation of feminist documentary as naïvely “realist” and incapable of posing sophisticated theoretical questions, has recently been roundly condemned. [9]  Two excellent anthologies appeared a short while ago on the topic of feminism and documentary, and gay and lesbian documentary, meanwhile issues of feminism and gender are more visible than ever before in documentary writings. [10] At the same time that documentary theorists have begun making space for feminist issues, feminists are now posing questions once thought beyond the pale of feminist inquiry, about history, memory, and the nature of evidence. For example, in an essay on feminist video, Julia Lesage poses the question of whether women make use of a different “structuring principle” than men do in the creation of autobiographical stories, and in so doing raises the question of whether certain kinds of evidence are gendered as female. [11]  While Lesage is not alone in raising such questions, I believe the most fruitful conceptualizations of the confluence of feminist and documentary issues have occurred not in feminist writings but in feminist first-person practice. [12] What are the qualities of such work in relation to the aforementioned issues?

Overall, first-person feminist work is highly suspicious of conventional forms of evidence and of the truth-telling power that conventionally accrues to it. [13] First-person documentary prefers to subject conventionally trustworthy material (interview testimony, archival footage) to interrogation, with the aim of altering, denaturing, and, it would seem, ultimately de-authorizing it. Once re-fashioned in this way, the forms of evidence are re-construed as historically representative — however not of historical “fact” but of the director’s subjective understanding. In works where the virtue of accuracy, or more precisely its ability to be attained, is open to question, the only trustworthy information is that which admits to being highly subjective. [14] An excellent example of this is found in Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury’s part-mockumentary about three generations of Japanese and Japanese-American women, Halving the Bones (Japan/USA 1996). In the film, we see home movie footage and hear diary accounts that were ostensibly produced by the director’s grandfather and grandmother respectively. Several sequences later the director confesses that she “made up” both the diary and the home movie footage herself, basing her ideas on the real family stories she had heard about the two relatives and on a photo she had once seen of her grandfather holding a movie camera. She explains: “I made up these things because I never really knew my grandparents. And now they’re dead, and I didn’t have very much to go on. I thought I would understand them better if I just pretended to be them. Anyway. I just wanted to set the record straight.” What emerges with this confession is a subjective and present-tense dimension to the sequences that was not initially apparent. But there is something else: implicit in the director’s preference for what seems a radically voluntarist version of history, is a critique of the matter and question of who gets to “have” a history to begin with. Just prior to Ruth’s comments related above, she qualifies the grounds for her fabrication, “I know he really did make those movies, but his cameras and films were confiscated during the war.” While on the one hand, Ruth’s seemingly willful “pretending to be them” empties the footage of its historical capital, on the other hand, it is not only personal choice that determines her actions, but distinct political, historical circumstances. Without the original seizure of the grandfather’s equipment, Ruth might very well not have had to invent such things; because of the seizure, her creation of the movies is a reminder of the fact that representation, having representation, is only ever politically determined. Certainly no “real” account of 1920s first generation immigrant experience, the 1995 interpretation of that experience that Ruth creates, is evidence of the history of absence that is her familial and indeed cultural legacy. As the “objective” dimension fades from view, a subjective but implicitly critical political dimension appears in its place.

The preference for subjective representation is apparent in the prevalence of, and comparably high status accorded to, re-enactment footage in the works. Fictional or fantasy sequences in The Body Beautiful (Ngozi Onwurah UK 1991) and History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (Rea Tajiri USA 1992) as well as numerous other works, contrast sharply with “official” medical or state utterances, which are construed as unreliable. [15]  Yet family accounts also prove untrustworthy, tending towards the hyperbolic, the fantastical, the contradictory, and the downright un-true. [16]  In many works, the characters argue about the details of an event, highlighting the fragility of individual memory. Often relatives are not as cooperative as the director hopes they will be, impeding the information-gathering process because they no longer know the answers, grow bored with the questions, or simply want to be selective. [17]  And, as exemplified in my discussion of Halving the Bones above, there is the problem of physical evidence: photographs go missing and written documents disappear or have become illegible. What exists cannot be trusted, and what is reliable is not there.

To summarize, first-person documentary makes a representational and I believe political choice not to conceal the personal and institutional difficulties surrounding the explorations that each seeks to undertake, but to draw attention to the political history of the absence of evidence, that circumscribes and limits the stories each is able to tell. The politics of evidence has received extensive attention from a number of theorists, most concertedly Hayden White and Bill Nichols in their critiques of the discourses of historiography and documentary respectively. Ideas of theirs that have become commonplace include the notion that presumably “disinterested” discourses like history writing and documentary production employ codes, conventions, and tropes in the same way that fiction writing or fiction filmmaking does; and that history is no longer a set of puzzle pieces waiting to be fitted together, but an assemblage of more or less relative truths that say more about the contemporary period and the historiographer than about the past “as it really was.” [18]  Signs of such a reflexive acknowledgment of the contemporary world are evidenced in a preference for overtly non-documentary footage: subjective representation, reenactment scenes, and so on. First-person documentary by women directors is a concrete and practical illustration of these conceptual issues and spells out what is interesting about them to feminists.

