ISSN 2451-2966


Zofia Smolarska

Blind Alleys in Documentary Theatre: An Analysis of the Production Process of Situation Rooms, the Multiplayer Video Piece by the Rimini Protokoll Collective

<i>Situation Rooms</i> by Rimini Prolokoll.

Situation Rooms by Rimini Prolokoll.

Read Abstract

The essay is the author’s relation from participation in the work on a multimedia production of the Rimini Protokoll theatre collective, Situation Rooms (2013), to which ‘experts in everyday life’ were invited in the roles of narrators of their own video tales. The author, convinced that the value of a work of art depends on the method it was created, describes the organization of the big-budget production and its artistic implications. As points of comparison, she then gives examples of Polish documentaries also created with the participation of their protagonists, the creators of which attempted to deal in various ways with the aporia inherent in the documentary film genre.

Blind Alleys in Documentary Theatre</strong><strong>: An Analysis of the Production Process of <em>Situation Rooms, </em>the Multiplayer Video Piece by the Rimini Protokoll Collective

Much-celebrated participatoriness – that is, participation of citizens in public life – has become a trendy tool for purportedly empowering the social side and the redistribution of power. However, as Sherry R. Arnstein notes, participation does not necessarily have much to do with social reform allowing the inclusion of people excluded from political and economic processes.1 Participation is often an empty slogan at the service of manipulation – for instance, when officials use citizens’ advisory committees to veil measures already implemented but which require evidence of public support.

In 2013, I assisted the directors of the Rimini Protokoll collective in their multiplayer video piece Situation Rooms, to which people of diverse nationalities and varying status were invited as ‘experts in everyday life’, to share their knowledge and experience in the fields of arms trade and armed conflicts. Each of the twenty participants (I shall refer to them interchangeably as participants, ‘experts’ and protagonists) presented various aspects of the given subject.

Arms exports aimed by First World countries at maintaining the devastating state of Third World conflict was the main topic of the story of Richard Khamis, a Sudanese journalist working for the demilitarization of his country following its civil war. The topic of killing as professional or patriotic duty was taken up by Amir Yagel, a former soldier of the Israeli Army monitoring the Gaza Strip border, and by Narenda Divekar, a pilot in the Indian Air Force guarding the border against Pakistani terrorists. The mediality and spectacularity of death was explained by war reporter Mauricio Gambarini, and the subject of the arms industrypromoting shooting sports was recalled by Andreas Geikowski, a competition marksman. Irina Panibratowa, a former canteen manager at a Russian munitions factory, spoke in her story about compulsory professional secrecy among the factory’s employees. The life stories of Libyan refugees testified to mass migration being less a side effect of war but elements of a thought-out strategy by which masses of people forced to flee are meant to overpower an enemy by penetrating his territory.2

Preparations for Situation Rooms took place on a film set built into a rental hall on the Uferstudios grounds in Berlin. Over the course of a nearly two-month rehearsal process, participants shot their films on tablets concurrently while moving around studio spaces that illustrated their professions and social roles. The authors of the stories were at the same time camera operators and actors – whenever their paths crossed they would film one another, often interacting according to a detailed script.

During performances, spectators move around the studio space, receiving instructions on headphones, guided by images on tablets on which movies shot by the ‘experts’ played. By comparing the frame with the reality of the studio space, the spectator-player guesses the position of the camera operator and by following that path may get the impression of viewing the world from that operators’ perspective. At times the spectators must kneel, bend or climb a ladder, connect a USB device to the computer in order to transfer data, pour borsch or wear a bulletproof vest. In a way, the player takes on the role of his or her guide, recreating their route and activities, including interactions with other participants in the game.3

Trailer of Situation Rooms, Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, Daniel Wetzel. Produced by Rimini Protokoll.

