Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Making Room for Ghosts: Memory, History and Family Biography on Film

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Making Room for Ghosts: Memory, History and Family Biography on Film

Article excerpt

The documentary film, Close to the Bone, which I made in 2012, re-tells history through the memory stories of my father's family: the Harper children, postwar British orphans who migrated to Australia in 1948. I was inspired to make the film by documentary's capacity to represent and transmit the lost voices of history, and it is this conceptual premise upon which it was based. Close to the Bone is a case study in how film can speak back to former public representations of the British migrant child by re-constructing an individual family story from autobiographical and familial memories. This article charts the research approach I used and the personal and methodological challenges that I faced when making the film. I discovered in the filmmaking process that the documentary memory film has a lot in common with the ghost story.

The body is a repository for and generator of memories. The body, like memory, is unstable; organic and fickle, not fixed. Like memory the body claims existence, occupies time-space, inhabits place, tells, crafts and repeats stories, forgets and sometimes chooses to be silent. The body as memory can be an unreliable narrator, vulnerable to contamination, disease and sudden death. The filmmaker who stages family memory as lost history is not unlike the genealogist who sets out to study the beginning, adopting a historical perspective not to write history alone but to re-incarnate bodies of familial memories that haunt the living by performing remembering and forgetting on film.

The remembering subject in documentary is like a ghost who has 'come back' on film from an 'already accomplished event' which is 'unfolding in the viewer's present'.1 In Ken McMullen's Ghost Dance (1983) Jacques Derrida performed his notion of hauntology. Derrida engages here in a discussion of hauntology's practice and function within the context of history as a study of spectral returnings. Like a ghost that can never be fully present, he as the interview subject cannot be anything more than a ghost, out of sequential linear time-space and therefore out of body and out of history. He can only exist on camera in spectral form. Derrida deems the cinema an art form for conjuring up ghosts, and matches it with his presentation of historical memory as a kind of haunting.2

In her analysis of ghost films as historical allegories, Bliss Cua Lim refers to Derrida's definition in Specters of Marx of historical justice as 'accountable' to ghosts from the past and the future.3 Derrida's ghosts are either 'those who are not born or who are already dead'.4 Lim argues the ghost-film that retells the historical injustice narrative gives new meaning to 'almost-forgotten' histories and 'troubles the boundaries of past, present and future' by disrupting notions of mortality and linear time as 'progressive and universal'5 Drawing upon Walter Benjamin's theory of 'now-time' [Jetztzeit) in reading history as nonlinear and fragmentary, Lim makes her case for the ghost as not only a mechanism for remembering oppressed (and suppressed) pasts but also as a way of thinking about time as non-sequential. Lim suggests ghosts challenge us to consider and re-incorporate past legacies into the future. The ghost-film undermines 'modernity's homogenous time', enabling a 'radicalized accountability to those who are no longer with us, a solidarity with spectres made possible by remembering'.6 It is this notion of radical 'accountability' that underpins my proposal that the documentary memory film is a ghost narrative of return: a returning to what has not been understood, recognised or redressed, and to what will not be forgotten by the body.

-Personal memory, social memory and the historic moment

Personal memory can only become social memory through engagement with the mechanisms and tools of memory transmission. The video camera, following its predecessor, the stills camera, has become an increasingly accessible 'everyday tool', influencing both the deconstruction and démocratisation of official history and the re-inclusion of the memory narratives of the marginal, invisible, subversive and radical. …

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