RADICAL APPROACHES to the COMPLEXITIES of Today's Film and Media, with Special Interest in POLITICS, PREJUDICE and FEMINISM.
The Sensory Ethnography Lab
Interview with J.P. Sniadecki, Stephanie Spray and Véréna Paravel
The filmmaking nurtured by the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) defies traditional ethnographic (and “ethnographic”) cinema, from Flaherty through Gardner and Asch, in several ways—most obviously, perhaps, in its refusal of didacticism: in the films of Barbash/Castaing-Taylor, J.P. Sniadecki, Stephanie Spray, Véréna Paravel, and Arno Danusiri, no narrator presumes to provide explanation or present conclusions. Indeed, many of these films often seem less like documentaries than like contributions to a particular development within what continues to be called “avant-garde film.”
The past quarter-century has seen an increased commitment on the part of some filmmakers to the contemplative representation of Place: cityscapes, landscapes, in all their complex variations and imbrications. Early premonitions of this development include Henwar Rodakiewicz’sPortrait of a Young Man (1931) and Ralph Steiner’s H20 (1929), and some decades later Nathaniel Dorsky’s Summerwind (1965) and Bruce Baillie’s All My Life (1966)—though the development of what had been a very sporadic approach occurs in the early 1970s with Larry Gottheim’s single-shot films—Fog Line (1970), for example—and the feature Horizons (1973), Robert Huot’s Snow (1971) and Rolls: 1971 (1972), J. J. Murphy’s In Progress (1972, co-made with Ed Small), Peter Hutton’s New York Near Sleep for Saskia (1972), Images of Asian Music (A Diary from Life) (1974), New York Portrait, Part I (1977), and James Benning’s 11 X 14 (1976) and One Way Boogie Woogie (1977). All of these films involve sustained contemplations of particular environments, often in shots of extended duration.
This particular development can be understood, on one level, as an implicit reaction to the increased homogenization of American place in the wake of the completion of the interstate highway system and the resulting development of national, then international, restaurant and retail chains. As they became increasingly threatened, the particularities of specific places seemed increasingly worthy of cinematic attention—indeed, of a kind of salvage ethnography. On a formal level, these films were reactions to the acceleration of commercial media during the 1960s and 1970s and the increasing overload of images per minute in commercials and commercial movies—as well as to the implicit training in hysterical consumption provided by this acceleration. These new contemplations of Place were/are about slowing down and seeing/hearing—considering—where we are.
By the 2000s, this cinema of Place was emerging as a major force in independent film and video. Peter Hutton—Time and Tide (2000),Skagafjördur (2004), At Sea (2007)—and Nathaniel Dorsky—Four Cinematic Songs (1996-2001) and Two Devotional Songs (2002-2004)—continued to build on the accomplishments of their early work; and, like Hutton, James Benning and Sharon Lockhart continued to mine the potential of the long-duration image. Benning’s 13 Lakes (2004) and Ten Skies (2004), and Lockhart’s Pine Flat (2005) are made up of series of 10-minute shots; and in NŌ (2003) and Double Tide (2009), Lockhart creates the illusion of even longer shots (30 minutes, 45 minutes, respectively). Benning’s entry into digital video allowed for shots of virtually any duration: Ruhr (2009) is made up of six 10-minute shots and one 60-minute shot. By the early 2000s, this durational approach to Place was finding appreciative audiences: a Film Comment poll published in May/June of 2010 named Dorsky and Benning the Top Filmmakers of the previous decade, and Hutton’s At Sea, the Best Film.
If the Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers have not been as extreme as Benning and Lockhart in their use of duration, they have learned to work with extended shots in comparable ways with comparable effect. Benning and Lockhart, and Hutton as well, are regular visitors to Cambridge (Lockhart made Double Tide while on a Radcliffe Fellowship; and Lockhart and Hutton are listed as “associates” of Robert Gardner’s Studio7Arts in Cambridge); their films are exhibited at the Harvard Film Archive, and have been an important part of the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s screenings. There are, however, significant differences between the films of Benning, Hutton, and Lockhart, and the videos of Barbash/Castaing-Taylor, Sniadecki, Spray, and Paravel.