Rimini Protokoll used the video-guide format in the function of an educational game, in which entertainment elements – tasks to perform, interaction, realism of the set and props – serve for bringing real-world problems into closer perspective. The production is meant to enable better understanding of the interdependency of global institutions involved in the arms trade by showing them as an instrument of neo-colonial exploitation. By taking on subsequent roles, the spectator has a chance to experience different attitudes and ‘go through’ various life-story patterns, while learning about the factors that shaped them. In the course of one performance, a spectator has a chance of experiencing ten of the twenty stories.

The participatory nature of the project was therefore to manifest itself in two stages. First, at the stage of rehearsals with the participants who, by being narrators of autobiographical tales and camera operators, become co-authors of the project. Second, through active participation of a performance’s spectator-players. Each of the collective’s three directors, Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel, conducted interviews and rehearsals with a different group of ‘experts’, supported by his assistants. I was assigned the care of a Libyan refugee family taking part in the project anonymously as Family R., and of Richard Khamis, the journalist from South Sudan mentioned above. By observing the participation of people without full citizenship or coming from former colonies, I examined the level of participatoriness of the project and the possibilities of self-representation given to those participants. Having been a spectator in a number ofperformances of the show and having observed premiere performances in Bochum, I took into consideration, as well, the effectiveness of strategies aimed at involving the audience. My observations and reflections formed a critical analysis of the production process, which I then encapsulated in my master’s thesis.4 This essay is a selection of excerpts from that thesis.

The basic premise on which I based my critique was the conviction that the value of a work of art is dependent on the way it was created. This idea – convergent with Victor Turner’s and Richard Schechner’s suggestion about the correlation and mutual dependency between cultural and organizational performance – can also be found in the writings of Heiner Goebbels, the composer and director, a professor at the Institute of Applied Theatre Studies in Giessen and a former teacher of all three Rimini Protokoll directors. For Goebbels, every work bears witness to the way it was created, as production methods cannot be separated from artistic processes (Goebbels, 2010). By appreciating the production process, we recognize creativity as an instrument of political action and a process of a moral character.

In recent years, independently from one another, numerous companies and artists began using audio and video guides for creating participatory theatre projects. The Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller were among these, as were the Blast Theory group and Polish director Wojtek Ziemilski, whose Map 2.0 (2011) was presented in the space of Komuna/Warszawa. In Ziemilski’s work, the spectator would receive a mini-projector and while moving around a darkened room would match the video display to real objects and people arranged in the space.

These activities have their roots also in the relational aesthetics of the 1990s and are based on the law of delocalization. ‘Art exercises its critical power over technology from the moment it transforms its objectives’, wrote Nicolas Bourriaud (Bourriaud, 2012, p. 105). Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1980) was an equally important inspiration for the activities of relational performance creators; in it the author argued that in the action of reusing objects available on the market there lies the attempt to tame them (de Certeau, 2008). In such a way, an abundance of possibilities is created, so-called tactics that become available to ordinary users for overthrowing rituals and modes of representation (maps, for instance) imposed on them by institutions. A Daily Telegraph journalist put it very simply in his review of the Welsh premiere of a Rimini Protokoll show/game: ‘The beauty of Outdoors […] is that it uses new technology and gadgetry to bring you into closer connection with a real place, and real people’ (Cavendish, 2011).

In contrast to the reviewer’s quote, I didn’t expect the participants to be ‘real’. I questioned to what extent the choice of a mode of self-presentation (which could give the impression of being authentic or inauthentic) was made by the participant, and to what extent it was imposed by the directors. I was also interested in how the decisions of the latter were determined by requirements of the production’s organization. Participatory projects, if they are to be an attractive offer on the arts market, must after all meet certain requirements.

Before I get to the heart of the matter, I would like to note that this essay does not claim complete objectivity. The reader will see that it balances between factual description and a more ‘impressionistic’ style of reportage – a sign of grappling with a difficult dual role of a participating observer.

