What does a forgetful kid who’s notorious for losing retainers and jackets grow up to become? Well, naturally, an award-winning documentarian. Now Robert Clift never forgets what he records—and neither does his audience. Producer, director, videographer, editor, and writer Clift has just added one more title to his list of vocations: assistant professor of communication and emerging media & digital arts at Southern Oregon University.
Clift, whose oeuvre explores the tensions between the individual and the collective, most recently won acclaim for his thought-provoking documentary Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity, which premiered on PBS in January 2010. Boldly examining the controversial topic of race in America through the lens of hip-hop, the film is currently being distributed by California Newsreel as part of its African-American Perspectives Collection. The American Library Association named Blacking Up one of the most notable documentaries released in 2010.
The prior year saw his Ethnographic Film production of Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages in collaboration with Co-Director and Editor Hillary Demmon. The documentary follows three road comics as they travel the Midwest comedy club circuit, analyzing the relationship between standup comedy as a mode of verbal art and the performative landscape on which it is developed.
Clift’s filmmaking talents were recognized early in his career, with a 2002 16mm short winning the Brian Freidman Best of Festival Award at Indiana University’s annual Iris Film and Video Festival. This followed the success of his 2001 PBS documentary Stealing Home: The Case of Contemporary Cuban Baseball, which received nearly $250,000 in funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Latino Public Broadcasting, and Technical Assistance & Training Corporation.
In 1998, Clift served as assistant editor on a two-hour ABC documentary titled ’68: A Look Back, by award-winning producers Paul and Holly Fine. He was the consulting editor on Proud, a feature-length fictional film about the USS Mason, the only African-American naval ship to serve in combat during World War II. An official selection in the Tribeca Film Festival, Proud was nominated as Best Independent Feature at the 2006 Black Reel Awards.
His interactive and new media projects include “See This: Video Jazz,” “Multimediatic (A Video-Jazz Dialogue),” and “Project 360,” for which he was awarded a grant from the Independent Television Service (ITVS) for a new media campaign in support of Blacking Up. This was in addition to the $80,000 in funding he secured from ITVS to produce Blacking Up.
Clift earned a PhD and MA in communication and culture from Indiana University, with specializations in film and media studies; performance and ethnography; and rhetoric and public culture as well as a doctoral minor in cultural studies. Prior to that, he completed his BA in political science/international relations at Pomona College.
His dissertation, “Disrupting Reality: Doubt, Authority, and the Documentary Performance,” points the lens at documentarians who fabricate situations and purposefully mislead their subjects. Clift’s research untangles the layers of reality and deception presented by such experimental films as William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 1.
Clift’s essay “Confusing the Frame: Interviews, Dramatizations and Deauthorized Performances in Errol Morris’s Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.” will appear in a forthcoming Errol Morris anthology edited by Lou Thompson. He has traveled the country as a guest speaker, screening his documentaries and leading discussions on Blacking Up and Stealing Home at Georgetown University, Saginaw Valley University, Bridegewater State University, Indiana University, and DePauw University. His screening of Stealing Home at Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington, Indiana, was sponsored by the Cultural Studies Association and the Sisters of Cuba Foundation.
Since 2003, Clift has served on the board of the Corporation for Educational Radio and Television. Last year, he donated time and resources to produce two PSAs for the Washington Animal Rescue League. From 2005 to 2009, Clift acted as curator/judge for the annual Iris Film Festival in Bloomington, Indiana.
Clift served as a volunteer film and video instructor at the Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where he taught a four-week Film and Video Production Seminar to a group of high school students as part of The Sioux Nation Cultural Awareness month. Participants wrote, directed, shot, edited, and acted in a collaborative piece entitled Yawn: Life on the Rez’. Other volunteer activities include teaching an eight-week Film Production Seminar at Indiana University’s Collins Living and Learning Center.
He has taught courses such as Narrative and Experimental Film Production, Documentary Theory and Production, Production as Criticism: The Mockumentary, and Production as Criticism: Science Fiction. The latter three courses earned him individual Outstanding Teaching awards.
Today, Clift looks forward to inspiring future generations of filmmakers to document the unforgettable individual moments within the grander collective experience.
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in October 2011
Clift as a child (courtesy of Robert Clift)
MM: Have you been a documentarian in one form or another since birth? What early evidence can you find for your talents as an observer capable of formulating a compelling narrative about a subject?
RC: I was a forgetful child—one of those children teachers would pin notes on to bring home. And I would lose things. Jackets and retainers were my specialty. My mother still enjoys talking about how much money the orthodontist made on my lost retainers. She’s funny when she talks about it. I’ve thought about filming it. It’s a nice little story. It doesn’t have a big compelling narrative, but it’s a fragment of something that maybe, someday, I could incorporate into something bigger. Or maybe not. Either way, I suppose I would say that I’m a documentarian because I had a bad memory as a child. Or I’m just too old to pin notes on myself.
Sparking discussion in the Center for the Visual Arts (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: I hope you do film that vignette with your mom. I would love to see it. Now I’m wondering, how has your documentary career influenced your teaching philosophy and style?
