Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?

– George Herbert, Jordan (I), c. 1633

In connection with its recent (Apr 21-Oct 31, 2021) one-person show of the work of Black American filmmaker, Arthur Jafa, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, north of Copenhagen, sponsored a conversation between Jafa and Danish photographer and filmmaker Jacob Holdt. To open the discussion, Jafa said to Holdt: “I grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the middle of the Delta. I love William Eggleston’s work quite a bit. And it’s obviously very great work as political photography. But I always felt like there’s a wall of aestheticism between what it is he takes pictures of and the work itself. And that’s not a critique, that’s just a part of his work. But I just had never seen images of the South before I saw your pictures, outside of my family’s photo albums – that would be like the only equivalent of it. If I had to put one question to you it would be how did you get these pictures? How did you manage the level of intimacy or access?” Holdt responded that “an important answer to your question is to travel with no money.”1

This essay is a heuristic exploration of a cinema of poverty.2 Holdt’s film – composed of still photos, intertitles, and sound – represents a life-long, in-person testimonial of American poverty and racism. Holdt deploys familiar attractions such as spectacle, sex and violence, and celebrity to dramatise his portrayal of American inequities. I would expect viewers of American Pictures to relate, as I did, and as Jafa did, to the life-long, life-risking breadth and depth of this outsider filmmaker’s picture of the USA. That picture, produced in the 1970s and ‘80s, is as relevant today as it was then; in fact, Holdt – in response to the Black Lives Matter movement – is currently updating the book that he produced from the slide show and film—the working title of the updated book is “Roots of Oppression”.3 My own book discusses details of the original film version of American Pictures, including content, methods, critical targets, and issues. It analyses those details in the light of the film’s effectiveness and critical integrity, particularly in relation to money. The analysis sometimes compares richer cinemas to Holdt’s film, but the focus remains on poor cinema. A companion book manuscript focusing on rich cinema also exists, in draft. This analysis of poor cinema grew out of my two books on Black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, where I argued for a middle-class cinema, an idea supported by analysis of the content and style of all Micheaux’s extant films.4

The idea of “poor cinema” is discussed in the last two chapters of the poor-cinema book manuscript, and will not be dwelt on in this essay, except to say that the idea is related to prior formulations in the film-studies canon such as Julio Garcia Espinosa’s essay, “For an Imperfect Cinema,” and Fernando Solanos and Octavio Getino’s manifesto, “Toward a Third Cinema,” as well as the film movements of Third Cinema and Tricontinentalism discussed in the edited collections Questions of Third Cinema and “Rethinking” Third Cinema. More recently, the poor-cinema idea has been briefly summarised and re-theorised by Hito Steyerl in The Wretched of the Screen.5

The above exchange between Jafa and Holdt about the origins of Holdt’s intimate, authentic pictures of Black American life, was primarily concerned with the content of Holdt’s pictures. Most of my book on American Pictures also deals with content and its relation to money. But the same poverty that conditions Holdt’s content, may also affect his aesthetics, which is another of Jafa’s and Holdt’s concerns. A close look at Holdt’s film suggests how a “poor” style – analogous to Oscar Micheaux’s style in racist 1920s and ‘30s America – can have a discoverable aesthetic, a style unique to its material condition.

Below I analyse instances of Holdt’s outsider style using detailed analyses of shooting, editing, and mise-en-scène in order to show how style may relate to money, and to show how a better-capitalised film style might structurally lack the same interest, authority, and effectiveness as Holdt’s under-capitalised project.

The Shot

A close analysis of certain elements of Holdt’s shots results in quantitative information such as the following:

Shot Distance

Extreme Long Shot 0%
Long Shot 60%
Medium Shot 32%
Close Shot 7%
Extreme Close Shot 0%

Shot Angle

Straight On/Perpendicular/90-Degree 20%
Oblique Side 53%
Acutely Oblique (hereafter “Acute”) Side  27%
Oblique High 38%
Acutely Oblique (hereafter “Acute”) High 9%
Oblique Low 4%
Acutely Oblique (hereafter “Acute”) Low 0%
Rear 4%
Extreme/Dutch/Tilted Horizon 0%

This simple analysis describes a shooting style.6 It would be rash to generalise too much from abstract figures such as these. In order to know the aesthetic effect of such a high percentage of long shots and medium shots; of the almost-complete absence of extreme distance, extreme closeness, and extreme angle; of the low but still-substantial incidence of close distance; and of the very high percentage of oblique angles, one would need to select some specific examples and see how those shot characteristics work to produce beauty, effect, and meaning.

