In the Dark with Strangers

A while back, my cousin Blaine and I were having an argument over film. In particular, I was saying that I wanted my film to have traditional distribution where it can be seen in a theater first.

Why? He wanted to know. Why would I care if my film were primarily distributed on the Internet (for instance) as long as a large number of people saw it?

Part of the answer maybe egotistical: about recognition. Part of the answer maybe traditional: adherence to a form called documentary film that I happened to have studied. And part is political: we have the right to view these films in public. But I think the most interesting part of the answer maybe a belief that film is a social medium. It is not just about the product on the screen, it is about the experience of watching that product in a group with other people – sitting in the dark with strangers and sharing the experience.

This idea has again been at the forefront of my mind at this week’s Silverdocs festival. In packed theaters, aficionados pack in to see brilliant film after brilliant film. Then, we are most often treated to a Q&A with the filmmaker(s) and often the subjects as well. I am a geek at the science fair (and I am driving my girlfriend Arin up the wall).

The idea struck home even more so several months ago at a screening of Nanking at the Avalon in North West DC. I’ll skip the usual summary of this intense film and the standard exploration of its creative license in using well-known actors to read the letters and journals of long-dead subjects on camera in an interview style. I will say that I appreciated the film and thought it powerfully affecting.

What will always make me remember the experience however was the gentleman we sat next to. The theater was crowded (an interesting fact in itself and heartening for me). Arin and I had to squeeze past many seated patrons to find two seats together.

At the last seat before the pair we found, I stumbled, nudging a man who seemed to grunt with displeasure. Only once I was seated (one seat away from him, with Arin between us) did I notice that he was quite elderly, and wearing a neck brace. I apologized again for nudging him, and was filled with a dread that I may have actually caused him pain.

As the film progressed through the troubling story of the Chinese capital under siege by the Japanese army during World War Two, this elderly man was clearly experiencing an emotional reaction. It started with small sounds: sighs a moan. By the time the film reached the first-hand telling of a mother and child being killed, the man was openly weeping. During the stories of mass rape, he leaned foreword (in his hard plastic neck brace) crying harder. I though the might become physically ill.

I was one seat away from the man, with Arin between us, and she was also affected by the film and perhaps just as much to her proximity to the man. I saw that she was also weeping and began mimicking his movements (unconsciously, I imagine) rocking forward in her seat. Perhaps she even laid a hand on him to comfort him at one point.

What was this man’s experience that was brought back by this film? He was certainly old enough to be in the war (and in fact, we must have been the youngest people in that theater, with many people older than us by 30 years or more). Had he seen these atrocities, or analogous ones in Europe? Had he been a victim? A perpetrator?

What was our experience of this film and seeing it with (or next to) him? We never exchanged a word, but emotionally we were connected. How were we all affected? What is the meaning, the emotive potential, of sitting in the dark with strangers?


  1. Great post man. I agree with the power of being in public to watch… There’s something you don’t get sitting on your couch at home. I’ve been following your blog on and off for the past couple months – it’s great!

  2. Does an audience constitute a community? Under what circumstances can ths be so? We all sit seperated by intent, by desire. Why did we come? What are we responsive to? What impacts us-indivdually and collectively? I guess (as the girl who was rocking) I wonder if our emotions to films, or as an audience, originate within ourselves or if they are always some echo or reverberation from those around us? I know I was impacted by the elderly man-his contrast. He was at once so emotive and moved with his feeling and at the same time he was immobilized,–static. We too- were frozen and yet we remain moved by the event. THe shared structure of feeling to borrow from Raymond Williams comes to mind. When you experience something in the dark together it seems to act as a binder between us all. I am also thinking of when Jason and I went to the museum (previously chronicalled) and we experienced strangers talking to us int he dark about the exhibit. One woman approached me directly and engaged me about a particular piece in a very direct fashion. Are our guards down when we come together –in the dark–to experience something? Does the theater (or the darkened museum) lend itself to a collective experientiality that is laden with emotional resonance? What did we actually share in theat structure of feeling? Was it a memory for him, a twinge of regret fro tripping over him, awe at the horrors of Nanking, projections about our grandfathers onto him? Whatever oit was that was binding between us-it moved us all in the stillness, it showed us something within the dark.

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