One Filmmaker, Two Photographers, and the Nature of Documentary
There's something about Kon Pet Moon's Two Unknown Photographers you might not want to know until you have a chance to see it this weekend at the Maryland Film Festival. If you don't want to know, SKIP THIS STORY. Put the paper aside for a day or two, go see the movie, then read about how and why it got made. Not that it isn't possible to enjoy Two Unknown Photographers and appreciate its uniqueness if you do know. It's a fascinating film in its own right. We just want to give you a chance. Don't say we didn't warn you.
This is a story about deception. About manipulation and invention. But we'll get to that.
First, this is a story about a determined filmmaker and two bundles of very strange pictures.
This is true: In the summer of 1985, Kon Pet Moon, a filmmaker, teacher, and graduate student in San Francisco, was working part time at the Camera Center, a dusty old photo shop in Frisco's Tenderloin district. He and his fellow employees were cleaning out the store, which had been sold--clearing out stacks of photo orders that had never been claimed and were now going to be disposed of. Burned.
"It was like a library in [the store's] basement, at least 40 years' worth of unclaimed photo-processing orders," recalls Moon, now 51. "If you think of San Francisco, all the tourists--it was downtown, they would drop off film and never pick it up, and these people [who] owned the store never got rid of it. They just kept putting it in the basement.
"And then there were these two bundles--I call them portfolios--of works which someone had tied up and put aside on a special shelf. They were just sitting there, waiting for their photographers to come pay their [bill]." One had been there since the early '60s, the other one since the early '70s.
"As soon as [we] started looking at 'em . . . we could see see why someone had put them aside."
The older photos, by a man named Albert Easterwood, were all of women and girls, most of them from newspaper and magazine ads. Easterwood had typed names and brief descriptions on many of the ads before shooting them. On the order envelopes were meticulous instructions for print size and cropping. The subjects ranged from banal and everyday to innocently sexual, in an Eisenhower-era sort of way (lingerie models, the occasional topless shot), to downright creepy (instructional ads showing mothers administering enemas to babies). One image seemed to Moon to stand apart from the others: a newspaper head shot of a 15-year-old girl who had died in a prom-night car crash.
The other bundle consisted of color snapshots, apparently taken over a period of years by a woman named Margaret Raymond. In contrast to the almost fetishistic single-mindedness of Easterwood's photos, Raymond's ranged broadly in subject and style, but like the other bundle this one seemed to offer tantalizing glimpses into the life and mind of the photographer.
Raymond's shots arranged themselves into series, starting out straightforwardly enough then getting increasingly personal and abstract: Family snaps. Icon paintings in museums, all showing the reflection of the camera's flash. A Vietnam-era protest march. Movie marquees proffering violent or pornographic fare. Sere landscapes in a one-horse Nevada town called Dyer. Disembodied hands and feet. An explicit self-examination. And, like Easterwood's, Raymond's work seemed to culminate in an inexplicable, enigmatic image--or, in this case, images: two dark, ominous shots of a woman with a bag over her head.
The photos--their formal quality, their oddity, the fact that they seemed deeply personal yet had been abandoned by their creators--fascinated Moon. "The most intense first response to the pictures, especially Albert's, was, Wow, these are real? What are they about?," he recalls. "Finding these pictures was like something out of a novel or movie--it seemed a bit unreal. . . . I've never been sure of whether I found the pictures or if they found me, since the circumstances seemed so special."
He decided to make a documentary film about them. He sold the pictures to himself--"Gave myself a good deal"--and set out to find, or at least find out about, the unknown photographers. He placed classified ads in Bay Area newspapers, describing the pictures and seeking out anyone who knew the people he now refers to, reflexively, as Albert and Margaret.
At first he got no response. He started work on the movie anyway, filming various arrangements of Margaret's and Albert's photos, incorporating some of the motions-graphics effects that are staples of the more experimental works he had been producing since the late 1960s, when he was a student at Kent State University in Ohio. He documented his discovery of the photos and his efforts to track down their creators. He even went to Dyer, to see the places Margaret had seen.
A couple of years after finding the photos, Moon got a job teaching film at the University of Maryland- Baltimore County (UMBC) and moved with his wife and young daughter from California to a house in Elkridge. But he kept working on the movie, when he could--shooting in fits and starts, garnering grants from arts organizations.
