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Documenting or altering reality?

Highway Courtesans (Dir: Mystelle Brabbee, 2005) is an interesting documentary that originally started off as an examination of a matriarchal community (Bachara) in which women engage in prostitution and are the breadwinners. A search on the net returned an interview (video below) with Mystelle Brabbee, which raised interesting issues. Besides the obvious issue of an outsider looking in, there is the other — and what I consider a more important question. what if your filming (or even your presence as the outsider) begins to influence the reality? Is the filmmaker documenting or altering the reality?

In this interview, Mystelle reveals that the film started off as a documentation of what would be considered a radical position for women, to be in control of the economy and their lives, even though they are prostitutes. Subsequently, the filmmaker reveals — I confess here that my analysis is based entirely on the video clip (see below) — that she was not entirely happy with the way the story was shaping up. And one of the Bachara women Guddi approached them asking them why she wasn’t being filmed? Thus, the subject of the story shifted from the Bachara community to Guddi’s position within it as a female and as an individual. Was the filmmaker looking for material that would make the film more “exciting”, or were these Guddi’s latent feelings?

I got in touch with Mystelle over email and she was open about the issue. The assumption that it was an alteration of the reality was correct, she confirmed. I hope to interview her tonight.

3 comments

1 swati { 10.07.07 at 11:53 pm }

Hi Kishore,

Did you happen to interview Brabbee? I saw this film last year and was very disturbed for a number of reasons, especially with the translator who was present throughout the film – and is translating on screen what the interviewees are saying. Since I happened to know Hindi, I caught the discrepencies and I cannot help but wonder at how this was overlooked. It raises extremely critical questions of representation in documentary film and I was wondering about Brabbee’s take on this.

2 swati { 10.07.07 at 11:54 pm }

Hi Kishore,

Did you happen to interview Brabbee? I saw this film last year and was very disturbed for a number of reasons, especially with the translator who was present throughout the film – and is translating on screen what the interviewees are saying. Since I happened to know Hindi, I caught the discrepencies and I cannot help but wonder at how this was overlooked. It raises extremely critical questions of representation in documentary film and I was wondering about Brabbee’s take on this.

Sorry, i know its been a while since you posted this, but I just came across it and am very curious as a documentary film scholar

3 Kishore Budha { 10.08.07 at 12:17 am }

Swati: Thanks for the comments. Mystelle was expecting a baby at the time I wrote the post and we could not get around to a mutually agreeable time to talk. However, I do hope to talk to her and when I do that I will bring it up and update this post.

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