The living machine

The set was built in such a way as to interconnect all rooms. While shooting their footage, protagonists would move around, illustrating in this manner subsequent fragments of their life stories. In order for the spaces to be designed, it was necessary to learn the tales and get to know their narrators. ‘The experts cast wasn’t set until late January 2013’, recalled Dominik Huber, the set designer, ‘so we collected spaces and I made suggestions for rooms that we’d have anyway regardless of the protagonists (office, conference room, shooting range, African place, cemetery etc.).’5 Although in principle the set design was to reflect the identities of protagonists along the lines of Taylor’s definition ‘identity is the place from which one speaks’ (Taylor, 2001, p. 68), for logistical reasons (a drawn-out audition process) the size of the space, the number of rooms and their character had to be defined before the ‘experts’ joined the project.

Richard Khamis’ ‘accommodation’ was a room completely different from the radio station in Juba commissioned by the UN, which he was supposed to be talking about. The interior reflected a Eurocentric notion of African technological backwardness. The room was equipped with a single bare light bulb illuminating a gloomy interior with dilapidated walls; on a wooden desk stood a ramshackle microphone slightly resembling the 1953 Sennheiser model. The station Khamis had worked in was in fact equipped in computers and air-conditioning; here we could see an old-fashioned ceiling fan, and above the desk hung a traditional blackboard with chalk. Richard at some point started joking about this ‘Black Africa-style design’, but his subtly expressed criticism was not taken into account.

“The African place”, Richard Khamis in the background.

The studio’s attic, displaying a living room connected with a kitchen, was the space of the Irina Panibratowa and of Family R. (both mentioned above), who had left their home in revolution-stricken Libya to reach Europe miraculously aboard a leaking fishing boat. Low ceilings and the proximity of light fixtures made remaining in the attic difficult. The interior had been designed with a different African family in mind, who had withdrawn from the project due to their uncertain legal situation. Rushwan from Sudan was accepted at the last minute, having been recruited to the project in Oranienplatz by the audition interpreter and me, after we had been assigned to conduct an emergency audition. Oranienplatz was at the time occupied by refugees fighting for asylum, and by social activists.6 Rushwan arrived there from the distant district of Pankow, where he had been staying in a commune with his wife, Aziza, and their three children, thus escaping the refugee centre for a few months. Living conditions were markedly better at the commune than in the centre, although the space was cramped. The five of them stayed in one small room equipped with the parents’ bed, separated from the rest by a wardrobe, a mattress for the children, a cabinet with a TV, a sofa and a table situated by the window. Though the space was confined, one could see attempts had been made to adapt it to the needs of its users by dividing it into three zones and by separating the parents’ sleeping space from that of the children.

In the studio, though, the living room could not be modified in any way. It wasn’t possible to divide it in half, for example, as it would inhibit the flow of other ‘experts’ from room to room – and, by the same token, the flow of future spectators. The Sudanese family had very little influence therefore on the shape of that ‘inherited’ space, in which they were supposed to play host, telling stories of their life and offering tea to spectators.

Dominik Huber, when asked whether while designing the interior of the living room he was inspired by the family’s dwelling in the Pankow commune, answered:

The second family lived in a place that was in Daniel’s mind too ‘German’ and we decided to go more after the impressions of the first family’s place – but then in the last minute Irina had to be in the same space and Helgard and Daniel were fussing about if it should be more Russian or more refugee-home like. The result was in my opinion rather weak. For instance I always insisted to include the children’s perspective more into the story (and in the room through more specific objects or toys) but in the end they only appear as staffage.7

Whereas most of the protagonists moved around the studio while shooting their films, the family had to stay in the living room at all times. All five family members were assigned one tablet only – it was held by Rushwan, their tale’s main narrator. While Aziza was busy taking care of their ten-month-old daughter, the remaining children would sneak out of the living room to explore the other spaces and watch the rest of the ‘experts’. The stuffiness prevailing in the attic, as well as failed attempts to keep the bored children in one place, were the cause of many tensions between the family members.

Aziza with the children in the refugees’ living room.

