Power & representation in filmmaking

Power can intersect in many dimensions of the filmmaking process. The ability to represent (oneself or on behalf of others) is a form of power that must be handled with care. As filmmakers, it is clear that we possess immense power over how are subjects are represented in our work. From the early stages of storyboarding to the latter stages of editing, we must constantly reflect on how we choose to exercise this power.

Nanook of the North is an example of how representation in cinema can be used to reinforce power over another subject. Shot in the 1920’s, Flaherty’s representation of the Inuit operates as a tool of colonialism that deliberately misrepresents Inuit life and culture.

Through its choice of music and narrative style, this film portrays Nanook as an uncivilized and comedic subject, and positions him as an object of ridicule. Given the period in which Nanook of the North was produced, the representational decisions made by the producers served to affirm colonial myths and attitudes towards Indigenous peoples. Evidently, we must be cognizant of the power relations that come into play in the process of filmmaking, for it can influence the way we represent our subjects, and potentially lead us to reproduce unequal power dynamics that exists in the broader society.

So how can we flip the script and share authority with our subjects? In my opinion, I think the first step is to recognize that our power is not inherently rooted in our positions as filmmakers. While we play critical roles in shaping the narrative and stylistic design of our films, our potential as filmmakers arises from our subjects, who empower us with the ability to tell their stories, and more importantly, with their trust in our commitment to represent their stories with honesty and integrity. Thus, it is by honouring the relationships that empower us as filmmakers can we only begin to be more accountable in our work and in our engagement with different communities.

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