Changes in Feminism: Eccentric Subjects

Perhaps the biggest change feminism has undergone in the past fifteen years, as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, has been a shift in understanding of who – or what – is the subject of feminism. While seventies writers took for granted the race and sexuality of their subject, the eighties and nineties saw a huge outpouring of work by and about what Teresa de Lauretis has called the “eccentric subjects” of feminism – subjects traditionally at the margins of the field, such as women-of-color, lesbians, and, I would add, indigenous women. [19]  In terms of directorial demographics and subject matter, first-person feminist filmmaking has witnessed an analogous shift. Since 1985, works have appeared on the subject of African-American and African-diaspora experience (She Don’t Fade (Cheryl Dunye USA 1991), The Body Beautiful, Remembering Wei Yi-fang, Remembering Myself: An Autobiography (Yvonne Welbon USA 1995), The Wash: A Cleaning Story (Eve Sandler USA 1999), B.D. Women (Inge Blackman UK 1994)), Asian-American and Asian-diaspora experience (Who’s Going to Pay for these Donuts, Anyway?,Memories from the Department of Amnesia (Janice Tanaka USA 1989); History and MemoryHalving the BonesA Place called Home (Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri USA/Iran 1998)), Latin-American experience (The Devil Never Sleeps (Lourdes Portillo USA 1996)), Native American and Indigenous Australian experience (Navajo Talking Picture (Arlene Bowman, US 1986), Real Indian (Malinda Maynor USA 1986), Black Sheep (Louise Glover Australia 1999)), Jewish experience (Naomi’s Legacy (Wendy Levy, US 1994), Fresh Blood (b.h. Yael Canada 1996)), and lesbian experience (the aforementioned Naomi’s Legacy, She Don’t FadeRemembering Wei Yi-FangBlack SheepB.D. Women, as well as Tender Fictions (Barbara Hammer USA 1995), Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich USA 1990), Hide and Seek (Su Friedrich USA 1996), Juggling Gender (Tami Gold USA 1992), Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter (Deborah Hoffman US 1994, and videos by Sadie Benning).

Obviously it is a condition of all autobiographical work to suggest that the experiences of an individual are more broadly significant to a larger group, that is, to focus themes of cultural identity and group belonging through the lens of the personal. In these post-1985 stories, seemingly insignificant, one-off, minor events attract layers of political and cultural meaning. Personal discoveries and losses are cultural discoveries and losses; investigations into the familial lead to findings about the cultural. Family loss signifies cultural catastrophe, conversely matters of cultural consequence have a resonance that is deeply personal. Because of the number of works directed by members of an immigrant or removed culture and/or by members of a lesbian subculture, a key concern is the articulation of diaspora and/or subcultural identity, in its relationship to history, memory, and group belonging. Common in many of the stories is a figure who appears to have access to historical information and/or language skills that the protagonist (often a second generation immigrant) has little or no grasp of. Through the knowledge that the older character provides, the past becomes tangible; her recognition of the protagonist facilitates the latter’s membership in a specific culture or group, without which both culture and family would be lost. [20]

As the subject of feminism has been redefined, so too has feminism’s focus. Whereas a priority for Second Wave feminism was the analysis of the spectrum of institutions of male domination, feminism in the 80s and 90s has turned its attention away from the technologies of women’s oppression by men, towards the myriad forms of relationships (sexual, symbolic, political, and psychological) between women themselves. Feminist theory, including some feminist film theory has kept pace with this shift, moving away from a near-exclusive interest in the vicissitudes of the “male gaze” towards alternative forms of women’s agency — visual and otherwise. Feminist film practice has seen a broadening into areas of historiography and new forms of documentary as I’ve been discussing, and has witnessed a revival of a popular theme from older ’70s first-person work — the mother-daughter relationship. Female generation is a recurring subject of interest in contemporary first-person documentary, which has featured stories about mothers and daughters (A Healthy Baby Girl (Judith Helfand USA 1996), Naomi’s LegacyHalving the BonesThe Body BeautifulHistory and MemoryComplaints of a Dutiful DaughterThe Ties that Bind (Su Friedrich USA 1984), Daughter of Suicide (Dempsey Rice USA 1999); Mother Right (Michelle Citron USA 1983)), grandmothers and granddaughters (Halving the BonesNavajo Talking Picture), and stories about women’s generations more broadly (Remembering Wei Yi FangHalving the Bones).