The fundemental difference is that the Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers do not assume a position of detachment from the world they record or from the people who are experiencing this world within their imagery. In the films of Hutton, Benning, and Lockhart, the human beings (and animals) we see, when we see any, are types, generally seen in long-shot: for example, Japanese farmers, small town kids, a woman clamming, in NŌ, Pine Flat, and Double Tide. On the other hand, with few exceptions, the human beings seen in the videos of Barbash/Castaing-Taylor, Sniadecki, Spray, and Paravel become characters, people with personalities as individual as their environments are particular. Further, unlike Benning, Hutton, and Lockhart, Barbash/Castaing-Taylor, Sniadecki, Spray, and Paravel are recording not what is out there, but what they can see from their position within a specific community that recognizes them—peceives them as well as being perceived—and understands what they are doing.
This difference has a number of formal dimensions. Benning, Hutton, and Lockhart always work with a tripod, and in most cases they record sound separately and post-sync their films (Hutton’s films have always been resolutely silent). In contrast, Barbash/Castaing-Taylor, Sniadecki, Spray, and Paravel usually hand-hold their cameras, not as a means of drawing particular attention to themselves-as-artists, but as a subtle emblem of their presence; and generally they record sound and imagery in sync. That is to say, they are more fully connected to both their subjects and their equipment than Benning, Hutton and Lockhart—though, of course, each of the SEL filmmakers articulates this connectedness in somewhat different ways.
With a single exception J. P. Sniadecki has worked in China, creating a series of videos—SONGHUA (2007), Chaiqian (Demolition, 2008),Sichuan Triptych (2010)—that function as visual synecdoches of a culture in transformation. Songhua was filmed in and around the Songhua River as it flows through the city of Harbin. Sniadecki provides the pleasure of growing to know the river and its immediate surround, by presenting a series of extended views (the first three shots are 93, 132, and 59 seconds, respectively) that gradually allow this complex environment to cohere; and he captures a wide range of people who, like himself, are using and enjoying the river and the activities around it—before revealing at the conclusion of Songhua that, according to Chinese state radio, the river had recently been the site of a massive chemical spill that had halted water supplies to tens of millions of people, and in fact had endured more than 130 water pollution accidents in the previous months.
Chaiqian explores a city block in Chengdu where a building has been demolished to make way for a major new construction project. Sniadecki works (as filmmaker) beside the men and women who are separating cement and metal and loading the harvested rebar onto trucks. From time to time, he interacts with these workers as he shoots, during breaks for meals and when Sniadecki and several workers spend an evening exploring Chengdu, as well as with some boys who ride bicycles on a half pipe next to the rubble. Implicit within the activities Sniadecki records and within his framing are issues of class difference and of social control: when a policewoman sees the laborers being filmed by Sniadecki in a public square, she intervenes. The men explain that Sniadecki is a Harvard graduate student, but the officer makes clear that workers are not allowed to draw a crowd in a public place, “people will think something is wrong.”
Sichuan Triptych records three separate locations: part 1 was filmed in Ganzi Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Western Sichuan, where the Chinese presence is represented by a cadre of soldiers who are seen and heard marching through the town; part 2, at the site of the massive earthquake that struck Qingchuan County in northern Sichuan in May, 2008. Part 3 begins in the city of Chengdu, then moves to a farm in central Sichuan, where Sniadecki records a family watching the opening of the Beijing Olympics on a tiny black-and-white TV—capturing the immense gap between an older generation of Chinese workers and the new, high-tech capitalism. As in Songhua Sniadecki’s approach in Sichuan Triptych is, on one hand, evocative of the formalist avant-garde—his sound-image compositions are inventive and suggestive—and, at the same time, engage individual Chinese on a personal level: Sniadecki interacts with various individuals, including in each location, a policeman who tells him that filming is forbidden. Sniadecki’s fascination with and affection for China is obvious, but the challenges of working there (for him and for Chinese workers) are regularly in evidence.
Stephanie Spray has made all of her videos in rural Nepal, filming with several families she has gotten to know over a period of years. Kale and Kale (2007) focuses on two men nicknamed “Kale” (Dharma Singh Gayek and Ram Bahadur Gayek) and their daily activities; Monsoon-Reflections (2008), on several of the Gayek women working in gardens, grooming each other, talking; and As Long as There’s Breath (2009), again on several members of the Gayek family as they manage their daily lives and converse about their experiences—including in one instance a remarkably candid conversation among several women about dildoes! Untitled (2009) is a single, continuous fourteen-minute shot of a man and a woman sitting in front of their dwelling, somewhat drunk, goofing around.