There was one more reason why the ‘hosts’ of the space had difficulty modifying it in any way to feel more at home. At the start of each day, to maintain order, assistants would place the props in their right places, and after rehearsals they would put them back in plastic containers. They used photographs to keep track – just like shop assistants at a supermarket, distributing products on their correct shelves and displays according to a pattern imposed by central management. As with customers of shops which practice merchandising, Situation Rooms participants would find their objects or furniture in their ‘correct’ places each day, regardless of how they had rearranged them during the previous rehearsal.

To lend a voice – towards the impossible

The interviews over the course of which the script for Rushwan’s and Aziza’s roles was being created took place according to the following pattern:

1. the director8 asks the question (quoted here from memory): ‘What happened when you reached the waterfront and wanted to board the ship departing for Europe?’

2. the interpreter translates the question into Arabic

3. Rushwan answers in about a dozen sentences

4. the interpreter translates the reply into German (reconstructed on the basis of notes): ‘We came in the night… there were many people there already… there was a ship, but it was clear not everyone would fit into it – there could have been around a couple of thousand people there. They said we couldn’t board that night. The next day they would say: tomorrow. And tomorrow, that again: tomorrow. And so we waited for ten days’

5. the director synthesizes this statement, putting it into one concise sentence, for instance: ‘There were very many people waiting by the sea, everyone wanted to board the ship’; he writes the sentence in the German version of the script, then reads it aloud

6. the interpreter translates it into Arabic, then writes it in the Arabic version of the script and reads it back to the protagonist

7. Rushwan confirms the sentence is accurate or corrects the sentence and/or adds new detail

8. the interpreter translates Rushwan’s corrections into German

9. the director, if he accepts a correction, updates the German version of the script while making sure the sentence is stylistically and grammatically correct in German, then asks another question.

The entire procedure was repeated many times. As is evident, a large part of the interview was taken up by interpreting and agreeing on different language versions, which might indicate that the director wanted to preserve the negotiation-like aspect of the script-writing process. The listed points, however, also reveal that he was acting with the future spectator in mind. The synthetic statement created as a result of many cuts had to be a simple construction and preferably a single sentence that would fit into the subtitle space under the film. In this way attempts were made for the future subtitles not to draw attention away from the film image and the appearance of the actual game space in which the spectator would find himself or herself. What is more, the text had to be accessible to a European audience – it couldn’t overwhelm them with too much detail or unknown facts.

Another reason for simplifications was the seven-minute limit for each film, which, as explained to me by Daniel, resulted from the following calculation. The directors first determined that the show would be open each time to twenty participants, because ten would have been too few for a festival production, and thirty would have been too many for an interactive game – coordinating the script with so many paths would have been ill-advised. It was further determined that a spectator would not be able to identify with more than ten protagonists per performance, so it was decided that each audience member would have a chance to see half of the available movies. Each movie therefore could not last more than nine minutes, so together they would amount to a standard production roughly an hour and a half long. Having subtracted the time necessary for explaining the games’ rules and renting equipment, they agreed on seven minutes per film.

Credibility training

At the end of this lengthy process of negotiating the monologue’s content, the ‘expert’ would receive a prepared script and was expected to learn it sufficiently to be able to perform it freely and efficiently. When the process of rehearsing the script with a camera in hand began, the directors imposed one mode of framing and carefully determined the directions and rhythm of the camera work – namely, the tablet could only be held horizontally, using an attached handle, and the protagonist had to move as smoothly as possible, avoiding jittery images at all costs. This limited the expression of the ‘experts’ considerably and stiffened their movements. Any play with the medium was out of the question, as was any testing of visibility limits. The equipment would focus automatically, and any visual effects were to be added by Chris Kondek, who was responsible for postproduction. The directors chose not to notice or not to apply – as the Michel de Certeau reference above would indicate – the tactics the protagonists worked out in dealing with the tablet, that is, the ways in which they adapted the received instrument to the relating of their story.

