Natalia Almada is a filmmaker whose works—including Todo lo demás (Everything Else) (2016), El Velador (2011), Al Otro Lado (2005)—cross the boundaries of documentary, fiction, and experimental film. Recipient of a 2012 MacArthur “Genius” Award, she is a dual citizen of Mexico and the United States and has lived in both countries since childhood.
As a filmmaker often working in documentary, I use many of the same tools used by journalists and the media in general—sound, video, interviews—which makes the distinction between the practices rather blurry. But it also makes the need for distinctions between them all the more crucial to define.
As I write this, I realize that it’s hard for me to define what journalism is today. In his 1984 book Entertaining Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman (1931–2003) described how television had essentially usurped the news. The speed of the news and the randomness of the programing fundamentally changed journalism. Programing time constraints and the need to entertain the viewer (as well as the viewer’s expectation to be entertained) eliminated the possibility for reflection and analysis. It’s crazy to consider how Postman would analyze media today, where immediacy and brevity are even more paramount. The audience must be fed a constant stream of new content, usually only consumed as headlines, to keep them hooked so that the outlet can remain a relevant platform. While I want to believe journalism is fundamental to democracy and guided by a set of ethical principles, it has in large part been corrupted by the media outlets, not just because of their more or less masked political agendas but also due to consumers’ expectation to be comfortably shocked. Unfortunately, although our society has become more media driven, I don’t believe it has become more visually literate. Having taught undergraduates in their early 20s, a generation who grew up in a sea of images, I’ve been shocked at their gullibility and lack of healthy suspicion about the videos and photographs they consume.
Perhaps art is the antidote to Neil Postman’s worldview. It is the arena in which we pause and reflect—both in the process of making art and in the consumption of art. A work of art is unapologetically appreciated as the point of view of the artist and so freed from illusions of objectivity allowing for it to participate in a discourse of opinions.
In my own films, which often deal with violence, I am wary of two things. First, when we film and show images of violence, are we in turn committing an act of violence? Secondly, what happens when violence is aestheticized? Susan Sontag wrote about both these issues in a manner which I believe is worth considering today. In her essay, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” about the Abu Ghraib photographs, she reminds us that the shock is not only the photos themselves but the fact that they were taken at all. Photography is not what it was, now that nearly everyone carries a portable camera and has immediate access to disseminate their images far and wide with a click. There can be an infinite number of intentions behind the trigger (as Roland Barthes notes, the finger is the camera’s organ, not the eye). So, when we capture images of violence we must question what the intention is and how are we participating in the spreading and normalization of violence. In Mexico’s drug violence, for example, images have played a multiplicity of roles, serving variously as a tool used by those committing the acts of violence to threaten their victims (not unlike the postcards of lynchings in the American South), by the press to sell news, and also by genuine journalists, who aim to shed light on the crisis and depict the truth. What I think is undeniable is that so many images of violence that might have led to insight or action instead anesthetize us to such a degree that the images lose their power to elicit an emotion. Instead, we look glance at them and then look away.
The other issue I’m always conscious of is the anesthetization of violence itself. Again Sontag writes about this issue in Regarding the Pain of Others: “For the photography of atrocity, people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance.” I believe that she is accurate in her assessment, and yet, as an artist, I believe that it is through our formal decisions that we convey meaning. To me it is through beauty that I hope to elicit compassion. It is through beauty that I hope to honor and respect whomever I am filming. So the challenge is how to make work that feels both artistic and sincere. I believe the answer lies in slowness. The films I’ve made are all meant to be reflections, meditations, a slowing down from the fast-paced media that allows us to hear our thoughts and have our feelings.