Diane Charleson (2019). Filmmaking as Research: Screening Memories. London: Palsgrave. <https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030246341>
Diane Charleson’s book explores her journey as a practice-based researcher from working as a professional film-maker to undertaking a PhD and pursuing her film-making in an academic context. She reflects on the challenges of framing her work to meet the definition of research as an ‘original investigation that is undertaken in order to contribute to existing knowledge in a specific field or discipline area’ and yet, as her book’s foreword aptly notes: ‘Creative practice research by its very nature is usually messy and inductive—following hunches and intuitive leaps rather than simply following known and established methods and processes’.
Desmond Bell (2007) and others have argued that there is a tension between the model of research dominant in universities, where it is largely derived from science, and the processes of art-making that are concerned, not with the production of abstract knowledge, but with the creation of specific artefacts. Practitioners working in academia, who are tasked with addressing the requirements of research assessment and funding criteria, have to navigate this tension. In Charleson’s account, she writes about how she found appropriate critical frameworks to explicitly articulate her work in the wider fields of narrative enquiry and autoethnography. The details of how she chose to meet these requirements should be especially valuable to doctoral students embarking on PhDs in creative practice.
She also usefully summarizes some of the debates about practice-based research including Marsha Berry’s (2017) argument that trying to define the distinction between practice-led and practice-based research has been confusing and somewhat self-defeating, and Berry’s advocacy for the use of a more umbrella term, creative practice research. Charleson’s own creative work, discussed in the book, engages with the family album and Super 8 found footage, which she uses to explore personal and cultural memory. She charts her move from making linear documentary to creating installations, which, she argues, stimulate memory and reflection more effectively and allow for more ‘active’ participation, creating spaces for the viewers to be a ‘flaneur’. I am not entirely sure this analogy with the flaneur works, in relation to visiting gallery spaces and experiencing memories evoked by the displays of home movie material. Gallery visits provide a curated aesthetic experience which is rather different from walking through the city, or indeed the detached observation associated with the (male) figure of the flaneur. Nonetheless, the chapter which focusses on ‘Video Installation and the Agency of the Viewer’ collates valuable references on this topic for those wanting to make a similar shift in their practice, as is commonly the case with students moving into practice-based research. She also flags the benefits of the shift in working to a tight schedule with a crew in her former professional life to working in a more episodic way with student helpers, which forced her to innovate and re-consider the production process.
The book explores the production of key works by the author starting with Rose’s Stories, a video installation, based on her grandmother’s stories, made as part of her PhD. She describes in detail how this installation was constructed. There is little said about what made these personal stories interesting or resonant with a wider audience or even what they said to the author about the wider history that her grandmother lived through, as a migrant to Australia in the early 20thcentury. There is a general and somewhat familiar discussion of the role of the family album in the construction of family and memory. In this respect, I found the book rather frustrating since the cultural contexts of the work are only mentioned in passing (with more emphasis in the chapter on ‘Creating the Still Frame’). More contextualisation would, I think, have given a stronger sense of the work’s specificity and originality. The generalizing approach in Chapter 4 on Rose’s Stories also tends to ignore the fact that family stories are not always a positive source of identity for the viewer. Family photographs, in their presentation of the family at times of celebration or holidays, often obscure as much as they reveal, as Jo Spence’s (1986) seminal work in this area suggested some time ago.
A more nuanced discussion of images of the family appears later in the book in the context of her account of her video installation, Dancing with Mrs Dale, where she used still frames to deconstruct the Super 8 films of a suburban Australian family from the 1970s. Utilizing the capacity of digital editing software to explore individual frames in detail she exposes the conflicts and discomforts of the subjects, as manifest in their expressions and body language. Here too, I think some reference to other work in this area would be helpful, such as Michelle Citron’s Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions. The fact that the Super 8 footage that Charleson deconstructs in Dancing with Mrs Dale is not from her own family, raises questions about the differences between her approach to this and to material related to her own family history, used in her earlier work. Her description of her grandmother’s stories which she used in her PhD work makes them sound relatively benign, or even mundane, compared with more dramatic conflicts her work evokes through the freeze frames from another family’s home movies, that she deploys in Dancing with Mrs Dale. These ethical and conceptual issues might have been more fully and clearly explored. Overall, the book’s structure could, I think, have been refined to make it more cohesive. A further revision would also have removed too much repetition and some awkward expression and in this respect the book would have benefitted from better editing. Nonetheless, it is a certainly worthwhile addition to the still quite limited number of books where academic practitioners discuss their work.
Berry, Marsha (2017) Creating with Mobile Media. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, Imprint: Palsgrave Macmillan.
Bell, Desmond (2007) ‘Creative Film and Media Practice as Research: in pursuit of that obscure object of knowledge’, Journal of Media Practice, Vol 7 no 2.
Citron, Michelle (1998) Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Spence, Jo (1986) Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography. Frances Borzello, editor. London: Camden Press.
Lizzie Thynne is Professor of Film at Sussex University. Her documentary work often focuses on how to represent women’s life histories. Her feature documentaries include ‘On the Border’, 2012 (on her Finnish mother’s history) JMP Screenworks 4 and Brighton: Symphony of A City, (Brighton Festival 2016/Symphonic Visions, Metier 2018) and Playing a Part: The Story of Claude Cahun (2005). She is currently PI on the AHRC-funded project Jill Craigie: Film Pioneer, for which she directed Independent Miss Craig (2021) on the career and life of one of the first women documentary directors in the UK.