In the meantime, he'd heard from some people. Contacts led to other contacts. He eventually interviewed 10 people, family and friends of Albert and Margaret, and their personalities came into focus. Albert was a man of indeterminate sexuality, his life shaped largely by two things over which he had no control: his height--he stood only about 5 feet tall--and the loss of both parents to illness during his adolescence. After their deaths, he lived for years with his older sister, with whom he had a loving but smothering relationship. He eventually moved out and settled in with a male companion in New Orleans. Margaret was footloose and itinerant, her life shaped largely by two bizarre incidents: a pregnancy resulting from either an orgy or a rape at a drug-fueled San Francisco party and the death of her best friend in a skydiving accident. She had twin sons, whose raising she left largely to a half-sister while she moved around the country, California to Florida to Maryland.
It took Moon about 10 years to complete the film, by which time he'd had another daughter and moved back to Ohio, for his current job as a professor of media studies at the Columbus College of Art and Design. Two Unknown Photographers is a long film (two and a half hours), at times slow, occasionally even "tedious . . . if viewed in one sitting," as the director concedes in the video version's liner notes. At the same time, it is a hypnotic, powerful piece of work, visually dazzling and as absorbing as a mystery novel. Moon's camera obsessively explores Albert's and Margaret's photographs as if mining them for clues--probing their details, arranging them over, under, and around his talking heads. But as we are drawn deeper and deeper into the narrative of the photographers' lives, Moon largely abandons the avant-garde trappings, relying more and more on traditional documentary techniques as he follows Albert's and Margaret's stories to their conclusions.
By which point Two Unknown Photographers has long since ceased to tell the truth.
Documentary is always a deceit, some have concluded; there is no such thing as a documentary film, they say. --Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium
I don't particularly care for the term 'mock-doc' . . . being applied to the film," Moon says, after an interviewer has applied the term "mock-doc" to Two Unknown Photographers. "So much of the film is real and based on finding authentic photographs, and other real facts like going to Dyer, Nev., to visit the places where Margaret visited and photographed, which gives the work a solid factual base that shifts its focus [to] an examination of images in media and truth."
This is true: Moon did find Albert Easterwood's and Margaret Raymond's photographs in the basement of the Camera Center. He did place classified ads seeking them out. At first he got no response. And he continued to get no response.
This is where fact and fiction diverge in Two Unknown Photographers--and, for that matter, in this article. Did you believe what you just read about Albert Easterwood's and Margaret Raymond's lives? Did you believe it (or, for that matter, not believe it) because it is in a newspaper? Because it is in a section of this paper, the cover story, usually reserved for the reporting of fact? Because it was noted, a few paragraphs earlier, that Moon had set out to make a "documentary" film?
He did, in fact, set out to make a documentary film--"a straight sort of talking-heads-with-cutaways-to-images thing." But no one answered his ads.
"It took about two years until I accepted the fact that the photographers would not be found and a straight documentary would not be the direction of the work," he says. But he found himself unwilling to let the project go: "The photographs were/are just too interesting to forget and not be used or presented." So he began to invent Albert Easterwood and Margaret Raymond--fictional characters based on the reality they had captured on film, interpolated with his own experiences of the places and periods they photographed.
At the same time, grafting fictional stories onto the conventions of "factual" film allowed Moon to address other issues about the nature of moviemaking and storytelling. How do filmmakers, even makers of "nonfiction" film, manipulate images to convince us of one thing or another? How is our perception of a film and the information in it shaped by the way that information is presented, and by the assumptions we bring to the process? And what exactly are we getting when we watch a documentary anyway--reality? The truth?
And so, Moon says, Two Unknown Photographers went from being a straight documentary to "an experimental doc, and then a 'synthetic doc' about images-photographs-meanings-stories and deceptions." He set out to elucidate, in some way, the lives and work of Albert and Margaret. And to fool people.
Invention: Konstantin Petrochuk makes films under the name Kon Pet Moon--the first two names short for his given moniker, the surname adopted some years back as a kind of private joke. "When I applied for my California driver's license, I told the clerk that I added 'Moon' to my name, just to see how easy it really was to change one's name," he says. "And it was pretty easy. I picked 'Moon' because that was the name of the guy in front of me in the DMV line."
Two Unknown Photographers is narrated in the first person from the filmmaker's point of view, but the speaker is a woman named Vannasone Chandavong. In effect, Moon turned himself into another character--a believable one, given his name and the film's famously multiculti birthplace: "I thought being an Asian woman was the filmmaker from San Francisco." When he submitted the film to this year's Sundance Film Festival, "they actually thought that Kon Pet Moon was a Korean woman. They were totally surprised that I was this white guy."
This kind of image-play is nothing new to Moon. He has produced more than 30 films and videos since 1968, mostly experimental, abstract shorts mixed with some more straightforward documentaries. His work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Paris' Musée National d'Art Centre, and Sundance, among other venues.
