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  • Reading the Water: Lectures on Home Video Ecology from the Gulf of Maine
  • Michael Mulcahy
Reading the Water: Lectures on Home Video Ecology from the Gulf of Maine. Directed by Niklas Vollmer University Film and Video Association Conference, University of North Texas, 2007.

We are all born into families, and if we are lucky, we die from within them, too—cared for and supported to the end and then mourned and remembered.

In between entry and exit, we remain as part of a family, even if we have set ourselves, or been set apart, from mother and father, brother and sister, son and daughter.

To observe the shared traits and distinctive characteristics of a family, to listen to what is spoken and left unsaid, offers audience members the chance to gain insight into the eternally challenging but hopefully loving possibilities of family life.

Such work acts as a mirror of sorts; in watching three male generations in Niklas Vollmer's family, an audience member inevitably projects onto Nik and his family one's own familial experiences. We see alternate possibilities to our own stories and compare the characters we know most intimately and the relationships we have with them against the framework of family established by Douglas, Niklas, and Tannus Vollmer, and also by extension we compare those we know to the wives and mothers absent from the frame.

In Reading the Water: Lectures on Home Video Ecology from the Gulf of Maine, the characters we observe, listen to, and grow to know are not fictional agents; neither are they represented by an omniscient narrator. Instead, the author of Reading the Water is a member of the family represented, and it is his father and his son, his relations with them and theirs with him, that we see played out on the screen.

Reading the Water can thus be seen as working within the style of nonfiction film best known as personal documentary. Although the most celebrated personal documentaries, such as Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1990) or Su Friedrich's The Ties That Bind (1985), have been produced by, and about, people and issues either misrepresented by or otherwise absent from traditional documentary, there has also been a strand of personal documentary made by filmmakers whose voices have traditionally been amplified far and wide—white, male filmmakers. In films by Ross McElwee and Alan Berliner, among others, the camera has been turned onto the maker and those closest to him; the subject material has been male identity and masculinity.

Personal documentary is not a mode of production, to use Bill Nichol's schema. Rather, personal documentaries use a variety of styles and techniques such as subject participation, reflexivity, and performance in order to call forth a more elusive truth than one contained by facts and figures. By becoming the subject, the filmmaker gains a measure of ethical authority, for if we cannot speak for ourselves, [End Page 54] who can? By taking as subjects one's family and other loved ones, the filmmaker can intimately address the complicated dynamics of family and social relations. But in doing so, the filmmaker raises the stakes. For if one of the central issues in documentary is how to represent one's subject, how to speak for and on behalf of someone else, then using one's family, one's father and son as subjects makes the answer crucial indeed.

So how does Reading the Water negotiate the possibilities and challenges of personal documentary? What formal and stylistic elements does this experimental documentary use to represent the Vollmers, father, son, and grandson? What do we learn about them? What insight do we gain into our own family experiences?

The style and structure of the work establish a creative tension by setting a degree of detail revealed about the three Vollmers and their relations to each other against an aesthetic distancing or obliqueness. This creative tension challenges an easy or sentimental understanding of family. By working through allusion and association, the film establishes a range of emotion and consequence greater than the seemingly casual interaction that constitutes the film's "home video ecology."

In the film's most poignant and powerful moments...


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pp. 54-56
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