The following, for example, is a very typical shot that I would classify as an oblique side-angle, oblique high-angle, long shot, statistically the most common type of shot among the analysed shot characteristics in Holdt’s film.

American Pictures

The side and high angles are oblique and thus less photographically expressive or expressionistic than a shot set at an acute angle from the subject matter. This leaves the content of the image to speak for itself more than it would be able to do if the photographic medium were insisting on its expressive prerogatives. The conjunction of the high and side angles lend the objects a degree of dynamic potential, owing to tensions set up in relation to the force of gravity, and by the complex, almost cubistic lines of graphic force nested within the 90-degree rectilinear frame. The unbalanced, cubistic qualities stimulate the eye and brain, which aestheticises the image, rendering it recognisable within a canon of social documentary image making, much of which could be categorised as, in my terms, “poor” photography and cinema, a tradition that extends from, say, Lewis Hine to the Film and Photo League and beyond – in that sense, nothing new.

The dominant effect of those oblique angles is to present an account of the photographer’s experience of the represented situation, suggesting an attempt to be faithful to the effect of the observable surroundings in the picture. Thus, the aestheticising dynamics and cubism of the shot result simply from the photographer’s wish to get all the graphically rich, but also crushingly decrepit, clutter on both walls and on the tabletop into a single shot, and by doing so, to communicate his perception of this woman’s over-determined situation. Holdt’s stylistic choice – to shift angles slightly, rather than considerably – renders the situation faithfully; at the same time it strengthens a Kantian sublimity inherent in the condensed clutter, the byzantine corruption of the represented life world, all this rendered slightly, but unnervingly, unstable by the tilted camera angles.7 The content shows the uncountable evidences of a general textural fragility; the style shows the potential for collapse.

Moving closer in another environment, the scene below is a typical oblique side-angle (almost straight-on angle) medium shot.

American Pictures

In this case, the aesthetic arrangement seems dominated by the balancing of graphic line and mass, and the isolated weights of colour. A massing of graphic incident and colour-density on the right quarter of the picture is balanced by the brown slab of veneer on the left frame line, by the very stable, three-dimensionally bottom-heavy, blue triangle of the man’s sweater, and by the photographer’s beer can anchoring the lower-left corner of the composition. The strong graphic line running from the woman’s legs through her elbow and face is balanced by an equally weighty line running from the lower-left-corner beer can across the couple’s two heads, producing a triangle of graphic forces, which is offset a few degrees from the vanishing point that is located somewhere to screen-right of the woman’s left shoulder.

That triangular crossing of massive lines supports the subjects’ worn and weathered heads, and cradles those heads in a graphically – and emotionally – complex nexus of graphic forces. For example, another line runs from the same lower-left beer can across the man’s right elbow and forearm to his invisible but strongly implied left hand, which crosses behind, and presumably holds onto, the woman’s waist. The added triangulation adds strut-like stability to the dominant triangular mass converging at the two heads. The man’s unseen but inferable embrace of the woman also conveys ambiguous emotional strength to the zone of the picture where the graphic forces are gathered. The prominent graphic lines of depth created “naturally” by the optics of the lens also come into play, creating another system of triangulations at the acme of the vanishing point, this time adding third-dimensional weight to the arrangement. 