The construction of such relationships is both nostalgic and complex. The theme of maternal injury or lack is found in many of the works, with the daughter seeking in some way to compensate for or make good a loss that she perceives that her mother has suffered, due to illness (Complaints of a Dutiful DaughterThe Body BeautifulA Healthy Baby Girl), abuse (Naomi’s LegacyMother RightMemories from the Department of Amnesia), forced migration (Halving the Bones, Naomi’s Legacy), or internment (Memories from the Department of AmnesiaHistory and Memory). A frequent effect of the loss is an incompleteness in the mother’s (or sometimes grandmother’s) memory, which, although it thwarts the documentarist’s desire to set the record straight, paradoxically provides the grounds for the documentary to come into being. Repeatedly, filmmakers testify that their reason for making the film or video is to fill in, restore, or compensate for their mother’s lack of memories about a specific event or chain of events. In the language of anthropology, these works are “salvage” projects designed to recover and make material forgotten histories and stolen memories. Where remembrance is flawed or lacking or the images are not there, the documentary performatively serves to fill the gaps.

What has been left out of history, or removed from memory, are matters of extraordinary familiarity to students of documentary. What is unique about the examples I am discussing is that they unfold within a generic frame of interest to women (i.e., within the context of mother-daughter stories) while at the same time providing women with the opportunity to address each other in an engaged and creative way. Women creating images and stories about each other and for each other, is a topic that has received a good deal of positive press from feminist theorists seeking to redress the balance in the all too often androcentric world of image-making; however it is a topic that has been all but neglected in the popular visual cultures. The distance of first-person relationships to such characterizations, in terms of feminist politics and feminist representations, cannot be overstressed. While it is not present in every first-person feminist documentary, the theme of a woman creating or “performing” memory for another woman is significant to nearly all of the work I have talked about; certainly it is what makes it unique, within the worlds of both documentary and “women’s cinema.”

Halving the Bones

At this point I will take a more detailed look at three documentaries that are especially representative of the issues under consideration. I need to clarify that I discuss these works not because they are exceptional illustrations of the matters at hand, but rather because of their very representativeness of these issues.

Formally, Halving the Bones is a deceptively straightforward-appearing work whose use of storytelling is generous, and flamboyant visual devices, spare. The segments into which the film is divided, which include “Grandma Matsuye’s story” and “Mom’s story,” highlight the centrality of storytelling to the film as well as the key personalities that figure. As in all first-person documentary, the significance of personal matters to issues of culture and cultural identity is a key theme for the film, and is well evidenced in a story that is told about the birth of Lounsbury’s mother’s, Masako. The story relates that Masako began life misdiagnosed as a cancerous tumor, rather than as a baby. According to Masako, it was not until the day of her birth that she, “the tumor,” was perceived as a pregnancy. While Masako is convinced of the story’s significance for her, her daughter is initially unsure of its implications. How might such a truly silly story relate to her experience? Finally, over silent footage of her mother wrestling with a Thanksgiving turkey (which, according to Lounsbury, she “never really got the hang of”), Lounsbury returns to the tale. She says:

On some level, I really did think of Mom as manifesting certain characteristics of a cancer. The metaphor contained something that I recognized. A deeply rooted conflation of sickness and race…. The yellow peril…. The malignant Japanese who had to be excised…. I’d seen these images all my life and I believed them. Anyway, this was old history, but even so, I knew I shared it. Cancer invades the body. Mine was different from everyone else’s in Connecticut and it was obviously because of mom. Her genes in my body had prevailed. So you see it was this eurocentric and primitive understanding of history and genetics, that left me susceptible to a metaphoric confusion about my mother’s origins. She’d started life as a tumor, and cancerous, she’d spread. I was her offspring, and hardly benign.

Offering here an analysis of her mother’s metaphor, the director highlights how a seemingly simple family tale is the vehicle for a complex of issues surrounding race and inheritance, as they are informed by biology and culture. In Lounsbury’s interpretation, cultural isolation and racism are not social products but rather biological matters that have been passed on, as genetic material is said to be. Now, as any reader of social construction theory will know, current cultural theory holds that “race” is in practical terms a “cultural” product that has little to do with biological matters (genes, for example), but is rather an effect of social and historical circumstances. Thus the construction of “race” as genetic (for example, as biological) in a film as well-informed in issues of identity as Halving the Bones , is clearly ironic, to say the least, flying in the face of all contemporary understandings. However, in spite of this, there is nonetheless a deadly seriousness to Lounsbury’s metaphor of race-as-genetic, that suggests that “race” is experienced as immutable and lived as if it were a biological attribute, regardless of whether it is culturally constructed or not. From the mother’s understanding of herself as a “cancer” unravels a thorny knot of issues not initially apparent.

