On Monday, Oct. 22 the sixth annual TFMS Film Series ended with a viewing of documentary filmmaker Kwame Braun’s film, “passing girl; riverside – An Essay on Camera Work”, in Cole Cinema at 8:15 p.m. The screening was free and open to the public producing a full-sized crowd consisting of students and faculty.
Theater, Film, and Media Studies (TFMS) Professor and TFMS Department Chair Joanne Klein introduced Kwame’s work and accomplishments and provided background on the function this year’s series on Ethnography and Alterity has served. The purpose behind these events was to bring awareness of filmmakers that focus on otherness and document a “crisis in the ethnography of filmmaking,” said Klein.
Students seemed optimistic about the film. Senior and film major Lisa Zimmerman said that she attended this event because she liked documentaries. Having previously viewed the film in her Documentary Practices class with Klein, Zimmerman said, “It’s a really cool film. I think everyone will enjoy it.” Senior Cello Pierce, who had also seen the film, said Braun was a good filmmaker and that the film was “packed with a lot of insightful information about documentary making.”
As noted on the event’s program notes, “passing girl” is a film that depicts Braun’s experience of returning to where he was born in Ghana in 1994. The film documented festival, dance, and other gatherings of Ghanaians, and also followed a theatrical company of comedians. The film, however, highlights some of the ethical issues with recording this culture.
In the beginning of the video, a young girl is filmed among a crowd at a festival, who notices the camera, welcoming its presence from a distance, and then looks away in disappointment; Braun noticed, here, that the camera took away the connection between himself and the subject, creating an imbalance in which he was in control of the image, posing the question of legal rights.
As the video progressed, Braun then emphasized that most pictures of Ghanaian people through history have been portraits instead of shots of everyday life because of this issue of permission. The opinion among many Ghanaians regarding picture or film is that such images will either be used for profit or to portray Africans as a backwards people.
In a group of scenes about the comedians, this problem started to be resolved. Filming this group taught Braun that Ghanaians were becoming increasingly aware of the importance of copyrights, as it was perceived that visual recordings could pirate the comedians’ material. Braun was able to shoot more freely when he bought rights to the group’s performances. The film captured daily life well in the village where Braun was born. Here, native dancing was taped, demonstrating that this particular group of Ghanaians could embrace their own customs because they knew Braun and understood the function of the camera. As a result, Braun could shoot freely and no longer thought of himself as an outsider.
Speaking to the audience about the making of his 24-minute video, Braun described how it was the first film he made after college and was unplanned with no research intent, but constructed from recorded observations. The genesis of the film, according to Braun, had to do with a discrepancy he saw between the “completely impoverished” Ghanaian standard of living and himself as a Western outsider.
Braun realized that the Ghanaians could be self-conscious about circumstances out of their control, with the result that money given to the Ghanaians could often change and distort the relationships between native peoples and foreigners. Through the process of filming, Braun had to learn to not do things that the people around him were not comfortable with.
Braun also noted the ethical dilemma in shooting footage of the Ghanaians, who have become more knowledgeable and sophisticated in film media. He claimed that Ghana has become “adept at taking [American] influences,” and inserting such media back into its own culture. Consequently, many Ghanaians often knew what he was doing with his camera and were often not willing to be filmed. Braun said that the documenting of everyday life, except in his specific birthplace, “was fairly minimal” and that obtaining permission to record others became crucial because he did not want to breech “some social contract.”
Thus, the film explores the questions of how to make the documentary process more equitable and what the implications are in returning to America as the filmmaker. Overall, Braun wanted to be able to shoot freely and, throughout the process of filming, desired to develop trust with the people in front of the camera.