How ethnographic filmmaking played a part in the IDFA and SBIFF documentary Eat Your Catfish.
This post was written by Noah Arjomand.
In 2014 I was 26, living with my parents in a chaotic Harlem apartment while I attended Columbia grad school. My mother Kathryn was dying from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), quadriplegic, and soon to have a tracheostomy so that she could survive on mechanical breathing. I had stayed in New York City to help care for her after her diagnosis in 2010, then moved in with her and my father Said after I lost my own apartment to a fire.
I took a couple of anthropology courses at NYU that raised my interest in ethnographic film, and it occurred to me that my own family life might be fodder for a documentary. There was certainly no shortage of household drama. Kathryn’s need for constant care, the healthcare system’s failure to provide sufficient support (despite the individual heroism of at-home aides and nurses), and the general gloom of mortality hanging overhead were all helping to turn simmering conflicts among Kathryn, Said, and me up to a boil.
I didn’t want the film to be my story of my family, though. Nor did I want a story that another director engineered to fit into familiar tropes about terminal illness. Around topics like disability and dying, we all tend to fall back on hard-baked cultural narratives about victimhood and sainthood. It is too easy for filmmakers, whether of fiction or documentary, to impose their preconceptions on people with disabilities and their communities, effectively scripting them into typecast roles without enough sensitivity to their actual lived experiences.
This is not just a problem for films about disability, of course. There is always a tension between efficiency and openness to the messy realities of the world. Whenever documentarians draw up “shot lists” to make filming more orderly or talk about “missing a shot” and needing to go back to capture it, they risk imposing their own vision and stereotypes on their subjects.
I thought back to early experiments in ethnographic filmmaking I had learned about in anthropology classes. In the 1930s, wife-and-husband team Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were among the first to use the moving picture as a social science tool with a series of short films on rituals and daily life in Bali. Mead especially hoped that film could record the realities of Balinese culture more objectively than the two of them could in field notes, in which they might unconsciously write down only what confirmed their preconceived theories and biases.
Four decades later, now a pair of bickering divorcés, Bateson and Mead debated the merits of different approaches to filming. Bateson favored active camera work in which the ethnographer/cinematographer decided what was most relevant. Mead countered they had captured some of their most valuable footage in Bali when they simply set the camera on a tripod and allowed it to passively observe life unfolding.
For example, she had used footage of parents bathing their babies in Bali in comparison to footage of Americans doing the same as evidence for her cultural relativism argument (against the then-prevalent notion that all other cultures should be judged by the yardstick of “modern” Western standards). A hands-off approach to filming allowed them to gather footage that productively challenged their assumptions when they later watched and rewatched it, whereas a more active, aesthetically minded cinematographer might point the camera only in directions that confirmed preexisting expectations.
“An artistic filmmaker can make a beautiful notion of what he thinks is there, and you can't do any subsequent analysis with it of any kind,” said Mead.
“You're talking about putting a dead camera on top of a bloody tripod. It sees nothing… It’s a bore,” Bateson retorted.
What I learned on my film
After filming 930 hours of my mother’s life, I can confirm that Bateson was right that when you simply press record and walk away, most of the footage you capture is a bore. But he was wrong that the camera sees nothing. And with today’s digital filmmaking technologies and workflows, it has become far more feasible to gather vast amounts of footage and then sort through the boring bits to find the unscripted moments. These little surprises can cause you to rethink your assumptions.
Back in the 1930s, Mead and Bateson could only load their camera with enough 16mm film to shoot for 3 minutes at a time with no sync sound. I mounted a custom rig on the back of my mother’s wheelchair with a Panasonic GH4 and 6-capsule Holophone microphone array plugged into a Zoom H6 audio recorder that could record for up to 13 hours straight. You can see video of the rig here.
I worked in an equal three-way co-director, co-producer partnership with a husband-and-wife team of my own: Adam Isenberg, whom I met when he won the Margaret Mead Ethnographic Film Festival in New York for his previous film A Life Without Words, and Senem Tüzen, an accomplished director and writer whose award-winning film Motherland had explored intimately conflictual family relations through fiction.
Our equipment budget was around $10,000, including for a pile of Thunderbolt hard drives and a MacBook Pro fast enough to scrub through all those video files on Final Cut Pro X without any transcoding.
The “dead camera on a bloody tripod” approach seemed especially appropriate to our documentary because of the conditions of Kathryn’s life. She sat in her wheelchair 24/7 (despite many elaborately failed efforts to make her comfortable in different types of beds), so my rig could record every moment of her days and nights.
We chose a fisheye prime and an angle of view to emphasize the claustrophobia of the cramped hallways of our apartment and approximate her field of vision. I would turn the camera and audio recorder on and walk away. With no crew present and no DoP deciding where to direct attention, the camera captured my mother’s daily struggle and interactions with family and other caretakers in about the most fly-on-the-wall, unobtrusive manner possible.
It may nowadays be possible to film first and then decide what story to tell later, but it is incredibly inefficient. The hard work really began after I delivered the hundreds of hours of footage to Adam and Senem. They faced the Herculean task of watching and rewatching, keywording and categorizing, until they developed a sense of my family and how to turn our travails into a coherent narrative. I consulted throughout the editing process but never told them what to say: the film was to be the story of my mother’s life with ALS as Adam and Senem understood it through immersion in her sensory experience.
They often found nuggets of footage and made connections that surprised even me, though I had lived through the events they were watching. It took years of grind and tinker and brilliant creative editing on the part of my co-directors, but together we managed to craft a 74-minute story (a 750:1 shot ratio!) that I feel presents those years with an honesty and insight that I never could have managed from my own limited perspective. Equally, Adam and Senem never could have made such a film if they had chosen what to shoot in advance or on the spot based on “a beautiful notion” of what they thought was there.
I only wish Kathryn, who passed away in 2017, could have seen Eat Your Catfish, the final product of our little homemade shoestring-budget project. The film had its world premiere at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam in November and is screening at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this week for its U.S. premiere.
You can follow the film on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @EatYourCatfish for updates about upcoming screenings.