In each of these videos, Spray positions herself on the ground, implicitly within the circle of the group she is recording, as if her filmmaking is just another daily activity (which, of course, it is, for both Spray and her subjects). Like Sniadecki, Spray records in sync, but is particularly interested in working with off-screen sound in a manner similar to James Benning. During the second shot of Monsoon-Reflections, for example, Spray’s camera is positioned so that we see only a rice paddy, though we hear footsteps approaching through the water for more than a minute until an old woman, Chet Kumari Gayek, enters the frame. In Untitled Spray sits in front of the drunken couple, with her back to a street; vehicles and people, some of whom are acknowledged by the couple, pass behind Spray and her camera—heard but not seen.
With the exception of Sweetgrass, the most widely seen film to come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab is Foreign Parts (2010), a feature-length collaboration between Sniadecki and Véréna Paravel, about the immense junkyard at Willets Point in Queens, New York—soon to be demolished to make way for urban “renewal.” Foreign Parts was instigated by Paravel’s 7 Queens (2008), during which she recorded scenes along the Number 7 subway line in Queens, which snakes through a series of ethnically diverse neighborhoods, including Willets Point. The complex automobile culture within Willets Point provides a fantasmagoria of image and sound, through the four seasons, and provides Sniadecki and Paravel with several memorable characters. Paravel’s cinematography and editing in Foreign Parts—like the editing and cinematography in7 Queens—are frenetic, compared with other SEL films, though quite fitting for this particular neighborhood.
This composite interview with three of the Sensory Ethnography Lab filmmakers was begun in April, 2011 as a conversation with Véréna Paravel and J. P. Sniadecki during their visit to Colgate University to show Foreign Parts. It was expanded on-line with Paravel and Sniadecki, and subsequently with Spray, who was living in Nepal, during the summer and fall of 2010 and the winter of 2011. It is divided into four sections, the first focusing on their experiences at the SEL; the following three, on their video work.
On the Sensory Ethography Lab
MacDonald: J.P., how did you get involved in the Sensory Ethnography Lab?
Sniadecki: I’d graduated with BA in Philosophy and Communications (mostly film and video courses) from Grand Valley State University in Michigan in 2002, and then in 2005 started at Harvard as a MA student in what is called Regional Studies: East Asia. That autumn, I went to a lecture course that Lucien [Castaing-Taylor] was teaching, called “Exploring Culture through Film.” I was new to Harvard, and I had a desire to get involved with filmmaking. I’d already learned that there was nothing available for graduate students, unless you lobbied to get into an undergraduate production class with Robb Moss or Ross McElwee or Alfred Guzzetti, which could take several semesters even if they were able to let you in—undergrads must be given priority for VES [Visual and Environmental Studies] courses. Lucien told me that in the spring of 2006 he was going to offer a course called Sensory Ethnography, which would be the first-ever graduate-level production course, and that I should apply.
I went to the interview and showed Lucien a film I had made as an undergrad at Grand Valley State (I’d been out of school for four years)—an activist film for a prison education program. I was lucky enough to get into the course, with no real idea of what it would be like—except that each of us would see a film through the planning, production, and post-production stages. At the first class meeting I was excited to learn that the course was designed to be a confluence of anthropology, nonfiction filmmaking, and contemporary art practices.
MacDonald: What did you do between finishing at Grand Valley State and matriculating at Harvard?
Sniadecki: I worked many different jobs. I drove truck; I washed dishes; I taught English in China; I brought courses in philosophy and film history into a medium-security prison. And I spent a lot of time traveling: I would work, make some money, then go off. I think those three-four years of traveling and observing the world really shaped my filmmaking, honed my attention to gesture, atmosphere, and sound-scape. At Grand Valley, I’d wanted to make films that were experiential and not didactic, but no one there was supportive. Traveling helped me imagine what these experiential films might be.