"He did real conceptual work," says Matt Czapanskiy, a UMBC student of Moon's who is now a freelance animator and designer in Catonsville. For one effort, Czapanskiy says, Moon sent blank film to people, then knitted their cinematographic efforts into a "found film." Another, Purple Pirate Blues, also based on material from the Camera Center, combines motion-graphic design and heavily manipulated nudie clips ranging from art-class "model studies" to XXX films into a dizzying commentary on the use of sexual images.
"Basically, my experience and influence comes from the truly independent filmmakers of the '60s and '70s, like [Richard] Myers and Stan Brakhage, Scott Bartlett, Will Hindle," Moon says, "everybody working in film who actually saw it as being a genuinely unique medium of personal expression, well beyond the confines of Hollywood narrative cinema."
Myers, with whom Moon studied at Kent State, was a particular mentor. "He sort of set me up on the notion that one person could make a film, as opposed to having to have a huge multimillion-dollar crew and budget," Moon says. Even Two Unknown Photographers, by far his longest and largest production, was a mostly one-man show--shot, edited, and partially funded by the filmmaker. (He says he spent nearly $10,000 on the production and secured another $17,000 from arts organizations, including the Maryland State Arts Council.)
When he arrived at UMBC after several years teaching film and photography in Ohio and California, Moon brought that philosophy of personal expression into the classroom. "I thought he was one of the best teachers I had in college," says Baltimore filmmaker and UMBC grad Jon Jolles (Your Montana Vacation Tour of the World's Wonders Begins With This Coupon). "He was never adverse to going off in a different direction than what the class description dictated."
"I have a friend who took a class with him, and at the beginning of the class [Moon] brought out a trampoline," Jolles recalls. "He said that anyone who would come up in front of the class and jump up and down on the trampoline would receive an 'A.' Just like that. Just about everyone believed it was a joke. My friend went up and did it. This caused a lot of discussion around school--Was it true? Was it a joke? Was he trying to teach us something? . . . I always thought the lesson was not to be afraid to risk making a fool out of yourself in order to achieve your goals." (And, Jolles adds, his friend did get an "A.")
It was during his tenure at UMBC that Moon began working on Two Unknown Photographers in earnest. About two-thirds of the film was shot in the Baltimore area, he says, "in intense physical spurts, but with fairly constant mental and cerebral focus." As he had used his own experience in San Francisco to color in Margaret's and Albert's stories, he incorporated aspects of his life here into the film. He often jogged on the grounds of Belmont, an 18th-century Georgian mansion in Elkridge that is now a corporate conference center run by the American Chemical Society. Taken by the wooded setting, he decided to move Margaret there--she gets a job as the estate's curator--and used it extensively as a location. (The film opens with a long tracking shot down Belmont's tree-lined entrance drive.) He also did half of the interviews locally, casting colleagues and students as members of Albert's and Margaret's circles.
Only two of the five local cast members were actors: Edie Catto and Richard Kirstel, both mainstays on local stages who were also academic acquaintances of Moon. Using nonprofessional performers, the filmmaker says, suited his purpose of trying to produce a believable documentary.
"I would sit down with the actors and we would talk about the story three or four times, and they would recall it [with the camera rolling] as a memory. . . . They weren't repeating lines, they were explaining this story which they have to remember. And it then works, because any goof, any mistake, any sort of uncertainty about the past adds to it--the believability of them trying to remember it."
"I told him what happened when I was [in a play] in grade school--I had set lines and I muffed them," says artist Ruth Leavitt Fallon, another former UMBC colleague of Moon's who makes a striking appearance as Albert's first and only girlfriend. "He said, 'You don't have to worry about that because you can make up your own dialogue.' . . . I just loved doing it, pretending I was this other person."
Although there was no script, Moon made sure everyone was on the same page--for example, by explaining the stories he had built around the strange, suggestive photographs when he first showed them to the actors.
"He actually showed them to me and narrated them to me," says Czapanskiy, who played one of Margaret's twin sons. "I never looked at the images out of context. Kon wanted to shape my perception of them from the beginning, because once something is implied you look at it a specific way. Once he did that, it was very easy to follow the rest of the story."
There is nothing in Two Unknown Photographers that is wildly implausible. There are, however, cues and clues both visual and spoken that indicate a level of artifice. There are a few things that don't add up if you think about them hard enough. The question is: How do viewers interpret them and filter them through their preconceptions about what they're seeing?
"I really wanted to see how far I could take it, and how sort of perverted I could make it--not in a sort of odd sense, but in a sort of not-truthful sense--and have it yet be accepted by the viewing audience, or festivals, or whatever," Moon says. The anticipation of audiences' response "was the most interesting thing, probably the only thing which had me finishing it in the end. Ultimately it's a sort of advocacy film, of having the audience come to the conclusion that they've got to watch what they watch. I think it's a fairly academic work if you approach it in terms of theory and the way a viewer responds [to] and recognizes an image."
