“Doc This!”: Episode Two

As I mentioned some months back, two of my classmates, John Verhaeven and Kenny McDonald, are producing a new podcast called “Doc This!” Its goal is to “get behind the minds and processes of Ryerson University’s MFA Documentary Media students.” I co-host with another classmate, Sara Wylie.

The second episode is now live. In it, Sara and I speak to yet another classmate, Annum Shah, about her beautiful thesis project. I hope you’ll give it a listen — I think it’s a good conversation.

As usual, another classmate also offers a sixty-second review of a new documentary at the end of the episode. This time, it’s Nawal Salim on the series TIME: The Kalief Browder Story.

(And how about that stunning new logo by Episode #1 interviewee Daniel Schrempf?)

Posted in News

“The Unbearable Centrism of Mainstream Documentaries”

I’ve got a new article over at New Politics magazine, the title of which is “The Unbearable Centrism of Mainstream Documentaries”. In it, I write about about how Former President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama’s multi-year production deal with Netflix could be understood as the culmination of a worrisome turn in contemporary documentary.

You can read the whole thing here.

Posted in Writing

Happy 94th, J.B.

The towering James Baldwin would have turned 94 two days ago, had he not passed away in 1987. It was lovely to see his birthday celebrated in various ways online this week, though perhaps no tribute was quite as moving as the one that came from Barry Jenkins: the Moonlight director marked the occasion with the debut of the first trailer for If Beale Street Could Talk, his upcoming film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel-of-the-same-name.

That we’re all still talking about Baldwin and his work more than thirty years after his death is a real testament to the power and importance of his writing. In addition, his mastery of so many formats — the novel, the essay, the lecture, the media appearance, and so on — continues to be mind-boggling. Moreover, it’s remarkable how his work has enjoyed broad appeal while also speaking so emphatically to people of color and queer people, as well as those on the left, writers, and others.

Baldwin certainly speaks to me as a writer and a person on the left, but also as a member of another community: the fellowship of those who have left the ministry. For a long time, I worked as a chaplain and professor of Buddhist practical theology. A few years ago, though, I came to the conclusion that I needed to leave both the ministry and Buddhism altogether — and it wouldn’t be too much to say that Baldwin’s writing about his own trials and tribulations in the realm of religious life helped me through my decision.

Growing up, Baldwin had been expected to follow in his step-father’s footsteps and become a Pentecostal preacher. For a time he served as a junior minister and was (unsurprisingly) quite good at sermonizing. But he also struggled with doubt. Details of his experience in the church find their way into many of his works, but perhaps the one that provides the clearest picture of this period is The Devil Finds Work (Dial Press, 1976).

Described by critic and curator Ashley Clark as a “brilliant book-length…essay, which blends a candid autobiographical articulation of his cinephilia with a frank critique of the fraught intersection between Hollywood’s industrial practices and its limiting representational approaches,” The Devil Finds Work is probably most remembered for its focus on film. (By way of illustration, much of the material about American cinema in Raoul Peck’s 2016 Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro is drawn from its pages.) For me, though, its autobiographical material had life-altering effects.

I first read The Devil Finds Work in 2014. At the time, I was feeling exhausted, and I couldn’t figure out why. I’d long since vacated an unusually demanding university job, which had seemed like the logical culprit behind my weariness. I had fully transitioned into working independently — writing articles, coediting a book, speaking at events, producing a podcast, getting my foot in the door at other schools — and I was doing it all at a pace that I was more or less able to set for myself. But I felt no less worn-down. I wasn’t overworked and I wasn’t burned out, but I was enervated nonetheless.

The problem was this: I was done with Buddhism (or Buddhism was done with me). What’s more, we’d been done with each other for quite a while. However, there I was, still toiling away at it as if nothing were wrong. But the dissonance had finally become too much, and the seams were now showing.

I had initially come to Buddhism as a scared nineteen-year-old; I needed help addressing fears about impermanence and death, and it offered some much-needed assistance. While Buddhist study and practice did help me get a grip, existentially-speaking, it also stopped being helpful at a certain point.

Nevertheless, I stayed with it, and for silly reasons. One was a sense of loyalty — a servile appreciation for what aid Buddhism had provided. Another was the masochistic belief that if things didn’t seem to be working it was because I just wasn’t practicing hard enough. So I also overcompensated: more retreats, more degrees, more jobs, more everything.

