Thursday, 23 June 2011

Moi, un chav (notes on Transfiction, The Only Way is Essex and Fade Street)

Among the well meaning documentaries at the recent London Sex Workers Film Festival (yeah, really), was Transfiction, an hour long video from 2007 by academic Johannes Sjöberg. Taking his cue directly from Jean Rouch, Sjöberg’s work was an explicit experiment in ‘ethno-fiction’ - a blend of ethnography and filmic storytelling - perhaps the most famous example of which being Rouch’s Moi, un Noir (1958). In that film the filmmaker directed his participants to act out fictionalised versions of their own lives. In his opening voice over Rouch explains his encounter with these young immigrants from Niger, now living in Treichville, Ivory Coast.

I proposed to make a movie about them in which they would play their own roles, in which they would be able to say and do everything.  This is how we improvised this film.  One of them, Eddie Constantine, was so faithful to his character, US federal agent Lemmie Caution, that he was sentenced to three months in prison while we were still shooting the film.  For another, Edward G. Robinson, the film became a mirror in which he discovered who he was, the army veteran of Indochina, chased way by his father because he had lost the war.  He is the hero of the film.

Rouch’s hybrid form possibly finds its ideal subject in the participants of Sjöberg’s work. The two central figures are Fabia, playing a transsexual hairdresser, and Bibi, a transgendered sex worker, both working in Sao Paulo. By inviting these marginal figures to explore their own lives in a fictional context, Sjöberg can at once examine the abject social situation of the sex worker population, and the fantasy worlds of such hetrogeneous figures.

The subjects in Moi un Noir and Transfiction exist at the fringes. By fictionalising their own lives, Rouch and Sjöberg allow their subjects a psychological freedom that a traditional documentary would not allow. This reflexive approach lets its subject re-address past experiences through improvisation. The aim is to convey reality through fiction, and to produce collaborative representations of groups normally hidden from our screens.

Such a playfully-rigorous ethnographic approach finds a popular expression in contemporary television, in the equally maligned and celebrated genre of staged-reality shows (beginning, perhaps, with the US series The Hills), of which ITV2’s The Only Way is Essex is a notable example.

Many have placed Essex’s success (including beating such middlebrow opposition as Downtown Abby to an audience award BAFTA) down to its camp celebration of celebrity obsessed culture, in which the participants (mostly rejects from other, less-reflexive, ‘reality’ shows like Big Brother) enact their fantasy of living their lives in the limelight (or the pages of Heat magazine). The programme is often seen as a figurehead of all that is wrong with the once great state of British television, and its pandering to the tastes of the fake-tanned and vajazzled, to the detriment of serious drama. As the Guardian put it it’s  the programme people sneer about at dinner parties without having seen it”.

Whilst in terms of production value alone, Essex is a world away from Rouch, its implied political intent is perhaps not all that dissimilar. The ‘characters’ in Essex are marginalised inasmuch as they are ‘rejects’: both literally (from other ‘reality’ representations) and in terms of their class-background. The ‘chav’ culture from which they (mostly proudly) hail cannot be said to be lacking representation in popular culture, but at least Essex allows the participants some say in the outcome (although exactly how much is difficult to say.)

Another interesting example of the staged-reality genre is RTE’s Fade Street, which dramatises the ‘real’ lives of Dublin’s monied elite and the low drama world of glamour publishing and events management. What makes Fade Street so strangely watchable, (and possibly of ethnographic worth) is the ever so dim realisation in eyes of the participants that they are part of a dying culture. The background of the Celtic tiger’s humbling crash infects Fade St. almost via osmosis. There is something quite compelling about watching characters bravely attempting to block out the economic gloom that surrounds them. And whilst these figures (with names like Vogue and Cici) could hardly be called marginal, there precarious existence perhaps (perhaps) aligns them with the heroes of Rouch’s fictions.

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