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film : interview

James N. Kienitz Wilkins

by Michael Guarneri

Documentary, reenactment, and comedic failures of democracy.

Public Hearing, 2012. Courtesy of the Artist.

I met New York-based filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins in 2012, when we both presented films at CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. As often happens at festivals, we became friends during a party, and we have been corresponding ever since, given my scholarly interest in his feature film Public Hearing (2012).

Public Hearing is an experimental documentary that uses a publicly available transcript downloaded from the website of a small US town as its screenplay: filmed entirely in close-up and on black-and-white 16mm film, professional actors and non-actors reenact a real-life debate over the replacement of an existing Wal-Mart with a Super Wal-Mart.

As Public Hearing is about to be made public via free streaming, I was excited to ask James to make a public statement about a project that puts into question not only the ontology of documentary filmmaking but some of the fundamental atomic units of US democracy as well. Concurrent with the release of Public Hearing, the artist-made, online television network ACRE TV will broadcast the film's 106-hour making-of, a mammoth project consisting of fourteen VHS tapes called Public Hearing in Progress.

ACRE TV will be streaming Public Hearing in Progress for free, February 1 – March 21, 2015, every Saturday and Sunday, 12 PM to 8 PM CST. The broadcast is part of the collective program “Direct Object/Direct Action.” Automatic Moving Co. will be streaming Public Hearing for free on these same dates, with machine-translated subtitles in several languages.

Michael Guarneri I am not sure that Public Hearing can be defined as a documentary, but the starting point is a document—the transcript of a real-life public hearing about Wal-Mart. Can you give me some details about the film's genesis?

James N. Kienitz Wilkins The document on which Public Hearing is based was found online in 2007. I wasn't really looking for movie material at that time: it's just that I've always been interested in what I call “Internet archaeology,” i.e., seeing how “deep” I could go into the Internet, going from one portal to another. So, while I was web surfing, I discovered these publicly accessible, online, town-hall archives containing tons of official documents in PDF format. Among these, there was the transcript of a 2006 public debate over the replacement of an existing Wal-Mart with a Super Wal-Mart in Allegany, New York.

I am particularly interested in PDF files, because this format can take something that existed as paper and fix it, so it can be redistributed all over the world and printed out again in roughly the same form. It is this trading of almost “objectified” data that interests me. I don't know, maybe it is something fetishistic. (laughter) I was fascinated by the fact that I was able to print the public hearing transcript on my printer at home and the stack was more or less exactly the same as the stack that had gone into the town hall computer in 2006. But then, after binding the papers, the transcription suddenly became a ready-made screenplay. After all, it is just this paperlike object I found. I thought: If all of this was automatic so far, let's continue that!

MG It is not by chance, then, that the production group you co-founded is called The Automatic Moving Co.

JNKW Indeed! Another reason why I came up with the idea of making Public Hearing is that I went to art school, and there my professors and a lot of other artists were dealing with ideas around reenactment. In terms of this kind of action, what I did is nothing new, but I do think that Public Hearing is satirizing the heaviness of reenactment. The commonplace document I used has nothing to do with the super-serious, culturally meaningful sources I normally see being reenacted.

Appropriation Art with a capital A—Marcel Duchamp's work, for example—is almost as old as cinema itself. This is not a coincidence, I believe: the advent of film marked the first time in History when you could really capture a moment, the ephemeral, and just take it with you. I think there's always been a dialogue between filmmaking and this artistic concept, a dialogue that naturally exposes filmmaking in terms of its documentary qualities. That is to say, every film is a reflection of its times, a piece of evidence.

MG Probably the first definition of documentary film was by John Grierson. In a manifesto from the 1930s, he wrote that “documentary is the creative treatment of actuality,” meant to analyze the aspects of modern life.

JNKW Well, I think that “creative treatment of actuality” is a problematic expression, because any film would be that. Picking up a camera and filming is inherently a creative act. It's one of the many ways we create our reality, using what is actual around us.

