My artistic practice is about learning through proximity to others. The filmmaking practices I use are gleaned from overlapping ethnographic and cinéma vérité techniques. I use images in my work that have been generated by my embodied, improvised experience in the world, mediated by a camera. Filming in situations outside of my usual social context, I aim to maintain what ethnographer Dwight Conquergood calls a “dialogical stance,” which functions as a hyphen between different points of view. My films allow me to glimpse diverse life-worlds in the United States, creating intimacy without claiming to understand everything about them.
I have made a body of work that includes films about tourism, religious pageantry, gold-scrap dealing, and pigeon racing. I spend time in places where very old practices linger and morph into contemporary ones. My films are led by curiosity about how mass spectacles and myths are constructed and carefully maintained. I look at how these spectacles serve various groups of people as a means to calm anxiety; transcend everyday reality; or make money.
Documentary filmmaking is inherently collaborative. As film scholar and filmmaker David MacDougall writes: “the filmmaker “makes” nothing in an obvious sense but conducts an activity in conjunction with the living world.” My projects are collaborations with the people who appear on-screen. I look for existing structures as a form of scaffolding for the filmmaking process, so that performers are in their element on-camera. In Serpents and Doves (2018), for example, actors in a passion play allowed me to film my own behind-the-scenes riff on a performance they have done hundreds of times. In Must See (2016), I filmed tour guides giving the rehearsed information they always dole out on bus trips to Niagara falls and Cape Canaveral.
Over the course of each project, I negotiate the balance of power between myself and the people I am filming. I talk with participants about my goals for the film, what their ideas about it are, and whether or not they feel comfortable with filming as various new situations arise. As the filmmaker, I have more practical power over the sounds and images that make it into the cut, so before releasing a film I show it to the people who are featured (if they are interested) to hear feedback. My goal is for people to recognize themselves represented in a realistic way. If subjects see themselves as being distorted on-screen, I am open to making changes.
I adapt and expand my role based on the dynamics of the specific film “set” that has been established and the needs of each set of collaborators. My current project, Untitled Wisconsin Dells Film (2022), has required me to re-balance my time in the field. J-1 international student workers need my assistance; in terms of getting around, learning how to accomplish logistics in the US, and practicing English. So I can be of use to them, social time often outweighs active filming hours during my shoots in Wisconsin Dells. This social experience – where I function as a hybrid filmmaker/friend/tour guide for J-1 students in Wisconsin – is an integral part of the filmmaking process.
As a genre, documentary has often staked its claims of relevance on the dynamic of revealing something, such as the way a non-Western culture lives, or how a crime happened. Frequently, information is extracted from people in order to prove a point or theory. My goal for my practice is to instead create documentary work that provides a space for co-presence. I see the most powerful potential for nonfiction film in its ability to preserve specific places, times, and textures of experience – to savor, think through, and wonder about.