RC: I approach teaching very much like I approach my documentary work. I start with general goals and directions, but I know the strength of my films will depend on the strength of my collaboration with the people in them. If my work falls flat, it is because I haven’t engaged them: interviews are stale; footage illustrates the obvious; and the viewer is not challenged to reflect on what they’re watching. Similarly, I believe teaching should avoid a banal learning environment and encourage students to actively confront ideas. Like the people I work with on my films, I see students as creating the learning experience with me. I enter with an agenda, just like I might have a set of questions prepared for an interviewee, but that agenda is a blueprint for engagement, not an unyielding set of concepts to be fed or followed.
MM: Your PhD dissertation in communication and culture was titled “Disrupting Reality: Doubt, Authority, and the Documentary Performance.” What did you discover?
RC: People often think documentarians seek to give viewers an objective representation of reality and that they do so by following certain protocols, like not interfering in the scene of what they film or communicating honestly with the people they film. I looked at documentarians who take the opposite approach—filmmakers who fabricate situations and purposefully mislead their subjects—and I asked what aspects of reality they are able to represent because of it. So, for example, there’s one film I write about from the late 60s, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 1, where the director misleads his subjects, a group of other filmmakers and actors, into thinking they are working on a fictional film. Once gathered together on a set, he then acts confused about what he wants from them and frustrates their attempts to participate in a manner familiar to them from past work experiences. Eventually, the film’s crew becomes so annoyed that they surreptitiously smuggle the equipment off the set and film each other talking about the director: Is he actually incompetent, or is he just faking it? Does he want us to rebel? Should we make our own film, one that is the expression of our collective voice and not the vision of a particular director? What would that look like? What would be the point of making a film that doesn’t have a director’s signature? These conversations are edited into the final film, and Symbio becomes a documentary that brings a number of unquestioned assumptions about movies to the surface: assumptions about how they should be made, about what they should look like and about whose vision they should express. It is because of the fabrications and the lying, the director’s “misdirecting” so to speak, that the film is able to represent these aspects of reality.
MM: It’s funny you should mention Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, because that film actually came up in a conversation with my husband just the other day. We hadn’t seen it for years, but it really left a profound impression on us, and it is such a brilliant example of meta-film. What’s fascinating is how William Greaves is not only deceiving the crew present in the moment of filming, but he is also fooling the viewer, who only gradually begins to realize the levels of reality and deception as they unfold through the course of editing.
RC: I love that you and your husband have seen Symbio and agree wholly with your comments about spectatorship.
MM: But going back to your dissertation topic, the authority question makes me think of psychologist Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments, in which he documented subjects’ willingness to inflict electric shocks on unseen victims (actually actors) when told to do so by an authority figure. How do your own findings about authority relate to this study?
RC: That’s a great observation. There’s a spirit to the Milgram experiments that continues to live—uncomfortably and in odd ways—in some of the films I look at, in the strange world of reality television or in mixed fictional-nonfictional hybrid films such as Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. The difference is that Milgram was testing the influence of an authority figure on the decision-making ability of others in the experiment, and what I look at is how the insights of an experiment such as his depend on the deceptions committed in the name of it and, consequently, the undermining of the people’s authority who participate in it. This all raises, of course, some complicated ethical questions. Interestingly, it’s these questions that tie Milgram, for better or worse, to some of the programming we’re familiar with from reality TV.
Trailer for Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity (by Robert Clift)
MM: Your most recent documentary, Blacking Up: Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity, aired on PBS in 2010. Winner of the American Library Association’s 2011 Notable Videos for Adults Award, the film poses the question, “Is this the face of new racial understanding in white America? Is this transcending racial stereotypes—or is it reinforcing an ugly history, mimicking a degraded idea of what it means to be black?” The documentary has struck a major chord with viewers across America because it is an honest and sincere exploration of complex issues such as race, culture, history, and identity, and it provokes so many salient—and perhaps unanswerable—questions about these topics. What did you find most difficult about making a film that dealt with such complex topics?
RC: The most difficult part about making that film was getting white people to talk openly about race. That difficulty doubled when it came to white rappers. I would have loved, for example, to have interviewed Eminem, but I didn’t get much further than his handlers. The perception was that he has too much to risk—that race, as a topic of discussion, is bad for business. I encountered the same perception with every white rapper I spoke to about being in the film. This made getting interviewees quite difficult. For this reason, I think those who did agree to be in the film, particularly those with a fan base, deserve some credit for not simply avoiding the topic. Even Vanilla Ice, who has been the butt of the joke for so long that his appearance in a television show has the effect of a laugh track, deserves credit for his willingness to enter the conversation.
Part of the fear, I think, is tied up to the kneejerk responses people often have to white rappers, or even whites who are into hip-hop generally. In talking about the film with people who haven’t seen it, I find that they often side for or against whites in hip-hop, as if the topic were as simple as choosing sides in a football game—on one side, the color-blind participants, who just love the music for what it is; on the other side, the racists, who are mimicking, mocking, romanticizing, and capitalizing on it. It’s simply not that straightforward. Communicating those nuances in the context of how race is framed in America, however, was not easy.
