Introduction

Cinematic Intimacy
A study of the encounter

With my research I aim to find ways of visualizing intimacy and by this, the inner world of the people I meet. I want to understand more about my role and position in an encounter and learn about the possibilities for the viewer to become part of the encounter. I explore cinematic intimacy and the encounter in relation to family, home and conflict as subject matter.

My research revolves around three main questions:
How to visualize intimacy?
What is my position in an encounter?
How can I enable the viewer to become part of the intimacy of an encounter?

Visual Abstract

Inner narration & Intimacy

In order to deal with those aspects of life – both internal and external – that we might find senseless, unforeseeable, otherwise incomprehensible, I think that we make up stories. These stories help us make decisions, deal with our personal realities, to survive and to connect to our feelings, memories and imaginations. I call this self-formed layer of stories the ‘inner narration’. It is a layer ‘over’ the subconscious; one which can be described in words. Although our physical lives end, I do believe that these inner narratives continue to exist in some way; when they enter the physical world through narration they are transferred to someone else. They spread and grow, like a kind of mental heritage. My own conclusion is that the stories of this inner narratives form a thread, a continuum that runs through our lives, families and history.

When someone selects a moment in time to share during an encounter, he does that through reflection over his own inner narration. He visualises that moment in time. The process of sharing allows him to become intimate with his inner world, to choose those words to shape his narrative, which then becomes part of the external world. While I am hearing him talk, my ‘inner narration’ works to connect the story to that which I find essential. I visualise it.

My drive for an encounter is in many ways fuelled by an enormous curiosity about ‘the other’ and my wish to create a moment of nearness between us in order to discover some of their essential, ‘inner’ narratives.
My work has brought me to the conclusion that intimacy is inseparably connected to my ideas about ‘inner narration’ and the encounter.

What is it, that which I call (cinematic) intimacy?

Through my experiments I realized that I understand intimacy as a condition, a state of existence in which one shares and exchanges one’s inner world with another person. I could say that there is always a need for intimacy between me and the person I encounter, so that I can not only hear, but listen to – and understand the other beyond the words of their narration. Intimacy is a condition for truly listening and observing, for reaching the ‘inner narration’.

Intimacy also became a subject of my research; the intimacy between people, specifically between family members, and between people and their surroundings. Intimate relationships are often physical: the distance between people and the way they physically relate to their homes. These relationships are also intimate mental constructions, in which the creation and passing on of narratives adds to the intimacy between family members.

Experiment

I wanted to explore this notion of ‘inner narration’ and the possibility to create a stream of thoughts, as a guide through a film. I collected anecdotes about death rituals from my surroundings and I combined a dream, a written memoire, a memory and an observation into one fictional character in the film ‘A Portrait’. The exploration and making of the film led me to the conclusion that through the existence of narratives and the act of narrating itself we can create an intimate physical and mental relationship to something or someone who is no longer with us.

The Encounter

The encounter has always been an essential element of my work; it marks the beginning of my work process.
Ascribing such importance to the role of the encounter, I want to work on it as a subject of study itself within my research.

This gave rise to questions such as:

Can the encounter be the moment of filmmaking?
Can I reflect the characteristics of the encounter in the films I make?
What is my own position and role in the encounter?

Experiment

In the tram I observed an older man who almost fell trying to leave the tram. At first glance this event seemed to be a very simple one, ‘a man almost falling down’. Examined more closely, the moment captured a universe of clues to an inner narrative, indications that this small tram ride wasn’t a simple thing for him. I decided to ‘appropriate’ the man, to re-enact him. This small experiment profoundly influenced my idea about ‘inner narration’ and the encounter; I realised that the mental and physical world strongly interact and that the body is a narrative device.

Family, Home & Conflict

In a thematic continuation of my two last films, ‘Conversations‘ and ‘We can’t come from nothing‘ I focussed my research specifically on family and the intimate space of family members, their homes, as subjects.

By way of background, both these films represented the beginning of a broader exploration into the themes of family, conflict, memory and hidden narratives. ‘Conversations‘ is a film about the personal archive of my grandmother, where objects seemed to have layers of hidden and unexpected meanings. ‘We can’t come from nothing‘ depicts seven characters from Warsaw (Poland) who speak about the influence of earlier family generations on their own lives. Each character brought an object to our encounter which served the vehicle to begin our filmed conversation.

