J.P. Sniadecki’s Radical Vision of Ethnography

by Kate Schiebelbein Volume 19, Issue 10 / October 2015 11 minutes (2615 words)

During the “Visions” experimental documentary series at the Recontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal (Nov. 14, 2014), guest director J.P. Sniadecki was asked “what’s next?” for his filmmaking. After a moment of hesitation, Sniadecki declared that he would like to produce something more radical. He elaborated that he is still compelled by “the real world” and documentary, but that he aspires to provoke new ways of seeing reality. This intention offers a valuable jumping-off point for thinking about experimental documentary in general. Such a genre may seem contradictory in light of the traditional associations of documentary with pedagogic exposition and the avant-garde with visionary or abstract aesthetics, but it ultimately serves to evince that reality is not as simple and explicable as it is often made out to be. Sniadecki’s style actively engages with ideas of perception and defamiliarization, working to counter the narrow-mindedness of settling into one, habitual way of experiencing film and the world in general. He works in the genre of ethnography, which carries a particularly long legacy of shying away from creative, visual means, instead relying on the linguistic framework of voice-over narration to interpret imagery (Sniadecki 29). Rather than perpetuate this tradition of didacticism, Sniadecki draws from the expressive aesthetic of the avant-garde, particularly that of structural film and slow cinema, and contemporary Chinese documentary’s embrace of contingent happenings (Robinson 191) – a film scene he is very much a part of, with the majority of his films exploring China as his subject. Sniadecki’s observational approach and aesthetic of slowness, with particular emphasis on the long take, liberates the spectator, creating an open, immersive space that allows for apperceptive contemplation and sensual perception. He also extends this openness to his subjects, allowing their spontaneous rhythms to guide production and embracing a sense of ambiguity that respects the limits of representing our world’s cultural complexity. With reference to The Yellow Bank (2010), People’s Park (2012), and The Iron Ministry (2014), I feel that Sniadecki’s self-proclaimed, “sensual and open-ended” ethnography (Sniadecki 23) is already well on its way towards his ambition of radicalism, and I am excited to see where he takes it next.

During Sniadecki’s RIDM master class (Nov. 14, 2014), he referenced structural film as a prominent influence on his work. His films reveal a structuralist preoccupation with temporality (though not strictly through a fixed camera), frequently including long takes of repetitive, day-to-day activities. For instance, Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry is the result of three years spent filming the daily life of people on passenger trains in China. He presents incredibly patient long takes of people eating, sleeping, smoking, cleaning, loading food onto the train, cooking, etcetera. These shots are rendered as a collage, eschewing any use of dramatic editing, romantic storylines, or explanatory voice-over. P. Adams Sitney, a prominent writer on American avant-garde film, discusses the apperceptive effects of duration in his essay “Structural Film”. Referencing the work of Andy Warhol, he states, “by sheer dint of waiting, the persistent viewer [will] alter his experience before the sameness of the cinematic image” (351). The long take opens up a contemplative space that compels us to mentally engage with the image, and become aware of our own perception and position within the ethnographic exchange between spectator, filmmaker, and subject – ideally triggering a consideration of ethics within this power dynamic which, as I will elaborate on, Sniadecki respectfully navigates.

This long take aesthetic is especially jolting in light of contemporary, commercial film. In Tsai Ming-Liang and a Cinema of Slowness, Song Hwee Lim explains that Hollywood’s editing pace has been consistently speeding up over the last two decades, often “accelerat[ing] to the extent that vision becomes a blur” (6). These narratives sweep us away with action, leaving no time to notice details or reflect upon the image – another form of controlling guidance, alongside the expository narration of classical documentary. In “Shelly on Film: The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema, Part One”, Shelly Kraicer notes that unfortunately, the type of Chinese documentary films receiving exposure in the West fit this dramatized mold, despite the innovative work being performed by Sniadecki and the majority of his Chinese documentarian peers. He explains, “[the films] typically screened or distributed can be described as fitting a National Geographic style: anodyne travelogues of life in China, made readily consumable through a Western style approach to filmmaking that privileges exotic spectacle and narrative excitement” (par. 14). Sniadecki’s aesthetic aims to counter these inauthentic, romantic stereotypes of “the Far East”. Understanding the life of its citizens instead requires a patient gaze, which gives time and thereby respect to the quotidian life and labour they carry out with an often artisanal focus. We would not have the chance to notice this work ethic in commercial films that tend to cut away from “boring” tasks.

