Behind The Fourth Wall
MY MOST vivid early memory of television was not of a programme at all. It was of refusing to get undressed and get ready for bed in front of the fire, as I usually did. because the television was switched on and a rather formal lady, Sylvia Peters, was announcing the evening's programmes. My unshakable reasoning was that if I could see her then she could see me. All my seven years experience had taught me that this was invariably the case. And I refused to get undressed until she went away.
Part of television's appeal is precisely that illusion of the glass 'fourth wall' through which the viewer can gaze into the lives of other people without being seen, without incurring any reciprocal obligations, without surrendering any of one's own privacy or anonymity. The appeal of drama - from the battlements at Elsinore to oil wells of Dallas — has always rested on this same illusion, on the pretence that the viewer can be the unobtrusive and invisible witness of the viewed.
But in drama all is confessed at the end. The cast reappears for the finale to drop their masks and collect their applause, formally bringing the illusion to an end and admitting that far from being oblivious of the audience they were only doing it because the audience was there.
With the coming of the television documentary, the illusion of the glass fourth wall has become both more subtle and more mobile. It has become the illusion of the flexible glass tube, one end fixed in your living room and the other roaming the world like a sighted proboscis to allow you to peer without let or hindrance into the lives of Amazonian Indians, Nottinghamshire miners. Vietnamese boat-people, American policewomen or Tuareg tribesmen. The basic illusions, however, remain unimpaired. 'They don't know you are watching them and preserving that illusion has become an almost unconscious part of the art. One of the commonest reasons for re-shooting a sequence in a documentary, for example, is that the subject has looked directly into the camera. 'Sorry, cut' says the director, stepping out into the open. 'We'll have to do that one again, she was far too conscious of the camera.
The illusion has been threatened. If those whose lives we are observing look into the camera too much then the viewers are reminded that there is a camera, that they are not really looking through a glass tube.
And there is a film unit, a producer, a director, an editor and a whole apparatus of indirectness and potential interference with the 'reality' which they think they are seeing so directly.
But 'looking into the camera' also threatens another facet of the illusion - that the viewer is invisible to and has no impact on the viewed. After all, you can only feel comfortable about staring so directly if you can assume you are not causing any embarrassment.
Usually, that is probably a safe assumption. But in the case of documentaries about the Third World it may not be.
At one level, the making of such a film has an obvious impact on the filmed. In an off-the-beaten-track village in Asia, for example, the arrival of a film crew complete with eight steel boxes of equipment, women who behave as though they are the equals of men and a cameraman wearing a tartan tam o' shanter — is not what you would call unobtrusive. In some places it can be such an event that the whole village seems to spontaneously declare a holiday and gathers round to watch — for it is likely that such a thing as this will never pass this way again. And in some villages, dates and ages are calculated according to such events.
But it was not until I went back to a village where I had helped to make a film that I began to appreciate how serious the reverse-impact of television could be.
The village was in Sri Lanka, about four or five hours drive from Colombo. We had first gone there to make a film about a women's farm. We were all deeply involved in the issues which the film was about and were sensitive and respectful throughout the stay. The people of the village responded; they obviously enjoyed the visit and seemed genuinely sorry when the time came for us to pack up our equipment and go. About the impact of the filming on the community I had no qualms at the time.
About six months later I happened to be back in Sri Lanka on a different assignment. Seeing the chance of a clear week-end and having nothing but good memories about the time spent in the village and the people we had met there. I drove up to see them.
But from the moment I stepped into the house of Latha— the 21-year-old Women's Farm President— it was obvious that something was wrong and that our presence and filming had in fact caused a lot of pain,
The young man to whom Latha (our main storyteller in the film) had been betrothed since childhood had been away from the village at the time. When he heard what had been happening, he was furious. He felt that Latha's behaviour in taking a leading role in the film had been brazen and immodest and that therefore he had been humiliated. At one point, he apparently threatened to break off the engagement and accused Latha' s family - and especially her brothers - of not looking after his interests. Latha, who does not know her husband-to-be very well, was upset that he should be displeased with her even before their marriage had begun, 'If anything like that were to ever happen again,' Latha's mother eventually told me, 'my daughter would probably be unmarriageable.'
Quite independently, jealousy of Latha, her mother and the women of the women's farm had also begun to seep through certain quarters of the village. In part it was simply that those who had not been in the film were jealous of those who had. But the flame of that jealousy had also been fanned by money.
The women's farm as a group had been paid from the programme's budget for the three or four days time which they had given to the film rather than to their families' fields or to their own farm. Similarly, Latha and her mother had been paid a modest amount for the extra days which they had put into the film — being interviewed in different locations. If you are filming in an industrialised country then you don't ask someone to take three days off work to help you without paying them for it. In most developing countries you could probably get away without making such a payment. But it would surely be wrong.
Nevertheless these payments had given an unpleasant twist to the jealousy. - You have shown your poverty to the world for money,' Latha's mother had been told by one neighbour, 'and you have brought shame on yourself and the whole village.' This particularly unpleasant remark was apparently the latest shot in a long-running clash which had begun long before the film had been made.*
The result was that for weeks after we had left Latha was ashamed to walk down the village street. The cause was not any particular insensitivity on the part of those making the film. It was again the clash of the needs of the viewer with the needs of the viewed.
To us the idea that one individual tells the story may be both natural and necessary. From the point of view of the villagers it was neither. And Latha was caught in the middle.
Of all the clashes I suspect that the most important concerned a woman's place in that society. A woman is not supposed to push herself forward or attract attention. But to meet the needs of the film we had pushed Latha forward.
Finally, I learned that even the photographs which we had sent to Latha - and to the members of the women's farm via her-had added fuel to the flames. 'It's disgraceful that a girl who is promised in marriage should be receiving letters and presents from men abroad,' was one of the comments addressed to Latha's mother.
The particular example of television's reverse impact deserves a brief postscript. On returning to Colombo. I sought the help of A.T. Ariyaratne, President of the Sarvodaya movement (see NI 105 November 1981). On his advice, I returned to the village a few days later taking with me two distinguished Buddhist women from the Sarvodaya movement. Through their knowledge of village society and through the respect in which they were held they were able to dispel the misunderstandings and get the community to accept that Latha and her mother, far from doing anything wrong, had added to the respect in which Sri Lankan women are held.
But for the wider issue, I shall never again assume the invisibility of the viewer to the viewed.