The first day of Sensory Ethnography, Lucien showed films by Sergei Dvortsevoy, Arthur Peleshian, along with Tacita Dean’s Banewl , the gorgeous hour-long 16mm film she shot during an eclipse in Greenland. The experience was stunning; these were the kinds of films I’d always wanted to see and to make. Sensory Ethnography immediately became the most galvanizing and important thing in my life.
We made little pieces for the course—exercizes in image and sound—and were constantly screening wonderful work by filmmakers, artists, and anthropologists. Then, after the first semester, we were to go away for the summer with Panasonic HVX-200 camera kits and shoot something more substantial, something that we would edit over the following fall semester and that would become our final project for the course.
The Sensory Ethnography Lab saved me from my initial aversion to Harvard—for me the speed and privilege with which Harvard functioned was a larger culture shock than living in China. It was Lucien’s very specific vision, his way of pushing the boundaries of ethnographic film, and documentary in general, that made me want to stay at Harvard. In the end I decided to do a Ph.D. My thesis focuses on the world of independent documentary film in China—no title yet.
MacDonald: Stephanie, how did you find your way to the Sensory Ethnography program?
Spray: Serendipity. I fell in love with Nepal in 1999 (studied Tibetan language, Buddhism, and tabla [a popular Indian percussion instrument, used in Hindustani classical music]) and was on what became a decade-long quest to stay in Nepal, but without having to get an office job—I really just wanted to hang out, study music, and speak Nepali. In the end, academia was the only route that seemed viable, so I ended up back in school.
I had gotten a B.A. in the study of religion at Smith, so it seemed logical to apply to religious studies programs where I thought I’d be able to get funding to continue my travels. I got a Masters of Theological Studies at the Harvard Divinity School in 2004 and then started a Ph.D. in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard in 2005. I was starting to feel trapped in my program of study—so damn textual and discursive!—and about halfway into my first semester I was scouring the online course catalog for something that would give me creative outlets (I’d been involved in the visual and performing arts as a youngin’ in high school). I stumbled upon the newly listed course in Sensory Ethnography and had a ten-minute appointment with Lucien in the fall of 2005. He seemed reluctant to let a theology student with no real film background into the course, but somehow, I was admitted, along with J.P., in Spring 2006 and was, again like J.P., in the second run of the course in 2007-2008.
I transferred to the Anthropology Department in 2007 and am pursuing a Ph.D. in Anthropology, with two secondary fields—Film and Visual Studies and Critical Media Practice. So I came to Sensory Ethnography very circuitously, but in the end, it allowed for a rebirth of sorts.
Paravel: A very different path brought me to the Sensory Ethnography Lab. Back in France, I had completed a Ph.D in STS: Science, Technology, and Society, basically a mix of anthropology, history, sociology, and philosophy—in France we don’t have the same strict distinctions between anthropology and other fields. I’d worked closely with philosopher/anthropologist/sociologist Bruno Latour. My dissertation was on evolving forms of correspondence between scientists from the seventeenth century to today, from various epistolary genres up to email and the web.
After finishing, I found I had no desire to turn my thesis into a book. My husband and I moved to New York, and I did a post-doc at Columbia, but increasingly felt as if I were getting a slow divorce from academia. Every morning I would wake up with a film in mind, though I hadn’t as yet touched a movie camera.
During this time, people—Faye Ginsburg, Angela Zito—would ask me what I was “working on.” A typically American question! I’d explain that I was working on a paper that I wasn’t interested in, but that I had a very precise idea of a particular film I wanted to make. I’m not a cinephile. I grew up in Africa, totally unplugged and image-deprived—in a cocoon. Anyway, every time I had this conversation, the person I was talking to would tell me, “Oh, you should talk to this guy at Harvard, Lucien Taylor; he’s doing exactly what you want to do.”
One day I was sitting on a bench in Harvard Square (we had moved to Boston), talking to the guy sitting next to me. In my bubble, my obsession, I mentioned that I wanted to make films, and the guy keeps asking me questions and finally I learn that this is Lucien Taylor. Before I knew it, with two kids and a full-time job, I was taking the Sensory Ethnography class.
MacDonald: What was Castaing-Taylor like as a teacher?
Paravel: Lucien had a very strong posture, not a paradigmatic posture, but something really solid. At the time, he was teaching the class with Jeff Silva, and Jeff and Lucien would often come from opposite ends of the theoretical spectrum, which gave all of us in the seminar a certain freedom of movement, both theoretically and in our practice.