Sniadecki references the influence of another important figure in the American avant-garde, Stan Brakhage, in his article “Chaiqian/Demolition: Reflections on Media Practice”. He draws upon Bart Testa’s analysis of Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971):

For Testa, in most documentaries, the act of showing – and, by logical extension, certainly the act of telling – “implants images within a wider and controlling function of meaning… Witnessing and seeing recede, to a greater and lesser degree, behind signification and showing”. In the acts of seeing, however, employed in Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing, something entirely different from acts of showing is at work: “from this seeming simplicity and directness, interpretive possibilities [do] arise, if only because Brakhage’s film does not interpret its images for us”. Wishing to evade the recession of witnessing and seeing, and hoping to downplay the controlling function of meaning, I sought to keep the power of the “act of seeing” as a guide… (30)

Sniadecki avoids linguistic interpretive frames that pin down any singular meaning, liberating the perception of the spectator. He relies on the revelatory power of the image, not to reveal some sort of inherent message, but to bare fully the excess and ambiguity of cultural meaning that warrants multiple angles of interpretation. This open-ended aesthetic carries ethical value, since it does not attempt to conflate cultural complexity into a simple, “educational” argument from the ethnographic outsider. People’s Park offers a compelling example. The film is a single seventy-eight minute take of an urban park in Chengdu, meandering through the site’s bustling pathways. Sniadecki captures people of many different classes, ages, and emotional states, and activities from calligraphy to karaoke. There are people who thrive as performers, singing and dancing, and those who fall into the background. Some wave at the camera and others display an aversion to it. Sniadecki does not attempt to impose judgment onto this manifold social fabric, but simply invites us to see it in all its busy, intermingled diversity. He also avoids developing the story of any one person. In discussing this same decision in another of his films, Chaiqian/Demolition (2008), he states, “this choice was due, in part, to an epistemological humility regarding film’s ability to know and represent the Other; for the very fact that film is composed of fragments, it tends to render the complexity and indeterminacy of a subject into a frozen caricature, which is then presented to audiences as somehow comprehensive” (33). Instead of rendering a superficial, definitive portrait of his subject, Sniadecki embraces the images’ raw density of meaning, which may then inspire multiple personal responses.

In addition to this open-ended “act of seeing”, Sniadecki is interested in provoking a mode of perception that affects people on a corporeal, sensory level. He is a member of the Harvard-based Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), described by its website as “an experimental laboratory… that promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography”. This initiative is concerned with experiential forms of knowledge, in which spectators are able to enter into an ethnographic study through cinematic synesthesia – the power of film to highlight affective, visual and acoustic textures. Sniadecki quotes David MacDougall: “new concepts of anthropological knowledge are being broached in which meaning is not merely the outcome of reflection upon experience but necessarily includes the experience. In part, then, the experience is the knowledge” (27). This immersive act is exemplified by The Iron Ministry, as Sniadecki’s movement through the train aisles with his handheld camera induces a tangible sense of claustrophobia, and the frame picks up the occasional jitter of the trains’ movements. He includes many close-up shots that accentuate visual texture: from cigarette butts on the ground to the graphic abstraction that comes from shots out the window, expressing the powerful speed of the trains. The film also foregrounds strictly diegetic sound, revealing an equal interest in the passengers’ conversations and the white noise of the trains themselves. The film opens with a very long stretch of complete blackness, while we hear steam, clatter, and whistles. In American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary, Scott MacDonald suggests, “it is typical of SEL films that we hear before we see (and after we see), and that sound is conceived not as an adjunct to image, an accompaniment, but as a complex, often intense auditory surround within which the imagery unfolds” (315). While many films overlook or even try to minimize white noise so that dialogue may take centre stage, Sniadecki recognizes and harnesses its enveloping, visceral power.

Duration once again becomes key with the concept of sensory ethnography, allowing us the time to become attuned to our senses, sink into the feeling of the image, and experience the rhythm of the subject. Sniadecki makes a conscious effort to represent these rhythms with an ethic of authenticity, referring to his work as a “cinema of encounter” that responds to the spontaneous pacing and whims of his subjects (RIDM master class, Nov. 14, 2014). Instead of imposing his own tempo through editing, he explains that he is guided by an “awareness of how objects, sensations, emotions, and individuals reveal themselves according to their own rhythms and/or biorhythms” (30). For instance, The Yellow Bank, which Sniadecki describes as a meditation on architecture and light, captures the natural flow of a solar eclipse that engulfs the Shanghai harbour. During the RIDM Visions talkback, he revealed that he did not have a specific plan for filming when he woke up that morning, he did not know the city would be cloaked in a ghostly fog, and he had no control over the path of the ferry on which he was shooting (Nov. 14, 2014). The film unfolds in real time, so that we may experience the gradual, subtle changes in light and the ominously slow pace of the eclipse. Sniadecki smoothly pans over the cityscape as the ferry makes its way between the two banks, reflecting the eeriness of this celestial encounter – the feeling of being pulled or encircled by a force beyond our control.