As with the moment I’ve just discussed, the act of “Halving the Bones,” to which the film’s title refers, belies a complex negotiation about identity and cultural inheritance. The title of the film alludes to a family responsibility that Lounsbury has agreed to take on, which is to transport some of her grandmother’s bones back to her mother in the U.S. The bones are meant as consolation for Lounsbury’s mother, who wasn’t able to attend the grandmother’s (that is, her mother’s) funeral. At the time of the film’s making, Masako is an elderly woman who lives contentedly in suburban Connecticut. She has little desire to go back to Japan and seems not to regret missing the funeral; no doubt the fate of the bones is the last thing on her mind. [21]  Thus the accomplishment of the event of the film’s title begins to seem more and more uncertain as the film progresses: how is Lounsbury even to broach the topic of the bones, let alone convince Masako to take half of them?

Unlike Masako, Lounsbury enjoys visiting Japan and takes pleasure in meeting her mother’s relatives. For her, making the film is an opportunity to confirm, in spite of language differences, her similarities with the relatives and to tell stories about the things they have in common. For example, we are told that her grandfather shared her passion for photography, and that both mother and grandmother were “tough” and “pragmatic,” traits which the director also seems to possess. Ultimately, the film is also the ground for the re-kindling of Ruth’s mother’s interest in her Japaneseness, which is accomplished via the act of carrying out actions she otherwise would not, such as going through the grandmother’s letters, her Japanese passport, and pieces of clothing, and examining the grandfather’s poetry and writing about life in the internment camp in Houston. The mother’s interest is especially sparked during Lounsbury’s showing of some home movie footage. While in Japan for the funeral, Lounsbury shot a piece of silent, black and white footage in the cemetery where the grandparents are buried. The footage includes glimpses of the area around the graveyard, of the gravestone, and images of Lounsbury scrubbing the stone. Masako takes a great interest in the cemetery, grilling her daughter about the surrounding trees, the size of the grave markers, and about the process of scrubbing the stone. She comments on the existence of barbed wire above the graveyard, which both women find ironic given the grandfather’s experience as an internee. Bookended by the acts, on the one hand, of going through the grandparents’ effects and, on the other, of examining the grandmother’s bones, the viewing of the footage is one of three moments of jubilation for Lounsbury and a turning point for Masako, who has tended to express little interest in these subjects.

Naomi’s Legacy

Like Halving the BonesNaomi’s Legacy also explores a relationship between mother and daughter, only in this film, in the context of an immigrant Brooklyn Jewish family. The work makes use of a range of footage, including re-enactment imagery representing the period of the filmmaker’s adolescence, real and constructed home movie footage, and a short segment of historical war-time footage. Although the film is formally complex at all levels, the editing is especially elaborate, enabling a range of issues and metaissues to be raised. Storytelling voices and home movie footage are not left whole, but are interrupted, truncated, and looped, with differing effects. There are three separate voices in the film, which, in order of importance, are the voice-over of the adult filmmaker looking back on the period of her adolescence, the voice-over of the filmmaker’s mother reflecting on her relationship to her mother and events from her childhood, and a grandmother’s voice telling, in Yiddish, the story of her migration to America.

Of the three generations of women whose lives are described, the mother’s and daughter’s emerge as most important. Wanting to establish the similarities between the two women, Naomi’s Legacy traces the progress from estrangement to tacit acknowledgement to open recognition that has, it would seem, only recently been established. We hear about occurrences from the mother’s 1940s childhood as the daughter of a Romanian mother and Polish father. We hear about the atmosphere of criticism and complaining that both women experienced while growing up, and about the cycles of anger and rebellion. The grandmother’s voice is the first that alerts us to the grandfather’s abuse, saying how he was hardly ever home and that the marriage was unhappy. In interview testimony later in the film, the director’s mother corroborates and augments this information, adding a story about how her father refused to come to the hospital when she was born on account of her being a girl (rather than a boy). Though the mother sounds sufficiently at ease in describing this and other childhood events, the director suggests that such confiding would not come easy to her mother, who, the director says, “never talked about my father – I mean, her father much when I was growing up.” And indeed the fullest account of the events in the mother’s life, including the grandfather’s not coming to the hospital, including his bringing his daughter to a card game instead of to the zoo as he had promised, and making her wait under the table, are told by the youngest family member: the film’s director. It is she who names most directly the terms of his abuse and its denial by the family: “the fact that he beat my aunt when she was very young managed to escape me, the fact that he molested my mother is not spoken or remembered this time. In my memory, he looks like a very nice man. I never knew my grandfather, but goddamn it! I wanted him to be a very nice man. I wanted him to be a very nice man. A very nice man. A very nice man.”