For a long time, though, I couldn’t see any of this. My partner Steph certainly could, but, in her gentle and patient way, she let me work most of it out on my own. Her active listening was vital, though, in terms of allowing me to see what I’d become: in her paraphrasing and questions, she reflected me back to myself with crystal clarity.

It was a rare piece of advice, though, that caused a breakthrough. Recognizing that it might be good for me to unplug from Buddhist/professional activities for at least part of the day, Steph suggested: “Maybe try reading something for pleasure?”

Funnily enough, I had recently come across Noah Berlatsky’s Atlantic piece about The Devil Finds Work. As a sometimes cinéaste, my interest had been piqued by two major declarations made by Berlatsky: that Baldwin was “the greatest film critic ever,” and his book “one of the most powerful examples ever of how writing about art can, itself, be art.” Since it was literally at the top of my reading list, and really the only title that had nothing to do with Buddhism, I decided to start there.

What I didn’t expect in reading The Devil Finds Work was that it would speak so precisely to where I was at that moment: Baldwin ends Part One of the book reflecting on his own break with the church. He paints an affecting portrait of himself as a confused teenager, struggling mightily with how to move forward in his life:

I knew that I could not stay in the pulpit. I could not make my peace with that particular lie — a lie, in any case, for me. I did not want to become Baby-Face Martin — I could see that coming, and, indeed, it demanded no spectacular perception, since I found myself surrounded by what I was certain to become. But neither did I know how to leave — to jump: it could not be explained to my brothers and sisters, or my mother, and my father had begun his descent into the valley (32).

It all culminates with a challenge from his best friend Emile Capouya, who would himself go on to become a writer and publisher of note. Baldwin describes Capouya as “one of the most honest and honorable people I have ever known” (32), and describes his provocation thus:

Even if what I was preaching was gospel, I had no right to preach it if I no longer believed it. To stay in the church merely because I was afraid of leaving it was unutterably far beneath me, and too despicable a cowardice for him to support in any friend of his. Therefore, on the coming Sunday, he would buy two tickets to a Broadway matinee and meet me on the steps of the 42nd Street Library, at two o’clock in the afternoon. He knew that I spent all day Sunday in church — the point, precisely, of the challenge. If I were not on the steps of the library (in the bookshelves of which so much of my trouble had begun!) then he would be ashamed of me and never speak to me again, and I would be ashamed of myself (33).

Happily, the story ends with Baldwin finding the grit to “tip-toe” out of his church and meet Capouya at the 42nd Street Library (34). The rest is literary history.

Reading about this “quite extraordinary confrontation between two adolescents” moved me to tears. I could relate completely to Baldwin: I was lying to myself in much the same way that he had been lying to himself. Indeed, the only things still holding me to Buddhism had nothing to do with Buddhism per se, but rather with my not knowing how to be honest with myself and others. Like Baldwin, I had “lost a lot of respect for myself”: I wasn’t that scared nineteen-year-old anymore, and I needed to come to terms with that (33).

Although I’d been primed by my conversations with Steph, everything became clear as I read those sentences in The Devil Finds Work. And I knew I too had to get off the path I was on, or else I would be ashamed of myself. The rest is personal history.

Mine is an individual experience of Baldwin, to be sure. At the same time, though, it’s probably not totally unique: his singular ability cut through the lies we can and do tell ourselves is no doubt a big part of his continued significance. “You have to have the [guts] to protest the slogan, no matter how noble it may sound,” he told the New York Times in 1979. “It always hides something else; the writer should try to expose what it hides.”

Baldwin’s uncompromising investigations of both himself and the world remain vital inspirations today, and their influence is not likely to wane any time soon. Speaking personally — but also for quite a few others indirectly, I’m sure — I don’t know where I’d be without his work.

Happy Birthday, James. And thank you.

Posted in Columns | Tagged , , , ,

“Urgent Interventions”

I am an enormous admirer of Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer who is perhaps best known for her novels The God of Small Things (1997) and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017). While both of these books are undeniably masterful, and I love them, it is actually her nonfiction that has impacted me most.