The scene in which Rushwan was to film Aziza during a conversation about the beginnings of their relationship took a long time to rehearse. Over the course of their dialogue, he would always slide the camera down and, instead of filming his wife’s face, as indicated by the director, he would film her restless hands. The image of Aziza’s hands betraying her nervousness in the situation of filming this intimate conversation appeared to Daniel as a camera operator’s mistake. He insisted that Rushwan remember to film her face, as ‘the spectator wants to see her’. In a similar way, by absolutizing the European viewer’s gaze, many recordings were made uniform.

Each second of the script was filled by storytelling and action. The directors avoided gaps, stops and pauses so the future spectator would smoothly pass from one room to another, from one narrative to another. Multitasking was therefore a desired skill, and so was divided attention. While holding the camera in one hand, the protagonist often had to also:

1. move around the studio space (walk, sit down, kneel, lay on the floor)

2. interact with other experts according to the director’s guidelines (shake hands, take off one’s coat, pour soup)

3. use props and elements of the set design (pour tea, open and close the door, write on the blackboard, look through documents)

4. deliver one’s monologue from memory

5. control the elapsed-time counter visible on the screen so all listed activities would be performed in their allotted time, so that protagonists would not collide with one another.

Since the timing of many films proved unsatisfactory, changes were gradually introduced, primarily by separating the recording of sound and image. From that point, during rehearsals participants filmed their paths while ‘mute’, and their voices were recorded separately, reading the monologues. These were later synchronized with the images in postproduction. As a result, there was no longer a need to worry about the experts memorizing their texts. In order to achieve a perfect synchronization of individual tracks, the directors provided protagonists with relevant instructions (‘now turn right’, ‘in five seconds go up the stairs’, ‘stand by for the handshake’, etc.), which protagonists heard in their headphones while shooting their films. The integration of actions no longer demanded a group effort or memorizing a sequence of tasks – it was enough to follow commands.

In spite of denying protagonists their own voice and disciplining them by instructions, mistakes and unappealing shots still happened. It was difficult to intervene in the moments when the experts were filming one another (for instance, in the interaction scenes) – but it was still possible to use certain tricks in ‘solo’ scenes. Individual sessions with Chris Kondek were booked and he would hold the camera in front of the protagonist during movement sequences. In that way, jittery images were at least partially eliminated from the material, while maintaining the impression that the guide/narrator is the film’s author. These cooperative shooting sessions had something intriguing about them – they looked like a kind of elaborate gymnastics involving a camera. Kondek would circle around the moving ‘expert’, trying to be his third hand. These devices were an apt illustration of efforts aimed at enhancing credibility that may accompany the creation of all types of documentary art.

To lend further credence to the stories told, additional film materials were added later to material shot on set. For instance, the recollections of a Syrian refugee were accompanied by images of anti-government demonstrations in Homs. In each ‘original’ film shot in the studio, there were on average thirty interferences – photographs, animations, inserted additional footage. Postproduction was therefore a laborious and lengthy process. For Kondek (the video creator for Robert Wilson productions among many others), the editing process in this case did not constitute a creative challenge, as he admitted.9 He received a complete pack of all additional materials (movie clips, subtitles, dubbing, music) and precise guidelines for visual effects and animation. He wished he had been given more freedom. If he could decide on one thing, he would have deepened the participation dimension – for instance, by leaving an option for the audience member to put down the tablet and experience the space on their own.

At previews, it was noted that many spectators didn’t follow their guides, getting lost in the labyrinth of the studio. At the last moment, footage from a hidden camera was added in a couple of films, showing an image of the entire room seen from above, which was supposed to help the players find their bearings in the space. To further encourage participation, icons were introduced in the screen corner, indicating what actions were envisaged at a given point (‘sit’, ‘lie down’, ‘kneel’) or what props should be used (USB stick, spoon, tea). According to volunteers working as ‘front of house’, despite those additional tips, many players would still fall behind the game, especially elderly and middle-aged spectators.

