Uncomfortable: The Art of Christopher Cozier (2005)

by Richard Fung
(originally published in Public 31, 2005)

I don’t like documentaries about artists. I find the mediating lens puts me at a distance from the artwork, and explication by the artist doesn’t enlighten me.

There are exceptions, of course. In Mereta Mita’s Hotere (2001), the great Maori modernist is barely glimpsed in this feature length consideration of his life; I thought perhaps he had died. Similarly, in Tom by Mike Hoolboom (2002), the figure of New York filmmaker Tom Chomont only occasionally emerges from behind a waterfall of moving images, borrowed, found and stolen. Rivers and Tides (2001), by Thomas Riedelsheimer, takes a different tack: it doesn’t impede but rather amplifies our vision. It sneaks us into the secret rituals of Andy Goldsworthy who creates solitary spectacles in the wilderness: a rock pool filled with dandelions, a dome woven from driftwood which collapses in the rising tide. These portraits work foremost as films. They excel as creations of sound and image rather than as vehicles for information about their artist-subjects. They are exceptions to the genre.

I didn’t plan to make a documentary about an artist. A few years ago, I received a research-creation grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to study the relationship between nationalism and homophobia in Canada and Trinidad and Tobago. In the 1980s, Trinidad and Tobago outlawed lesbian sex, and Canada began accepting gay and lesbian refugee cases. I was interested in how both countries defined their national spaces by criminalizing or accepting queer sexualities. These gestures reflected official discourses about national character, upstanding and God-fearing in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, compassionate and tolerant in the case of Canada. As a gay man who has lived in both countries I was aware of the extent to which these narratives were ideological constructions, and I proposed to consider these questions through a series of short videos. I completed the introduction to the series, Islands, in 2002. However, as I proceeded with my research I found myself increasingly feeling the burden to represent, to produce yet another instalment in the seemingly inexhaustible series of documentaries with the subtitle, “gays and lesbians in…..” Apart from my boredom with that project, British-based filmmaker Inge Blackman had recently released Paradise Lost (2003), which is billed as a personal journey into carnival, Catholicism and homosexuality in Trinidad. Although I as yet have not seen this film, I felt relief that perhaps the job of representing Trinidadian queers had been done.

On one of my research trips to Trinidad, I attended a large solo exhibition by Trinidadian visual artist Christopher Cozier. As I moved through the large gallery at CCA7, I was accosted by the word “bullers” written on an old-fashioned, stand-up blackboard that formed part of an installation. Buller is a derogatory term for gay man, though it and its verb from, to bull, both have traces of a pre-identitarian sexuality. It refers specifically to anal sex, and is closer to sodomite in meaning. In my youth I lived in terror that the word would be shot my way. “Buller” is sharp and poisonous, and it is yet to be tamed and re-appropriated by Trinidadian queer folk.

In Christopher Cozier’s installation, buller is part of a litany of attributes that delineates “them” from “us.” It is squarely in the “them” column. The implied subject of the utterance is a particular form of “Trini” nationalist, a subject position well known in the modern Trinidadian political landscape. The installation’s social commentary is both wry and cutting, in the best calypso tradition. That the critique of homophobia in building the xenophobic nationalist project would come from an artist I knew not to be gay, intrigued me. This is how I started conducting video interviews with Christopher Cozier over three years, from 2003 to 2005. The result is Uncomfortable: The Art of Christopher Cozier, a fifty-minute documentary on the artist and his context.

I am not sure I have made the kind of documentary I would approve of, or whether I have succumbed to the pitfalls of the genre. Hopefully it will reach an audience, and they will judge it. Many artist biographies reproduce the trope of the troubled artist. I decided early on not to focus on Christopher’s personal life (not that I found any skeletons in the closet), but rather on his work, ideas and context, and what it means to be based in Trinidad but circulate internationally. An idea-based approach made a narrative arc difficult to emerge. This presented obvious challenges of structure and storytelling: there is no three-act structure, no crisis, no resolution, no dénouement. Working with two editors over a year and testing the documentary in several in-progress screenings taught me a great deal about the artist portrait.

In test screenings, a common criticism was that the tape was “too much within Christopher’s paradigm,” as filmmaker Helen Lee put it most succinctly. I had early on decided to avoid both expert interviews and narration. In much of my work I have used self-reflexive strategies, but in this documentary I did not want to focus on my relationship to Christopher but on his art and ideas as told by him. This raised a problem related to point of view. In documentary scenes there is a triangular relationship between filmmaker (or filmmaking team), human subject and viewer. The viewer expects the filmmaker to reveal the subject to her/him, to take her/his side, as it were. In obvious instances, the filmmaker undermines or makes fun of the subject for the viewer as when Michael Moore interviews CEOs or conservative politicians. In more subtle cases, the film reveals an aspect of the subject that he or she would not necessarily convey directly, as when the subject is captured asleep or in an intimate interaction. Even the gentlest of biographies has such moments. In Uncomfortable, however, Christopher narrates his own work and career, as well as performs direct address deconstructive readings of sites in and around Port of Spain. He is both subject and expert. In fact, except for his wife, painter Irénée Shaw, he is the only real speaking subject. Some viewers therefore felt that filmmaker and subject were ganging up on them. They wanted to see behind Christopher’s own account of things.

A more familiar issue for me was the burden of representation that weighs upon any images of a place like Trinidad and Tobago. One Trinidadian Canadian viewer, for instance, pointed out that Christopher’s cultural critique derives from his specific ethnic and geographical location, that of a middle class, “brown” person from Port of Spain. He was right, of course, and Christopher does situate himself as “a northerner” in a clip that dropped out of the final edit. No one would expect a documentary on Mordecai Richler to represent Canada equally with his Montreal. But in the Trinidadian context, this critique arises because of the small number of circulating filmic images. It also relates to the fact that while the country’s largest ethnic group has roots in India (over fourty percent), the capital is very much an African-Creole space, and the prevailing political party has a predominantly African-Creole constituency. So the stakes around who speaks for the nation are very high.

Media making is about problem solving, and I addressed both the concerns described above with fact-based intertitles, such as the 2000 census figures for Trinidad and Tobago and for Port of Spain. These were meant to contexualize Christopher’s work and to momentarily shift the tape’s point of view away from his perspective. As Christopher has reminded me, he does not employ facts or statistics in his work. As with many formal strategies, these are simply gestures to address a problematic. I am intrigued to see how they work. Viewers will decide if they work for them.

Works Cited

Hotere, Merata Mita, 2001, 78:00, New Zealand
Islands, Richard Fung, 2002, 9:00, Canada
Rivers and Tides, Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2001, 90:00, Germany
Tom, Mike Hoolboom, 2002, 75:00, Canada