Become what you see

Jelena Rosic (Serbia, 1980) studied Dramatic Arts and Arabic Language and Literature and worked as editor, journalist, author, presenter and DJ. She started the Master’s Degree Programme in 2011. An interview about her investigation of film and affection.

Jamais Vu

"I took the overall name for my future investigations and project(s) from this phenomenon that is sometimes described by people who had experienced it as 'seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes'. In this state, there is too little connection between long-term memory and perceptions from the present. The sense of knowing somebody and knowing how to relate to him or her simply vanishes. A room in which somebody spends a lot of time suddenly becomes totally novel; everything seems new. Details one has seen a thousand times suddenly become engaging. In general, my interest lays in the field of perception, memory and especially empathy, complemented with new insights from neuroscience. At the time when cognitive sciences have taken the radical embodied turn, I see this as an encouragement to try to look for new concepts in cinema. I try to investigate the impact and the potential of cinema from a theoretical as well as a practical point of view - beyond storytelling dogmas and cliches of representation.


I’d like to highlight a few workshops in our first year. In a workshop with Eyal Sivan about the difference between seeing, watching and observing in fiction and documentary and the relationships of these three forms to time and history, we were also discussing what it means to make films politically as opposed to making political films. Pirjo Honkasalo asked us to bring an object which belonged to a grandparent, and to make a short film related to it. For some strange reason, I carry around my grandpa’s communist medal of work, so I had it with me. He died before we could talk about it, so I guess I’m still puzzled by it. As I tried to avoid the exploitative approach when it comes to personal films, I have gone quite far to see if I can deliver only the feeling without a glimpse of a story. In the end, my film had a puzzling effect on people. Pirjo said "it feels like destiny". I am constantly intrigued by the making of films which are ineffable. Working with Nanouk Leopold in a mise en scene workshop and the lectures by Sergei Loznitsa were quite a treat as well. Another challenge was a self assignment I did with my fellow student Alex McKenzie. On the remote isle of Vlieland, we proposed Bressonian 'rules' to each other and tried to shoot the 'impossible identification'. 


My research is aimed at the domain between film, philosophy and recent developments in neuroscience. We know that our mental and cognitive processes are determined by information provided by our body and senses. Recent neuroscientific research shows that mirror neuron systems may be crucial in learning processes. Mirror neurons are active when someone acts as well as when someone observes the same action performed by someone else. Thus, the neuron 'mirrors' the behavior of the other, as though the observer is acting himself. Mirror neurons are believed to be important for understanding the actions of other people, for learning new skills through imitation and in constituting empathy. This opens important questions: how can a filmmaker develop the concept of Einfühlung given the language of the medium? And shouldn’t we re-examine André Bazin’s question 'What is cinema?' or his account of 'cinema not yet invented', now that we have new and different tools to assess the medium? I am interested in investigating the mechanism of identification in cinema and the reflective potential of film. Since film has this catalytic function of enabling empathy and sympathy, both crucial in cognitive processes, we shouldn’t doubt the huge impact of film on human cognitive evolution. Once we admit this impact, we have to try and understand it.


One of my first steps was the contact with Professor Dr Uri Hasson from Princeton University. His team has been developing a new method for assessing the effect of a given film on a viewer’s brain activity. What they suggest in this research is that this method brings together two separate and largely unrelated disciplines: cognitive neuroscience and film studies, possibly opening the way for a new interdisciplinary field of  'neurocinematic' studies. Prof. Hasson  pointed me into the direction of  the Finnish filmmaker and scholar Dr Pia Tikka. She created the Enactive Cinema Project: a new kind of interactive genre, emphasizing the unconscious interaction between the cinema spectator and the cinema. Her 'Simulatorium Eisensteinense' PhD study explores the intrinsic dynamics of a cinema author’s mind in the process of creating moving images.
Her study provides us with the exploration of the very grounds from which the phenomenon of cinema emerges. It is a valuable source of information and inspiration to me.


My attendance of the Film Philosophy seminar directed by Professor Dr Patricia Pisters, her lecture on the 'neuro-image' in our master and the course in Neuroaesthetics of Film by her and Dr Julian Kiverstein provide me with new perspectives on the relation between film and the spectator. According to philosopher Gilles Deleuze, the functions of the brain might be understood through networks of images. The brain is a screen, Deleuze says, but the screen, the cinema is also a brain: an organization of images and memories whose connections comprise an 'image of thought'. In proposing the idea of 'neuro-image' after Deleuze’s 'movement/time image', Pisters provides us with new insight into the affect mechanism of film. She puts Deleuzes dictum 'the brain is the screen' in the context of the discovery of mirror neurons. She writes: "(...) we have simulation mechanisms inside our brain, 'as-if body loops' that are "not internally driven, but also triggered by the observation of other individuals." (Vittorio Gallese, The Shared Manifold, p. 46 - ed). It is now conceivable to speak of spectatorship in terms of becoming: we quite literally become what we see, at least on a neurological level. Something in our brain circuit resonates in (asymmetric) resonance with what we see and changes immediately, without 'protection'. We are truly affected, touched by what we see. We do not need to identify with a character (...) in order to be affected by a character’s experiences. Even though identification with characters may of course occur, affective encounters can take place on many different levels. The brain-screen relationship becomes very complex because of all the variations and levels of neurological engagement and empathy that are possible. We can co-sense in many variations and in relations both to the emotions and feelings (or affects and emotions in Massumi’s terms) of the characters, in addition to the aesthetic intensities and qualities of the images on our screens." Patricia Pisters, The Neuro-Image (Stanford University Press, 2012, forthcoming), Part 1: Neuroscreens: Principles of the Brain, Chapter 3: Surveillance Screens and Powers of Affect."

February 2012

Jelena Rosic