A long-time fan of the music of Ani Difranco, I bought Render: Spanning Time with Ani Difranco (2002) with the sole intention of extending my aural obsession with her into a filmic fetish. Much to my surprise, it was not only a staccato documentary of live performances, but also a glimpse into the life of traveling artists and commentary on capital punishment, urban renewal, and sexual politics. It is a movie for rabid Difranco fans, and also a legitimate nonfiction film. Yet classifying this film more specifically causes my mind to stammer with uncertainty. If this film is indeed more than a mere musical documentary, as I have suggested, is it an ethnographic film, a collaborative memoiristic film (such as Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill's Joyce at 34), an essay film, or a hybrid of two or more of these genres?
Render does not at first seem to be an ethnographic film. I was hesitant to peg it as such. However, in his essay "The Camera People," Eliot Weinberger defines ethnographic film widely as "a representation on film of a people" (Weinberger, 138). This film, indeed, is a representation of the traveling musician, of the specific people that inhabit Difranco's tour-bus. It depicts the lifestyle of independent musicians, namely the lesbian folk artists that comprise most of Difranco's group. This film shows how this group of people lives, loves, and creates art.
My discomfort with classifying Render as an ethnographic film stems from my narrow concept of ethnography. Perhaps it is only misunderstanding, but I always thought ethnography to be of a foreign or more primitive people, serving a more anthropological purpose. "Depending on one's perspective, ethnographic film has become either a subgenre of the documentary or a specialized branch of anthropology" (Weinberger, 138). If I judge Render based on this quote, it certainly seems ethnographic, a subgenre of documentary, a shallow or perhaps just familiar anthropological journey.
"[Ethnographic filmmakers] worship a terrifying deity known as Reality, whose eternal enemy is its evil twin, Art" (Weinberger, 137). How, then are filmmakers to depict people making art, and are they to do so it artlessly? Much like the way WR: Mysteries of the Organism alternates between fiction and nonfiction, Render treads the line between the reality of Difranco's life and the spectacle of her performances. The opening scene is footage of her performing "In or Out" in New Orleans, footage which—as soon as the performance is finished—cuts to Difranco, in a apparently exhaust-provoked daze, conversing with band members and what I assume to be sound technicians backstage. These two scenes, which occur mere minutes apart, appear starkly different as spectacle shifts to reality. The scene shifts to Difranco performing her song "Dilate," the first lines of which are: "Life used to be lifelike, now it's more like show-biz." Are ethnographic films only to show their subjects in the most natural human state, and does this present a problem for subjects who live in the performative world of "show-biz"?
It is also possible that Render acts as a collaborative memoir film, much like Joyce at 34, which was made by Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill in 1970. The subject of the film is Chopra, but Weill is the one operating the camera. In Render, the opening credits read "A Film by Hilary Goldberg and Ani Difranco." Hilary Goldberg, a Los Angeles-based lesbian filmmaker and poet, has her name appear above Difranco's in the credits, out of the alphabetical order that could have explained its placement. Does this mean her involvement in the film was more active than Difranco's?
In Joyce at 34, "The opening lines are [Chopra's]; the opening shots are of her…The woman holding the camera, working the camera, is Claudia Weill, herself a filmmaker and a friend…this film is not, then, exactly what it might seem to be: a typical autobiographical film" (Keyssar, 124). Though Difranco is in Chopra's place as subject, does it make this her film? Or is this film Goldberg's alone? Or is there a such thing as a collaborative memoir film? The components of memoir are present, the specific time period and personal insight, but there are two key players in its creation, and even more, Goldberg is mostly unengaged in the dialogue of the film.
The absence of the first person of the filmmaker disrupts that classification of Render as a memoiristic film. Hilary's actual voice is only heard twice. Once, she is denied entry to a venue pre-show by a security guard demanding a wristband. She simply says that she does not have one, and does not argue when he snootily says "sorry." The other time we hear her voice is during a scene showing Difranco filing the fake nails she adheres to her fingers with electric tape before performances. "Are they sponsoring you now?" Goldberg asks half-sarcastically, and Difranco gives a long reply. In the essay "Memories Movies" Patricia Hampl writes "[The first person voice of the memoirist's] greatest intimacy (the display of perception) paradoxically reveals its essential impersonality. It wishes to see the world—not itself. At this core of the memoiristic enterprise, the narrator is more eye than I" (Hampl, 63-64). Is Goldberg's selection of material and her occasional reveal of literal voice enough to expose her point of view? "I am aware of some uncertainty about the film's point of view. This happens because I am aware that is it Claudia Weill, a woman, a filmmaker and Joyce's friend, who is shooting the film" (Keyssar, 125). I had the same experience of uncertainty watching Render as Keyssar did watching Joyce at 34. Who is Hilary? I wondered.
It is difficult to classify Render as memoir, unless by Hampl's generous standards, if we are referring to a memoir as being strictly autobiographical. "What I see and hear is a biography as much or more than it is an autobiography" (Keyssar, 126). Unless Difranco took a particularly active role in the compilation of Goldberg's footage (which I do not know if she did or not), her status of autobiographer would be revocable. Indeed, much like Joyce at 34, Render seems "…ambiguous in its double-voicedness," (Keyssar, 124). Until we know Goldberg more explicitly, we should be hesitant to embrace her position as memoirist.