Exhibit A in how a viewer responds to and recognizes an image: The following is an excerpt from a telephone interview with Moon. I had just asked him about the film's length, and his own description of the movie as potentially tedious if viewed in one sitting, and how that plays at theatrical screenings.
Andy Markowitz: Did you get a sense of audience response at Sundance, that they were able to stay with it?
Kon Pet Moon: With me being there, and I kind of introduced it and I explained all this, yeah, the audience did wait until the end. And they were totally surprised. I sort of told them that I'll explain more about it [at the end], and that the big thing which was a surprise was that it was fictitious. I didn't introduce it that way, that it was a synthetic documentary based on reality and then, you know, fabrication. I just led them on that it was all authentic.
AM: [Long pause.] It is fictitious?
KPM: [Laughs, then realizes I am serious.] Oh--yes.
KPM: Are you surprised at that too?
Consider me the test case for the success of Moon's experiment in documentary deception, or maybe for the film audience's gullibility (or maybe just my own). I encountered the film as just one of a stack of videos shipped over from the Maryland Film Festival office, to be divided among City Paper critics and reviewed for our annual fest guide. It had been described to our arts editor as a documentary by a former UMBC film teacher about two amateur photographers, and that's how she described it to me.
I watched and was mesmerized. I decided I wanted to interview Moon for a Q&A to run in the film-fest guide. I watched the movie again and came up with a list of questions for the director--about his aesthetic choices, about the material he'd found, all predicated on the notion that he had made a stunning documentary capturing the relationship between art and life for two people with cameras. (There is a small-type disclaimer tacked onto the end credits, as in any fiction film, asserting that any resemblance between the characters and real people is coincidental, but you have to be watching pretty closely to catch it.) It never occurred to me that I wasn't watching Margaret's and Albert's real friends and relatives talking about Margaret's and Albert's real lives--until about 10 minutes into the interview.
(That revelation prompted some discussion about the ethics of sharing it with CP readers. Moon was game--"I know how not revealing it works," he reasoned--but the idea nagged at me, hence the big disclaimer a few pages back.)
At least I'm not alone. The director says about 80 percent of the Sundance audience was as sold as I was. (Which he says led to some spirited post-screening discussion among viewers, some of whom felt "like I cheated 'em or tricked 'em.") Even the Sundance selection committee was divided over whether Photographers was real or not, Moon says; the "real" faction won out and got the film accepted, only to discover the truth later. The film was still shown at Sundance, in a showcase for experimental works. However, Moon adds with a laugh, it did screen in the documentary division at the Arpa Foundation for Film, Music, and Art International Film Festival in Los Angeles, "as one of the five finalists. I never even told them it was synthetic, [although] I kind of obliquely implied that, I think, in my description of it."
There were moments while watching Two Unknown Photographers, when I grew quizzical. The film is purposefully vague about chronology, but sometimes the timing of events described didn't seem to work out. Some things just seemed too perfect or pat. And why had Moon, given the film's first-person narration, used someone else's voice?
But either the movie explains such things reasonably well or I explained them away. Massage the possible dates enough and they could work. The narration? Artistic license. Must ask him about that. More than anything, I was carried away with the idea that this filmmaker had unearthed these astonishing lives. Contradictory information I bent to my preconceived notion of what I was watching. It's in this context that the film does become a sort of genuine experimental documentary--a documentary of the relationship between film and viewer.
"I do want the audience to respect their own intimations, their own little judgment on it, and if you think it's not real, then kinda go with that," Moon says. "I want the audience to be active. And if they have doubts about this film, they should have doubts about other media."
Manipulation: The comments attributed to Kon Pet Moon in this article are from two different interviews, a telephone conversation April 4 and an e-mail exchange a couple of weeks later. For the sake of narrative and rhetorical convenience, the story treats those comments as if they came from one conversation, even if two quotes on the same subject, in the same paragraph, were uttered several days apart. Even if they are from the same interview, they might be from different parts of that interview.
This is a common and necessary journalistic practice. Ditto, presumably, for documentary filmmakers--interview subjects, after all, don't speak about things in the order in which a story's narrative will flow. This use of quotes is not deceptive, as such. The quotes are transcribed correctly and used in the context in which the speaker spoke them. They convey the intended meaning. But they are not pure communications of fact. It is manipulation of information for a subjective purpose, that of telling a story the way the teller thinks it should be told.
