Political Camerawork A Conversation with D. Andy Rice

The trailer for Meghan O’Hara and Mike Attie’s In Country (2014) opens with archival footage of the Vietnam War accompanied by a voice-over whose source is quickly revealed to be that of a man dressed in fatigues. The contrast between the grainy look of the archival footage and the crisp audio of the interview signals a dual temporality that is central to the film’s subject matter: an annual reenactment of the Vietnam War in the Oregon woods. For D. Andy Rice, In Country’s critical potential is hampered by its observational style; by adopting, perhaps instinctively, a formal approach characteristic of much media representation of the Vietnam War, In Country inadvertently reproduces the commemorative ethics of the reenactment.

In his new book Political Camerawork: Documentary and the Lasting Impact of Reenacting Historical Trauma, Rice considers the ethical, aesthetic, and political repercussions of camerawork in simulations and historical reenactments such as that in Oregon. To develop a theory of cinematography as embodied practice, Rice focuses on performative spaces “activated” by the documentary presence of the camera. In these spaces, which he terms “simulation documentaries,” performance and camerawork coalesce and overlap, the body of the cameraperson and its movements in search of the image becoming an inextricable part of the performance.

Rice trains his attention on three principal case studies: the aforementioned Vietnam War reenactment; Iraq War military training simulations; and an annual lynching reenactment in rural Georgia. At the core of his analysis is the (affective) labor of camerapersons at the time of shooting as they negotiate multiple variables and competing goals, sometimes relying on rapid decision-making. Because even documentary films often conceal the context and conditions of the camerawork that produced them, Rice addresses the embodied practices of performance and cinematography through what he calls a media phenomenology of camerawork. His multifaceted methodology draws from interviews with key participants in and organizers of these simulation documentaries, archival research on the performances and the historical facts they index, his own experience as a documentary practitioner, and a close analysis of media texts.

The book’s first chapter addresses the Vietnam War reenactment in Oregon as depicted in In Country. Rice argues that the film’s camerawork fails to interrogate the politics of masculinity and military service embedded in the reenactment’s commemorative ethics. A strictly observational approach is, in Rice’s view, unsuited to recording reenactments. Resolutely noninterventionist, it risks functioning as a conduit for the politics and ethics of its subjects. For instance, by emulating crisis coverage to signify particularly tense moments for the reenactors, In Country’s camerawork attempts to reproduce the affective weight of the reenactment without accounting for its own simulation. Indeed, the film omits that its directors were granted access to the reenactors only on the condition that they and their team “perform” as a wartime, fatigue-wearing documentary crew. It is only through editing—juxtaposing recorded footage with archival images of the Vietnam War—that the film contextualizes its camerawork as indexing (and critiquing) a cinematic culture surrounding the war. The film positions itself as yet another iteration in this performative mise en abyme, offering a subtle critique of the visual and cultural ideology that informs the reenactment.

The author’s views on cinematography and reenactment stem from his experience in shooting his 2012 documentary, About Face! Reenacting in a Time of War, about a group of Revolutionary War reenactors in New England. Rice proposes that indexicality lives less in the image’s potential for referentiality than in the bodies of performers, camerapersons, and spectators alike as they share what he refers to as a “touch” with the past. The labor of the cameraperson indexes a filmmaking practice that often reproduces the observational style premised on the idea of “being there” in a neutral, noninterventionist manner. Insofar as the camerapersons are themselves part of the act, they join in the performance, simulating camerapersons who have come before them and instinctively emulating camerawork that preceded theirs.

The book’s second chapter offers a phenomenological reading of the 3D military training programs developed at the Fort Irwin National Training Center (Fort Irwin NTC) in California’s Mojave Desert. The immersive experience aims to simulate the conditions, everyday practices, and high-intensity scenarios soldiers might encounter in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rice reveals that, while ostensibly presented by the military as “cultural-awareness training,” the simulation gives away the US-centric cinematic culture that informs the notions of realism it reproduces and enhances for soldiers in training. Rice contends that, in producing a simulation centered on a multisensorial, affective realism, the military has “weaponized affect” in an effort not only to improve its counterinsurgency tactics but also to promote an optics of cultural sensitivity and awareness to go along with American might and righteousness. As he puts it, “[T]he military’s experiments with managing affects in immersive, cinematic simulation performances [are] a new kind of weapon executing old ends” (84).

