Lana Lin on Ethics and Vulnerability in Documentary Filmmaking

We talked to filmmaker, artist and writer Lana Lin about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, embodied vulnerabilities and the political meaning of ‘Self Care’

Can you tell us a bit about your filmmaking practice and approach?

I’ve gone from identifying as a filmmaker to identifying as a filmmaker/artist, to identifying as a filmmaker/artist/writer. This evolution indicates something of the trajectory of my practice. I came out, so to speak, as an experimental filmmaker in the 1990s. Then in the 2000s I started collaborating on mixed media art projects with my partner Lan Thao Lam. It seems about every 10 years, it’s not that I re-invent myself, but my investments move more deeply into different areas.

The Cancer Journals Revisited is a filmic extension, of sorts, of my scholarly book, Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects. My projects usually involve archival research, and I have always been interested in language. Writing plays a huge part in my practice, but not in the sense of writing a script to be filmed. Writing is how I work through my ideas about what a film is, and this happens before, during, and after the film is made. It’s very much a part of the process, and the afterlife of the film. I would say now that I work in creative non-fiction that can take the form of film, art, or writing, or at best, all three at once.

Rather than following a subject around, your film directly uses the writings of Audre Lorde to explore the subject of her life and illness. How does this approach relate to your thoughts on the ethics of documentary filmmaking?

This is a great question. Thank you for bringing it up. At first it would seem that I could avoid the ethical dilemmas of following a “subject” around, but then, of course, different ethical dilemmas arise. How does one represent a text; what responsibilities does one have to it, and to the legacy of its author? Inviting 27 people to read the text aloud and to voice their thoughts about it was a way to give different perspectives on the power and meaning of the text in the present tense. The film as a whole gives my interpretation, but hopefully a constellation of different interpretations is embedded within the film itself.

You talk about embodied vulnerabilities being central to your filmmaking. In The Cancer Journals Revisited, the text is spoken by a variety of people whose subjectivities come into play through their reading. What was it like to work with a cast of people who related to this text in various ways?

This kind of extends from the previous question … I felt it was crucial to invite people who could respond to the text from positions that were distinct from mine and from each other. It was especially important to hear from Black women since Lorde herself was a Black woman and because I am not. But I also wanted to include trans and gender non-conforming folx, though Lorde didn’t explicitly address them, in large part because this was not the public discourse at the time of her writing.

I was privileged to have the opportunity to sit (or maybe more literally stand) with people and to listen to them share their intimate stories. I feel this is the case with every film I make, actually every project I’m involved in. And I wouldn’t limit this to the cast. The crew was also integral to the project, and intimate as well. It was a very slim crew of mostly students and recent graduates, and they also came from quite diverse backgrounds.

Have you found that the resonance of The Cancer Journals Revisited has shifted as narratives about sickness, recovery and survival have become so present during the pandemic?

Yes, there is more focus on each of us being vulnerable, but some of us are more threatened than others. One hopes that more people are coming to understand that racial, economic and physical conditions of precarity produce comorbidities. Attention to the politics of care had been increasing, but the pandemic has brought this into relief. Lorde’s insight that caring for herself was not a luxury but an act of political warfare is practically a meme in this pandemic time.

But it should be noted that she meant self-care in terms of caring for and protecting bodies endangered by the violence of racism, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism, in addition to illness and aging. Lorde becomes more and more relevant in the violence of this pandemic, which is frightening.

But being in lockdown and online so much of the time I think that people are becoming more broadly aware of the need for disability justice. There is a demand for not only but panels and conversations to be captioned, interpreted, and described. I wish there were audio description of TCJR but there isn’t yet. It’s something to work on.  

You can buy tickets to the Watch Party + Q&A of Lana Lin’s documentary The Cancer Journals Revisited by clicking here, or catch it our Vimeo on Demand until 18th October by clicking here.