Film & Media Studies Joni Gutierrez Films Phenomenology

Part III, Phenomenological Analysis of Life-world Series (2017, 118 min): Immanent Patterns

As put on view by the last two phenomenological analysis sections – the daily matrix and internal currents – the short films epitomise a realist film practice that leads spectators to an eidetic intuition of the life-world, one’s place in it, and his or her existential experience of the modern condition. The current section analyses the indeterminacy of the concrete image as the principal factor that enhances the free nature of the contemplation typified by the previous examples of spectators’ reflections.

Note: This is an excerpt from my PhD dissertation, ‘Investigating Kracauerian Cinematic Realism through Film Practice and Criticism: Life-world Series (2017) and Selected Films of Lino Brocka’ (2018), which is available for download from the institutional repository. In 2020, my book chapter — Cinematic Contemplation Online: The Art and Philosophy of Life-world Series (2017) — based on this dissertation was published in: Kung K.WS. (ed.) Reconceptualizing the Digital Humanities in Asia. Digital Culture and Humanities (Challenges and Developments in a Globalized Asia), vol 2: 31-52. Singapore: Springer.

Before we proceed to the phenomenological analysis, let us discuss the notion put forward by Erik Knudsen – an academic and a film-maker [see footnote 1] – of a type of documentary film practice that ‘goes beyond the dominant paradigm exemplified by elements such as cause and effect, conflict and resolution, and psychologically explicable situations, character motivations and narrative motivations, to reveal qualities of spirituality and transcendence’ (Knudsen, 2008, p. 2). For Knudsen, the ‘reality’ construed by science – on which the positivist-objectivist and instrumental discourses are based in the modern world – ‘does not necessarily reflect the full range of experiences people have of life, for which we have somewhat inadequate terminologies such as the spiritual, transcendental, the soul, the heart and so on’ (p. 8). For the current study, let us take the term, ‘transcendental’ to ‘imply “universal”, i.e. invariance across cultures’ (Harrington, 2006, p. 341). Life-world Series resonates with Knudsen’s ideas and therefore the latter can productively be engaged in the analysis of the former.

Figure 21. Study Three: Floating Notes (2016)
Study Three: Floating Notes (2016)

In the book chapter, ‘Transcendental Realism in Documentary’ (2008), Knudsen affirmed that documentary film-makers are ‘driven by a need to express something they feel’ (p. 9). As described in the previous results and discussion section, Study Three primarily used this feeling-oriented route to foster the insight that the spectators are more connected with each other than their intellect could ever grasp – see Fig. 21d for the evocative text on one’s sense of connection with tragic deaths around the world. It offers feeling as a route to the intuitive understanding of the resonantly intersubjective life-world which goes beyond geopolitical abstractions which tend to segregate the human experience of humanity. These two characteristics – feeling-orientedness and suspending the expectation for cinema to serve the demands of conceptual and instrumental rationality – are vital in Knudsen’s proposal for a reinvigorated documentary film practice which recognises that ‘the rational cannot get the full picture’ (2008, p. 9). In terms of documentary film aesthetics, he puts forward stillness that ‘provides more opportunities for the viewer to fill an empty bowl with their own feelings, as opposed to being presented with a full bowl for digestion and reaction’ (p. 20). A defining feature of Study Three – and in fact, Life-world Series as a whole – is stillness which is intuitively understood by the project as not being static but as being relatively slower – a contemplative or meditative pace – than the rest of the threads that interweave within the flow of modern life. This cinematic stillness is exhibited by the movement of the boat that is simultaneous with the steady succession of still photos in Figure 21c. Though this film is not minimalist in its mise-en-scene – using a variety of multi-media elements on the screen – it invites contemplation through its perceptual richness that maximises its indeterminacy, and, in turn, fosters contemplation of life and reality. This is, as described by a spectator of Study Three, akin to star-gazing. Crucially for this study, this spectator – using terms such as nature, heart, and soul – implies that the film invites reflection on one’s place in the life-world and the very nature of life, the world, and reality:

At the base form it felt so soothing and comforting to watch. The message quite reminded me of a vivid memory I have of star-gazing and feeling like such a small, small part of this vast universe . . . for anyone who wishes to re-situate themselves in relation to the world. Everything about it was realistic and so easily touches your mind– and if your humility is easily swayed in the midst of absolute nature, it will touch your heart and your soul as well. – Respondent 3195

(M. Andrada, personal communication, June 1, 2018)

