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A Conversation Among
Ken Feingold, Coco Fusco, and Steve Gallagher

KF: The two of you were asked to curate the Flaherty Seminar this year, to create a program for what is usually perceived of as a seminar on documentary film. We know that although Flaherty's films were staged, they are rarely discussed as fiction films. What frames of reference were you using for thinking about documentary and for the works which you included? Why did you feel that my tape Un Chien Delicieux was interesting in this context, and what sorts of issues did you hope would come up?

CF: Neither of us as programmers were particularly known for working with documentaries that are traditional in narrative structure, with voice-over, etc. But we wanted to program Flaherty because we were both attracted to the idea of presenting films to an audience that would actually discuss them. Because of a dadaist and kamikaze inclination we were enticed by the idea of subverting what was something of a de facto tradition, not something that had been prescribed by Flaherty or by the original concept of the Seminar, but a practice that had fallen into place in recent years. So how were we going to do that? We wanted to introduce a selection from Arab cinema in North Africa, which we felt was a cinema that had not received a lot of exposure. Because of that lack of exposure here, and because of that cinema’s approach to history and to its representation of the region we sensed that there would be a lot of issues for discussion. Also we wanted the entire program to lead to a discussion of mixed genres - why filmmakers known for experimental work might include "documentary" strategies or techniques, or why a documentary filmmaker might employ dramatic sequences or fictional strategies. We wanted to blur these distinctions.

I don't think we chose conventional Arab films. We were aware that there were many documentary films dealing with the Intifada and with the Gulf War, but we wanted more interiorized views that would also give an historical perspective and a sense of the stylistic diversity of this region's cinema. We didn't want to comply with western conventions of associating the Middle East with chaos.

SG: I've been working on a film about Nikola Tesla, an inventor during the gilded age. I've been researching this for the last year, and that informed my desire to do Flaherty and the approach that we took, in the sense that I became acutely aware of the way that history is constructed, and of the construction of the subject of the film through my research. There were so many conflicting biographical points of view - in Tesla's case because he was almost entirely obfuscated from the historical records by industrial and corporate forces. When we were invited to curate the Flaherty Seminar that became the central motivating factor for me in terms of both looking at history and looking at the subject. We tried to find films that were self-conscious about their construction.

CF: I wanted to be very flexible about how documentary was to be defined in the Seminar. I didn't want to get into a kind of "U8 vs. them" battle, where the people who "tell the truth" confront the people who don't "tell the truth". We wanted to open the discussion up to a number of issues which are very difficult for those who have a certain investment in "the truth" to adapt to or accept, because if you accept that partial nature of what you believe to be an absolute truth, your world crumbles. This is often traumatic for those who hold on to universalist notions of truth - from humanist, modernist, or Eurocentric persuasions.

SG: The majority of the discussions at the Seminar in the past inevitably centered on whether a film was being made about a culture or from "within" a culture. It seems that there was a very polarized perspective on that issue. If a white anthropologist was going to a foreign culture and making a documentary, then that was seen as "wrong." If people were allowed to speak within that documentary, that was o.k., that was a plus. But there seemed to be a very implicit rule about what was permissible within documentaries about foreign cultures. That influenced our thinking about the discussions we would try to foster at the Seminar, and your tape, Un Chien Delicieux, was a very attractive tape because it really homes in on this very specific point.

I didn't question in the least whether it was fiction or fact. It didn't seem important. Because in the context of the narration the tape itself questions documentary practice, ethnographic cinema and anthropology.

CF: Because you're an outsider going to foreign culture and you've emptied the form that would have allowed the audience to understand what they are seeing in a kind of transparent manner, you've invested it with a set of problems and tensions that refer directly to yourself and your audience as outsiders. Because you are taking a postmodern position that stresses your status as well as theirs, your morality was questioned. The debate was articulated in terms of what "right" you had to question these icons, including the "sacred truth" of verisimilitude. In a way, the idea of the Flaherty Seminar got reconstructed in the process because we started to think about what a conventional documentary was, even though none were shown.

SG: It was an interesting reaction that our programming destablized people's viewing relationship to the filmed material. To me it seemed like this should be a normal position for anyone to approach any representation with. It was surprising that people were reluctant to take as a given that what we were doing in the programming was simply reminding them that there is no such thing as "documentary truth", that it is always subjective. And your tape, Un Chien Delicieux, became the work around which we built the Seminar, because that was the very core question that your video tackled.