Let's try and see things from another point of view: you are filming a professional actor walking down the street, being a character in a fictional story and following the rules of a scripted narrative. Nevertheless, isn't he dealing with a real and concrete situation? The film is being made in a particular time, and there are real cars passing by this guy, cars manufactured by workers in that country or imported from a foreign country where labor is cheaper. Cinema is so specific: it always reflects its time. Even when you make a historical piece, the cracks show.

I guess I’m aware that any attempt at reenacting something is doomed from the start: a reenactment can never be the original event, so automatically there's a distance, an alienation at work. I am interested in this alienation. I would say that a huge influence to me is Bertolt Brecht's alienation techniques: I want to make ordinary things strange in order to discover something, hence my use of black and white 16mm film and extreme close-up in Public Hearing. I want to oppose the narcotic effect of realistic representation and distance people in the audience from “the show,” so they can see the situation clearly and form an opinion. I'm no Brechtian scholar and his theories are better than his plays, but I like to call Public Hearing a didactic comedy with a nod in his direction.

MG Talking about influences, you often mention Frederick Wiseman as a major source of inspiration. As you know, he calls his movies “reality dreams,” not “documentaries,” so I was wondering if you could tell me about the Wisemanian aspect of Public Hearing.

JNKW I really admire Wiseman, and I think the way he makes what he makes is kind of unique. I saw him speak once at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He had a big retrospective there and in the audience there were a lot of documentary filmmakers who were asking him questions. You know, they really love this man, they consider him a father of documentary filmmaking. So, after Basic Training (1971) was screened, they were asking him things like: “Did you follow up with these soldiers? Are they still alive?” To which Wiseman replied, “No, I didn't follow up on them after the shooting was over. I never do research before and I never do follow-ups after. I just go there and shoot.”

And you could tell that the documentary filmmakers in the audience were bewildered, because they all come from a contemporary tradition of psychological participation and relationships between filmmakers and subjects—a tradition which uses documentaries as tools for larger causes. It's ideological, and sometimes extremely effective, but often not art. I think Wiseman is after the long game, which is “Art.” This can be perceived as disengaged or cynical by those who demand results now, but sometimes people don't understand that you can look at human beings as material, as something incredibly interesting yet not special. That sounds kind of scary, but our society tends to do that anyways, and what our society tends to do is more interesting to me than the dramas of an individual character. The illogic of today's prevailing “everyone has a story” ideology is that, statistically, everyone can't listen to everyone's story, so it's an inherently elitist perspective despite the democratic disguise. I think Wiseman is a bit of a realist and finds his art in structures and patterns and forms: the individual is present in his films, but not forced. He doesn't present himself as having any specialized knowledge about what he films, yet he exerts his will as a filmmaker, through his gaze, editing decisions, and attention span. In his films, there's always a nice tension between the ego of individuals, and the enveloping grasp of society.

MG In my view, a strong component in Wiseman's movies is the archetypical nature of characters and situations: it's not just that hospital or boot camp or boxing gym or whatever. Are you interested in that as a filmmaker?

JNKW Yes, I am definitely interested in that, but as a side effect, like in Wiseman's movies. As a matter of fact, starting from its title, Public Hearing is designed to function like a Wiseman film. Wiseman proposes the broader picture through titles like Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1970), and Basic Training, so you think that the movie will be about the phenomenon as a whole, but then it zips down and it becomes super-specific. After you are immersed in this for an hour or two as a viewer, it's up to you whether or not to apply archetypes: do you know something about hospitals in general by watching one so intensely? Or rather, is it, for example, the boot camp shown in Basic Training is so related to the Vietnam War that it has nothing to do with boot camps today? I think Wiseman leaves that open to us, and this is something I really admire about his work: it can be about an institution as a whole, but it also literally isn't.

I didn't strive for archetypical symbolism and codified language while making Public Hearing. I don't think archetypes should be something you “think about.” I have the very same feeling about allegory. Allegory means talking about something by speaking of something else: but these days, everybody knows there's this code at work, so why not film the thing itself?

MG While I was watching Public Hearing, I had a voice in my head saying “David Foster Wallace” over and over again. Have you read Infinite Jest? In that novel, he puts a lot of work into minimal details that could have been left out without damaging the plot. It's as if he wanted to perform an act of total mimesis, which of course ends up being a doomed act, as you suggested.