Sniadecki: What I found really helpful was that one day Lucien and Jeff would argue about a project from a seemingly very clear perspective, and the next day they would shift their positions and critique the project from a very different angle. We went through a process of having the conceptual rug pulled out from underneath us again and again, but while that can be a destabilizing process for awhile, in the end it allows you to find your own vision.
I think the term, “sensory ethnography lab,” is very appropriate, because it’s a laboratory with tools and space for seeking out the new, for experimentation and inspiration. Every morning, Lucien comes in with stacks of books, print-outs, news about art exhibitions—and films to show. You have cameras and microphones, equipment, but no one’s telling you that you have to make films this way. As Véréna suggests, it’s all about experimenting. What becomes most important for practically everyone involved is producing something with these tools, and this common emphasis on the creative process makes the experience feel very democratic.
Paravel: Part of the process is learning the courage to occupy an unsafe position, where you take risks and often receive harsh, blunt criticisms of your tentative, groping efforts. Many of us were holding a camera for essentially the first time.
Americans are constantly complimenting each other, telling one another “Great job!”—even in academia, which prides itself on being the space of contestation and disputation. That’s pedagogically worse than useless. You learn by being unsafe, by losing your footing and bearings, and the way to begin to feel some slight confidence in what you’re doing is to work through the criticism and push yourself in ways you wouldn’t have imagined otherwise.
Sniadecki: It’s important that you don’t have a safe place, that you don’t have one particular approach or set of conventions to rely on, and that when colleagues talk about your work, no punches are held.
Paravel: The first film I saw on the first day of class was Peleshian’s The Seasons . And I discovered Dvortsevoy. It was the beginning of a cognitive and creative revolution for me. The class turned out to be the perfect balance of screening films that provoked you in a multitude of different ways, reading eclectic works that gave you a theoretical grounding, and getting to play with a camera and sound recorder, experimenting to figure out new ways to encounter and evoke the Other. I was also sitting in on Lucien’s course on the history of transcultural film during the same period. Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare  blew me away. Jean Rouch’s Jaguar  is also way more fucked up and surreal and revolutionary than most people realize. Jana Ševčíková’s Old Believers  made me believe in God for a moment, the closest cinematic analogue to seeing spirit that I know (Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen  is a close second). Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss  is ninety minutes of transcendental bliss. We also saw The Nuer , and the scarification scenes struck me as some of the strangest and strongest film sequences I’d ever seen. And Vincent Monnikendam’s archival masterpiece Mother Dao, the Turtlelike  was mind-bending, and I adored Richard Rogers’ Quarry  and 226-1690 .
But if had to name just two works from that course that fucked with my mind, they’d be David Hammons’ Phat Free  and Steve McQueen'sGirls Tricky . Hammons and McQueen are from the art world, which is so bizarrely cut off in the U.S. from the soi-disant avant-garde.
MacDonald: Stephanie, what aspects of the Sensory Ethnography course were most important for you?
Spray: Lucien encouraged us to make work that would have a life outside the classroom. To enable this, he could be incredibly generous, going to great lengths to provide the best equipment possible; a number of us were shooting in High definition video in 2007 when the rest of the department was still working in Standard def.
This generosity offset the onerousness of the standards he set for himself and his students, which made him demanding and sometimes, when disappointed, dismissive. He wasn’t one to commend students for effort alone, since what was most important was the quality of the work. Lucien never explicitly proposed any one way to shoot or edit, since he wanted students to find their own ways of making. This ambiguity was perhaps conceptually rooted in a critical, maybe even hostile, skepticism toward purported disciplinary and genre boundaries between ethnographic film, documentary, and art, each of which has its own brand of provincialism. Lucien’s opinions about work and his approach to teaching weren’t agreeable to everyone, but for me his unrelenting insistence that we expect more from ourselves and our work made him a great teacher.