The notion of ‘conflict’ (war) was an important theme in both ‘Conversations‘ and ‘We can’t come from nothing‘. In my research I am specifically interested in conflict as a phantom in the background or as a constant indistinct event at the horizon of one’s life. Much more important than the conflict itself, is someone’s personal narrative and relationship to the event or situation and its influence on later generations in a family.

With the experience from these two films in mind, I approached my research from the point of view that family is an independent narrative generator, one which is not only the source for narratives but also alters the narratives through time.

Methods

‘Meeting people’ is at the heart of my approach to my study of the encounter.
Three of my encounters of the past two years grew into my project, the triptych entitled ‘Three studies of nearness’. A work in progress, I consider this triptych a laboratory for my study on intimacy and the encounter, where I test different methods, explored my position and role in an encounter and examine family, home and conflict as subjects from different perspectives.

A laboratory implies research through testing and making; a continuous study by doing practical filmic experiments and critically reflecting upon them. Every experiment along the way thus far has opened me to new unexpected insights and questions.

I use a comparative approach in my laboratory. This means that in the triptych this far I did not test or develop one method; instead I explored a multiplicity of methods to work on my main questions. Two examples illustrate this comparative approach:

1. My position in an encounter

-In the first part of the triptych, the work with the Adajew family, I started as an observer, a fly on the wall and grew throughout the process into a participant. By being present at each moment of the day over a longer period of time, I was able to establish a close physical connection to the Adajew family members. As a woman I was able to identify with the daughters in the family.
-In the second part, the work with actors Sapa and Hija, I was no longer a participant or observer, but an outsider. As a ‘director’ I was able to determine the course of the encounter. I worked with a DOP, which gave me also a more distant (physical) position.
-In the third part, the interview series with the Dutch / Bosnian girls, I was a listener and dialogue partner in our interviews.
Taking these different positions in an encounter and comparing the consequences has deepened my understanding of the role of my presence in an encounter.

2. Reenactment

I considered re-enactment as a way to help me to make a memory become part of the here and now and to work with it as an image and a physical action, instead of solely a textual narration. I hoped that re-enactment would also help me to reach those elements of an narration which I considered essential.
I tried out different methods of re-enactment to work with the narrations that came to me in the encounters:
-Based on extensive interview with actors Sapa and Hija about their biographies we worked on re-telling their narratives in a dialogue setting while playing small scenes in Hija’s apartment.
-With the girls in the third part of the triptych I experimented with the verbatim method: the original recorded audio narratives were the basis for the re-enactment with an actress.
-Based on my own memories of conversations I had with Ruth I rewrote those conversations and combined stories she had been sharing with me into a single narrative which I then recounted on audio. In the second part of the film (from 01:14 minutes in the video) I asked Ruth to listen to this narrative.

Outcome & Insights

I believe that the three parts of ‘Three studies of nearness’ together mark the starting point for an answer to my main research questions. When finalised, the three parts, short documentary films, will also stand on their own.

Below I would like to share a number of the insights gained so far in visualising intimacy in film. My research is ongoing and I want to explore these elements further as I continue.

1. My role and position in an encounter

I can conclude that my presence; my relationship with ‘the other’; the physical and emotional distance or closeness I can have to them as a person are essential to creating a moment of nearness, of intimacy, to work with inner narration. I think that my role and position (partly) determine the possibilities for the viewer to become close to the characters in my encounter.
As an illustration:

Role in an interview

I changed the setting of an interview series with my father to a voicemail interview, where I asked him to record the answers to five predetermined questions on my voicemail rather then saying them to me, when we are together in a room.
My father described this interview as completely different from ones we had done before:
“In those interviews in which we were together, we were wandering together in my mind, discovering new thoughts and directions, unraveling my memories. In this voice-mail interview I missed you and this ‘togetherness’, I kind of lost interest in telling.”
This dialogical character of this encounter seemed to be essential to externalise my father’s ‘inner narration’. Without me in the role of listener and guide to the other, some of these narratives would have never entered the physical world.

