An Analysis of Found Footage Strategies in Su Friedrich’s The Ties that Bind. Part One: Context

by Leah Hendriks Volume 7, Issue 9 / September 2003 16 minutes (3915 words)

To me the most fantastic part of constructing a film is taking many disparate elements and making some sense out of them, making them work together and inform each other.1 – Su Friedrich

About Su Friedrich’s The Ties that Bind (1984), film critic-theorist Scott MacDonald says this: "diverse as the film’s sources of information are, they are tightly bound by Friedrich’s intricate editing, which develops a range of thematic and formal ‘ties’ between the various visual and auditory strands of the film."2 This tight binding of the variety of elements Friedrich employs is indicative of her overall goal to create films that express the holistic experience of being human through a holistic understanding of the film medium. Through a look at Friedrich’s The Ties that Bind, I will explore how her use of found footage strategies extends beyond the actual presence of these aesthetic elements in her work and creates the conceptual framework for her films as wholes. One of the most fascinating aspects of The Ties that Bind is the way in which Friedrich uses found footage filmmaking strategies to weave together disparate fragments of imagery, sound, and text to create a unified and coherent whole. Whether it was intentional or not, the title of this film (as McDonald suggests) illustrates perfectly the subtle and complex interconnections between imagery, sound, and text that form the underlying structure of this film. Friedrich’s film is about the totality of human experience and the potential of film to explore this totality in ways that no other medium can. Found footage strategies are the key to Friedrich’s exploration of human experience, and my purpose in this paper is to examine her use of these strategies and place them in the context of her overriding interest in using film to explore what it means to be human.

Although The Ties that Bind is not composed entirely from found footage, Friedrich’s use of found footage plays an instrumental role in the complex series of aesthetic and conceptual interconnections and juxtapositions she achieves in this film. Alongside her original material, she uses found footage elements such as home movies, television imagery, feature films, educational films, newsreels, and early cinema in addition to incorporating found photographs, illustrations, diagrams, and archival newspaper clippings into the film. Her soundtrack is also made up of a rich diversity of material. Friedrich’s use of original material alongside these others often makes it difficult to distinguish between them; the mingling of disparate elements creates a sense of what makes up our own memories – a mixture of elements culled from a lifetime of external stimuli juxtaposed and recombined by the processes of our minds. Like the film’s form, structure, and aesthetic, the narrative of this film also functions according to principles of juxtaposition, fragmentation, and recombination. Friedrich selects disparate fragments of imagery, sound, and text while playing with a diversity of film forms and genres, assembling these fragments to form a coherent, rhythmic and unified sense of film as an extension and reflection of human experience.

The Ties that Bind takes as its basis the exploration of the life and history of the filmmaker’s mother, Lore Bucher, an anti-Nazi German woman who "came of age along with the Third Reich" in 1930s Germany.3 As one starts to analyze the film, it becomes strikingly apparent that the film’s subject matter is tightly woven with its form and structure, revealing an intricate network of subtle interconnections between fragments of imagery, sound, and text. As I will illustrate, Friedrich uses found footage principles such as compilation and collage (as defined by William C. Wees) to create a unified, coherent, deeply meaningful, entertaining, and informative film. Through these strategies, she seeks to demonstrate how film can be understood as a holistic representation of human experience, combining her subject with her treatment of it in such a manner as to suggest the fullness of experience that can be achieved and conveyed through film when it is understood as an integral part of the way in which we understand ourselves and the world.

As the basis of her holistic approach to filmmaking, Friedrich integrates her artistic presence and subjectivity into the form and substance of the film through her very direct and personal exploration and experimentation with the form and materiality of the medium. In so doing, she establishes her artistic voice as being an integral component of this film and thereby equates her artistic voice with the material nature of the film itself.

A key example of this integration of her artistic voice into the very substance of the celluloid comes with her subversion of a basic convention in documentary filmmaking. It is common in certain modes of documentary to hear the filmmaker’s voice asking questions and responding to the subject being interviewed. This intrusion of the filmmaker’s voice establishes a measure of reflexivity that calls attention to the constructed nature of the film and the influence of the filmmaker on the events taking place before the camera. Friedrich adheres to this convention by framing the entire film around an interview with her mother, but in place of her spoken voice she makes the viewer aware of her thoughts and questions through scratching them in written form directly onto the filmstock. In so doing, she draws on a tradition established by avant-garde filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, inscribing herself directly into the most fundamental of all cinematic materials, its flexible celluloid base, thereby equating herself with the physical materials of the film itself. This integration of the film’s materiality and Friedrich’s own experience demonstrates her interest in making film not only for educational, aesthetic, or narrative purposes, but to express how all aspects of filmmaking can come together to create a rich exploration of the human condition. My central interest here is the way in which Friedrich combines different visual and auditory strands of material to generate a holistic understanding of cinematic experience – exemplified by the transposition of her voice onto celluloid through the materiality of the “scratch,” and the relationship this transposition shares with her use of found footage strategies.

