Book Review

Strangers Within: Documentary as Encounter, edited by Therese Henningsen & Juliette Joffé

mostly great anthology about filmmaking and strangers that gets too academic (for me) by its end

cw: suicide ideation, sexual content, ableism, anhedonia

Another book from Prototype graced my eyes and my hands this week, a recently published anthology of writing about meeting strangers, specifically (tho not in every piece of writing) the experience of meeting strangers and documenting that meeting and/or that stranger through the medium of film.

This is an anthology, then, about filmmaking, about myth making, about the construction of art and connectedness and the unexpected finding of inspiration in people and places where inspiration wasn’t looked for, and – in a few of the pieces – where inspiration was looked for, but what was found was not the inspiration that was sought.

It’s good, I enjoyed it! Order it via this link.

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Strangers Within contains lots about travel, lots about movement and about relocating to different cities and countries, and though there is no real reflexivity in here about use of explicitly “othered” individuals as subjects for documentary – the piece by a British boomer filmmaker who made multiple films about an elite Indian private boarding school is the most conspicuously questionable, with a close second being one where a Gen X guy (ikr) writes about a doc he made in the early 90s where he credited his disabled 7yo daughter as a creative collaborator, which feels like, I dunno… some way towards like parental exploitation, but what do I know, maybe parental exploitation is rewarding for a child – at least you’re being noticed, right? At least you’re being seen as someone with something to exploit?

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There is some beautiful writing in here, including two pieces from Nobel laureates (Toni Morrison & Annie Ernaux), which are – understandably – the highlights in the book, which is sadly front-loaded in terms of pieces offering much general interest.

Maybe by the second half of the book the general reader (i.e. the me type reader, the scott manley hadley type reader) is expected to have given up (or never have been there at all?), but the shift towards more academic writing, writing that is more florid and humourless, less self aware, was quite disappointing for me, though I can totally believe that this wouldn’t happen for the intended reader, for the people who are expected to be reading this book.

It starts off incredibly strong, with powerful piece after powerful piece, but the second half held very few pieces that I found memorable. But I’m a generalist, right? Anything too deep, too specific, too jargony and scene-y just turns me off.

Also, one of the pieces (written by one of the editors!) mentioned walking around the park at the end of my road, where I have been, walking my dog, the vast majority of days since I came back to London.

It was strange to see distant, industrial, unglamorous Seven Sisters in an intellectual, beautiful book.

Is this the relentless march of gentrification (I’m including my own (tbf penniless) presence as evidence of that, of course – I’ve got more degrees than I have lovers and I’ve had more books published than I have balls and I’ve been quoted in the New Yorker more times than I’ve been questioned under caution by the police and I’ve been ‘Highly Commended’ in the Forward Prizes for Poetry more times than I’ve set fire to a van in a park and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and and) or the failure of intellectualism to provide the glamorous city centre lives that all the intellectuals used to get, or at least used to pretend they got???

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I meet strangers every day, but never do they interest me.

Nothing really does, ultimately.

Except for books, sometimes. This book interested me, mostly.

I liked it, even if I sound lukewarm.

I’m coming to it after reading two literary 2022 highlights for me, tho, so I’m comparing this unfairly to what came before. (These blogs are no longer posted or even saved in the order they were written, so although this is definitely referring to Mothers Don’t, I’m not certain what the second “literary 2022 highlight” I of a few weeks ago was referring to).

Also, I realised while writing the last post (again, Mothers Don’t) that I am trapped, undead, by the same lack that keeps me trapped unliving, and I don’t quite know how to process that, or if I should. Whoops.

I’ve started weaning myself off of my meds because I can’t be arsed to deal with the bureaucracy of the NHS, though maybe that’s a mistake. (Also I feel like the “not feeling anything thing” is bad for my ability to create, but we’ll see. I don’t know if I’ll even be able to have an original thought ever again lol – I certainly haven’t for a while hahahahaha lol!)

Maybe, though, the medslessness is an opportunity.

Maybe it will give me the thing I lack, allowing me to do something with my time or, better yet, to bite the bullet and bite a bullet.

Shrug lol.

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