JNKW David Foster Wallace has often been brought up in relation to my movie. I am familiar with his work and I have read his short stories, but if I had to make a connection between my work and a contemporary writer, it would be someone a little older than Wallace, someone like Nicholson Baker. In my opinion, Baker predated some of the things Wallace was doing. Baker's first novel The Mezzanine is about a guy on his lunch-break trying to fix his shoelace because it snapped. The whole novel is about this man going to his office, but the “travel” starts and then it just goes on and on, forward and backwards, and the page ends up being full of footnotes—and footnotes about footnotes.

This kind of writing, its fixation on details and unimportant, everyday events has a lot to do with Public Hearing, and I guess it is also very specific to our times. You know the feeling when you are locked in a formal environment or bureaucratic structure, and you basically have to deal with being there? There are no heroes there. It's not a life or death situation, it's more like, “OK, how do we go from point A to point B without going out of our minds?”

I'm happy at post-screening Q&As when spectators tell me stuff like, “When I am at a meeting and get bored, I tend to notice the little things you show in Public Hearing.” It's this gaze into a microcosm that I am interested in. Actually, Witold Gombrowicz's novel Cosmos has been a huge source of inspiration for me.

MG I also mentioned Wallace because Public Hearing reminds me of his short story in which a guy is sitting in an test-group for candy bars: there's a very long and detailed buildup of data, but nothing really happens. It is just this guy being there.

JNKW Well, I'd say that, effectively, Public Hearing goes nowhere—effectively, affectively, and also morally, since we end where we started. However, I don't agree that narratively it goes nowhere: there are a lot of narrative subtexts that splinter off. They just kind of start and then stop after a while, but they add up and there is a progression. I mean, we are dealing with a procedure that is supposed to begin and end, within an environment in which characters dominate as they speak and are dominated when their time is over or are shut down. To me, the most interesting thing to “regenerate” from the transcript is that very weird dynamic culminating at the end, when the Pakistani lawyer—arguably the only person aware of the rules of public hearings and one of the few that early on provides solid arguments to discuss—is silenced by an old lady saying, “Who are you, anyway?” I mean, how do you reply to that? There's no way to reply to that, and then the hearing is closed. That, to me, is the climax of the movie.

Public Hearing, 2012. Courtesy of the Artist.

MG Tell me more about the narrative structure of Public Hearing.

JNKW During a public hearing, everything that is said is recorded. When it's your turn to speak, the moderator says your name and you come up to the podium. That's the only way we know you were there. Then, when you are done speaking, and if you are never referred to again, you are good as gone as far as the transcript is concerned—even if you are still sitting in the room. Structurally, through close-ups, the movie follows the exact same logic of the transcript. At the beginning you only see the moderator—the first man who speaks and opens the public hearing—then you see the second man as he is introduced by the moderator. Then a third person is referred to and speaks to an audience we cannot see, as its members haven't “publicly spoken” yet. After more and more characters are introduced in the transcript, I gave myself the license to use reaction shots when someone else talks, i.e., to imply the existence of a space around the close-ups of the speakers. It is very formalistic in a way, but, at a certain point, you have a clear picture of the surrounding space, even if the room is never shown in a wide shot. At that point, you don't need the cutaways anymore. It is like a structure that unfolds and gets bigger and bigger, and at a certain point collapses, so that another section opens. This way you recapture some of the people you lost, and you lose people who have just been introduced, as if they had left the room, which they maybe did. In the logic of the transcript, only the moderator remains throughout. This to me is a narrative, a special kind of narrative.

MG The idea of reenacting a transcript reminds me of that story by Borges about drawing a map as big as the territory it should represent.