Stefan Kaegi admitted that they made a mistake six months earlier in not inviting an ordinary audience for previews in Berlin. Those try-outs, that is, previews of early versions of the show, took place while rehearsals with the protagonists were still under way. Instead, the players had included the production team and invited guests – dramaturges and festival directors. After each such performance, notes would be gathered, as well as suggestions for improvements. The missing element was not only an ‘ordinary audience’, but also the protagonists themselves. Many ‘experts’ didn’t take part in the previews of Situation Rooms – they never learned the stories of other experts and didn’t see in what context their own stories were circulated. The majority didn’t appear at the Bochum premiere either – only few arrived, having covered their expenses on their own.

Part of the audience during previews in Bochum still participated in the game differently from what the directors had envisaged. Some spectators, perhaps tired of the show’s tempo, would sit somewhere at the side and watch clips on their tablets as if on TV, ignoring live action happening around them. Others moved from room to room as instructed but wouldn’t do any of the actions – to them, the set was merely a backdrop for the protagonists’ tales.

As observed by Jolanta Brach-Czaina, viewers as participants in art have the full right to use it as they are able to and as they please (Brach-Czaina, 1987, pp.141–153). Refusal to take advantage of all reception opportunities offered us by a given work of art does not necessarily need to be a gesture of rejection. Quite the contrary – it can be a sign of having taken on shared responsibility, because the creative role of a viewer or reader also entails elimination of meanings which are irrelevant from their point of view. A player in Situation Rooms, by suspending their direct participation in the action, could focus on watching and listening, thereby gaining time to adapt the work to their own purposes and to extract meanings significant for themselves. Through giving up on one level of the show, they took a stand in defence of their own cognitive needs. By using the right to not participate, they recovered their subjectivity.

In the Rimini Protokoll brochure on the planned production, sent out as their proposal to festivals, the company stressed advantages of the project lying in its lack of actors, which allows for far more possibilities while maintaining low operating costs. As part of Ruhrtriennale previews, three shows per day at two-hour intervals were initially planned, but in view of increasing interest, the number of shows was doubled. Some spectators at the previews (as they told me) wanted to stay after the show to have one more look at the props and remind themselves of stories they’d heard in a rushed manner. This wasn’t possible, because the space had to be prepared for the next round of spectators.

Into their own hands

What this analysis shows is that in a production meant to arouse the spectator’s vigilance and explain neo-colonial dependencies, the creators failed to escape mechanisms they wanted to warn their audience against. Anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup advises against introducing natives’ voices in anthropological texts, arguing that they merely ‘lend their voice to our theories’ (Hastrup, 2008, p. 155). By accepting the challenge that reflexive anthropology poses us, Polish artists also attempt in various ways to deal with the aporia inherent in the art of a documentary built from voices of the ‘subjugated’.

In the film Such Is My Karma (2001), Grzegorz Pacek places his camera in the hands of young residents of Warsaw’s Praga district. In the documentary’s opening credits, Pacek instructs his protagonists in an relentless tone how to use the microphone and camera. ‘Don’t touch, don’t tap on that, you need to hold it and not touch anything as it’ll all be heard, do you understand? But mind the cable as well’. ‘Don’t hold it by the microphone, don’t zoom in, don’t press any strange buttons, any effects, and don’t shake the camera because otherwise we won’t be able to edit anything’. Then the director interrogates his adepts, to check if they’ve internalized the training material.

Director: How do we frame?
Boy: Normally.
Director: The face is in what position?
Boy: In what position? Standing.
Director: How do you mean, ‘standing’? It’s central, which mean it’s here, right?
Boy: Yeah.
Director: And how do we know what a man thinks or feels?
Girl: I don’t know.
Director: Not by his face?
Girl: Yeah, by the face.
Director: Exactly. So what’s most important?
Girl: The face.
Director: And in the face?
Girl: I don’t know.
Director: You do know, you just need to think about it for a moment. What do people look into when they’re in love?
Girl: The eyes.
Director: Well, exactly.

