Seeing what’s in front of you

One of the things I keep noticing in Q&A sessions for documentary films is that some people seem to have a hard time relating to the people they see on screen as being actual people.

Today I watched The Order of Myths at the EIFF. The film is a documentary about the Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama which are currently racially segregated, though one of the major themes of the film is the ways in which people are gradually changing things for the better. It’s a very good film – lots to think about and I recommend seeing it. I imagine it will at least appear on one of the documentary strands on terrestrial TV in the UK.

During the Q&A session several of the people who appear in the film were present, including Helen Meaher who had been the white Mardi Gras queen and who is a descendant of the last person to bring a slave ship to the US. Someone in the audience had been very angered by what she’d seen in the film, including the fact that Meaher had been given that role. What struck me most of all about this was the way it was expressed: Meaher was not named or addressed in a way that acknowledged her presence (she was referred to as “the white queen” if I remember correctly) in spite of the fact that she was standing only a few meters away. It was as though this was an actress in a fictional film.

This was a striking example, but the general failure to connect with an actual person surprised me less than it should. Obviously, people in documentary films do play parts (as we all do in the various roles we fulfil) and the film may choose to represent them in a particular way but still there’s always at least some connection with the person depicted. I find it very distrurbing when that appears to get lost.

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