An Open System




by Emma Roberts

Across theories of organization, there is a shared belief that a system is dependent upon a relationship with its environment. What separates the system from its surroundings is a boundary, though sometimes boundaries are quite difficult to recognize. 

There are two types of systems:

  • Open Systems, whose boundaries are permeable, and
  • Closed Systems, that limit the input of environmental information

Though frequently applied to biological, mechanical, and social systems, this syllabus considers a film’s potential to be an open system, with the filmscreen playing the role of permeable boundary.

For the films on this syllabus, the boundary divides those who are filmed from those who watch them. Those on-screen become implicated, so those outside can explicate. Those inside are accomplices, so those outside can witness.

A diagram: a grey ovular shape is labeled "open system" and has a dashed line around its border, labeled "boundary." An arrow pointing out from the oval is labeled "output." An arrow pointing into the shape is labeled "input." The negative space around the shape is labeled "surroundings."

Many non-fiction filmmakers have worked to blur the space of the film actor with the space of the film audience. They may employ a number of techniques to collapse the screen, such as direct address or eye contact with the camera. Perhaps less palpable, are the more subtle ways of undermining the presence of the screen, more specifically, encouraging the audience to identify with the filmed group.

Consider a number of early non-fiction films that illustrate European cities as social ecosystems riddled with social inequalities, such as Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926), Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), and Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice (1930). The films utilize dialectical montage, juxtaposing depictions of bourgeois life with honest labor and impoverished living conditions. In an address to Groupement des Spectateurs d’Avant-Garde, Jean Vigo explained that his film À propos de Nice “makes (its audience) sympathetic to a revolutionary solution” by illustrating a society lost in escapism. 

These films collect their working class actors into a coherent and unified whole, one that is unequivocally sympathetic and honorable. In turn, the form demands audiences to align themselves with the disenfranchised unit. But to represent the increasing unevenness of our social terrain, shouldn’t a film ask its audience to consider the on-screen groups as heterogeneous? And moreover, different from audiences themselves?

Rather than generating consensus between film object and film subject, I want to suggest the constitution of an “us” in the audience, differentiated by an on-screen “them”. That is not to say there should be hostility between the groups, but rather an acknowledgement of their inherently different interests, stakes, and responsibilities. With a boundary between these groups (the filmscreen), the film and its audience are able to engage, not in unification or homogenization, but in exchange. In turn, the social ecosystems represented are not frozen as images, but can continue to evolve in alienated contexts.

The films I have selected for this syllabus present nonactors confronting their own social convictions and contradictions in groups that the films’ audiences are not invited to join. Thankfully, in these films I have found that I have no desire to be included. As an outsider looking into the group, I have been able to see that cooperation within these groups is not a given, in fact it is a struggle. Once we see that a group of individuals does not inherently congeal into a collective body, we can begin to grapple with what a group is and how it can or cannot be made possible in disparate social contexts.

*** Keeping with the syllabus’ etymological connection to the list, I do not think this list remotely covers the breadth and complexity of the ideas suggested above, but it locates the origins of my own thinking.

Reenactment; Playing Ourselves & Others 

While re-enactment is often condemned as a vehicle for inconsequential commemoration or celebration, it has also emerged as a tool to parse through the complications of live, highly-politicized experiences. When live reenactment is filmed new possibilities emerge, shaping social histories into screen memories, even for those not present for the source material.

  1. Two Laws, Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini (1982) 
  2. La Commune (Paris, 1871), Peter Watkins (2000) 
  3. The Battle of Orgreave, Mike Figgis (2001)
  4. S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, Rithy Panh (2003)

Two Laws features the reconstruction of a conflict between Aboriginal people, new white settlers, and police in 1933, examining colonial and indigenous law as two modes of storytelling; La Commune (Paris, 1871) reconstructs life in the Paris Commune through the social processes of its reformers; The Battle of Orgreave encapsulates the happenings of artist Jeremy Deller’s staged re-enactment of the violent confrontation between miners and police during in 1984; and S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine features guards and interrogators of Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng Prison giving a tour of the former prison, restaging their treatment of prisoners during the Democratic Kampuchea era.

In a large, bare room, a group of five men look on while one man gestures towards a painting on an easel.
Still from S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

Between Fact & Fiction

Using the formal vocabulary of documentary, these films present collections of individuals who are also characters – bound to one another, but also bound within the confines of the film. Synthesizing reality and fiction becomes a way to understand complex social units and political environments.

  1. The Human Pyramid, Jean Rouch (1961)
  2. Oxhide I, Liu Jiayin (2005) 
  3. The Old School of Capitalism, Želimir Žilnik (2009)

The Human Pyramid collects a group of white French students and their black classmates in Abidjan to improvise dramatic scenes; Oxhide I examines the family as a social unit as the filmmaker and her family play themselves through identifiable archetypes; and The Old School of Capitalism brings real debates among Serbian workers into a dramatic space, casting these same workers in fictional scenes of violent struggle.

Two dapper couples in late 50s fashions walk down the middle of a street with automobiles parked on either side.
Still from The Human Pyramid

Watching Them Making Us Watching

Filming starts with an agreement between participating parties, but the audience is not formally part of this agreement or these circumstances, and are left to (or privileged to) watch.

  1. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, William Greaves (1968)
  2. Regrouping, Lizzie Borden (1976)
  3. Prime Time in the Camps, Chris Marker (1995)

In Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, a film crew films the crew filming a movie as a third crew films them both, all are left to figure out what kind of film they are making; Regrouping examines four women and their evolving group identity as they shoot footage of themselves; Prime Time in the Camps examines a group of young Bosnian refugees who produce their own television program and examine the bias of other news outlets through pirated satellite feeds.

A black and white image of a group of women who appear to be dancing.
Still from Regrouping

Social Stalemates

A collection of individuals is not an inherently-functional political unit, even when gathered together through shared experience. The films below present collective bodies that are charged to reach a consensus, but fail, unable to shake their rigid conceptions of action, identity, and difference.

  1. Project for a Revolution, Johanna Billing (2000)
  2. Foreigners Out! Schlingensief’s Container, Paul Poet (2002)
  3. Them, Artur Zmijewski (2007)

Project for a Revolution shows the distinction between political action in the Vietnam-era United States and political action in the late-90s Scandinavian welfare state, which remains attached to a nostalgic image of revolutionary engagement; Foreigners Out! captures well-meaning activists’ failure to mount a successful opposition to a controversial event staged by Christoph Schlingensief; and Them documents a series of workshops with four ideologically opposed social groups in Poland, as audiences bear witness to the crystallization of difference as conflict quickly escalates.

A group of people, a mix of teens and older folks, stand around a large room. A woman is speaking to one of the teens and a caption tells us what she is saying: "Do you understand what tolerance means?"
Still from Them