The most important aspects of the course for me were its structure, the works screened and discussed as a class, and the ritual of the group crits. In the spring it was a crash course in critical viewing, punctuated by a series of exercises in recording and editing, plus revision upon revision of treatments for the projects we were to do in the summer. The summer months were transformative for me, since I focused wholeheartedly on the task of shooting in Nepal. The fall was our time to sort through footage and make something of it, culminating in screenings in the winter. This structure allowed students time to mature as a group and the opportunity to make strong work as individuals. Over the two semesters we saw hundreds of films, in class and at the Harvard Film Archive, and we were a ready-made community of critical viewers and thinkers engaging works by filmmakers and artists such as Petter Hutton, Anri Sala, Steve McQueen, Pedro Costa, Andy Warhol, James Benning, Jana Sevcikovic, Leonard Helmrich, Stephen Breton, Werner Herzog, David MacDougall, Jean Rouch, Tacita Dean, and Rebecca Baron (who taught one semester of Sensory Ethnography in spring 2008), among others.
A number of these makers were invited to class. Occasionally they would participate in the crit sessions, which were critical conversations following screened rushes or edited work, during which the maker remained silent. The ritual of excluding the maker from the circle made the discussion less personal, since she was not addressed and made to defend her work, and so the discussion could be more conceptually driven, as it put emphasis on the work independent of the maker’s intent or expectations.
J. P. Sniadecki
MacDonald: What was the instigation for Songhua ?
Sniadecki: In the autumn of 2005, just as I was starting the MA at Harvard, a case of environmental pollution in northeastern China made international headlines. A plume of nitrobenzene from a processing plant swept through the Songhua River and flowed on to contaminate the Amur River, which forms a boundary between China and Russia. This kind of accident happens along the Songhua and other Chinese waterways on an alarmingly regular basis; what drew international attention in this particular case was the fact that the Chinese authorities delayed issuing a warning not only to the residents of towns and cities along the Songhua within the Chinese border (most notably, Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, where Songhua was filmed) but also to the government and the inhabitants on the Russian side. Four days after the accident, when the Harbin government realized it had no choice but to report the pollution, I remember reading media descriptions of city residents flooding into supermarkets and buying out every available container of drinking water within an hour.
In the summer of 2006, as a member of the first cohort of Sensory Ethnography, I set out to make a film in collaboration with my Shanghainese friend Ding Yi that hinged on his parents’ experience as “sent-down” youth in the Great Northern Wasteland, which lies east of Harbin along the Russian border, and where his parents were stationed as revolutionaries to serve the people as schoolteachers and learn from the peasants in the countryside.
The film I had in mind would follow Ding Yi and his mother as they journeyed back to this far-flung corner of China and reconnected with her former students still living there. Another aspect of the film was to explore the relationship between this shared revolutionary past and the longing felt by Ding Yi, who came of age during the ever-expanding material culture of the post-1978 economic reforms, for an experience in his own upbringing as intense, galvanizing, and collective as his parents’ experience. We began shooting in Shanghai, focusing mostly on Ding Yi’s parents and their friends who were also “sent-down” youth, conducting informal interviews and gathering footage of conversations about the past.
Both Ding Yi and I were less than enamored with this quasi-talking-heads format, and reassured ourselves that we would be in the north soon and shooting more verite style scenes. On the long and packed train ride from Shanghai, we made a stop in Harbin, not only to rest before heading into the Great Northern Wasteland (which isn’t much of a wasteland now, as it has been transformed into large tracts of farmland and some industry), but also to visit with Ding Yi’s mother’s family who still live there.
On this layover, my friend Paola, who was accompanying us on the journey north, and I decided to record images and sounds along the city’s Central Avenue and the Songhua River, which we had heard about from the nitrobenzene spill eight months earlier. We followed the bustling avenue to its end, which spills out onto the river promenade, Stalin Park, along the Songhua River. We wanted to see the relationship between the city residents and their “mother river,” but this wasn’t our sole motivation.
Paola’s research focused on sound in Chinese society, and I had brought a Sensory Ethnography sound recorder for her to begin this inquiry. She wanted to get acquainted with the equipment and I was still tweaking my preferred settings for the Panasonic HVX200 camera. Our goal was to pass a day of exploration and experimentation. It just so happened that this layover day was July 1st , a Saturday that coincided with the 85th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party (in Songhua, there is a red banner celebrating the party’s birthday, floating in the water in the long wide shot of the men fishing with the net in the river).