Friedrich’s exploration of the links between human experience and the cinema can be understood largely in terms of her use of found footage. In general, the use of found footage usually involves one or more of the concepts of collage, compilation, and appropriation.4 These concepts are very important in appreciating the depth of Friedrich’s filmmaking. Her work expands upon the traditional understanding of these three filmmaking strategies by blurring the lines between them, deeply personalizing them in the process, and thus forming a more holistic paradigm for understanding how a variety of categorizations can be broken down and reassembled to better reflect the way in which humans exist within the world. As I will show, Friedrich combines many elements to dislodge conventional associations and force the viewer to come to new conclusions about the very nature of filmmaking.

For example, documentary film frequently draws on the concept of compilation to present information about reality in visual form without necessarily questioning the representational nature of the images. On the other hand, collage practice seeks to draw a variety of images together in order to question their representational status by probing, highlighting, and contrasting the elements presented together.5 Finally, a third found footage category, appropriation, seeks to draw elements together in order to smooth out apparent differences between them and suppress questioning of them.6

Part of Friedrich’s skill lies in her combining of these strategies to create a full examination of the processes of found footage use while examining her own life at the same time. For instance, she uses compilation strategies to present documentary materials that help highlight the stories her mother tells about her wartime experiences. However, the way in which she combines these materials with original footage and her use of popular culture imagery serves as more of a collage approach, calling attention to the fact that she is actively reconstructing the images she presents. She does not wish to diminish the gravity of her mother’s experience, and so the documentary footage must maintain its integrity as being representative of reality while still allowing for a critical assessment of the way in which such images can be used in a manipulative fashion. Finally, the blending of these images with her original material often creates a sense that all the elements are one and the same, thereby illustrating more of an appropriation strategy designed to homogenize the aesthetic into a unified whole that suggests an aesthetic interest outside of documentary’s informational quality or collage’s reflexivity. In turn, Friedrich’s combination of found footage strategies illustrates her interest in blurring the lines between any number of other elements as well, such as those between film and body, memory and history, truth and fiction. Thus, when discussing found footage strategies, I will be referring to her interest in the combination of these strategies to present a new understanding of the world in the context of a more holistic artistic practice, a practice that seeks to change the way in which we understand the categories of experience that have often been built up in our minds surrounding our perception of the world.

In addition to found footage, several styles of original material contribute to the formal and conceptual structure of The Ties that Bind. Friedrich incorporates a good deal of 16mm footage of her mother, Lore Bucher, performing a variety of activities, such as swimming at a lake and going about regular domestic activities in her home. In addition to the footage she shot of her mother, Friedrich incorporates Super 8 footage she recorded while on a trip to visit her mother’s hometown in Ulm, Germany, along with her travelogues of other towns, cities, and regions along the way, shots of hands (presumably the filmmaker’s) building and then destroying a model house made from a kit, and images from an anti-war demonstration that took place in 1980s USA.

As mentioned, part of Friedrich’s strategy is to obscure the boundary lines between her original material and the found footage that comprises a large portion of the film. The found footage consists mostly of newsreel material (bombed out towns and cities recorded during the war years along with Nazi parades and marches), early cinema, television imagery (i.e., wrestling matches, a game show, advertisements, televised broadcasts of movies, a television evangelist, and sitcoms from the 1960s), educational films, home movies, still photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings.

The use of home movie footage is the strongest aesthetic link to some of the archival material, being shot in the same eras, and the juxtaposition between the two is one of the primary ways that she manipulates found footage as means to explore and illustrate history and memory. She also blurs the boundaries between her original footage and found materials by re-photographing television material off of the television screen, thus giving it a home movie texture while emphasizing television’s own material nature through both its low-resolution graininess as well as the roll bars created by the lack of synchronization between the frame rates of the televised image and the camera that films it.

Employing techniques such as these, Friedrich makes the idea of the home movie the key to her explorations of the intersections between found footage strategies and the processes of memory and the construction of history. The status of old home movie footage can be described as falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between original footage and found footage. Assuming that this footage is indeed home movie footage of her mother and father when they were first married in 1950, this footage belongs to her family lineage and legacy, and in this sense this footage is (to a certain extent) original footage that already existed as documents of her family history, and by extension, as part of Friedrich’s personal history as well. On the other hand, this footage functions as found footage in the sense that it pre-existed Friedrich’s birth and, of course, she did not play a role in the creation or documentation of these images. This raises interesting questions about both the nature and status of found footage: What constitutes found footage? Who owns home movie images? When does home movie footage become found footage? And where (and how) does one draw the line? The use of home movie footage in films that use found materials also raises other questions, such as the way in which home movie footage can be used either on its own or in conjunction with original footage, found footage, and other sources of visual and auditory material to evoke a sense of history, memory, and identity. These questions are enhanced by Friedrich’s incorporation of a variety of textual materials into the film.