Having passed the test, the children receive the camera and conduct interviews with one another and with family members. They stage scenes from their lives, document robberies, thefts or a group trip to a railway embankment. At the end, the director regains control – he takes the camera and asks protagonists questions about their future: who do they want to become, what does success mean to them, whether they want to become popular. As his first instructions taught them to adapt to a particular point of view in relation to their own world, the final questions suggest a certain ideal of life which they should strive for: to become somebody, to achieve success, to get out of their pathological environment, to be better than their parents. The final shot shows the children running, ‘escaping’ into the frame, as far away as they can get from the camera lens.

The production team behind Such Is My Karma, instead of doing what Terry Turner had done by using collaborative films to make the Kayapo Indians realize how great a power of attestation is wielded by the one who holds the camera, sets a series of technical conditions for their collaborators under which they will be allowed to tell their stories. The camera-operating course resembles the ‘violence education’ taking place every day in Praga backyards. Beneath the pedagogical and moralizing procedures – incentives to greater ambitions in life – hides the director’s contempt towards his protagonists. The price they must pay to be granted a voice is their consent to be placed in a discriminatory, subordinate relation to the director’s worldview and the aesthetic values he holds.

In his film, in contrast to the creators behind Situation Rooms, Pacek points repeatedly to himself as the person against whom his protagonists have to define themselves. The film is a documentary in the sense that it documents the history of the relationship between its author and its participants. It reveals at whose request or command the protagonists narrate, and on what conditions they are granted the rights of co-creators. In this sense, Such Is My Karma is a relational work.

Does the mere disclosure of the creator’s entanglement in a relationship of power solve this basic dilemma, however, or does it only justify the use of violence, proving that though disclosed, it remains indispensable? It seems naive to demand equality in the relationship between anthropologist and source, between director and actor, between a project’s author and its participant. Rimini Protokoll, as theatre-studies graduates, willingly admit that they ‘have no illusions’ and, as Daniel Wetzel once told me, that ‘theatre changes nothing’.

I believe that it is worthwhile in fact not to leave the matter at this, and to explore the asymmetry of this relationship that could be, after all, as Hastrup writes hopefully, ‘of a specifically creative nature’ (Hastrup, 2008, p. 155) – provided that it is recognized adequately and worked through.


The director Kazimierz Karabasz made movies in the 1970s in which he used photo materials created by his protagonists. The first of these, Point of View, tells the story of a group of young amateur photographers from a small town. The director’s camera accompanies their weekly meetings at a community cultural centre, meetings which serve to improve their skills and at the same time to present an opportunity to exchange views on the reality surrounding them, views frequently of alternative natures. Their photos are presented to us in the form of a slide show while we hear the off-camera commentary of their creators:

It’s a small town, everyone knows one another. If I show a picture to someone and there’s something that’s not right with it, some face a little contorted, they’ll say: That’s all wrong, you’re not much of a photographer, you can’t do it any other way. Here you have to be precise with your photographs.

Another adds:

On these pictures the people captured, well, they’re not in accord and they don’t agree with the way they came out in the photos. They imagine themselves as better, as different. I think it’s the matter of capturing them at a certain moment, not the one they’d like, not like a professional photographer does who will sit them down, ask for their attention and snap.

The photos show fleeting facial grimaces, moments of frenzied consumption at a wedding, artificial pompousness of secular rites. The young photographers claim the right to critical perception, and their points of view often destroy the self-image of their subjects. Their hobby wears the face of Janus: it alienates them from their unaccepting environment while allowing them to express their disagreement with established social relations and the existing shape of reality.

Photos taken by amateurs are interspersed with shots showing life in the small town, directed by Karabasz. With time, the difference between them blurs and one has the impression that the film segments are the protagonists’ photos come to life, that it constitutes their extension and development. The production team achieved this effect by imitating the points of view and the means of portrayal observed in the young photographers. In the film, they also express a few ideas on the art of photography – simply put yet delivered with deep conviction. This one, for example, concerns the portrait: ‘It’s very difficult precisely in the portrait. You need to surprise a thought here, simply surprise a human thought. Whatever is in him at the time, to surprise it’. The director allows each of these statements time to resound, as if they were lessons that he also, a professional, must take to heart.