Sniadecki’s work can be considered not only a “cinema of encounter”, but also one of discovery. His intuitive filmmaking process and openness to unpredictable, fluctuating environments necessarily involve an attitude of exploration. The work results in a play between his curiosity as a filmmaker and the guiding biorhythms of his subjects. Lim’s discussion of the long take is valuable here: “continuity editing suggests that there is a story to be told, and, thus, there is literally no time to waste. The long take… on the other hand, preserves the unity of space and the integrity of time, allowing the protagonist (and the camera) ample time to wander, linger, and meander because, even if the protagonist has somewhere else to go to, he is in no hurry to do so” (19-20). People’s Park offers an ideal example, as Sniadecki ambles through the park, lingering on people he finds interesting and not knowing whom he will find around the next corner. The Iron Ministry also exhibits many instances of spontaneous discovery. At one point Sniadecki is filming some young men having a conversation about real estate and pollution, when he suddenly becomes distracted by a man sweeping the floor. His camera tilts down towards the man’s broom, following him down the aisle. The film does not prioritize talk of China’s political issues over the labour of a sweeper. Both acts are compelling to Sniadecki, as he endeavors to explore the full range of life on these trains.

This embrace of spontaneity and contingency also reflects the larger trends of contemporary independent documentary in China. As asserted by The Iron Ministry’s producer Joshua Neves at RIDM, Sniadecki is an active part of this filmmaking community (The Iron Ministry talkback, Nov. 16, 2014). Although he is American, Sniadecki has also lived in China for many years and is fluent in Mandarin. His presence counters the distanced perspective of a non-native ethnographer, instead allowing the aesthetic tendencies and values of his Chinese community to inspire his work. He notes that he is particularly influenced by the concept of “xianchang” (25), which originated as a term for location shooting practiced by filmmakers in the early 1990s (Robinson 180). In “From ‘Public’ to ‘Private’: Chinese Documentary and the Logic of Xianchang”, Luke Robinson suggests that xianchang “is arguably the thread that binds together an increasingly diverse Chinese documentary scene,” challenging the studio-based socialist realism that dominated up until the late 1980s (180). He notes that the term xianchang has grown to take on greater meaning, representing Chinese contemporary directors’ belief in responding to the ever-changing flow of lived experience. Robinson argues that, to these filmmakers, “the fleeting and the contingent are integral to the documentary experience… Rather than seeking to shape their material through editing, contemporary directors therefore talk of responding to the flow of events as they happen, allowing the documentary to evolve” (191). This perspective carries political significance, countering the state socialist realist style that asserts the fixity of societal norms and order. Thus, Sniadecki and his Chinese peers’ “cinema of encounter” not only confront the dictates of classical ethnography, but also of China’s rigid politics. He expresses hope for his work to “contribute to the development of… a counter-discourse to China’s triumphant narrative of unbroken ascendancy” (35).

Sniadecki expresses a sense of openness both to the rhythms of his subject and to his spectators, enabling them to have their own personal interpretations and sensory experience. This open-mindedness is connected to a larger ethical practice, opposing the safe containment and reductionism of “educational”, argumentative frameworks. The classic structures of expository documentary, dramatized narrative, and socialist realism all function to control our perception and thoughts. In contrast, Sniadecki’s radical vision of ethnography and expressive, avant-garde aesthetic uphold the freedom to explore. He prioritizes reflection, contingency, and ambiguity, thus respecting the complexity of his cultural subjects. Knowledge lies in the full experience of the image – seeing it, feeling it, pursuing its multiple avenues of meaning – an encounter far more enlightening than a film invested in the act of telling.

Works Cited

Kraicer, Shelly. “Shelly on Film: The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema, Part One.” dGenerate Films. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Lim, Song Hwee. Tsai Ming-Liang and a Cinema of Slowness. University of Hawaii Press, 2014. Project MUSE. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

MacDonald, Scott. American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. Project MUSE. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

Robinson, Luke. “From ‘Public’ to ‘Private’: Chinese Documentary and the Logic of Xianchang.” The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement. Ed. Chris Berry,

Lu Xinya, and Lisa Rofel. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010. 177-194. Print.

Sel.Fas.Harvard.Edu. Sensory Ethnography Lab, 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.

Sitney, P. Adams. “Structural Film”. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 347-370. Print.

Sniadecki, J.P. “Chaiqian/Demolition: Reflections on Media Practice.” Visual Anthropology Review 30.1 (2014): 23-37. Wiley Online Library. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

J.P. Sniadecki’s Radical Vision of Ethnography

Kate Schiebelbein is currently completing her BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema in Montreal. Her interests include the silent era, experimental film, and noir. After finishing her undergrad she plans to travel, visiting film festivals and old movie theatres in as many different countries as possible. Ultimately, she would like to end up working in a museum or art gallery.

Volume 19, Issue 10 / October 2015 Festival Reports   documentary   ethnographic cinema   j.p. sniadecki   montreal international documentary film festival