Reflecting on his visits to the site as a cameraperson in 2007 and 2012, Rice notes that the documentarian is enfolded within the logic of the training, not only in simulating the presence of the media in the actual sites of war, but also in executing the military’s public-relations strategies. He demonstrates that the NTC’s investment in a training program grounded in affective realism and its welcoming attitude toward the press and documentarians have helped produce positive media coverage while concealing or sidestepping the simulation’s underlying logic of imperialism and military power. Hence only a conscientious, nonneutral camerawork—what Rice calls political camerawork—can avoid becoming a vehicle for political affect at the service of the military.

Turning to a project whose agenda Rice favors, his third chapter describes the annual reenactment in Monroe, Georgia, of the unsolved lynching of two Black couples—George and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom—in 1946. Rice traces the development of the reenactment from its origins in 2005 as a “biracial community effort to promote healing” to its current iteration, carried out mostly by Atlantans, with little participation from the local community (122). In his account of the Moore’s Ford Lynching reenactment, where he also worked as a cameraperson and ethnographer, Rice highlights how the reenactment makes use of its media-inflected space influenced by public postcards of spectacle lynching and civil rights–era television camerawork. The chapter includes a brief history of lynching and its relationship with media, ranging from postcards featuring images of lynching to cinematic depictions of lynching—notably, Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915), Within Our Gates (Oscar Micheaux, 1920), and Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936)—to television programs about the civil rights movement, such as the “Sit-In” episode (1960) of White Paper (NBC, 1960–). In all of these, camerawork and its embodiment of the gaze play a key role in establishing or suggesting racial identification.

Rice notes the Moore’s Ford organizers’ efforts to make visible an unphotographed, unsolved, and thus invisible act of violence as a strategy adapted from civil rights movement campaigns. Although the historical accuracy of some graphic details in the reenactments may be questionable, in Rice’s view they still “honor the memories of those in the community over archives long regarded as untrustworthy on matters of racial history in the South” (135). Additionally, through the reenactment, the lynching gains an afterlife in digital images captured by viewers, producing a kind of affective archive otherwise inexistent. In other words, infused with “affective significance,” the reenactment is less interested in filling in these historical gaps than in rekindling the communal sense of injustice and reigniting political activism for ongoing racial and political struggles.

In the book’s fourth chapter, Rice addresses his concern that his camerawork at Moore’s Ford might have reproduced the gaze of the perpetrator in the same way that postcards of spectacle lynchings once did. His fears about inadvertently flipping the ethical orientation of the reenactment were assuaged upon seeing the final cut of Jacqueline Olive’s documentary Always in Season (2019), on which he was employed as an additional cinematographer. The film includes footage of the Moore’s Ford Lynching reenactment as historical context for its subject: the unresolved death of Lennon Lacy, a Black teenager found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina in 2014. Deemed a suicide by white police officers, Lacy’s death is reinterpreted by Always in Season through the affective infrastructure of lynching (and black suffering more broadly) enabled by the Moore’s Ford Lynching reenactment.

For Rice, when it opts to foreground the spectatorial gaze over the spectacle of the reenacted lynching, Always in Season exposes the limitations of observational documentary as the paradigm of realist representation. The film shows one of the reenactors watching footage of the reenactment and later juxtaposes the horrified expressions on faces of Black spectators as they watch the performance with those of white spectators in historical postcards of spectacle lynching. The violence of the reenacted lynching is represented only through the reverse shot of the onlooker and indexed by the sounds of the performance. Instead of simply reproducing the reenactment through an observational style, Olive adopts what Rice calls an acousmatic approach to its representation, reorienting the gaze from observational to critical and, in the way, exposing the limitations of the paradigm of documentary realism. The antiracist point of view espoused by the film could never have been achieved with the kind of footage Rice shot when covering the reenactment. The film’s goal is, after all, not the reproduction of violence enabled by observational camerawork, but “broadened empathy for the victims of unjust violence” (171).

Political Camerawork intersects film studies and performance studies with a keen eye toward the political ramifications of performance, filmmaking, and film. An autoethnography, it also serves as Rice’s mea culpa. As he recorded the lynching reenactment for Always in Season, Rice followed the noninterventionist directives of observational cinema to provide an editor with as much coverage as possible for creating spatiotemporal continuity. But what he could not convey was the point of view of the lynching victims, as doing so would have interfered with the performance beyond the prescribed roles of the camera. In the book’s three paradigmatic cases, Rice argues convincingly that the observational mode is poorly suited for documenting reenactments. Suggesting that this mismatch shrinks the distance between the reenactment’s project of social justice and texts such as Griffith’s Birth of a Nation or lynching postcards, Rice concludes with a challenge: What does it take to escape the pitfalls of noninterventionist camerawork in simulation documentaries if one’s goal and political inclinations are distinct from those of the performances themselves?

