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K. Anthony Appiah,
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A documentary can never be anything other than a director's interpretation of the subject. Making a documentary about a philosopher is a particularly difficult proposition; with most other subjects, we welcome and enjoy varying interpretations, but, with philosophy, we tend to resist variance, because the very aim of philosophy, at least until Post-Structuralists came along, has always been to arrive at the Truth. The challenge of a filmmaker here is that either you properly understand the philosopher, or you may potentially embarrass yourself, though, for the audience, either way could be interesting.
"Derrida", a documentary by the established filmmaker, Kirby Dick, and a former student of Jacques Derrida, Amy Ziering Kofman, attempts to deconstruct the idea of biography itself, but it fails to do so. It takes only the trappings of deconstruction, stripped of its objectives, and applies it as an editorial gimmick by constantly reminding the audience of the film's own awareness of itself. It frequently steps back in an effort to show its self-awareness, but it actually deconstructs nothing. For example, we see Derrida watching himself being interviewed, and later we see him watching this very footage, thereby creating the effect of two facing mirrors with infinite reflections.
The objective of deconstruction is to de-center, that is, to identify the center of the argument--or of the proposed truth--that it relies on in order to make its case. You may argue here that I have just made a logocentric statement by defining what deconstruction is, that I have just centered the definition of deconstruction (note the appearance here of stepping back); you are right (and I'm leaving it at that, because I'm only a hack philosopher.). The film did not succeed in de-centering anything; not the philosopher, the medium, the filmmakers themselves, nor the film itself.
Throughout the film, the narrator reads excerpts from his books against the backdrop of abstract footage of Derrida's face and his surroundings. This effectively makes Derrida the chief story-teller of the film. Instead of presenting the filmmakers' interpretations, they hide behind the power of his words, taking no chances at misinterpretation. Derrida is involuntarily made to be the center that secures and stabilizes the film. Ironically, this film that supposedly tries to explore deconstructionism and apply its tools to the medium of filmmaking finds a secure center in Derrida, and he is left un-deconstructed.
We can feel the insecurity of the filmmakers in often not knowing what to ask their subject. Derrida, out of his affection for the filmmaker, tries hard to turn Kofman's dull questions into something more interesting. The camera, in effect, takes on the perspective of someone who adores him like a rock star. If the film were aware of its own insecurity, it would have been more interesting. Instead, it simply hides behind its own reverence and awe of the famous philosopher.
One way to achieve this deconstruction would have been to hire multiple filmmaking crews where each goes off in its own direction, and presents a 20 minute piece each. The chances are, each will draw a very different picture of Derrida. By presenting them in sequence, the audience will wonder who Derrida really is, and they will inevitably question the process of documentary filmmaking itself, thereby deconstructing not only the idea of Derrida, but also the idea of documentary.
Although I have always been an admirer of Ryuichi Sakamoto, his music in this movie was superfluous. The power of his music attached unnecessary, and often inappropriate, emotional values to the images of Derrida. I can't see any justification for emotionally manipulating the audience in this film, unless it was to deconstruct the use of music in film, which it did not.
Towards the end of the movie, Derrida tells Amy Ziering Kofman that this will be a good autobiography for her. It should have been, but unfortunately it isn't a biography for either Derrida or Kofman. What this movie is to Derrida's philosophy is analogous to what music video is to a piece of music; the imagery is only superficially juxtaposed to his ideas. It is no more than a pretty way to listen to his words.
One redeeming quality of this movie was that I got to see and hear him speak for the first time. After all, I'm a sucker for fame too. If I made a documentary about him, I'm sure I would have been just as nervous and insecure, if not more. In that sense, I have to praise the filmmakers for attempting.
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