Render transitions back and forth between scenes of Difranco's performances, time spent touring, and highly politicized commentary or criticism in the form of interviews with Difranco herself or an array of other guests. Since Difranco's lyrics tend to be inherently political anyway, her songs frame these interviews and editorial segments with great ease. The digressive, meticulously planned disjunction reminds me of an essay.
In "In Search of the Centaur: The Essay Film," Phillip Lopate outlines five qualifying characteristics of the essay film.
One: "An essay film must have words…" (Lopate, 245). Check. Indeed, the film has words, in the forms of song lyrics, poetry, interviews, and unobtrusive conversational observation and recording.
Two: "The text must represent a single voice…" (Lopate, 246). Sort of. There is not a single voice of the film—not even Difranco herself. The film is comprised, as previously stated, of interviews and natural conversation. "[Michael Moore's] Roger and Me…raises the question of to what extent an essay-film can welcome and ingest interviews while still being true to its essayistic nature" (Lopate, 263). Render includes interviews of Ani Difranco, her manager Scot Fisher, Southern Center for Human Right's attorneys Palmer Singleton and Stephen Bright, musicians Bitch and Animal, and poet Sekou Sundiata, along with other musicians, roadies, and recording technicians. While the text represents more than one voice literally, all of the voices are speaking the same political language, unified as a single representation of belief.
Three: "The text must represent an attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem…" (Lopate, 246). Again, sort of. A single problem? Politically, the film covers an array of subjects—from capital punishment to urban renewal—with lines of discourse intersecting, forming digressions and segmenting the text into topical explorations. "Certainly the essay allows for a good deal of fragmentation and disjunction, and yet it keeps weaving itself whole again, resisting alienation" (Lopate, 255). Is this not slightly oppositional to what was previously stated? Render works out many problems, not all connected and not all simultaneous, but it does work through them more or less completely, effectively resisting alienation, as Lopate said. This is also why Render cannot be readily classified as an essay film or a documentary; it does not have a prevailing problem in the marrow of the film, nor does it push toward a single goal. The miners, for example, in Barbara Kopple's Harlan County work together against corporate injustice, and the struggle becomes the film's nonfiction plot (Keyssar, 113-119). Render does not have this common goal throughout.
Four: "The text must impart more than information; it must have a strong, personal point of view…" (Lopate, 246). Check. The film explores numerous social and political in an in-depth, opinionated fashion. Need it be stated that the viewpoints of the subjects in question are liberal, and often anti-government? "The essayist often plays the nonconformist, going against the grain of prevailing pieties" (Lopate, 244). Opening the film with a voice-over of anarchist folk-poet Utah Phillips performing Mario Savio's famous 1964 Free Speech Movement "When the Machine Becomes So Odious" speech immediately invokes a tone of social activism and opposition to the state of current politics.
Five: "Finally, the text's language should be as eloquent, well written and interesting as possible" (Lopate, 247). Check. Though it is fair to say that this qualification is subjective, I would certainly agree that the language of the film is eloquent and well written.
In addition to these qualifications, Lopate suggests: "Place and homesickness are natural subjects for the essay-film…" (Lopate, 251). Much like Jerome Hill concentrates on Saint Paul, Minnesota in his 1971 Film Portrait, Difranco focuses a great deal on her hometown, Buffalo, New York, and its implications for her music, her business, and the economy (Hampl, 63). Difranco, in an interview with the Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool as the background, discusses the economical challenges of Buffalo. She talks about "white flight," the phenomenon which leads to "decaying urban centers." "It's incredible what racism does to our society. It affects our lives in so many ways…down to the architecture," Difranco said.
The preceding segment is scenes of Difranco and her friend and manager, Scot Fisher, scouting for Buffalo buildings that have been doomed to demolition. They save the buildings, purchasing them before they are knocked down, and convert them into offices for Difranco's record label, Righteous Babe Records. In 2002, the label was in the process of converting a historic church into office space. They not only relish the act of salvaging historical architecture, but also delight in the creation of jobs in the economically depressed city. There is a gorgeous and subtle scene of Difranco and a few fellow musicians, including the often-featured keyboardist Julie Wolf, who stares up at Ani with unabashed admiration, inside the church singing "Lord, I Have Made You a Place in my Heart" by Greg Brown.
Another filmmaker who uses the subject of home is political documentary-maker Michael Moore. Moore desires his version of Flint, Michigan, to be "accepted as objective truth" (Lopate, 263), much like Difranco strives to not only revitalize Buffalo, but convey the message to her audience that Buffalo is not beyond repair, that the perception of the city is not wholly correct. She sees Buffalo's potential, and wants the viewer to sympathize and accept her message as truth.
Exasperated at the analysis of Render's place in the genre of essay-film, I am tempted to fall back upon Lopate's conclusive question: Is an essay film "largely impractical, or overly restrictive, or at odds with the inherent nature of the medium"? (Lopate, 269). According to his parameters, Render is not exactly an essay film, though it feels that way to me, the viewer.
It seems quite impossible to ignore the components of ethnography, memoir, and essay that pulse through Render. Admittedly, it is possible that my admiration of Difranco as an artist and activist makes this film seem somehow more complex. Perhaps I, a die-hard Ani-fan, have elevated her to goddess-like stature in the filmic sense, and this film is indeed nothing more than a musical documentary. Even if this is largely the truth, I still am left unable to classify Render definitely, to peg it confidently with one genre, so it remains a hybrid nonfiction film to me, under the guise of musical documentary.
What did you think of this review?