Because of her directness in discussing the family events, the director is able to complete the stories that the mother and grandmother only initiate. Specific cinematic devices add further meaning to her telling that was not initially there. In the instance just discussed, the repetition of the words undermines the typically taken-for-granted truth-telling power of the evidence. The effect of the looping of the phrase “a very nice man” is a destabilization of the fact of the man’s “niceness.” By the end of the sequence, viewers are thoroughly unsure what about this man was “very nice” or indeed whether he was “very nice” at all.

Elsewhere in the film, repetition adds a different kind of value. As the mother bemoans her own mother’s critical treatment of her – a complaint which is identical to that voiced by the director at the film’s beginning – her words, “I was never right for her,” loop three or four times. Here the looping draws attention to the “not-rightness” of the mother, which is indistinguishable from the “not rightness” of the director that we have already heard about. In this case, the looping helps bridge the gap between the mother’s and daughter’s experience, overcoming what the daughter claims has been a major problem between them, which is the unwillingness of either woman to acknowledge their similarities. Testimony to the time and effort it has taken to come to terms with that idea, the film is also a key player in the reconciliation.

History and Memory

“Who chose what story to tell?” is the question that animates History and Memory. The words to this question appear over archival footage from the Department of War Information, serving as but the first of many ironic juxtapositions that appear in the movie. Like Naomi’s LegacyHistory and Memory is a highly structured work that makes use of a vast storehouse of images and sounds. Taken from a wide variety of sources, these images fall into roughly two different groups, one of which reflects the history of the record, and a second which depicts the histories which are never or only rarely ever seen. Tajiri’s stated wish is to right the balance between the events for which, in her words, “there were cameras watching” and the events whose only witnesses were ghosts, that is, to make visible those things “which have happened for which the only images that exist are in the minds of the observers” as well as those events “which have happened for which there have been no observers, except for the spirits of the dead.” These comments announce the video’s central thesis, which is that representation-in-history is a privilege of the victor; and that, the words infer, if you see things the victor does not wish you to see, you could very well wind up as a ghost. The flip side of this thesis is that for the losers of history, there is only mere “memory,” which only ever exists in fragments. The film wants to give shape to these never-before-seen fragments, which include life in the internment camps during World War Two, the seizure and physical removal of the family’s suburban house, and the discriminatory policies of a paranoid racist government. These hitherto unrecorded events are contrasted with the hitherto overrecorded ones that appear in Universal news clips, Department of War Information films and PSAs, and nationalist Hollywood movies like Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz USA 1942). The same events may well figure in both sets of representation, what differs markedly is the ways and means by which they have been recorded, edited, and shown.

The family story that is the point of departure for History and Memory is that in 1942 the Tajiri family was removed from its Northern California home to a temporary holding station in Salinas; from there the majority of the family was transported to what used to be the Colorado Tribal Indian Reservation in Poston, Arizona. Taken from the Native Americans practically overnight, the land became one of several places that held the 110,000 persons of Japanese descent who were interned during the war under suspicion of treason. That the removal was able to occur in spite of the fact that Tajiri’s father was serving as a soldier in the US army, and in spite of the historically non-existent grounds for the measure (not a single Japanese or Japanese-American citizen was ever convicted of treason on US soil), is but one of the bitter paradoxes that the film brings to light.

History and Memory is a lesson in the virtues of collecting, cataloguing, counter-cataloguing, and archiving. Objects from camp experience are located and identified, such as a wooden bird Tajiri’s grandmother made in mandatory carving class; so-called alien I.D. cards; a drawing made by an interned uncle; a piece of tar-paper from the barracks where the family lived; illegal photographs and 8 mm movies, taken with smuggled in cameras. Memories, of differing lengths, complexities, and degrees of clarity, are described, argued over, and, in some cases, performed for Tajiri’s camera. These are cross-cut at points throughout History and Memory with other “versions” of history, like Come See the Paradise (Alan Parker USA 1990) and Bad Day at Blackrock (John Sturges USA 1955), and represent memories that relatives might once have had, were prevented from having, or which have grown dim over the years. For example a version of the train journey to Poston that the family was compelled to take, is filmed by the daughter; and an image of Tajiri’s mother filling a canteen at a water tap in the desert is enacted and shown in slow-motion. The explicit motivation for these shots is Tajiri’s mother, who has practically no memory of the experience of the camp, except, as her daughter puts it, for why she cannot remember. So, Tajiri explains, “on April 12, 1988, I went to Poston in a rental car and filmed the view for her.” From this explanation we can conclude that sequences of this type are restorative or compensatory in their aim, a quality that distinguishes all the work under discussion in this essay.