Bruno Guaraná: How did this project start?

D. Andy Rice: This book emerged from years I’d spent as a documentary filmmaker recording and participating in reenactment events, which happened to coincide with the broader transition in my field from analog to digital technologies. I learned observational and participatory recording techniques on synch-sound 16 mm film cameras in the late 1990s, then shifted into using Hi8 and editing on AVID hardware-software integrated systems. I eagerly moved into using Final Cut Pro, the first for use on personal computers, in the early 2000s. The advantages of small-format digital video over film were so clear to me at the time—lower cost, more intimacy, affordances for experimentation, faster and more-accurate possibilities for editing; that hand-wringing by documentary theorists over the loss of indexicality in digital media puzzled me. At the same time, the proliferation of small, inexpensive cameras seemed to be changing the ways that everyday people used them. The fact that everyone had a camera seemed to grant public pageants and performances such as reenactments a new visibility. The singular contingency of the documentary record seemed irrelevant or secondary here, and for someone steeped in observational-cinema traditions, this shift provoked difficult questions. Making sense of what it meant to do documentary work in, about, and through reiterative performance practices became the book’s central driving question.

Guaraná: What is particularly cinematic about simulation documentaries?

Rice: There are the obvious ways in which simulation documentaries resemble cinema—the pageantry of dress, the conjuring of life-and-death stakes, the crisis structure in story lines—but in a more meat-and-potatoes way, the case studies in the book mirror industrial film practices. They share labor. The Fort Irwin National Training Center contracted out with Hollywood special-effects technicians, actors, screenwriters, camera operators, and makeup artists to create their training simulation scenarios. The Black activists from Atlanta, Georgia, who play roles in and direct the Moore’s Ford Lynching reenactment also mostly work in the film industry or aspire to do so as actors, directors, and logistics personnel. And the reenactors of the Vietnam War featured in In Country routinely mention and mimic scenes from famous Hollywood films about that era. Industrial cinema is a common point of reference across participants and audience members in all these contexts. But equally significant, industrial film production has come to function somewhat as a training ground for the creative workers and volunteers that create such scenarios.

Guaraná: How have your role and experience as a cameraperson uniquely positioned you to access and analyze these simulation documentaries?

Rice: I think a lot about the methodology of Vivian Sobchack, who as a phenomenologist tracked her own affective responses to film and culture. Like any professional practice, camerawork shapes the attentional style of its practitioners. I notice after a stretch of filming days that I look differently at the morning coffee, kind of framing it in my mind’s eye or noting where the light falls on the cup. Spaces with depth and complexity lead me to think through interview framings even if I’m not talking to anybody. Lately, I’ve been making a film about migrating birds and the bird researchers who band and track them. I notice birds everywhere now and imagine the lens I would need to film them adequately.

Being a cameraperson, or perhaps just having a camera that isn’t a smartphone while with other people, leads to a different kind of spatial relation, acceptance, and regard. With a camera, I can stand a foot away from someone and stare at their hands as they remove a bird from a net, and no one questions my behavior. Imagine this without the camera, to bob and weave one’s head in rhythm with the hands from a foot away! The organizers of simulation documentaries tend to be keenly aware of advantages to the presence of the camera and tolerant, if not welcoming, of such encroachments into personal space. We are all collaborating in making the affectively intense image. Participants rely on my practiced way of seeing with a camera when I film them. So it is an unusual way to be present to others, but also an accepted one. And reflection on these moments leads to different thoughts than those of the ethnographer attending with pad and paper. The world shrinks to the rectangle of the viewfinder or flip-out screen. Those copresent with the camera note its presence and play to it somewhat, if unevenly. We all feel that in simulation documentary spaces. It’s part of the plan. Guaraná:

What do these live performances and simulations come to gain or lose from their mediation in film or digital video? Rice:

I think about technologies as tools that extend certain capacities (for directing attention to this or that in film), transform everyday interactions (the melding of present and imagined future at the point of recording), and compel forgetting other ways of being in the world (sans ubiquitous media devices, for instance). Simulation documentaries, in this way, extend their reach and affective power through cinematic mediation. I often think about the liveness debate in performance studies, about the simultaneous celebration of copresence in long-duration performance art and the impossibility of the category of “the live” outside of a society that takes recording for granted. I can’t really answer the question about what these performances and simulations lose from being filmed. It is not the same to be present as it is to see a film, but the filming is baked into the performance. There is no alternative to it.