We worked, mostly separately, recording the fishermen, the swimmers, the picnicking families, the karaoke singers, the kite-flying couples, the BBQ-ing Uighuyrs, the horseback riders, and everything under the sun. I was so thrilled to be shooting something spontaneous that I became totally absorbed. Paola had to drag me away from the river so that we could keep our dinner plans with Ding Yi’s family and friends. I went back to the Songhua River the next day and filmed with the same elation and excitement until the hour of our train’s departure for the Great Northern Wasteland.
When we got to the small city of Yingchun, we were greeted warmly and put up in an apartment by one of the students of Ding Yi’s mother who was now a very successful local pharmacist. We were shown around the new schools, public squares, and roadways, and “handled” at every moment by locals. Constrained to shoot in a primarily interview format and never allowed to have a moment to explore on our own, we grew more and more frustrated and fatigued by the overbearing hospitality of our hosts.
Also, over these two weeks, a misunderstanding began to develop between Ding Yi, his mother, and me around the nature of our collaboration. Ding Yi, who also brought along his own Handycam, expressed his aspiration to actually be the film’s director rather than a film-subject. His mother, for her part, revealed a prepared contract that stated Ding Yi was co-director, she was producer, and that it would be my responsibility to officially invite Ding Yi to the United States so that we could edit the film together at Harvard. At this, I decided to end the collaboration. Ding Yi’s mother demanded the thirty-five hours of DV tapes I had shot, claiming that she did not trust me to edit them. After much discussion, I reluctantly gave them to her just before Paola and I boarded the train back to Harbin.
Paola continued south while I stayed for two weeks along the Songhua River, recording the scenes you see in the film all day long and, at night, sleeping in a dingy guesthouse on the other side of town. I was still troubled by the falling out with Ding Yi and his mother; in hindsight, I can see that the joyful and liberating shooting experience of Songhua not only helped me recover and make sense of what had transpired with the failed collaboration, but also solidified my cinematic voice. Songhua is a portrait of a place, comprised of a montage of small gestures and fleeting moments in public space, free of many of the more sticky ethical issues and personal entanglements of representation and collaboration. The people, the architecture, the material items along the river did not make demands on me, and for the most part I did not ask anything of them beyond being. The film hinges on open-ended perception, on a quiet experience of being and atmosphere, and a meditation on the relationship between the environment and human development.
Since then, all the nonfiction films I’ve made have been motivated by a sense of place. Songhua, Demolition, The Yellow Bank , andForeign Parts have all been responses to a visceral and intuitive attraction to environments, atmospheres, and urban spaces that are both expressive of their cultural context, yet also fascinatingly unique: a river park, a worksite, an architectural waterway, and a New York junkyard.
After seeing Ed Pincus’ Diaries  and the work of Alain Cavalier, I’ve recently been filming things in my daily life—chance encounters or fleeting moments—although I have no idea what I might do with these diary-like jottings.
MacDonald: One of the things shared by many of the films that have come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, including your Demolition, is an interest in physical labor.
Sniadecki: Labor is super-interesting for cinema. The Lumières filmed people involved in labor, and Grierson was drawn to it as well. Sensory Ethnography cultivates an interest in people’s relationship to their environment, and one very obvious way that people relate to their environment is through their labor.
I’d just gotten back to Chengdu after being denied access to a film project in the north of the province, and happened to be walking in the center of the city when I came across that amazing, yet typical demolition site, the day after the building had been demolished. I began filming with the two crews of workers (all from Renshou County in Sichuan); they stayed on the site for three weeks, and I shot during that time. I re-connected with a few of them at another site, and went back to the village of the man working with the blowtorch (Gao Jianqing), where I filmed with him and his family, though I didn’t use that material in the film. I did write about my experiences with Gao Jianqing for MEDIA FIELDS ONLINE JOURNAL. I wanted Demolition to end with the sense of transience, of people moving in and out of the city and in and out of each other’s lives.
MacDonald: The opening shot of Chaiqian, in each of the several versions I've seen, creates an optical illusion: a man seems to be sitting on a flat surface on the ground, but when a worker walks into the image, we realize that the man is actually a distance above the ground. I read this as a metaphor for the realities of class structure in China, an issue that comes up several times in the film, including at the end when the policewoman questions you and the workers. Is that how you understand that opening shot?