JNKW I've heard about that idea and it sounds amazing! My aim though, was not to recreate an event in its entirety: I just wanted to use the PDF file as raw material, as a legitimate source with which to build a narrative. I would say that the movie is fairly accurate, and I did my best to make the film as closely as possible to the transcript. But I would never make the claim that the movie is the original event. The movie is not even the original transcript! All kinds of changes occurred before, during, and after the shooting. For example, in the original transcript there were a lot of weird sentence structures, and I realized they were just typed that way. In fact, the original transcription was machine shorthand later “unpacked” by the stenographer or secretary into what became the official document. In the appendix of the original, there is a sworn statement attesting that what she typed is true! So then I downloaded the transcript, converted it to a screenplay format, gave it to the actors: some of them attempted to memorize the lines, some of them just read the lines as they are, some slipped in their own thoughts. In this sense, the movie is really a unique performance based on a close reading. Because of all these phenomena of change, there can be no claim to purity. Liberties were taken, is what I am saying.

MG So how would you define the connection between the final product—the movie—and the real event?

JNKW I don't know what the real event was like because I wasn't there when it took place in Allegany, in 2006. To me, the real event is the transcript. The connection between that original transcript and the transcribed movie is pretty close. I was actually able to use the original transcript to transcribe the movie when I needed to make subtitles: instead of retyping everything, I was able to do small corrections on the text of the transcript.

What reenactment offers as a tool—especially direct reenactment as opposed to speculative reenactment, like in biopics—is what goes in is what comes out, but changed. This is where it gets automatic. Public Hearing reenacts the transcript, not the event. And the transcript, being language, is present within the film, although in a degraded way, which strikes me as how memory works. This is part of the reason why I use machine-translated subtitles when I screen the movie abroad or, now, online.

MG Tell me about how you worked on the original text in order to dramatize it.

JNKW I wrote actions in a personal shooting script that was basically the transcript with notes like “X does this, Y does that.” It is not that I just printed a PDF and shot stuff. I tried to build an action-based narrative around the transcribed words, which are the only guidelines.

To me, Public Hearing is about what happens when something becomes boring and where your mind is at that certain point. The transcript dictated what was to be heard, so my role as director and editor of the film was to ask: what are people doing, beyond words? What are we going to see? It is here that the fictional aspect, the narrative and speculations, come into play. That's why it was a good thing the movie took so many years to make, because I needed time to think about how it should be edited, to watch the footage a lot, and to get bored. (laughter)

MG Apropos of drama and archetypes again, I think that Public Hearing is an inversion of how tragic theater worked in Ancient Greece. Tragic theater was an exciting show meant to strengthen the moral and ethical values of the community, while in your movie you stage a boring “ceremony” that proves to citizens that some of the values they believe in do not really work, or work in a weird way.

JNKW Yeah, because it is true: this is really what happens every day in the United States. It is not that I cherry-picked this unique, bizarre transcript. There are countless transcripts and countless stories like the one I portray in here. For example, my father is a lawyer and he told me about this public hearing he had to attend. You know, for democracy's sake the moderators are from the community as well, they can be anybody. My father told me about this public hearing he was at, and the moderator—the guy who is supposed to run the whole show—was this guy wearing overalls completely covered in mud. He was a dump truck driver or something. This is a caricature, of course, but it means something: despite his looks, he could have been the best moderator ever.

But he wasn't the best moderator ever because he wasn't trained: he was a good old boy who just wanted to get through the whole procedure quickly “because it is a done deal after all.” This is the same absurd position that comes through the transcript I found and reenacted.

The thing about democracy is that we talk about it as if it was a done deal. I think that we have democracy, but at the same time we don't. Democracy has always been an experiment, and it has never been actually achieved in a broad sense. I mean, every supposedly democratic country like the United States relies upon massive amounts of slave labor elsewhere. The fact is that we are supposedly “democratic” within our own borders, and we pretend that it ends there. It's fake libertarian nonsense, a total show.

MG To tell you the truth—I don't know, maybe it's because I am not familiar with the public debate system in the United States—for me it was a very suspenseful screening because I was under the impression that something important was going on and something big could really happen.

JNKW The feeling with all these proceedings is that something could always happen. It's just that it is very unlikely that it will.

Public Hearing, 2012. Courtesy of the Artist.

MG During a post-screening Q&A you said that you filmed in 16mm just to show the money being spent. I loved the remark and think it adds a lot to the tragedy of seeing democracy “misfire,” so to speak. Can you talk about that?