KF: It is a very complex idea and it arose from a number from different sources, not the least of which was the experience we all had of watching the Gulf War on CNN. We knew as we were watching that it was a fiction. As "information", as "news," as "truth," it was clearly suspect, partial, and fragmentary. This is not to say that some kinds of truths can't come through these things, but that one should always question the seeming transparency of media "information." As a reference point for me, one of the more interesting ways of thinking about "truth" has been Foucault's idea that truth is a kind of regime within a particular discourse, and within individual discourses "truth-effects" are produced by way of certain conventions. One of these conventions is that of "documentary" cinema, upon which we have relied so much for what we take to be knowledge. We also have the experience of seeing what happens in our lives, our city, and seeing how those events get turned into media events, newspaper articles, etc., and we see the great gap that opens up between the truth as we perceive it and the truth as it is constructed in these documents. Each interpretation of the truth constructs a different history. The problem is that these forms can also carry very strong and important information that one might not otherwise have access to, and if one takes the nihilist extreme that no truths can come through, then it devalues something which is done with a motivation of actually giving someone a voice. The point is not to say that there is no truth, but as you said, that one should always question the source of this, how it has been constructed, and the format itself. We have lived with this thing all of our lives - seeing someone speaking in a voice that we don't understand, hearing a voice-over, and automatically taking that to be a truthful translation of what was being said. What we take as knowledge includes things that have been created in this form. There is no reason for that person speaking and that voice-over to become fused together except through the acceptance of this convention.

One of the other points which was particularly relevant was the ethnographic film tradition, which I had wandered through because my work had gotten involved with asking some similar questions. I found, at every turn, with the exception of a small group of people, that there was tremendous resistance to my work. One noted anthropologist told me that my work represented everything which he had fought against for years. His concept was that the purpose of anthropology, and of ethnographic cinema, was to translate one culture for another. For me, this raises profound questions about who can do this - how this can be done, and what would it mean to translate one culture for another. Again, buried inside of this is the notion of "truth," and that somehow the anthropologist or filmmaker can be trained to perceive the truth, to synthesize it, compact it, to condense it into the context in which that cinematic object is going to be received. It goes back for me to the Flaherty model, which Asen Balikci has referred to as "reconstructing cultures."It was at that point, for me, that it crossed over into Surrealism, and also because it had been raised as an object of desire by James Clifford writing about "ethnographic surrealism," talking about Breton and Leiris. And it was clear that this anthropologist had found someone outside of himself on which to model a self-criticism. It was the Surrealists' fascination with the Other and with the exotic as a kind of mirror for his own conflicts about the continuing practices of traditional anthropology.

One of the other major influences for me was the notion of art as transgression. One can only raise questions about a culture by transgressing the limitations of that culture. If you "lie" in a believable way you are stepping outside the limitations of a culture, and violate all of the ethical codes from which its truth-effects are produced.

CF: Many of those who spoke up at the Seminar revealed what their limits were, and what they would accept as "the truth" and "not the truth." Sander Gillman, in Difference and Pathology, discusses the formation of stereotypes, and uses something of a developmental model to understand how people construct systems of truth and morality to insure a stable sense of identity and control of one's environment. A person must first understand the difference between him or herself and "them," as well as what's true and what's false. Anything which disrupts this disrupts the self. And when one gets destablized the reaction is to project a stereotype onto the "other." And so you, Ken Feingold the artist, and your tape/got labelled as "bad objects" for disrupting a regime of truth.

SG: There is a tradition of foregrounding the relationship between soundtrack and image, between voice-over commentary and image. It seems that in films like Robbe-Grillet's The Man Who Lies, or in the whole body of work of Richard Foreman, or Godard -- people who explore this aspect of the relationship between image and soundtrack -- that people are willing to accept and enjoy that manipulation.

KF: If they know from the beginning that it is a construction...