Performing Memory

In conclusion, first-person documentary in general and these three works in particular take pains to distinguish between “history” on the one hand and “memory” on the other, suggesting, broadly speaking, that history is what the state produces while memory issues from a more local source of enunciation. My interpretation of the films’ and videos’ understanding of the word narrows further. “Memory” seems to me to include most particularly those sequences of film-within-the-film (or video-within-the-video), such as photographs, old home movie footage, and enactment footage. What is interesting about this category of footage is its performative aspect. As I have mentioned, “memory” is nearly always memory for someone: the expressly stated motivation for nearly all of the filming-within-the-films is a relative of the filmmaker, specifically the filmmaker’s mother, who doesn’t know or can’t remember things that the director thinks she should. Sequences of this sort are stand-ins for the memories that the mothers ought to have, substitutes for, or correctives to, the missing or flawed memory fragments that the older women no longer hold. To take first the example of the cemetery footage from Halving the Bones. There are two explicit reasons why Lounsbury shoots this footage. Firstly, she does so as a tribute to the relatives’ memory, that is, as an offering to them, whose effectiveness is plainly acknowledged by her mother (far better “than a couple of flowers that’re going to die,” says her mother). Secondly, she creates the footage as a gift for her mother, compensation for the fact that Masako couldn’t be in the graveyard or in Japan herself. Although Masako was never physically even near the graveyard, that is, never had an image of the gravestones in her head, Lounsbury does not discriminate: what is important to her is to supply her mother with a version of “memory” that, by rights, belongs to the older woman. In Naomi’s Legacy, shots that I have mentioned of the grandfather, where the director is wishing him to be “a very nice man,” as well as the director’s more pointed naming of the violence the mother suffered, function as surrogate memories for the director’s mother, for whom the real memories of childhood violation and abuse are too traumatic to remember. Finally, in History and Memory, Tajiri’s motivation for shooting both the train journey sequence and the footage of her mother filling the canteen in the desert is explicitly because her mother was prevented from, or can no longer remember seeing, these events herself. Of this second image, Tajiri says, “When someone tells you a story, you create a picture of it in your mind…. Sometimes the picture will return without the story. I’ve been carrying around this picture with me for years. It’s the one memory I have of my mother speaking of camp while we were growing up. I overhear her describing to my sister this simple action. Her hands filling a canteen, out in the middle of the desert. For years I’ve been living with this picture, without the story…. Not knowing how they fit together.”

In addition to being substitutes for the respective mothers’ missing or flawed memory fragments, each sequence I have named is a representation of the daughter’s desire that the mother have a full and complete memory. Although the original stories behind the images that Tajiri (for example) carries about her mother’s experience are unknown to her, she hopes that one day she will no longer need to know the original stories. The process by which this is achieved is complex and painful, as she testifies. It is a quest whose solution is that there is no solution, except for forgiveness and perhaps, another film. As Tajiri concludes, “But now I found I can connect the picture to the story. I can forgive my mother her loss of memory, and can make this image for her.”


A Healthy Baby Girl (Judith Helfand, USA, 1996, 57 min.)
A Place Called Home (Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri, USA/Iran, 1998, 30 min.)
Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, USA, 1955, 81 min.)
B.D. Women (Inge Blackman, UK, 1994, 20 min.)
Black Sheep (Louise Glover, Australia, 1999, 26 min.)
Come See the Paradise (Alan Parker, USA, 1990, 138 min.)
Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter (Deborah Hoffmann, USA, 1994, 44 min.)
Daughter of Suicide (Dempsey Rice, USA, 1999, 72 min.)
Fresh Blood (b.h. Yael, Canada, 1996, 55 min.)
Halving the Bones (Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury, USA, 1995, 70 min.)
Hide and Seek (Su Friedrich, USA, 1996, 65 min.)
History and Memory: For Akiko and Takahige (Rea Tajiri, USA, 1992, 32 min.)
Juggling Gender (Tami Gold, USA, 1992, 27 min.)
Memories from the Department of Amnesia (Janice Tanaka, USA, 1989, 13 min.)
Mother Right (Michelle Citron, USA, 1983, 25 min.)
Naomi’s Legacy (Wendy Levy, USA, 1994, 26 min.)
Navajo Talking Picture (Arlene Bowman, USA, 1986, 40 min.)
Real Indian (Malinda Maynor, USA, 1996, 8 min.)
Remembering Wei Yi-fang, Remembering Myself: An Autobiography (Yvonne Welbon, USA, 1995, 29 min.)
She Don’t Fade (Cheryl Dunye, USA, 1991, 24 min.)
Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich, USA, 1990, 48 min.)
Tender Fictions (Barbara Hammer, USA, 1995, 58 min.)
The Body Beautiful (Ngozi Onwurah, UK, 1991, 23 min.)
The Devil Never Sleeps (Lourdes Portillo, USA, 1996, 82 min.)
The Ties That Bind (Su Friedrich, USA, 1984, 55 min.)
The Wash: A Cleaning Story (Eve Sandler, USA, 1999, 9 min.)
Who’s Going to Pay for these Donuts, Anyway? (Janice Tanaka, USA, 1992, 58 min.)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942, 126 min.)