The Vietnam War reenactors discussed in the first chapter of the book largely perform without audiences or cameras present. There are therapeutic rationales for some participants for doing so. I think these are interesting to consider. In war-reenacting subcultures, the therapeutic rationale is common. Some participants in Revolutionary War reenactments cherish the nights at camp under the stars, when the world quiets. They claim to reach epiphanies about the past in such moments. And it’s too dark then for cameras to record anything, so they’re put away. A performance for the camera does not necessarily lose these qualities for all participants, but it lands in a different way.

Guaraná: How does In Country criticize the commemorative intent behind the Vietnam War reenactment it depicts while elevating it to the status of a filmable object? Is its critique perhaps too subtle?

Rice: In Country was such a gift for the questions I was asking. The Vietnam War reenactors featured in the film told the filmmakers that their access was dependent on their willingness to role-play as 1970s war correspondents so as not to break the veneer of authenticity. It’s such a contradiction within the direct-cinema/cinema-verité traditions of work, to reenact in order to be there. But as with many ethnographic projects, the conditions of access determined the ethic of the film. It’s about understanding this subculture rather than critiquing its colonialist worldview, per se. There are a few moments in the film in which the critique is more visceral. In one, a high school kid nicknamed Cricket comments that the reenactment is “more real” than the Boy Scouts before revealing that he’s enlisted with the Marines. It’s an unsettling moment. There is also a scene toward the end of the film in which an American soldier in Vietnam reflects with a kind of ghoulish glee on his own wartime acts of killing. The film does not offer commentary, but the archival footage functions as a warning against the romanticism of the Vietnam-era grunt that the reenactors tend to favor. The filmmakers worked within a “double helix” structure, as they called it, to weave archives into the present of the film with the reenactors’ perceptions of the past. This was a crucial decision made in the editing stage, and I think here they could have pushed the critique further.

Guaraná: What tipped you off to the NTC’s deliberate embrace of a media presence at Fort Irwin to document its so-called cultural-awareness training?

Rice: During my first visit to the NTC, I found assumptions about soldierly righteousness obvious and the friendliness extended to me suspicious. It was a stretch to call the training they were doing “cultural.” But it wasn’t until I started reading stories about the fort published in other venues that patterns and characters clearly emerged. The NTC’s public-affairs office had some go-to Iraqi American actors who were very effective spokespeople for the army mission. They claimed to be serving both home and adopted countries by teaching young army trainees about Iraqi culture and thereby preventing killings arising from misunderstandings. I don’t doubt their sincerity, but the repetition of this narrative suggested a strategy at play, an awareness that the “shock and awe” teaching style worked on media visitors as well as the army’s soldiers. I recognized this tack and flow between intense affective experience and ready explanation from my time filming reenactments of the Revolutionary War.

Guaraná: How does Always in Season avoid the trap of reproducing the (violent) gaze of perpetrators in its documentation of the Moore’s Ford Lynching reenactments in Georgia?

Rice: I make the case that suturing the gaze of the Black female role-player in the reenactment watching a video of her own performance to the gaze of the (presumably white) audience member creates a disjuncture in feeling. It forces the look at the reenactment footage through the perspective of this Black woman who sheds a tear, while also eliding the visualization of the moment of execution. [The film’s director, Jacqueline] Olive was very sensitive to the delicate balance of acknowledging this horror without also reproducing its effects as terror. But the film also shows lynching photographs. In online commentaries about the film, some Black viewers have posted objections to the use of these pictures. Olive intercuts these images of calm, white spectators and murdered Black bodies in the early-twentieth-century lynching photographs with video recordings in the present of horrified Black witnesses at the lynching reenactment. The sounds of screams, commands, and gunshots from the reenactment play continuously across the montage sequence. In the end, the scene avoids depicting lynching to instead foreground unnerving white complicity, black looks, and simulated lynching sounds. They are uncomfortable scenes to watch because the sounds that the audience hears sutures them affectively to the ways that Black witnesses look at the scene.

Guaraná: How do these simulation documentaries direct and guide camerawork?

Rice: All of these simulation documentaries offered practical affordances for camerawork. Costumes, performances, and actions focus attention. There is a structure in place already for the day and options for beats and climax for the documentarian’s story. Filmers kind of know what’s coming and can be ready for it. They can anticipate editing schedules for quick turnarounds of a story, or take the time to delve deeper if resources are available for it. Simulation documentaries are flexible in this way. But in all cases, what directs camerawork comes alongside the filming of the chaotic, incoherent event.

Guaraná: Why should filmmakers take into consideration the fact that their presence is already “part” of these simulation documentaries?