Which is not the same as making stuff up. (It should be noted that, in characterizing Two Unknown Photographers to audiences, Moon does not claim it is 100 percent "true"; he simply doesn't reveal that it isn't, although he might drop hints.) But, by playing so fast and loose with the conventional documentary formula, Moon is very pointedly calling into question the notion underpinning the form--what Notre Dame film professor Jill Godmilow calls the "truth claim."
"The essential claim that traditional documentary films make is that there's unmediated truth here because this was not scripted . . . thus, the text built out of them is truthful as well," Godmilow, who makes decidedly nontraditional documentaries, said in a 1997 interview in the academic journal History and Theory. "That truth claim is still at the center of most documentary work."
The truth claim is a code filmmakers know the audience gets--a series of signals intended to be read a certain way, a sort of money-back-guarantee of verisimilitude. Which, of course, it's not--a documentary, any documentary, is a subjective representation of a filmmaker's viewpoint. But the code is entrenched. The Blair Witch Project convinced some viewers there was a murderous ghoul in the forests of Western Maryland in large part because it fronted as vérité, even though the movie got copious pre-release media attention as exactly what it was, an exceptionally clever but clearly fictional horror movie. (Not long after Witch came out in 1999, I got an e-mail at City Paper from someone seeking, in apparent earnest, copies of any stories we had done on the disappearance of three film students from the Burkittsville woods.)
Two Unknown Photographers belongs to a subgenre of films that put the code to their own uses--uses other than convincing viewers that what they are getting is unvarnished truth. Moon cites the influence of Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel's 1932 short Land Without Bread, a film Godmilow says "wrenched open all the important questions about the conceits of the documentary form and its contract with the audience." Buñuel presented the quite real abject poverty of the residents of Las Hurdes, a desolate region of Spain, in the form of a picturesque travelogue through an exotic culture, confronting the notion of the documentary as inherently trustworthy and of human suffering as entertainment for a more fortunate audience.
In a radically different fashion, the final film Orson Welles directed, 1973's F for Fake, a doc of sorts about famous hoaxes, meditates on the notion of film itself as hoax--with editing, Welles posits, I can convince you of anything. In her 1984 film Far From Poland, Godmilow tells the history of the Solidarity movement largely through re-enactments and a dramatization of her own effort to make the film--her response to a problem not unlike Moon's on Photographers. After doing her initial research and lining up numerous sources in Poland, Godmilow went home to round up funding, then was barred by Poland's then-Communist government from re-entering the country. She had a documentary but no one "real" to be in it.
She solved the problem by using dramatic forms to depict real events, acknowledging her work as a kind of hybrid. Moon solved it by using documentary forms to tell a dramatic story, without overtly acknowledging anything or making the artifice obvious (as in, say, a true mock-doc such as This Is Spi¨nal Tap)--in effect, breaking the contract. Which is exactly how some viewers have responded.
"A lot of people were disappointed it wasn't real," he says of one screening audience, "I was surprised by that."
For all of the artifice, what remains most compelling about Two Unknown Photographers is the reality underlying it: Albert Easterwood's and Margaret Raymond's pictures, the clues they contain about lives lived. The rest of the movie is simply satisfying the desire to know what was behind these otherworldly images. That's what hooked Kon Pet Moon when he found the photos, and what hooks us when he shares them. We want to know what makes people make things such as this, to tease out the latent desires behind Albert's panty models or the feminist intent of Margaret's self-portrait with bag. We want stories that give these undiscovered artists their due.
"They're all beautiful photographs, and it was wonderful to see them not only appreciated . . . but now everybody gets to see the whole story," Matt Czapanskiy says, seemingly forgetting for a moment that the film is anything but. "I thought he did justice to the pictures--he was never insulting to the people, he never mocked them. He treated their stories with respect."
The actual stories, of course, are still out there somewhere. And while he knows Two Unknown Photographers will never be widely distributed, Moon does hold out hope that sooner or later someone will see it and recognize the people who inspired it. Maybe even Albert or Margaret themselves.
"Maybe it's rationalizing, but I'm almost thinking or hoping that the film--the photographs want to find their photographers," he says. "They sat there for 20 or 30 years bundled up, they were about to be burned, within a matter of weeks they were gonna be gone forever, and then suddenly I come along--you know, 'Look at these, I'm going to buy these and make something of them.'"
And if the photographs ever do find their photographers? "Maybe another, truer work," Moon says. "Two Known Photographers."
Two Unknown Photographers will be shown at the Charles Theatre on May 4 at 3 p.m.and May 5 at 4 p.m. as part of the Maryland Film Festival. The screenings will be hosted by Kon Pet Moon.
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