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A Prickly Affair – Documentary By Michael Firus from Michael Firus on Vimeo.
Shot over the course of a few weeks, my latest project encapsulates a subject typically Melbournian; Small-scale artisinal enterprise.
Unassumingly at the corner of Swanston and Collins St in Melbourne, a small kiosk offering a variety of tiny cacti and succulents sits.
Founded four years ago by veteran nursery owner Adam Livingstone, this quirky little establishment is your one-stop shop for all things succulent and is fast becoming an iconic feature of the CBD. Over a hundred years ago Adam’s grandfather started the very first nursery for succulents and cacti in the United Kingdom. And indeed, a century later, Adam is proud to be continuing the legacy.
Fulfilling orders from all over the world, the scope of A Prickly Affair is far greater than the good-humored Adam and his rustic methods admit. Thematically, this documentary is diverse. It touches on a range of themes from ‘the vibrancy of age’ to agriculture, to forming an exploration of the entity of souvenirs. “It’s not big… because I don’t want it to be” – an impromptu yet extremely poignant summation of A Prickly Affair by its founder – in respect to what he sells, how he produces them and how he sells them.
According to Helen De Michiel and Patricia R. Zimmermann, in their paper ‘Documentary as an Open Space’1 the manner in which documentaries are conceived and produced has “shifted dramatically” over the last decades.
One such innovation that has become foregrounded in the documentary landscape is that of the theory of participatory engagement. This describes a particular approach to documentary filmmaking, one that, through the active engagement of the subject, seeks to create a more accurate and objective representation of said subject. Even though pure objectivity is impossible to achieve, this approach is one of the best ways to at least attempt some degree of a lack of colonial bias. This approach to the creation of documentaries, as well as fostering accurate portrayal, can also foster a sense of social relationships, community spirit, and on the part of the documentarian, a greater degree of worldliness and appreciation of the subject that they choose.
These social relationships and appreciations originate from the inherent implications and qualities of a participatory documentary production in a collaborative and co-operative context.
Chiefly, this new approach to creation possesses an aptitude for the restoration and reinstatement of small-scale and personal interactions. This return to the local brings with it the possibility of a deeper understanding between subject and documentarian; one that will inherently bring with it a comfort on the subject’s part that will induce a greater quality and depth to what they want to tell.
I experienced this first hand in the production of my own documentary. My three subjects, Adam, Kate and Michelle initially reacted as one would expect, in that the introduction of a stranger with intimidating equipment caused, in the beginning, some hesitation as to how they should act and what they should say. Kate and Michelle would often, within the first half hour of my visit say things similar to: “what should I say” and “I don’t know what else to say”. Clearly, within these first minutes of my interactions with them, the approach of participation had not yet developed to effective fruition.
However, as soon as I possibly could, I changed the context into simply a conversation between two people. I realized I needed to be quick in making them feel comfortable with me and that they ‘knew me and I knew them’. In the light of this, I made sure to structure my questions simply and used conversational prompts rather than probing questions. Indeed the majority of my talking did not have the upward vocal inflection of a question (?), but rather I simply made responses continuing on or branching off from the conversation we were having. This type of subject to documentarian interaction was directly facilitated by the participatory mindset and indeed fostered an effective social relationship.
Furthermore the idea of participatory documentary is very much related to the idea of locations environments and settings1. By this I mean the manner in which the process is set up with respect to the participant’s usual location; whether they are ‘transplanted’ or whether production takes place ‘on their own turf’. In order to maintain a more relaxed and natural social relationship with my subjects, my interactions with them were recorded during their daily conventional activities. I did this in order to create a sense of authorial anonymity and present the documentary as essentially character driven; with Adam, Kate and Michelle saying what they want to say in the manner in which they wish to say it in the context they wish to say it in. put simply I wanted them to be in their ‘element’. For this reason, each participant was filmed at the location in which they operate; Adam in his nursery, Kate in her terrarium “production area” and Michelle in the Melbourne city kiosk.
Filming them in their particular locations served to not only make them feel more comfortable and open to expressing themselves, but it also helped create accurate and interesting portrayals of my subjects through characterization. Indeed, this type of self-induced ‘characterization’ was only revealed to me by my subjects, after the formation of an effective social relationship was established. Helen De Michiel and Patricia r. Zimmermann define the participatory method as a practice of “continual engagement” between the “convener and participant” 1. It was only through such continuous engagement that the following characterizations came to light.
Adam; the mastermind and founder of A Prickly Affair is seen at the nursery, explaining the operations of his organization. He oversees and facilitates the source; the birthplace of all the plants that make his organization what it is. Thus he is represented as a type of wise ‘creator’ whose personal story and insights form a basis for admiration, appreciation and interest from the audience. In the score, he has a musical motif all to himself; the clarinet flourish. Kate is shot in her “terrarium production area”. The specificity and niche nature of her role lends itself well to the subtle alternative vibe she emits. Indeed, Adam himself calls part of her job the production of “hipster” terrariums. This again fits with the casual manner in which she describes her university degree and even extends to her knitted beanie. Michelle is an inquisitive and very open person in the midst of an impersonal city. The Prickly Affair kiosk is her bastion of quirky vibrancy in which she harbours a lovable appreciation for the plants she sells. In essence these three characters make up the character of A prickly affair itself; a (for earnest want of another word) quirky and loveable group of people working, as Adam puts it to bring ‘joy to so many people’.
Similarly, these participatory, collaborative strategies and the social relationship that resulted, enabled me to make informed creative decisions during the practical tasks associated to documentary production. An example of this is that of the process of editing; the nature of the editing ranges from more slow paced in Adams segment, to more rapid fire in Michelle’s part; mirroring her speech patterns. This however, created technical hurdles. One such challenge presented itself in editing, where I found there to be a shortage of useable footage compared to the audio. In other words, since it was not conducted in a typical interview setting, some camera work was unusable while its corresponding audio was very valuable. This created a deficit that was only overcome with difficulty. However, what resulted was indeed worth while.
After the initial trepidations of being filmed were ironed out, and an effective relationship between me and my participants was developed, Adam, Kate and Michelle were very comfortable with whole process and continually reacted with ease to my presence. On the part of Adam, he seemed to enjoy the potential publicity he could bring, often joking that he had found “fame at last”. But also more deeper than that, especially when the topic went to more personal territory, he simply seemed to be liking the process of story telling. There was a sense that the dispensing of his agricultural and historic knowledge was an enjoyable process for him This is a fact that makes me feel fortunate to have found him as a participant.
In my experience, the participatory approach was beneficial to the final product, and it formed a pleasant experience for me and my subjects. This localization, and personalization that participatory practice lends itself to made the process of getting to know my subjects very well. Through taking a participatory approach to documentary filmmaking, a relationship between me and participants was developed and likewise, hopefully between participant and audience.
- De Michiel and Zimmermann, H.D.M & P.R.Z, 2011. Documentary as an Open Space. Documentary as an Open Space, 2, 356-400.
Martinez, E. (2016) Navigating the river: The hidden colonialism of documentary. Available at: http://www.documentary.org/column/navigating-river-hidden-colonialism-documentary (Accessed: 19 October 2016).
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