For one thing, her essay writing is every bit as gorgeous as her narrative prose, if not more so. One of her pieces in particular, “Confronting Empire” — which was originally delivered as a speech at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2003, and then published in her book-of-the-same-year War Talk — is quoted from constantly. In fact, you will probably recognize its stirring last lines: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

For another, her nonfiction always reflects the committed engagement of a true activist, and the good, old-fashioned, shoe-leather research of a journalist; she’s the furthest thing in the world from an ivory tower dilettante, writing from on the ground and in meaningful solidarity with those on whose behalf she speaks. By way of an example, when Roy wanted to write about Edward Snowden and his revelations, she got on a plane to Moscow with Daniel Ellsberg and actor John Cusack and went directly to the source. (The resultant book, Things that Can and Cannot Be Said: Essays and Conversations, which she co-authored with Cusack, was published by Haymarket Books in 2016.) To me, she is in a class by herself when it comes to contemporary political essayism.

Enamored as I am with Roy’s work, I read her recent Guardian Q&A with keen interest. To his credit, interviewer Tim Lewis calls attention to a phrase that I confess I hadn’t noticed her use on multiple occasions to talk about her nonfiction: “urgent interventions.” For example, in her 2009 book Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, she explains that “all [of its] essays were written as urgent, public interventions at critical moments in India… Often they were not just responses to events, they were responses to the responses” (pg. 3; emphasis added). Similarly, in an interview with the Irish Times last year, she says: “When I’m writing non-fiction, it’s a weapon, it’s an argument. It has an immediate and urgent purpose. Every essay of mine is an intervention into something…” (emphasis added).

Roy’s description of her essays as “urgent interventions” is not only lovely but spot-on as well: the goal of her nonfiction writing is to interrupt the conventional wisdom that prevents us from attending to critical needs. Her purpose in writing these pieces is to put up The Good Fight, and at those decisive moments when it so crucially needs to be fought.

It’s a testament to both the efficacy and the righteousness of her work that she has found herself in so much hot water over the years: if what she was doing was futile and insignificant, would the powers that really care so much? In 2010, for example, India’s home ministry and the Delhi police attempted to charge her with sedition for giving a speech about violence in Kashmir. Speaking to the Guardian at the time, she explained that this ultimately failed attempt to imprison her came from the government’s “panic about many voices, even in India, being raised against what is happening in Kashmir… Threatening me with legal action is meant to frighten the civil rights groups and young journalists into keeping quiet.” As episodes like this demonstrate, there really is no better phrase to encapsulate Roy’s nonfiction than “urgent interventions.”

Though I very seriously doubt I’ll ever produce even one piece of work as effective or eloquent as anything by Roy, her kind of effectiveness and eloquence are definitely what I aspire towards.

Obviously, my saying this betrays a certain partiality towards writing. Indeed, of all the different practices and disciplines I’ve undertaken in my life, it is the one that has been with me the longest, and that I really have the strongest affinity towards. Whatever intellectual development I have made definitely started when I began writing — first with letters to the editor of my hometown newspaper, and then for student publications in high school and college — and continues with each and every word I produce. Also, if I’m being honest, the most precious moments in any given week (beyond those spent with my partner Steph, of course) are those when I’m able to steal away to read and/or write in some peace and quiet.

In addition, now that I’ve reached the midpoint of my MFA studies in Documentary Media at Ryerson University, I think I can say with some confidence that I feel best suited to those documentary mediums that are literary in nature (creative nonfiction, literary oral history, etc.). For better or worse, I prefer it to something like documentary filmmaking, which is by necessity a “team effort” and not terribly cheap. To do oral historical work, write, or edit, I need only myself, an audio recording device, and something to write with — that feels very liberating to idiosyncratic old me.

All of this in mind, I’ve made a decision to recommit myself to nonfiction work of this sort, personally and professionally. One component of this will be a return to blogging. In the past, I was most productive (and prolific) when I had a blog, and regularly composing posts helped sharpen both my thinking and my writing practice.

In whatever nonfiction form they take, “urgent interventions” seems very necessary now, as so many right-wing and far-right-wing elements occupy positions of power around the world. But we needed more of this kind of work before the dark age we are currently living through. We will need more after it has passed as well. This kind of work (and so many other kinds) needs to be constant and unceasing, so I’m going to roll up my sleeves and contribute what I can.

But are literary works really what we need right now? And aren’t blogs becoming an anachronism?

