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Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate

Virginia Kuhn, Author

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Models as Scaffolding

Screening selections from films that defy genre expectations is useful in helping students imagine transformative potentials for their own digital arguments. Experimental filmmaker Su Friedrich scratches words directly into the filmstock in The Ties That Bind and this allows her to question her mother about her work for the government in Nazi Germany. This technique also renders the scratched words, when I was a child I wondered why my mother hated fireworks so much, haunting in their simplicity and gut wrenching in their hand written (human) production. 

Similarly, Ari Folman complicates documentary, as well as the nature of memory and its presumed authenticity in Waltz With Bashir, a film centered on an Israeli Army mission in the first Lebanon War of the early 1980s, which included Folman himself.  Most of the film is animated, although the people and objects depicted do not follow the standard 'physics' of cartoons whose exaggerated gestures and plasticity defy real world physics, and this humanizes the animation as the images seem to breathe and flutter in ways that are subtle and nuanced. This technique is then abandoned in the final segment as the animation gives way to photographic footage; the victims of the slaughter are shown, the surviving wives and mothers crying and screaming. This sequence is all the more powerful for its juxtaposition with the previously animated footage. Further, the subtitles, which have been in the frame throughout, suddenly drop away lending prominence to the women's voices. 

Finally, Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions finds von Trier challenging his mentor Jorgen Leth to remake his seminal 1968 film The Perfect Human five times with an array of creative constraints, from using no more than twelve frames in a single edit, to animating the action. These constraints spark creativity and challenge the filmmaker to see his work in a new light. 

Complex and compelling digital arguments are plentiful in Vectors Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular and having students conduct narrated screencasts of critical readings of Vectors articles is a productive way to immerse them in digital argument, both technologically, as well as conceptually. This student project, a reading of Public Secrets, is particularly instructive as Public Secrets strips away images, using sound and word to heighten the impact of listening to the stories of incarcerated women.  

These examples form pedagogical scaffolding, as they represent points of departure from conventional filmic forms, which can then be enhanced and extended by students in their own digital arguments. Thus, the filmic texts' curriculum represents an instantiation of the Fifth Estate and attempts to be informative as well as transformative. Building upon the work of film studies and rhetorical theory, the approach of the Fifth Estate can enact the literate practices appropriate to the digital world, those that encompass word, image, sound and interactivity, and those which contribute to a flourishing democracy and a vibrant public sphere.  
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