Rice: I once heard a veteran civil rights activist quip that “if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.” I think about that quotation a lot. Filmmakers should think about it too. To register that which happens in a simulation puts one closer to the menu than to the table. Filmmakers need to be comfortable with the ethics of the simulation documentary they’re following, or be willing to participate in shaping the performative context of the film itself. That’s a big leap for some documentarians.

Guaraná: How did your own political alignment (or misalignment) with the ostensive goal of these simulation documentaries inform your embodied social sense as a filmmaker?

Rice: This question gets to the core of many projects—perhaps even or especially the project of national political coverage in an era shaped by populist sensibilities—not just my own. How do we represent people and ideas with whom we do not agree when media distribution offers potential access to large audiences of people we don’t know? In reportage of the Republican presidential campaigns since 2016, the devil’s bargain of coverage for ratings damaged the credibility of our public sphere. I’ve come to prefer that my embodied social sense as a filmmaker align with the goals of a simulation documentary I’m following. My current film projects have a hyperlocal focus for this reason. I will be accountable to the individuals I film long after I’ve finished filming them because they are my neighbors. I can pick out the stories that resonate with me.

Of the three cases in this book, I felt most closely aligned politically with the Moore’s Ford Lynching reenactment. I could agree with the rationale for it, for reparations, for voting rights, for the dignity of black life and the need for white Americans to process the meaning of lynching history in a community such as this one. However, the interpretation of the pregnancy of Dorothy Malcom gave me pause, as it has other historians who’ve written about the cold case. The presentation of an unlikely (though not impossible) pregnancy as fact seemed designed to augment anger and sensationalism. Yet as a cameraperson “fellow traveler,” I filmed the actor who played a Klansman mime the cutting open of Malcom’s stomach and the extracting of the “fetus.” This shot ended up in Always in Season, and the film did not question this detail. I would have preferred a clearer representation of ambiguity around this point, but the filmed event was not my story to control. In any case, there were limitations to what I, as a white cameraperson, could see, feel, and represent at the Moore’s Ford Lynching reenactment. Olive made deft use of the footage in her film, and I commend her for working around and with the sensibilities of myself and the other white camerapersons in creating her own film.

Guaraná: What is the ethics of a political practice of camerawork?

Rice: This is such a big and complicated question. There are some consensus tenets for contemporary documentary ethics: do no harm; protect the vulnerable; sustain ongoing informed consent; balance obligations to subjects, self, and institutional supporters. But the details of specific projects often place these principles in tension with one another. For example, the dignity of the subject butts up against the public’s right to know about this or that. Individuals both must and cannot represent something beyond themselves. Pressures to deliver on-time drama for institutional sponsors lead makers to consider shortcuts, like breaking the rabbit’s foot to expedite the filming of the predator’s catch. In general, writing about ethics in documentary film tends to be less about camerawork than the effect of the finished film in the world. Camerawork is the starting point, where deep reflection is not always possible. My book makes the attempt to grapple with the creation of cinematic knowledge at this nascent moment of its production.

Guaraná: Are you already working on your next project?

Rice: I have a few film projects in various stages of production right now and have started work on a second book. Bittersweet: Black College Life at a Predominantly White Institution is a feature documentary, oral-history collection, and archival project I directed and coproduced with a team of colleagues at Miami University in Ohio, where I work. The film is a rough cut, and we are trying to raise funding for a few final interviews, score, graphics, and color correction to complete it. Banded is a documentary in production about bird researchers tracking migrations as a lens on community-based ecological movements. And I’ve started writing parts of a second book project, h1d The Virtual Camera, which looks at the impact of the miniaturization of the camera on documentary practices in chapters h1d “Performative,” “Aerial,” “Wearable,” and “Embedded.” Jihoon Kim’s terrific new book Documentary’s Expanded Fields covered a lot of this territory in more robust ways than I’d envisioned, so I’m trying to think about how to adapt this project to build on his work. As with Political Camerawork, it will conceptualize documentary and performance practices in a variety of evolving public spaces and contexts. And I’m returning to an idea I’ve been thinking about for a while on what I call “reparative documentary,” following Eve Sedgwick’s beautiful essay on “reparative reading.” I saw the reparative frame as central to documentary films made during the COVID pandemic, such as “Sr.” [Chris Smith, 2022], Last Flight Home [Ondi Timoner, 2022], and The Future Tense [Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, 2023], which I had the chance to see at Telluride in 2022. These films evolved out of a novel social context rather than a new set of film technologies. Given that the dominant narrative of documentary studies tends to remain technohistoricist in orientation, I think it’s worth noting such films, attending to what they are doing, and offering thoughts about why they’re coming out now.

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