First Person

from You Saw Nothing: Sight, Digital Video, Post-3.11 Japan

First Person


Alisa Lebow defines “first person films” as follows:

[they] can be poetic, political, prophetic or absurd. They can be autobiographical in full, or only implicitly and in part. They may take the form of self-portrait, or indeed, a portrait of another. They are, very often, not a cinema of ‘me’, but about someone close, dear, beloved or intriguing, who nonetheless informs the filmmaker’s sense of him or herself. They may not be about a person, self or other, at all, but about a neighborhood, a community, a phenomenon or event. The designation ‘first person film’ is foremost about a mode of address: these films ‘speak’ from the articulated point of view of the filmmaker who readily acknowledges her subjective position.*

Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974 and Hot Days in Okinawa can be considered as this sort of first-person practice, as Lebow defines; they speak from the articulated points of view of the filmmaker and the photographer who readily acknowledge their subjective positions.

In contrast, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1982) does not openly speak from his subjective position, although it establishes an “I” in the epistolary narration. Russell states that “as an autoethnographic text, it [Sans Soleil] is distinctly silent about the identity of its maker [Chris Marker], who hides himself within an intricate pattern of first-person pronouns”.** The film’s narration consists entirely of letters ostensibly written, using the first-person pronoun “I”, by the fictional filmmaker Sandor Krasna, evidently an avatar of Chris Marker, presumably to the unnamed female narrator, whose voice embodies them.***

Although Russell analyses Sans Soleil as an auto-ethnographic film, Sans Soleil is also much known and praised as an essay film.**** Timothy Corrigan in his The Essay Film: From Montaigne, after Marker (2011) defines essay film by its essayistic nature as “a kind of encounter between the self and the public domain, an encounter that measures the limits and possibilities of each as a conceptual activity”.***** He further distinguishes the travel essay film as one that “discovers another self in the process of thinking through new or old environments and thinking of self as a different environment”.˜

Despite the manipulation of the first-person textual and audio narrative, which Russell calls a “heroic effort of decentering himself”, Marker’s decentring of himself is not successfully executed in the production of images in Sans Soleil as she observes that “his preoccupation with gender and the Other is not masked but foregrounded as a fascination with images”.˜˜ In the blurred boundary between documentary/nonfiction and fiction, Sans Soleil allows the eloquent gaze of Marker himself to pass unmarked within the framework of the correspondence between the fictional filmmaker Sandor Krasna and the female narrator. Sans Soleil’s establishment of an “I”, another self in Corrigan’s sense, which would supposedly be discovered in the process of thinking through new or old environments and thinking of self as a different environment, as Russell analyses, sets out that “The identity of the filmmaker is unambiguously a Western male.”˜˜˜ This monolithic inhabitation of the identity Russell observes is what Trinh T. Minh-ha calls “a unified subject”, which is even “more powerful for being invisible”. Trinh, coming from the former French colony of Vietnam and migrating to the United States, hence finding herself among those “labelled ‘Others’: women, people of color, inhabitants of the Third World”, in an interview states:

What is at stake is not only the hegemony of Western cultures, but also their identities as unified cultures; in other words, the realization that there is a Third World in every First World, and vice versa. The master is made to recognize that His Culture is not as homogeneous, not as monolithic as He once believed it to be. He discovers, often with much reluctance, that he is just an other among others. In this ‘horizontal vertigo,’ identity is this multiple layer whose process never leads to the True Self, or to Woman, but only to other layers, other selves, other women. ‘Otherness,’ though, is not a fixed notion. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born an ‘Other,’ one becomes one. Especially in the documentary process, the filmmaker – no matter what is his/her race, class, or gender – takes the position of a unified subject (all the more powerful for being invisible). The object of the cinematic gaze is the Other.˜˜˜˜

As Trinh describes of hegemony, Marker’s gaze of Othering as a Western man centres monolithically behind the ostensible fictional figure of Krasna, who is denoted as “I”, the first-person pronoun. The establishment of an “I” in the ambiguous space of documentary and fiction allows Marker’s problematic Western male gaze towards gender and the Other to remain unconfronted, from which there arises a reproduction of the Other as an auto- ethnographic film. Russell considers Sans Soleil a demonstration of “the impossibility of an absolutely postmodern, decentred ethnographic film”.˜˜˜˜˜ The postmodern subject, as well as the decentred subject of “I” with which Marker attempts to denote himself, is semblance and nevertheless, as Russell asserts, “Marker’s invisibility, omniscience, ubiquity, and mobility situate him yet as another belated traveller.”°

Sans Soleil is also a reproduction of self–the Other in the sense that, as Russell states, “Japan in Sans Soleil designates the uneven development of modernity. The implied comparison with ‘Africa’ is between hyperdevelopment and underdevelopment, both of which refer back to a notion of the ‘regular development’ of the First (Euro-America) World.”°° The auto-ethnographic positioning of the artist-researcher of this PhD research has investigated the shadow under the post-war development of Japan that growth brought and observed the irreducible and unknowable details of the lives of the people in the periphery. Marker’s reductionist view of Japanese politics and economy, and of the Other, merely unveils him as the representative type of a reductionist and “modern(ist) man”.°°°

As we have seen, I Told Our Story manifests subversive methodologies and aesthetics, including the use of invited footage, drawn from the ethnographic engagement concerning power and representation, in different phases of its production. Through this manifestation, the artist-researcher engages with her dual positionality of the representing and the represented with respect to Okinawa. In I Told Our Story, oscillating between artist- researcher and I or me in the use of a first-person narrative, the dominant powers are laid bare doubly in the production of representation and in the sociological context: an ex- coloniser, a beneficiary of national security as well as a mainland researcher. Revealing the dominance, I Told Our Story constantly negotiates with itself as a location of the reproduction of such power. Subsuming Hiroshima mon amour and Level Five with the enactment of the heroines and inviting the contribution of first-person documentary photographs by the participants, I Told Our Story establishes an “I” in the ambiguity of documentary/nonfiction and fiction. Part 3 examines the concealed reproduction of the dominance in the establishment of an “I” in the ambiguity.

*Alisa Lebow, “Introduction”, in Cinema of Me: The Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary, edited by Alisa Lebow, London, New York, NY: Wallflower Press, 2012. p. 1.
**Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. p. 301.
***Chris Marker is a pseudonym. Besides Krasna, his other known avatars include Chris Villeneuve, Fritz Markassin, and Jacopo Berenzi. The cat and the owl are also his alter egos.
****Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, London: Reaktion Books, 2005, p. 7; Timothy Corrigan, The Essay Film: From Montaigne, after Marker, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011. p. 8. See also Marker’s film Lettre de Sibérie (Letter from Siberia, 1958).
*****Corrigan, ibid., p. 6.   ˜Ibid., p. 105.
˜˜Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. p. 301.  ˜˜˜Ibid.
˜˜˜˜Trinh T. Minh-ha. Cinema Interval, London and New York, NY: Routledge, 1999. p.51.
˜˜˜˜˜Russell, ibid., p. 305.  °Ibid., p. 301.  °°Ibid., p. 308.  °°°Ibid., p. 306.
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