The text consists of hand scratched questions and commentary that represent the filmmaker’s voice, letters (both close-ups on the written text of the letters themselves, as well as information written on the envelopes), and newspaper clippings (newspaper headings and fragments of stories). Although all forms of textual material used in this film are interconnected and reinforce one another, each form plays a different role and fulfills a different function. These distinct forms of text are all important to the film’s processes of expression and communication, but I think the hand scratched text is the most prominent and evocative. The hand scratching is the form of text that generates the greatest sense of intimacy between the film, filmmaker, and spectator. The hand scratched text takes on principles of collage when it is directly superimposed over other images, commenting on and providing counterpoint to the images underneath, but the text also often appears against a stark black background. The different ways in which Friedrich uses hand scratched text creates different aesthetic and conceptual effects that influence the overall meanings that are generated by this film.

The text influences the spectator in a variety of ways as the spectator engages with both the information presented in the isolated fragments of textual material (on the levels of both form and content) and the ways in which the text works as an expressive device that informs the spectator’s understanding of the film as a whole. The hand scratched text creates an interesting and dynamic relationship between the film, filmmaker, and spectator; the text represents the filmmaker’s subjectivity and presence within the film and also functions as means to engage the spectator more fully into the content of the film, and does so in a very personal and direct way. While the information communicated through the written text conveys meanings that correspond to the film text as a whole, including the diversity of imagery as well as auditory material, this information also corresponds to thoughts and ideas the spectator might have brought to the film based on prior knowledge or experience, and thoughts and ideas instilled within the spectator by the content of the film itself.

This combination of original and found visual and auditory materials and the way in which these materials are blended to form a unified and synthesized whole can also be seen in the way in which Friedrich combines and blends different cinematic genres and traditions. As I will now examine, Friedrich’s amalgamation of disparate elements from different cinematic genres and traditions (that are usually considered separate and distinct) functions as an additional dimension to the subtle and complex series of interconnections she weaves. I would argue that her synthesis of different cinematic genres and traditions functions as an extension of the philosophy of fragmentation (mixing, juxtaposition, layering, and recombination) that informs and underlies her selection and construction of imagery, soundtrack, and text. Film scholars Scott MacDonald and Catherine Russell raise this point in their respective writings about Friedrich’s work,7 and I think this issue deserves further consideration in the context of an analysis of the ways in which Friedrich uses found footage strategies.

Friedrich takes elements from different cinematic genres and traditions and consolidates them to create a new cinematic form in much the same way as she combines elements of found footage and other fragments of imagery and sound to form a larger aesthetic and conceptual whole. By synthesizing different cinematic genres and traditions, Friedrich takes advantage of meanings already associated with these forms while simultaneously shifting their original meanings, displacing them from their conventional contexts and using them in new ways. As suggested by McDonald and Russell, the two genres that will be of most interest are documentary and the North American avant-garde, but my interest also extends into the realm of the fiction film, the woman’s film, and the ethnographic film.

One of the most striking effects generated through Friedrich’s amalgamation of elements from these cinematic genres and traditions is the powerful sense of history and memory that is evoked through her selective mixing, layering, and juxtaposition. In combination with her use of found footage as well as original footage, text, and soundtrack material, her consolidation of documentary and avant-garde practices creates a cinematic form that privileges history and memory, that links different cultures and generations, that draws lines between individual and collective identity, and that unites past and present. History, memory, and identity are central themes in The Ties that Bind, and her use of found footage strategies to blur the lines between documentary and experimental filmmaking plays an instrumental role in the construction and expression of these themes.

Scott MacDonald identifies two types of North American independent film practices that are evident as forms within Friedrich’s films: documentary filmmaking and the North American avant-garde.8 In particular, he associates Friedrich’s work with the cinéma vérité form of documentary filmmaking that was, in MacDonald’s words, "popular in North America (and elsewhere) during the 1960s and 1970s – especially that subset of cinéma vérité films in which filmmakers interrogate their personal histories, families, and current circumstances."9 In terms of the North American avant-garde, he draws parallels between Friedrich’s work and the tradition of personal avant-garde filmmaking exemplified in the work of filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and Bruce Baillie, and the work of structural filmmakers such as Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, and Ernie Gehr.10 Thus, MacDonald aligns Friedrich’s work with cinéma vérité documentary filmmaking and both personal and structural avant-garde and experimental film practices.