SG: Right. The people at the Flaherty Seminar were extremely comfortable watching a film which "translated" a culture for them, without questioning the intervention. And the surprising thing about Un Chien Delicieux is that you were actually confronted with an act that is taboo in American culture - the act of buying a dog from a pet shop, killing it and eating it. You, Ken, as a videomaker, had not interceded to translate that cultural practice for us to make us comfortable with it. It made me acutely aware of how often that translation is done, how comfortable we are watching films about Pygmies and aborigines in other cultures, about body piercing and taboos, about all these other practices, but shown in a way that never made us feel really uncomfortable.

CF: Well, many of those films serve to make us feel indignant sometimes. A more recent trend makes audiences feel self-righteous about widow-burning or clitorectomy, for example.

SG: Which is also imposing a western morality upon another culture. But you have allowed the act to stand on its own and to allow us to be confronted with our very otherness to that culture. For people to be hung up on whether or not they were being "tricked" or manipulated by you is beside the point.

KF: At a recent screening in Germany, when people found out that I had written the voice-over in the first part, someone asked "Did you also make them kill the dog? Was that a scripted action?" It's funny, because that part of the tape is "documentary."It's a normal thing in their culture to kill and cook a dog, just as we do with pigs or chickens.

CF: I was told by some who attended that they thought it was a "self-indulgent" program, that it was self-indulgent on our part to pay attention to these works that were self-indulgent because it didn't promote any kind of "understanding" of "the other." It might even have been perceived of as gratuitous to kill a dog in order to make a point.

KF: What was being raised was not just a matter of "nobody can tell the difference between a truth and a lie," that wasn't the point at all. If people don't question the forms that they use and accept, and the conventions of the methods used to convey ideas, then that is self-indulgent, because it is assuming an authoritarian position. I find the self-conscious foregrounding of the relationship between the filmmaker as "the one who can't know" and the subject as very narcissistic. The one whose authority has been taken away but still wants to go on, so what do they speak about? They speak about their inability to speak. It doesn't raise any questions, because the question is already there for anyone who has ever taken up a camera or written about cinema - it's a given.

Coco, something you brought up at the "Show the Right Thing" conference - you spoke about this confusion that is so prevalent in the discourse between the big "O" Other and the small "o" other, and how that was similar to confusion between the phallus and the penis. Could you reiterate that? I think it's really relevant.

CF: In the course of multicultural debates, there has been a tendency to literalize a symbolic configuration. There is a Lacanian paradigm being alluded to when people speak about the Other. But the Other in Lacan's work is not a person. It is an effect of an individual's subjectivity, it's a fiction created by the individual psychology to distinguish himself or herself from the rest. The Other becomes a kind of verbal sign for that which is not you. It can also take a visual or aural form - that destabilizing sense that the Other with a capital "O" has. It can really come in any form as long as it acts as a threat to the stability of the sense of your self.

SG: But it's formulated not around relationships to foreign cultures, but around a relationship to your own mirror image.

CF: Exactly. The possibility of your negation implies a disruption between the relationship between yourself and your mirror image. What has happened in multicultural debates is that people have appropriated this paradigm and applied it to "other-than-white-people," or non-western people. As a result of that, people of color become walking signifiers of that which destablizes a kind of hegemonic white culture. But to do that is like saying that men, because they have penises, are the embodiment of the phallic order, and disrupt the stability of female identity simply by being in the world. It's a very crude translation of very complex psychoanalytic ideas that have to do with perception and projection.

KF: For me, the prevailing lack of distinction between those two is what makes the perception of Un Chien Delicieux as "truthful" possible. It is something which is desired within this culture. One wants to hear the other acting like an Other, reflecting back his perception of European culture and about a period in our history, and offering a critique of these western structures through an outsider's view. It's this narcissistic desire of western culture to hear the other acting as an Other, and speaking about a counter-history of western culture. Had it been me in front of the camera it wouldn't have been interesting to anyone in this culture. It is because it was someone talking about his destabilization of western culture, and through that created a desire on the part of people watching to have it be true.

SG: You presented him as an articulate spokesperson who was critical of these visiting anthropologists; he spoke with a "western" voice, which allowed us to identify with him and to be very comfortable with him as a speaking subject.