The eidetic intuition of one’s place within the life-world was afforded by the film’s aesthetic sensibility, which is ‘one of meditation’ (Knudsen, 2008, p. 20), described as ‘a state in which one could, perhaps, start to see things that one would not otherwise see, feel things that one would not otherwise feel’ (p. 20); further, this cinematic contemplation arises when the ‘rational mind is suspended, engaged with scenes that link by way of coincidence and detail’ (p. 20). That this sort of experimental documentary practice promotes intuitive understanding on invariant features of human experience adheres to an essence of cinema; ‘the heart of the process of making films’, Knudsen affirms, ‘is intuitive’ (2008, p. 23) – it is an ‘inner necessity’ that the film-maker can hardly explain but drives him or her to make films’ (p. 23). This inner necessity, together with an openness to the feeling-oriented route, drove the creative process of Life-world Series which experimented with the film-making process in both its examination of KCR film aesthetics and phenomenological investigation of the life-world. The result is a creation of a sub-genre of the urban realist film which could be called the ‘Wandersmänner’ (Certeau, 1984, p. 93) (wanderer) film or flaneur film which contemplates the ‘ordinary practitioners of the city’ (p. 93) whose paths, Certeau continues, ‘intertwine as unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others’ (p. 93). In line with this, the film-maker, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in his essay, ‘The Cinema of Poetry’ (1976), expounded on the poetic aspect of this type of cinema:

The fact of walking alone in the street, even with our ears stopped up, constitutes a continual dialog between ourselves and an environment which expresses itself by the mediation of the images which compose it: the physiognomy of the passersby, their gestures, their signs, their actions, their silences, their expressions, their collective reactions (people waiting at red lights, a crowd around a street-accident or around a monument), besides, traffic signs, indicators, counterclockwise rotaries are in sum objects charged with meanings and which utter a brute “speech” by their very presence.

(Pasolini, 1976, p. 1)

Pasolini avowed that images such as these come from ‘the world of memory and of dreams’ (Pasolini, 1976, p. 1) which is ultimately rooted in physical reality. These images are, for the film-maker, the equivalent of words for the poet; further, Pasolini expounds, ‘in the poet’s style, free rights belong to what is pre-grammatical in the spoken signs, so in the filmmaker’s style, free rights will belong to what is pre-grammatical in the objects’ (Pasolini, 1976, p. 3). Words or images of objects can be considered as pre-grammatical when we bracket off the definitions, meanings, and automatic interpretations that are associated with them by the positivist-objectivist natural attitude within the modern condition. Here, Pasolini affirms that the indeterminacy of the word or image gives it power to explore a wider range of possibilities in coming to terms with the life-world. This implies that film-makers should continuously experiment with the indeterminate concrete – as opposed to ideal abstractions that are determinate by design – and draw power from it, for in the first place, that the ‘irrational component of cinema cannot be eliminated’ (Pasolini, 1976, p. 4) is an essential feature of the film medium and cinematic art form.

The poetic cinema espoused by Pasolini and the transcendental-realist documentary film put forward by Knudsen contribute to the pool of cinematic practices around the world. Aside from their aesthetic contribution to the inventory of film techniques, unconventional works, as exemplified by Life-world Series, contribute new perspectives in intuitively understanding cinema vis-à-vis the modern condition. Definitely, films are ‘part of the reality we typically inhabit, as part of the world we live in, as parts of our lives’ (Rushton, 2011, p. 2) and they therefore ‘help us to shape what we call “reality”’ (p. 2). Though cinema is very much a product of modern technology, it has the potential to liberate us from prevailing abstractions that are powered by positivist/objectivist and instrumental rationality; indeed, this is the very predicate of Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960).

[1] Dr Erik Knudsen is the Programme Director of the MA in Documentary Production and the MA in Fiction Film Production in the School of Media Music and Performance at the University of Salford, Manchester. His films include: Heart of Gold (2006); Sea of Madness (2006); Brannigan’s March (2004); Bed of Flowers (2001); Signs of Life (1999); Reunion (1995); and One Day Tafo (1991) (Knudsen, 2008, p. 24).


  • Andrada, M. (2018, June 1). Personal communication. Note: Prof. Mykel Andrada of the College of Arts and Letters, University of the Philippines-Diliman, on 14 May 2018, assigned Life-world Series as one of the online works to be critiqued for the final examination of one of his classes. The students were free to choose any of the ten short films from the collection. Prof. Andrada volunteered to send their responses to the researcher. In this manuscript, their names are anonymised by assigning them random four-digit numbers.
  • Certeau, M. d. (1984). The practice of everyday life. (S. Rendall, Trans.) Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Harrington, A. (2006). Lifeworld. Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3), 341-3.
  • Knudsen, E. (2008). Transcendental realism in documentary. In De Jong, W. & Austin, T.R., Rethinking the documentary: New perspectives, new practices (pp. 108-20). Maidenhead: Open University Press, McGraw Hill.
  • Pasolini, P. P. (1976). The cinema of poetry. In B. Nichols, Movies and Methods. Vol. 1 (pp. 542-58). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Rushton, R. (2011). The reality of film: Theories of filmic reality. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press; Palgrave Macmillan.