Physical closeness

The fact that I am a woman has an impact on an encounter. In the work with the Adajew family I automatically spent most of my time with the daughters or with the mother Luiza. They all allowed me to be physically close to them and we shared quite private moments. Therefore instead of positioning myself outside a scene, I was able to take the camera with me into the close relationship I have with the family members.

2. The body is a narrative device

An important discovery has been the possibility to express intimacy, the inner life, through the body and gestures. The body as a means of communication; a gesture which signals perception or understanding.

In my work with the Adajew family, I explored the possibility to see the body as a narrative device. I put a lot of emphasis on tactility and the kinaesthetic aspects of filming: the way the bodies move and interact with the house, which I also consider as a body, with its different textures and surfaces as the skin.

3. The role of sound and voice

During editing I found out that I can treat sound as a visual device which can evoke an image in addition to the visual layer of the film. It can give shape to the form of narratives which aren’t visually present. And I can use the ambiguity of sound; are these sounds present in reality or present in our minds?

In the audio recordings I made of the Adajew family I discovered the voice as an entity that cries, prays and whispers. When I compare the recorded voice of the actress with the original recordings from the interviews of part 3 of my project, I missed the specific tone and the manner of expression; the discomfort at certain moments, the high and low breathing and the pauses present in the original audio. I realised that the voice has a texture, a physical appearance and it brings a universe of clues, it can evoke a multiplicity of meanings. The voice evokes intimacy itself.

 4. The influence of language

Language creates intimacy and distance, not only between me and my characters but also among themselves. The presence of a different language and its translation in the form of subtitles also plays a role in the level of intimacy between the film and the viewer.

In part 3 of the triptych, Sapa and Hija speak Swahili together, a language I don’t understand. I preferred them speaking Swahili to enhance the possibilities of creating intimacy between them, especially after Hija told me: “Swahili is the language of my mother and Dutch is the language of my survival”.
The fact that I cannot understand Swahili makes me also an outsider to their conversations on the set, in contrast with the Adajew family and with the Dutch / Bosnian girls, with whom I can communicate directly.

5. Translation from narration to action to reach a deeper layer of a narrative

I came to understand how important it is that I internalise the narrative of the other, make it my own. This gives me the possibility to translate a narrative into physical exercises and actions, making it possible to express the narrative through ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’; to open up a layer of a narrative that goes beyond words. This doesn’t create distance between the original and the translated version of a narrative, but instead creates the possibility of getting closer to the essence of a narrative. I understand now that to create a sense of intimacy it is important to allow the viewer to be simply present and being able to observe an action and interpret it himself. I explored this method in my work with Sapa and Hija.

6. The device

I experienced how, on a practical level, the devices I use have the power to create or reduce intimacy.

In part 2, working with Sapa and Hija, I assumed that working with a DOP, would help me get closer to my characters, because it would give me the chance to finally focus completely on them. However the presence of an additional person, and the fact that I had to communicate with him distanced me from Sapa and Hija. It made me aware that operating the camera myself is, as I do in the work with the Adajew family, a tool to create intimacy.
I started my second stay at the Adajew family by making only sound recordings. Instead of doing interviews, I recorded our conversations, which felt more natural. The absence of the camera proved to be an opportunity to expand my intimate relationship with the family.

7. A position of power

Studying my own position and role in the encounter made me very conscious of the relationship between filmmaker and film subject and question my possible position of power over the film subject. I feel that an equal position in an encounter is not about looking for the most private things, for secrets of the other, but looking for the things that might be closed up within, and want to be opened. I hope that my interlocutors and characters join me in documenting shared situations instead of just observing their lives.

I experienced this possible position of power in working with Sapa and Hija, by asking them to retell their story and to repeat certain actions. In this I discovered that it is essential that I also share my life, my house and my narrations with them. I then decided that the first meeting we have would be a dinner in my house, where they would be my guests.

8. Subjects: family, home, conflict

The research gave me many insights into the intimacy of the home, the intimacy of the family and the influence of conflict on both home and family:

-About the different ways in which a (younger) second generation tries to understand the experiences their family members went through when they don’t speak about them. As much as telling, being silent or behaving in a specific way is a very powerful way of passing on a (traumatic) experience.