JNKW I intentionally set out to make the movie in a disproportionately expensive way. I was very interested in the tension between “cinematizing”—which was a very expensive activity of casting, shooting in black and white 16mm film, the whole machine—and an event that would never, ever have been filmed that way because it is increasingly irrelevant. The Allegany public hearing, like many others, is something that is done and then archived as a PDF—dismissed, put away: that's the failure of democracy in the States. Absolutely.

MG Let’s talk about the five-minute break with music halfway through Public Hearing. The idea makes sense in the movie context, but in my opinion it does not work properly in a cinema where you are kind of bound to your seat.

JNKW If you need to go to the bathroom badly, it works. (laughter) Also, the break is a bright screen that casts light on the audience, so you can actually do things like taking a look around at fellow-spectators, read something, take mints from your bag: it is an alienation technique meant to break the immersion.

MG For me, the break actually worked as a suspense device. After a while you obviously realize that it is some kind of joke, but you don't know how long the director is willing to keep the joke going.

JNKW Oh, thank you! It was also meant to work that way: that's why I included the music. You know, music plays for a while and gradually fades, so you think the movie is going to start again ... but then the music suddenly starts again.

MG What do you think about screening Public Hearing in an art gallery, so that people can walk in and wander around as if they were the actual audience of the hearing.

Public Hearing, 2012. Courtesy of the Artist.

JNKW Movies in galleries often suffer from the problem I was mentioning earlier, “the codification of meaning.” People walk in and stay for five minutes or even an hour, and then they say “OK, I get this,” and leave. Galleries authorize the kind of attitude that forgets that a screening is about having to deal with time passing.

Much of Public Hearing is about having to participate in an event, about having to deal with time passing. It's only one hour and fifty minutes. It's not the end of the world. (laughter)

MG Can you tell me a little about Public Hearing in Progress, the 106-hour making of Public Hearing?

JNKW Public Hearing in Progress renders the making of the film public. It is literally every hour of the making of Public Hearing, like a special feature that is the thing itself.

During the film's production in 2009, I installed an old security camera to witness the shooting's proceedings. You see, we were shooting in a space provided by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and since the shoot was private, I felt obliged to put a monitor in the lobby so people could see we were actually working, or at least looking busy. Additionally, I ran this security feed to a VHS deck recording in "Extended Play" mode, which neatly mirrored the eight-hour workdays afforded by the Wall Street location. I suppose this comes back to using what has been ignored or discarded, what I have free access to: VHS was available because no one cared about it. The machinery was free, the tapes were practically given away. So each of the fourteen days of shooting (give or take technical malfunctions) was recorded in silent, black-and-white, shitty-ass VHS—like the bastard cousin of the film we were making. A wide shot. Over 106 hours. A stack of tapes.

MG Is it all about the desire of making something public, then? Public Hearing in Progress is not the content of the tapes, it is the broadcast of the tapes on ACRE TV.

JNKW Sure, this is where it gets really interesting to me. First, these tapes are originals: they have never been digitized and it is cost prohibitive to do so. Second, ACRE TV will be streaming the tapes “live,” that is, playing them for the first time in their entirety. I've never watched all the footage, even though I am in it. I will be tuning in to make sure I didn't do anything embarrassing. So to me, the event is the playing of the tapes: the finger pushing the button, the broadcast. Moreover, the tapes are very particular because they obfuscate the knowledge of pre-recording through their imagery—they’re security camera footage, which we associate with live or very recent events. Unedited footage, unseen until now, and degrading as well, since VHS as an analog medium degrades over time. The next time Public Hearing in Progress happens—if ever—it will be different. This might be true of any “original,” but I feel there is an added bonus here, because Public Hearing in Progress chronicles a remake. It is a replay of a remake, getting remade. An original that is a copy of a copy through the simultaneity of broadcast. Not to get too deep, man, but it's at once unique and insignificant, sort of what we were getting at when talking about human beings. So God created mankind in his own image. Amen.

For more information on the work of James N. Kienitz Wilkins, visit Automatic Moving Co.

Michael Guarneri is a freelance writer and occasional filmmaker.

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