Blogs may well be an anachronism. And, broadly speaking, the written word seems to be taking something of a beating these days. The most recent findings of the American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, indicate that “the share of Americans who read for pleasure on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004.” Even more distressing, a Federal District Court judge this week “dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by students at troubled schools in Detroit,” ruling that “access to literacy” is not a constitutional right. So, it’s not exactly a bull market right now in terms of literary projects.

However, to my way of thinking, intentional participation in reading and writing, and working against their eradication, can’t but do some good. Granted, it would be hard to disagree with Chris Hedges, who has observed that “the core values of our open society, the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense indicate something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to understand historical facts, to separate truth from lies, to advocate for change and to acknowledge that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable, are dying.” But if there is any hope to be drawn from Hedges’s analysis, it would seem to be in subverting what he has elsewhere referred to as “the triumph of spectacle,” and bolstering our “literate, print-based culture.” This would be consistent with the view of the mighty Wendell Berry, who wrote decades ago:

We must know a better language. We must speak, and teach our children to speak, a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it. And to do this we must know something of the roots and resources of our language; we must know its literature. The only defense against the worst is a knowledge of the best. By their ignorance people enfranchise their exploiters.

This is not to say that this blog has no interest at all in audiovisual media. While the written word will be afforded a privileged position at this site, I do plan on punctuating regular posts (reviewing books, thinking through issues in documentary work, opining, and so on) with photo, video, and audio content.

As for other housekeeping, I’ll be sharing recommended articles on my Pocket profile, which you can find here. You can also see what book I’m currently reading on Litsy (which is mobile-only; I’m “danielclarksonfisher”).

Lastly, I won’t be hosting comments at this site. Why? Because I’m with Jessica Valenti on this, and, besides, this is the internet — if you’ve got something to say, there’s no shortage of places where you can say it.

So, welcome to this site’s rebirth! Thanks for reading this lengthy introduction. And here we go…

Posted in Columns

“Rodney Ascher on the Art of the Horror Documentary”

I’ve got a new interview with Rodney Ascher, director of the documentaries Room 237 and The Nightmare, over at Nonfics. Rodney is one of my very favorite filmmakers, and it was both an honor and a pleasure to get to speak to him at some length.

His most recent project, Primal Screen, debuted on the horror-themed streaming service Shudder last year. The short, which “asks real people to look back at pop-culture artifacts that traumatized them in their youth and describe the effect they had on their lives,” can currently be streamed for free and without a login at the site.

I recommend you take a look at this underpraised little gem, and then check out our conversation here.

Posted in Writing

5100 YONGE

Posted in Video Activism

“In Defense of Errol Morris’s STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE”

I’ve got a new article, my first for PopMatters, at their website. The title is “In Defense of Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure. In it, I use the occasion of the film’s tenth anniversary to write about the great director’s oft-misunderstood masterpiece, which centers around the photos that emerged from Abu Ghraib prison.

You can read the whole thing here.

[UPDATE, 5/22/2018: I’m completely amazed to report that Errol Morris himself recently retweeted this piece. See below.]

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Posted in Writing

“Doc This!”: Episode One

Two of my wonderful classmates, John Verhaeven and Kenny McDonald, are producing a new podcast called “Doc This!” Its goal is to “get behind the minds and processes of Ryerson University’s MFA Documentary Media students.” I co-host with another wonderful classmate, Sara Wylie.

In the first episode, Sara and I speak to yet another wonderful classmate, Daniel Schrempf — I hope you’ll give it a listen!

(Bonus: A fifth wonderful classmate, Pearson Ripley, offers a terrific, sixty-second review of Errol Morris’s astonishing Netflix documentary series Wormwood at the end of the episode.)

Posted in News

VIDEO ESSAY: “Brand Hex”

Posted in Video Essays

“The ‘Inescapable Need and Possibility’ of Third Cinema”

I’ve got a new article, my first for the venerable New Politics magazine, at their website. The title is “The ‘Inescapable Need and Possibility’ of Third Cinema”. In it, I talk about the radical, global filmmaking movement known as “Third Cinema”; its adherents in the United States; and what might be learned from their work at this particular moment in time. If you’re actively thinking about film as a form of cultural resistance, you might just be interested in this.

You can read the whole thing here.

Posted in Writing