Who’s Asking

By Mark Street
Published in Millennium Film Journal #51 Experiments in Documentary, Summer 2009

Proust said that all art is translation, and it’s true that being able to describe and elucidate one’s work in a variety of contexts is important and necessary. I often find myself tongue-tied and ashamed when asked to give a pithy explanation of what I’m working on. I’m awkward with my film’s relationship to other traditions (fine art? documentary?  avant-garde film?) and find myself nervously talking about the process or pulling out some self-effacing anecdote that doesn’t clarify what my film is. This may speak to my ham-handed communication skills, but I’ve come to believe that it also underlines a certain indeterminacy—a betwixt and between space the films occupy—and a refusal to join either accepted aesthetic traditions or traditional production models. I’ve decided that maybe this littoral state is a positive.

Just recently I finished Hidden in Plain Sight, a contemporary cinematic city symphony that I shot in four locations: Santiago, Chile; Hanoi, Vietnam; Dakar. Senegal; and Marseille, France. As usual, my attempts to talk about the film have brought up a host of questions about where the film sits in the world, as well as expectations people have for films in general. For Hidden in Plain Sight, I simply traveled to these far-flung locales and filmed whatever I wanted to, letting the moments unfold before me. Sometimes it felt unprepared and sketchy, but at other times the spontaneous mode of production seemed to trace an unrehearsed and immediate relationship to the urban milieu.

At a party for parents sponsored by my daughter’s school, Emily, a pretty woman who’d seemed particularly intent on us knowing where she rented a country house turned to me. “You say you’re a filmmaker, are you actually working on some sort of film?”

“I’m filming a series of portraits of cities around the world,” I replied. “Urban sketches, really, just about observing street life in these locales.”

Attention turned towards me in a way that it never had on the stockbroker-fathers.

“What cities?”

“How large of a crew do you use?”

“How long is the film?”


All fair and engaged questions from the group, I was happy to answer as best I could—though with a twinge of performance anxiety in the social spotlight.

As Emily let others ask their questions, I noticed her squirming in her chair, barely contained irritation bubbling to the surface. Finally she could hold back no longer. “I just don’t get it, Mark. Who’s asking you to make this film? Is anyone paying for it?”

I was momentarily stunned by the snarkiness of her question and just let the moment sink in. Emily’s question points to a gulf in ideologies that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Do you need societal backing to do what you want to do, or can you shrink the scale and create on your own terms? Do you need a financial directive, or can you shoot something on a shoestring and find it pleasing and communicative? Do you jump in and create or wait for support and infrastructure? In a way, I think it’s as much about how we see the world as it is about money. Are you answering a command with your artwork, or are you howling at the moon almost despite yourself? For better or worse, as unimpressive as it is at dinner parties, I’m firmly in the latter category.

Later I tried to engage an experimental musician to create music for the film. Again, I found myself at odds with prevailing assumptions. Despite the ostensible proximities of our disciplines, we were speaking different languages. We spoke about “process,” “an experimental feel,” being “bold with aesthetic choices.” If I had been afraid of “low” production values, I explained to him, I never would have gotten on the plane to Dakar. But he wouldn’t work on the project unless we followed a specific professionalized production model (scoring, rehearsal, professional studio recording) that I could ill afford because, you see, no one was paying for it.

At present, I’m sending around Hidden in Plain Sight to various festivals. As always, I’m irritated and deflated by film festival application questions that seem almost aggressive: world sales agent? publicist? In addition, I have to hem and haw over which box to check (experimental or documentary) to classify the film. These people are asking about a different kind of film, perhaps one Emily and the musician would like to see, with clear underwriters or a preordained place in the world.

With the kind of films I make, the idea of waiting for institutional support has always been anathema to me. I try to make films “out of necessity,” as Stan Brakhage wrote. He also decried the goal of professionalism, noting that the word amateur connotes the love of something rather than a hope of financial rewards. I never expect to make money on my films and never wait to be asked to make them. You wouldn’t ask a poet or painter about his financial backing, and probably not a novelist. It’s hard to communicate this ethos of self-sufficiency, but I believe in it.

Mark Street: Who’s Asking (2009) | 2009 | Writing