-People imagine and create representations of events that are specifically relevant for themselves and connect to their current life, which is a selective interpretation of one’s family history.

-Through the existence of narratives and through the act of narrating we can create an intimate physical and mental relationship to a family member who is no longer with us or to something we have experienced a long time ago.

-The many manifestations of ‘home’: it is a physical place where mundane actions take place and it is a mental image, a construction. It is a place to be free and intimate with family members, a warm place which can be restrictive at the same time, a place which never really feels as your home and a place to long for because it not longer exists.

9. Space for the viewer

One of the meanings of the verb ‘to intimate’ is “to let somebody know what you think or mean in an indirect way”. This indirectness has become crucial for me. I discovered during editing my project that I can be less direct and so create space for the viewer to allow associations. I believe that in this way the viewer can use his projections to make a connection between the narratives in the film and his own inner world.

Rather then a declarative and closed film style, I opt for a more observational, reflective and conversational approach. I don’t want to present a viewer with only my interpretation or visualisation of the narratives in my work. I want the viewer able to take my position in the encounter, a position which would allow them to embrace the narrative.

Relevance

How can my research ‘Cinematic Intimacy, A study on the encounter’ be relevant to other fields?

I see how elements of my research can be beneficial for my work as an educator and the educational field at large.

1. Although I have just begun my research, I think it can be relevant to education in documentary film-making. Questioning the essential elements of the encounter and intimacy can add to the understanding of one’s own practice in the field of documentary.

2. The encounter in filmmaking can be compared to the encounter in a didactic setting. As in the (documentary) film practise, the condition of intimacy plays an important role in coaching students. Understanding how it is possible to vary position (distance / closeness) and roles (listener / observer / participant etc) is relevant for me as a teacher in coaching students and reflecting upon their work. It is also relevant in ‘group teaching’, where everyone involved in the reflective process can decide (individually or collectively) to take a particular role or position.

3. Some of the methods I used in my encounters might be useful in reflecting upon creative processes as well, such as:
-translating a spoken narrative to a physical action;
-taking the position of an outsider to your own narrative; recording an original narrative, rewriting it, and then listening to it.

4. Developing and specifying a theme of study through experimentation and reflection on this process is an approach to research in which practise and theory are strongly intertwined. This is useful for students of the Art Academy who graduate with practical and theoretical work and often miss the connection between these two worlds.

5. The findings from my research can also be applied to non-human encounters, as in my notion of the encounter between a person and it’s home. Realizing that we can watch non-human elements as entities, we can ask the same questions. By way of illustration, consider ‘an archive’. How can I create a level of intimacy with this archive? Which position do I take in this encounter? How can I discover the inner narratives of the archive, the ones that go beyond the mere visible?

6. I believe that the cinema of intimacy is also a the cinema of identification, empathy and contemplation. It might give us the (necessary) knowledge and possibility to encounter the other and helps us to reconsider our own position. Identification, empathy and contemplation are key words in working as an educator.

Further reading and watching

  • ‘Killer images, Documentary Film, Memory, and the Performance of Violence’, Joshua Oppenheimer and Joram ten Brink
  • ‘Intimacy in Cinema’, Critical Essays on English Language Films, Edited by David Roche and Isabelle Schmitt-Pitiot
  • ‘Games for actors and non-actors’, Augusto Boal
  • ‘Acting in documentary theatre’, Tom Cantrell
  • ‘Kinesthetic Empathy in Charlie Chaplin’s Silent Films’, Guillemette Bolens
  • ‘Letting stories Breath’, Arthur W. Frank
  • ‘Ajami’, Scandar Copti
  • ‘The Arbor’, Clio Barnard
  • ‘Selfmade’, Gillian Wearing
  • ‘Britanya’, Marjoleine Boonstra
  • ‘Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah’, Adame benzine
  • ‘The fog of war’, Errol Morris
  • ‘Someone else’, Ant Hampton
  • ‘Those who feel the fire burning’, Morgan Knibbe
  • The night and the kid’, David Yon, 2015
  • ‘Sounds from below’, Mikhail Karikis
  • ‘Pulling my Daisy’, Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, 1959
  • ‘Strange Victory’, Leo Horwitz, 1948