MM: You’ve actually designed and taught a course titled Production as Criticism: The Mockumentary. What did your students come to realize about the mockumentary genre and its capacity for social critique? What’s your favorite mockumentary—and why?
RC: Mockumentaries take aspects of documentaries or straight discourse, turn them on their head and expose the appeals to authority at their foundation. That process opens a lot of space for critique—for understanding how media messages are produced, and for fostering a critical eye toward media programming.
Two mockumentaries I often recommend are David Holzman’s Diary and Forgotten Silver. I like mockumentaries that take more of a satirical than a parodic approach, and both of those do that.
Trailer for Stealing Home: The Case of Contemporary Cuban Baseball (by Robert Clift)
MM: Your other documentaries include Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages and Stealing Home: The Case of Contemporary Cuban Baseball. What drew you to these ostensibly rather dissimilar topics, and what common concerns underscore all of your works?
RC: Each of my films is concerned with tensions between the individual and the collective. Stealing Home, for example, explores the tensions between the Cuban ballplayer—aware of the amount of money available to him in the United States Major Leagues—and the interests of fans, government officials, sports trainers, broadcasters, managers, and the like in seeing that La Liga Nacional Cubana thrives and everyone isn’t faced with cheering for North American teams. If US-Cuba relations were shaped similarly to how it is between the US and other Latin American countries, Cuban baseball would merely be a feeding system for the US Major Leagues.
Excerpts from Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages (by Robert Clift and Hillary Demmon)
Road Comics explores the particular conditions that shape the Midwest comedy circuit and the effect of those conditions on a group of comedians and the type of comedy they perform.
MM: As a side note, I’m also curious to see if you can help me figure out a term I’ve been trying to remember for years—it describes the effect that occurs when a documentarian attempts to record reality. The very presence of the documentarian alters the nature of reality by influencing the behavior of its subjects, thus making it virtually impossible for the filmmaker to document “reality.” The closest I got when trying to find this term was the observer-expectancy effect, but it doesn’t relate specifically to documentaries.
RC: Film theorists call it the Heisenberg Principle. From what I understand, scientists claim that it’s a misapplication of that term, but that claim may or may not be accurate. There’s a long and divisive history between different disciplines, much less between the humanities and the sciences. It’s essentially a fight over who owns the term.
Trailer from Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (by Errol Morris)
MM: Thank you!! That’s exactly the term I’ve been trying to figure out for years! What a relief.
I’m also interested in hearing more about your essay “Confusing the Frame: Interviews, Dramatizations, and Deauthorized Performances in Errol Morris’s Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.,” which has been accepted for publication in a forthcoming Errol Morris anthology. Morris is particularly well-known for his invention of the Interrotron, a device that serves as an intermediary between him and his subjects as he conducts his interviews. It allows his subjects to look at his reflection (and vice versa) instead of a camera lens, perhaps creating a more human exchange through, ironically, a mechanical instrument. Did the Interrotron factor into the issues explored in your essay?
RC: Yes, but what I find most interesting about his approach to interviewing is that he employs equipment designed to heighten the sense of the interviewing situation. This approach flies in the face of documentary orthodoxy, which says that interviewees should be put at ease and the presence of technology should be downplayed. The premise, however, that interviewees will be more truthful if they feel more comfortable is a tenuous one. Errol Morris’s films and his approach to interviewing demonstrate that.
Deep in conversation (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: In what ways do your students have an opportunity to practice intellectual creativity in your classes?
RC: Learning is about growth. Teaching is about creating the kind of conditions that are conducive to growth. For me, this means grounding students in a particular disciplinary or practice-based tradition while also encouraging them to think outside of that tradition, to experiment, to foster new connections, and to not be overwhelmed by the weight of how things are typically done.
MM: What are you most looking forward to experiencing at SOU?
RC: I look forward to working with students over the course of their entire academic careers and having the opportunity to work closely with them during that time.
October 11, 2011 | Filed under Art, Communication, Convergent Media, Digital Media, Film and TV, Humanities, Performing Arts, Visual Arts and tagged with Big Work on Small Stages, Blacking Up, Communication Department, convergent media, David Holzman’s Diary, documentarian Robert Clift, Errol Morris, film and television, film and tv, Forgotten Silver, Heisenberg Principle, Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity, mockumentary, obedience experiment, obedience to authority, reality tv, Road Comics, Robert Clift, SOU, Southern Oregon University, Stanley Milgram, Stealing Home, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 1, The Case of Contemporary Cuban Baseball.
Tags: Big Work on Small Stages, Blacking Up, Communication Department, convergent media, David Holzman’s Diary, documentarian Robert Clift, Errol Morris, film and television, film and tv, Forgotten Silver, Heisenberg Principle, Hip-Hop’s Remix of Race and Identity, mockumentary, obedience experiment, obedience to authority, reality tv, Road Comics, Robert Clift, SOU, Southern Oregon University, Stanley Milgram, Stealing Home, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 1, The Case of Contemporary Cuban Baseball