Sniadecki: As a relatively vague Marxist and a closet class warrior, I quite like your reading. I would imagine, though, that the critique of class in China would be perhaps more legible, poignant, and concentrated when that opening shot transforms into the 360 degree pan that moves away from the moment you describe and sweeps across the worksite of laborers actually pounding and cleaving concrete from the valuable, bound-to-be-recycled rebar. There you have the middle-aged migrant workers, in tank tops and flip-flops, no protective gear or hard hats, bent over their tools, sweating on the mounds of gray rubble, while the four managers perched atop of the skate park half-pipe structure stare down on this blow-out battlefield of demolition which they command.
You’re right about the issue of class in China today penetrating practically each shot of Chaiqian (Demolition), and forming a theme of the film overall. After all, economic inequality in China is conspicuous and so extreme in degree and scope that it’s reflected in practically every image one might take of China today.
But the pedestrian you mention who reveals the actual depth of the space by stepping into the frame before this full-circle pan is, in fact, not a worker, but rather a city resident using the space of the lot opened by the demolition process to access the other boulevard. I see that illusory moment you describe, when viewers are surprised that what they took to be a flat ground surface is revealed to be a much more complex and vacuous space, as a cue or signal as to how to watch the entirety of the film. Things may not be what they seem, and all fields and layers of the image are activated. Scanning each long-take image, one may discover many important or compelling details, revelations, or tiny narratives in the corners, in the slow disclosure of space and event within each shot.
MacDonald: In each of the three sections of Sichuan Triptych, a policeman tells you to stop filming—and it’s clear that at the end of Chaiqian, it’s your camera, the camera of a visitor to China, that instigates the policewoman’s intervention. What in general is the experience of filming in China like for you; are these moments unusual or do they happen regularly—I assume the latter since they become a motif in Sichuan Triptych.
Sniadecki: As a foreigner filming in China, I encounter a range of responses. Sometimes it is curiosity. In Songhua, for example, there were times when I would be filming a quiet moment with one person along the river promenade and crowded around behind me were twenty or thirty people, wondering what the foreigner was up to, trying to steal a glance through the viewfinder, asking other bystanders what was going on. And, without fail, every night I went out for a stroll with the workers from Chaiqian (Demolition)—we went out every night together—a plainclothes policeman, or a security guard, or even a citizen on the street would accost us and either demand to know what I was doing filming these men and women, or, in some cases, try to prevent me from filming. We would have to explain that we were friends before these interlopers would leave us alone.
This is more a matter of “face” in China; these people were trying to protect the national image of China and believed the foreigner with the camera should not be focusing on these uneducated migrants from the countryside, but rather film the state-of-the-art infrastructure or stories of educated and wealthy Chinese that would bring international prestige to the country. In situations like these, I sometimes wish I had another cameraperson filming everything that is going on behind and around the camera. Such footage might make an interesting addition to a film, or perhaps could form the subject matter for another film entirely devoted to these various reactions to the politics of representation.
Other times the response is more prohibitive. In terms of these more confrontational or antagonistic official obstacles to filming in China, I do get stopped, questioned, and sometimes even forced to erase what I’ve filmed. In addition to concern over the potential loss of “face” in international media, negative reactions by people working in an official capacity are usually due to their concern that what I film will be posted online or used in such a way that may bring reprimand or punishment. Essentially, they are afraid they will lose their job. This is entirely understandable.
Unlike some journalists or other filmmakers, I tend not to pursue sensitive topics or places just for the sake of their status as spectacles or their potential for causing a stir—but in the process of shooting what I see as necessary for a particular film project, sometimes these reactions are unavoidable. In fact, I have encountered this during the shooting of every film, and recently on every shoot during production of my upcoming film on China’s railway system. Inevitably, while I’m filming on the trains, the train workers or even the train chief him/herself will come down upon me and insist I stop filming. Sometimes they even bring me into their little office on the train and ask to review all the footage and demand I delete any footage containing train workers or any identifying markers, such as the train number.
Overall, it is hard to know what is considered sensitive or taboo, since the political climate regularly shifts in China. And all this is mitigated by the particular sensibility of the individual I am dealing with: some officials are more paranoid and controlling; others are less concerned. It’s all very ad-hoc. But the big no-no’s—Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square—will always be taboo.