Karabasz displays solidarity with his protagonists. He doesn’t film them, he films with them – trying to understand their sense of isolation, loss of contact with what is near, familiar, their own. Thanks to trustful and patient observation, he notices that the gazes of his protagonists from behind the lens are never unequivocally objectifying. He detects a variety of reflections in them: warmth, irony, empathy, regret, humour or anger directed at their portrait subjects. In order to prove that photography creates distance but at the same time is able to overcome it, he always tries to be on the side of his protagonists. Using minimal editing and generous time management, Karabasz in these films proves that a camera is not only an instrument of watching, but also of listening.

Translated by Karolina Sofulak

The original version of this article was published in Didaskalia 2014, 119, pp. 38-44.


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de Certeau, Michel, L'invention du quotidien. 1. Arts de faire, trans. by Katarzyna Thiel-Jańczuk (Kraków: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2008)

Goebbels, Heiner, ‘Aesthetics of Absence: Questioning Basic Assumptions in Performing Arts’ [accessed: 19 August 2015]

Hastrup, Kirsten, A Passage to Anthropology: Between Experience and Theory, trans. by Ewa Klekot (Kraków: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2008), p. 155

Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, trans. by Marcin Gruszczyński, et al (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Naukowe PWN, 2001), p. 46

Productions and films:

Such Is My Karma, written and directed by Grzegorz Pacek, 29 min., Telewizja Polska 2001

Point of View, written and directed by Kazimierz Karabasz, 17 min., Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych,Warsaw 1974

Situation Rooms, Rimini Protokoll(directors Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, Daniel Wetzel)

1. Sherry R. Arnstein, ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’, Journal of American Planning Association, 4 (1969), pp. 216-224.

2. All participants and summaries of their stories are presented in the production’s programme, available at the Rimini Protokoll website [accessed 20 August 2015].

3. See Trailer of Situation Rooms | Haug / Kaegi / Wetzel (with English subtitles), [accessed: 19 August 2015].

4. The master’s thesis ‘Blind Alleys of Documentary Theatre: An Analysis of the Production Process of Situation Rooms, a Multiplayer Video Piece by the Berlin Rimini Protokoll Collective’waswritten at the Theatre Studies Faculty of the Aleksander Zelwerowicz Theatre Academy in Warsaw, supervised by Associate Professor Tomasz Kubikowski, and was granted the award for best master’s thesis in the field of theatre, spectacle and performance studies by the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute in 2015.

5. E-mail exchange, 3 August 2013.

6. The Oranienplatz camp was shut down by police in 2014.

7. E-mail exchange, 5 August 2013.

8. While conducting the interviews and working on the scripts, the directors worked as dramaturges as well, but for purposes of simplification I only use the term ‘director’.

9. Conversation, 23 August 2013.

Zofia Smolarska

(1987), a graduate of Theatre Studies at the A. Zelwerowicz Theatre Academy in Warsaw. She also studied opera singing at the Frederic Chopin University of Music in Warsaw and the German Hochschule für Musik Detmold. Currently she is preparing her doctoral thesis on the work of theatre craftsmen and technicians. As a theatre critic, she collaborates with the journal Teatr. Her articles and critical essays have appeared there and in Didaskalia, Dialog, Performer, at and in Svet a Divadlo and Rzut. Her research interests include (post) documentary theatre, participatory theatre and intermedia projects as well as organizational and technical performance. Smolarska operates on the edge of theory and practice, running theatre workshops and devising social projects, public space performances and short video forms. Most recently, she worked as dramaturge for Inventory of Powerlessness directed by Edit Kaldor and presented at the Malta Festival in Poznań in 2015.