[1] The term is Ann Kaplan’s. See “The realist debate in the feminist film: a historical overview of theories and strategies in realism and the avant-garde theory film (1971-81),” in Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (London: Methuen, 1983): 125-41.
[2]Perhaps as much as half of the 2001 catalogue for Women Make Movies, the largest distributor of women-directed film and video in the Anglophone world, contains material that can be construed as first-person in content. Regarding U.S. public television, my comments are based on Patricia Aufderheide’s well-documented remarks about the visibility of first-person within two key venues, the public T.V. series P.O.V. and the production service Independent Television Service (ITVS). Patricia Aufderheide, “Public intimacy: the development of first-person documentary.” Afterimage 25, no.1 (July-August 1997): 16.
[3] In the introductory abstract to the essay, Aufderheide claims that first-person expression of all stripes owes its emergence to the “public’s preference for sensationalism and emotional exhibitionism.” While this may make sense for media phenomena like Maury Povich (which Aufderheide discusses), it makes less sense for feminist first-person work which overall avoids sensationalism and accepts the co-presence of “private” and “public.”
[4]See for example Eitzen’s comment, “it is not the representational or formal aspects of a movie that determine whether viewers ‘frame’ it as a documentary but rather a combination of what viewers want and expect from a text and what they suppose or infer about it on the basis of situational cues and textual features.” Dirk Eitzen, “When is a documentary? Documentary as a mode of reception,” Cinema Journal 35, no.1 (Fall 1995): 92.
[5]I am referring to Renov’s identification of four fundamental tendencies of documentary as 1. recording, revealing, preserving; 2. persuading or promoting; 3. analyzing or interrogating; 4. expressing. “Toward a poetics of documentary,” in Michael Renov, ed. Theorizing Documentary (New York, Routledge, 1993): 21.
[6] Trinh T. Minh-ha, “The totalizing quest of meaning,” in Renov: 90.
[7] A number of writers have noted the increasingly blurred boundary between documentary and experimental forms. Cf. Bill Nichols’s comment that “much of what we have called documentary might be reconsidered as experimental and much of what we have called experimental or avant-garde might be reconsidered as documentary,” in Bill Nichols, Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994): 103.
[8] See Julia Lesage, “Women’s fragmented consciousness in feminist experimental autobiographical video,” in Janet Walker and Diane Waldman, eds., Feminism and Documentary (Minneapolis: U Minnesotta P, 1999): 309-37; Chris Holmlund, “When autobiography meets ethnography and girl meets girl: The ‘dyke docs’ of Sadie Benning and Su Friedrich,” in Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs, eds., Between the Sheets, In the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary (Minneapolis: U Minnesotta P, 1997): 127-43; Chris Holmlund, “From rupture to rapture through experimental bio-pics: Leslie Thornton’s There was an Unseen Cloud Moving,” in Waldman and Walker: 287-308.
[9]Janet Walker and Diane Waldman, “Introduction,” in Waldman and Walker: 10-11. Although the hegemony of feminist film theory’s anti-documentary stance is apparent in numerous 1970s articles, it is important to note that the intervention by Walker and Waldman is actually only the latest in a reasonably long line of objections to this hegemony. See “Introduction,” especially pages 10-13.
[10] In addition to aforementioned anthologies edited by Walker and Waldman, and Holmlund and Fuchs, other books dedicating significant sections to matters of feminism and gender include Michelle Citron, Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions (Minneapolis: U Minnesotta P, 1998) and Paula Rabinowitz, They Must be Represented: The Politics of Documentary (London: Verso, 1994).
[11] Julia Lesage, “Women’s fragmented consciousness in feminist experimental autobiographical video,” in Waldman and Walker: 310.
[12] The idea that feminist practitioners are often conceptually in advance of their theoretical counterparts is a point that deserves mentioning here, and that Alison Butler has touched on. See “Feminist theory and women’s films at the turn of the century,” Screen 41, no.4 (Spring 2000): 73-9.
[13] Examples of this can be found nearly everywhere, however the director in Naomi’s Legacy (Wendy Levy USA 1994) expresses this especially well when she says about some home movie footage, “these films are dangerous! They lack a true or even incidental connection to what they portray, they resist truth, the souls of the subjects are rarely (if ever) present.”