Catherine Russell discusses Friedrich’s work within the context of experimental and avant-garde cinema and documentary filmmaking, but extends her analyses into a discussion of some of the ways that Friedrich draws upon fiction, the woman’s film, and ethnographic film. Russell argues that The Ties that Bind invokes some of the codes and conventions of the woman’s film in the sense that this film domesticates history into "an emotional tale of struggle and tears" that is "mapped onto the relation between mother and daughter."11 She associates this film with the ethnographic film in the sense that the film explores some of the ways in which both the individual and the collective are socially and culturally constructed beings, and how the individual’s sense of personal history, memory, and identity is formed through social and cultural experiences.12

The film is similar to a fiction film in the sense that it functions according to codes of narrative cinema and tells a story that may or may not be grounded in actual fact.13 As spectators, we have no way of really knowing whether Lore Bucher is the filmmaker’s mother, whether or not the stories she tells are true, or if this person actually exists. The spectator engages with the film as though it was a representation of truth because it is extremely personal and presents its material as autobiographical, and because it draws heavily on the documentary form. This film presupposes familiarity with the codes and conventions of the documentary form, codes and conventions that configure documentary realism as a form of cinematic realism that is both educational and informative, and one that offers a true to life representation of real life situations and events. However, as are all forms of cinema, documentary filmmaking is heavily mediated and grounded in both cinematic and cultural conventions. In the case of The Ties that Bind, the codes and conventions of documentary filmmaking are further mediated by Friedrich’s synthesis of documentary with elements from other cinematic genres and traditions. To this end, The Ties that Bind is representative of a new understanding of cinematic realism, one that combines documentary filmmaking with experimental and avant-garde cinema as well as ethnographic film, fiction, and other narrative practices.14

In their consolidation of experimental cinema, documentary, ethnography, fiction, and other narrative practices, Friedrich’s films are representative of a new form of experimental cinema, one that is, in Russell’s words, "at once fully conscious of the avant-gardes that have come before and is committed to ‘the social’ and its politics of representation." 15 Moreover, according to Russell, although Friedrich’s films "may or may not have a feminist ‘agenda’ or a feminist ‘aesthetic,’" they "definitely emerge from and are addressed to a gendered cultural milieu." 16 MacDonald’s analysis supports and extends this argument when he makes comparisons between Friedrich’s films and the wave of feminist experimental filmmaking that was born in the 1970s, with films such as Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman… (1975), Yvonne Rainer’s Film About a Woman Who… (1974), and Jackie Reynal’s Deux Fois (1970). 17

Read Part 2 Here.

Notes

  1. Su Friedrich, interview, in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992), 305.
  2. Ibid., 284.
  3. Scott MacDonald, "Su Friedrich: Reappropriations," Film Quarterly. XLI.2 (Winter 1987-88): 35.
  4. William C. Wees, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993) 34.
  5. Wees, Recycled Images 47.
  6. Wees, Recycled Images 47
  7. Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1999) 148-156; Catherine Russell, "Culture as Fiction: The Ethnographic Impulse in the Films of Peggy Ahwesh, Su Friedrich, and Leslie Thornton," The New American Cinema, ed. Jon Lewis (Durham &London: Duke University Press, 1998) 353-378; Scott MacDonald, Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 102-111; Scott MacDonald, "Su Friedrich Interview," A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992) 283-318; Scott MacDonald, "Su Friedrich: Reappropriations," Film Quarterly. XLI.2 (Winter 1987-88): 34-43; Scott MacDonald "From Zygote to Global Cinema via Su Friedrich’s Films," Journal of Film and Video. 44.1-2 (Spring-Summer 1992): 30-41; Scott MacDonald, "Script of Sink or Swim," in Screen Writings, Scott MacDonald, ed. (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995), 241-258.
  8. Scott MacDonald, Avant-Garde Film 105; Scott MacDonald, "From Zygote to Global Cinema" 33-34
  9. Scott MacDonald "From Zygote to Global Cinema" 33.
  10. Scott MacDonald, Avant-Garde Film 105; Scott MacDonald, "From Zygote to Global Cinema" 34; Scott MacDonald, "Su Friedrich Interview" 308-309.
  11. 11. Russell, "Culture as Fiction"360.
  12. Russell, "Culture as Fiction" 354-357, 360.
  13. Russell, "Culture as Fiction" 363-364.
  14. Russell, "Culture as Fiction" 354.
  15. Russell, “Culture as Fiction” 357.
  16. Russell, “Culture as Fiction” 357.
  17. MacDonald, “From Zygote to Global Cinema via Su Friedrich’s Films” 34-35; MacDonald, “Reappropriations” 41-43.

Volume 7, Issue 9 / September 2003 Essays avant-gardeexperimentalsu friedrich

Related Articles