KF: I would hope that anyone involved with filmmaking would question these same codes. They are the same that are used for all kinds of propaganda, and other information which we take to be "untruthful" because we don't share the ideological basis from which they emerge. My point which was criticized in the recent Afterimage article is easy to misunderstand. I said that, because of the state of electronic technology, one could take the footage of the white policemen beating a black motorist in L.A. and make it look like black policemen beating a white motorist. It means that we really have no way of knowing, without a complex system of personal verification, whether something we see in the media actually happened or not. I did not want to say that all film lies, and that some kinds of films, such as that one, don't have great significance. The things we accept are the ones that we have witnessed, or that agree with our own ideology, or are confirmed by someone or some group who we trust, and the ones that are in conflict are questioned. An example which would have been acceptable perhaps is the endless debate over the veracity of UFO imagery. It's a difficult idea to grasp, and has been misused by authoritarian regimes and fanatics to assert that certain historical events never took place, which adds to the difficulty of approaching the thought. Because inside of that is the idea that it is considered immoral to willingly manipulate the truth, but it is moral to try to tell the truth even if you know that it is not absolute. It is religious in the sense that it is based on belief. Any film that is seen as being truthful by one group may be seen as lying by another. There is a suspension of disbelief in representation because of the intention, but any framing always leaves something out, any time the camera is turned on and off editorializes.

SG: I think a lot of people simply wanted to be told what to think. In being given space within contradictions in which to get lost, they had a lot of problems. We felt that this was more representative of reality than a film which attempted to present it in a more straightforward manner. That gap may not be bridgeable; it has to do with convictions, securities, and belief systems. And that is why the question of morality kept coming up because simply allowing and having this space to drift in was perceived of as immoral by some, and something to be celebrated and to get lost in by others.

CF: There was a kind of moralistic rejection of whatever was identified as postmodernist within the Seminar by those who are still invested in notions of authenticity. To me that investment bespeaks a need for stability that "realism" provides.

KF: Postmodernism occupies a similar position to that of Surrealism. People see it as a movement which will (or did) come and go. But these are ways of looking at the world, and at history. There is nothing more surrealistic than the media environment we currently exist in. Yet we would rather see it only as something to criticize and examine rather than to admit that we are implicated within it, to understand that much of our knowledge" is made up of these media representations, and to a large extent, our own self-presentation and the construction of our own identity is a surreal one, because it incorporates these things that have come from the media environment.

Feingold / Fusco / Gallagher


Un Chien Delicieux

Ken Feingold 1991

(photo of Breton, Peret, in apt)

This is a photograph that I took in 1948. It was the last time I saw Breton. I was living in Paris. This is a very funny story, really. I was living in Paris for a few years, right after the war.

(Village interview}

Some anthropologist had come here in 1945. One of them was named Ribort and the other one was Gallimard. They had a filmmaker with them, too, a guy named Rauchet. It was so funny, they had climbed over the mountain and walked through the jungle to our village! I guess nobody told them about the road! They were so exhausted and beaten-up when they got here!

So they stayed here for about a month, asking questions all the time, taking photos, filming everything. I can’t say everybody enjoyed it. It was interesting to see what they were doing, and to ask them questions about Europe, but life was really different with them around. like now, when you come to visit, or some other people come to visit, it changes things when you have guests right, just like at your own house. You enjoy having guests don’t you, but you’re always happy when they leave, aren’t you?

They kept asking me if I wanted to go back to Paris with them. It seemed like a joke. But they were really serious. They wanted me to work in a museum, to help them write about the artifacts they had. I told them that I didn’t know how to write, but they told me that this was the reason they wanted me to do it. It didn’t make any sense to me, honestly. Later on when I saw them in Paris and met the other people they knew, the Surrealists, I understood things better. But anyway, I finally agreed. I guess everybody would go to Paris if they had the chance, right? You’re too young to know this, but at that time there was a kind of fever. Everyone wanted to go somewhere. It didn’t matter where you were from, it really took hold of everybody. So I had a chance to go to Paris, and I did. I’m glad I did, really, I never would have understood anything about the Europeans if I had just kept seeing them in their jungle outfits here!

In 1946, there was a lot of excitement among the people I was working with because Andre Breton had just returned to Paris. I kept hearing about him. People were always talking about him, about Surrealism. The head of the museum was a Surrealist, too. They told me that I was going to be really happy to meet Breton, because he was very interested in people from distant places, and especially in magic, and rituals, things like that.