[14] For a polar-opposite take on autobiographical film, in particular its ability to express authorial subjectivity, see an early essay by Elizabeth Bruss, “Eye for I: making and unmaking autobiography in film,” in James Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980): 296 – 320. While Bruss’s valuing of categories like the “subjective” and the “personal” is not open to question, her blanket dismissal of cinema autobiography on the grounds that it cannot not be impersonal strikes me as a most naïve and uninformed remark that can only have been uttered by someone who has never seen films of the French new wave, the American avant-garde of the sixties and seventies, or a work of so-called “women’s cinema.”
[15] In Rea Tajiri’s video about her relatives’ experience of internment, History and Memory, I am referring to the recurring, technically “fictional” image of Tajiri’s mother at a water tap in the desert that is construed as infinitely more “true” than the lavishly well-documented but completely propagandistic Department of War Information imagery. In The Body Beautiful, about the relationship between a British-African daughter and her British mother, I allude to a sequence that appears as a fantasy of the director’s mother, a radical mastectomy survivor, that contrasts with the patronizing voice-over of the medical authority. The relatively high value placed on such re-enactment scenes runs counter to their conventional worth, which, according to Bill Nichols, is typically rather low on the scale of usable evidence. Representing Reality: 21.
[16] In the aforementioned Naomi’s Legacy the director and her mother argue about which game the grandfather was playing on the day he made his young daughter (the director’s mother) hide under the table (“maybe I just dreamt the whole rest of it,” wonders the director). In History and Memory, Tajiri’s aunt expresses a clear preference for fantasy in lieu of “reality,” collecting images of movie stars in a box which she then passes on to Tajiri’s sister. The director’s grandmother in Halving the Bones is constructed as a teller of tall tales, inventing the aforementioned tumor in order to justify escaping her return to Japan, and overstating the success of her marital relationship as well as her feelings for her new USA home.
[17] Parental forgetfulness (due to mental illness and alzheimers, respectively) is the central theme in Janice Tanaka’s Who’s Going to Pay for these Donuts, Anyway? (USA 1992) and Deborah Hoffmann’s Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter (USA 1994), while grandparental evasiveness is the main theme in Navajo Talking Picture (Arlene Bowman USA 1996) and an important one in Halving the Bones, as this comment from the director of the latter film attests: “I don’t think Grandma ever really opened up to me. She told me some stories, the same ones over and over again. But I think that’s because I didn’t really know anything about her. She could remember her past any way she wanted to. It’s like she was cleaning it up, so she could put it away.”
[18] Some of the characters we encounter sound like colleagues of White and Nichols, for example Ruth Lounsbury’s mother who comments, “I don’t think you can talk about the accuracy in memory, because I think you may want to, without even realizing it, you may want to color it, and make it more interesting, or make it somehow to your advantage….”
[19] Teresa de Lauretis, “Eccentric subjects: feminist theory and historical consciousness,” Feminist Studies 16, no.1 (Spring 1990): 114-150.
[20] This is elegantly illustrated in the old testament story that is related in Wendy Levy’s film Naomi’s Legacy. A metaphor for the film’s on-screen relationship, it could also stand for the relationships in the other two works. In the story, Naomi’s husband and sons die of the plague, and she sends her daughters-in-law away to find new husbands. While one of them consents to leave her, the other chooses to stay with her, saying, in the director’s words, “where you go, I will go. Your people shall be my people, your God, my God.” As in all of the works, with the selection of this family relationship, the protagonist gains both a mother and a culture.
[21] Her daughter’s explanation for Masako’s attitude is that Masako lives completely “in the present,” but for viewers, the distance that the older woman feels from her childhood and culture is palpable. Evidence of this distance is that Masako is hardly able to recognize herself in the old photos that her daughter shows her, and refers to the childhood version of herself and her brother in the third person, as “these children” or “they”.

About the Author

Julia Erhart

About the Author

Julia Erhart

Julia Erhart is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Screen Studies, at Flinders University in Adelaide, and is currently finishing a manuscript on contemporary independent women's cinema and its critique of feminist film theory, tentatively titled Practice Makes Theory Perfect: how women's cinema brings feminist film theory up to date. At Flinders she teaches in the areas of gender and screen media, women directors, ethnographic film, and Black cinemas. Essays of hers have recently appeared on Julie Dash (in Camera Obscura) and on women's representations of the holocaust (in Screen).View all posts by Julia Erhart →