Reflexive Commentary: The Making of Ms.
My parents’ separation, whilst not necessarily negative in itself, was a life-changing and challenging process for both me and my mum. We have shared every high and low and supported each other throughout the whole experience. Now, towards the end of this journey, when I decided to make a film about the recent new beginnings in Mum’s life, my biggest priority was that this film was a collaboration between the two of us. Given my connection to the content of the film, I knew I could not objectively tell the story of my mum’s life. Rather, I wanted to display her character and communicate her story from my perspective, highlighting the ways our lives are connected.
We agreed on the title "Ms.", which was kept anonymous and impersonal to reflect the fact that millions of women can relate to Mum’s story. This word has powerful connotations for both of us. From Mum's perspective, "Ms." is a branding of her marital status, a title that is used by divorced women to signify separation from their husbands. She therefore felt the title was appropriate given its connotations with divorce. However, I use the same title as a 22-year-old single woman in defiance of being defined by my marital status. In my mind, "Ms." gives women the freedom to move beyond the dichotomy of Miss/Mrs or single/married, stating our independence from the men in our lives. The significance of the title, for me, was due to its symbolising of female independence, something which my mum has truly acquired for the first time in her life, aged 60.
— Sheila Michaels
"A title for a woman who is not owned by a man."
The filmmaking process itself was a deeply personal journey. Objectivity, which is traditionally strived for in documentary films, was impossible (Ruby, 1980). In keeping with recent trends in Visual Anthropology, I allowed the time spent making this film to be a reflexive journey (Ruby, 1980). I had to consider my relationship, not only to the subject in the film but also the topics we explored together. This was an emotional film which told a story about my mum from my perspective. That said, while I recognised that this film was not objective, I still strived for honesty while depicting my mum’s character and in communicating her point of view. I achieved this by incorporating a few aspects of observational cinema into my film, observing Mum over the course of one weekend going about her usual activities, walking the dog and cooking in the kitchen (Grimshaw and Ravetz, 2009). I also avoided using narration in my film, so that any conveyed meaning was taken from my mum’s spoken words in that particular place and time (Grimshaw and Ravez, 2009). Furthermore, I took inspiration from the films of Rouch and MacDougall, who championed participatory ethnographic films by engaging with their subjects. In accordance with the techniques of participatory film, and given my relationship with its content, I wasn’t so concerned with removing myself from the footage entirely (Rouch, 1975). While I remained focussed on my mum to sustain her narrative, I also included some footage of us both looking over photographs and Mum generally responding to my presence. I was also indirectly present throughout the film in photographs that we looked over, emphasising the intersubjective ways in which mine and Mum’s stories inform one another’s, as subject and filmmaker as well as mother and daughter (MacDougall, 1998; Jackson, 1989).
The greatest challenge I faced during the process was balancing the emotional content with the narrative which Mum and I wanted to construct. We had decided that the tone should change throughout the film, beginning and ending on a happy note and addressing the sadness of Mum’s story around the midway point. It was hard not to include details about my parents’ relationship or delve into the more intensely emotional memories. While this may have provided context and entertainment value for the audience, I was conscious of not using my film as a form of “self-therapy” (Rabiger, 2004). Mum was determined that the story needed to be hopeful, and I wanted to show the cheerful sides of her character and not get distracted by painful memories. By collaborating with Mum and reflecting on my role as filmmaker and storyteller throughout the process, we were able to create a film which effectively mapped out the story of Mum’s emotional journey throughout the process of separating from her husband and settling into her new identity as a single, independent woman. As a piece of visual ethnography, this story relates to anthropological concerns of identity, gender and kinship. I hope that audience members who are facing new beginnings in their lives will recognise the fear, determination and excitement that Mum expresses, as I believe that her journey is one that many people will relate to.
Grimshaw, A. and Ravetz, A. (2009). Observational cinema: anthropology, film, and the exploration of social life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp.147-151.
Jackson, M. (1989). Paths towards a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Enquiry. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
MacDougall, D. (1998). Transcultural Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Rabiger, M. (2004). Directing the documentary. Amsterdam: Focal Press.
Rouch, J. (1975). ‘The camera and man’. In: P. Hockings (ed), Principles of visual anthropology. Berlin: Mouton, pp.83-102.
Ruby, J. (1980). Exposing yourself: Reflexivity, anthropology, and film. Semiotica, 30(1), pp.153-179.
Collaboration is a central theme in Visual Anthropology literature, whereby some believe that ethnographic filmmakers have a duty to involve their subjects as much as possible during the filmmaking process. Of course, given that the filmmaker has ultimate authority over what is filmed, what footage is included and how the film is edited, true collaboration is rarely possible (MacDougall, 1998). In this case, I tried to involve Mum in the planning as much as I could. I asked her what story she wanted to tell and, importantly, what she wanted to omit. While filming, I wanted to blur the lines between filmmaker and subject and recorded Mum while we carried out normal activities together without directing her in what to say or do. When editing began I was keen to receive feedback from her. A couple of weeks before I finished the film, Mum came to visit me in Canterbury and I showed her what I had done so far. She said she thought that the tone of the film was too depressing, and that she wanted her story to feel uplifting and hopeful. But I was also concerned with honestly conveying the sadness of everything she had been through. However, she was right: at least the ending needed to be positive, because Mum was now in a very happy place, so I included footage of her singing to "I'm Coming Out" by Diana Ross at the end of the film. This song has become an anthem for me and my mum and its message fit in perfectly with tone at the end of the film.