Life in Paris was hard for the people there. It was so cold in the winter, and it was so hard to get any coal or wood. And there wasn’t much food, either. I didn’t see the war, but people kept talking about it. It must have been terrible. There were many things that people had to explain for me. I was asking so many questions all the time, I started to think that I was becoming an anthropologist!

One thing that made the biggest impression on me was this whole idea of money and working. It was amazing to me that people would work all day for someone else to get money so they could buy the things that they wanted for themselves. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t just make what they needed, or raise animals for their food, instead of doing something else and then buying it. The money system seemed strange to me. Here, we all made things that we used, or we traded them with each other for things we both needed. It was so much simpler. But the city is different. I guess with that many people in one place, there isn’t enough empty land. Whenever I asked them about this money and job system, they kept talking about a man named Marx who was trying to change it all, but nothing ever happened while I was there. Now we have the money system here, too, when we go outside of our village.

So I met Breton. He was very loud, but I think that’s why people liked him. He was always mixing everything together, you know? His mind was like a crazy-person’s, but he wasn’t really crazy at all. But you know how when crazy people talk they go on from one idea to another and just jump around, and somehow they connect all these things together with some theory they’ve invented? That’s how he was. But there were some things he was especially interested in when we talked. He wanted to know about the things that we did here that were really different from Paris. So he was always asking me to tell him about spirits and things like that, and about my dreams. He always wrote down my dreams, he told me they were poetry. A few times when we were at cafes he read some of my dreams to the other people. I didn’t like it so much, really. But people read all kinds of things, and since I couldn’t write, I felt that he included me with the group when he read my dreams. people seemed to like them. {Laugh} What a funny bunch of men!

One day the head of the museum, Leiris, told me that our work was finished, and asked if I was ready to return home. It was a shock. But the truth is, I was ready to go home, I didn’t mind. I missed everyone here, and I was tired of the Paris way of life. It never really suited me.

Breton wanted to have a special dinner before I left. He asked what we had at home for special dinners, and I told him that we ate a dog for celebrations. His mouth really opened wide! {Laughs} He was shocked! In Paris, you know, they are really funny about their dogs. They treat them like little children, and they take them everywhere. It had always struck me as one of the funniest things about the Paris people! I could see that Breton was really trying to think of what to say! It was the only time I have ever seen him so quite! Then he started to ask me questions, like how we prepared the dog, what we served with it, things like that. He was quiet again for a moment and then he said, "OK, we will make a dog for your bon voyage dinner. But we have to think of where to find one." I told him that I had seen a shop for buying dogs very close by, and I described it. He said, "But that is a pet shop, not a butcher shop!" I asked him why the butcher didn’t sell dog meat, and he said that people there would never eat dog. It was hard for me to understand. They ate cows, and horses, rabbits, and chickens and pigs and deer, ducks, fish, almost everything. Why not dogs? I suggested that we buy one at the dog store and kill it ourselves. You should have seen him. {Laughs} But anyway, we did it, and I showed him and some of his friends how to do it. They were screaming and acting like little children.

{Breton apt. photo}

So I took this photo right after we finished our meal. The other man is Peret, he was around a lot. Look at his face, will you. He couldn’t believe he had eaten dog. Breton, liked it, he said. He said it made him feel good to break his own taboos, to do new things. He looks pretty happy, don’t you think?


So, since you’re leaving in a few days, we’ll make a dog for you. You don’t eat dogs in America, either, do you? So your butchers won’t sell them either, right? You should film the way we prepare it, because I think it would be useful for your American people to know how to do it. You’ll see, it’s very delicious. It’s much better than pig or chicken! So we’ll show you how we prepare it for cooking, and you can show the film to people at home, OK? We’ll go over to the next village and buy good dog! With money! {Laughs}

You should make it like a set-by-step guide, you know? Like one of those TV cooking programs. Don’t start doing any special effects or slow motion or anything like that. In fact, you shouldn’t even edit the images together. Just leave the individual shot- so people can follow the steps.

{ Villagers killing and preparing a dog, sync-sound, no voice-over}

(Voice-over at the last stages of cutting up the meat)

Then you can use it like any other kind of meat. We usually make a stew with tomatoes and chilis, but you can cook it over the fire, too It’s very good.

Un Chien Delicieux script Ken Feingold 1991