The effect of a converging of two-dimensional and three-dimensional graphic forms near a single point is further strengthened by a more subtle graphic line – suggested primarily by the fragmented, but nonetheless strong, line of white dots on the juke box to the right. That bright, rigid broken line is faintly mirrored by a lighter line of white dots on the wall to the left of the man’s head. That line crosses the woman’s eyes. There is a punctum8 near that crowded crossroads that is located in the glance of the woman straight at the camera and the viewer. Her direct glance projects in the exact opposite direction from the graphic lines of depth created “naturally” by the optics of the lens. Her glance at us reverses perspective and forcefully breaks the fourth wall of the picture’s implied space. The strut-like triangular form resulting from the two lines of force emanating from the lower-left beer can adds another slight cubistic effect, suggesting a counter-intuitive vanishing, or emanating, point at that beer can, an apex to a triangle. Since that apex is in the third dimension, it helps pop the couple’s heads and upper bodies out of a seemingly chaotic background that is succumbing to the receding – perhaps threatening – vanishing point. This could be read as optimistic, and the optimism could be related to the subject’s connection with the photographer, and the viewer.

There is much more that could be said about the aesthetics of this quite ordinary shot. For instance, the cheap, single-point, flashbulb lighting creates shadows at several points of the picture’s depth, which tends to spray pitch-dark graphic weight along diverging lines defined by the single-point, reverse-“perspective” of the flash-bulb light source. These dark divergences add cubistic tension when felt or perceived in conjunction with the complementary, vanishing-point system controlled by the lens. In a different graphic register, the various red objects and shapes seem to reinforce a general tone of light-redness to the flesh of the couple, and the hair, lips, and eyelid redness of the woman. And so forth.

Given the aesthetic density of the shot, is it then to stand accused of aestheticism, of making poverty and desperation beautiful? Possibly, but I think not, first, because the aesthetic events in the shot are patently uncontrived, unarranged, and non-intrusive. One must do conscious work to see most of the aesthetic elements discussed above, and even more work to analyse how those elements might be working metaphorically and emotionally – to see, for example, that the vanishing point drawing this couple into its third-dimensional, background vortex is “countered” by the appeal of the direct glance reaching out of that ineluctable background vector toward the photographer and toward the viewer. Without such analytical labor as has been expended here, however, what one sees is a very ordinary snapshot of a bar scene, arguably clichéd and bathetic – nevertheless, the effects discussed above may be felt without being analysed.

Below is an even less prepossessing picture, an oblique side-angle, oblique high-angle medium shot.

American Pictures

This must be one of the most amateurish shots in Holdt’s project, but, there is again another way to see its amateurism. If one considers the expressionistic effect of the single-source lighting – the flashbulb’s shadows as uncanny distortions of the bodies, the uncertainty in the eyes of the subjects, the dynamics of facial expressions and lighting contrasts, the abstract-expressionistic forms on the wall behind and above these people – this shot again can become a powerful, even sublime, aesthetic experience. Something terrible but undefined and alarmingly other-dimensional is happening to these people; they know it, the photographer captures it, and we can sense it.

Again, all three of these shots are aesthetically powerful, but unaestheticised in the sense that Jafa is concerned about in relation to Eggleston. Eggleston’s work is painterly. Holdt seems in no way to be consciously producing beauty, but somehow he is producing, in virtually every shot, aesthetic sublimity in the Kantian sense – i.e., a visually stylised sense of overpowering dread that is inherent in the content and expressed in its forms.

We have seen how the sublime effects may be created in these shots, but how might these accomplishments be related to money?

Considering the last example first, a representation of the “terrible but undefined” thing that is happening to these people might also be produced by a highly paid, better-equipped, better-trained photographer than Jacob Holdt, such as Eggleston, or another photographer of the South that Jafa mentions, Birney Imes. However, as Jafa directly implies, pictures such as Holdt’s would be anathema to such an artist. Even if they wanted to, it would be hard for a professional photographer to duplicate the quality of the focus in the shot above – it is not really “soft” focus, and not an adjusted-focus effect, but rather a product of inadequate light for the modest quality of the lens. The flash effect that is providing all the necessary light would be assiduously avoided by a photographer equipped with a better lens, a multi-point lighting setup, and the training and skills that would allow the unobtrusive and invisible handling of those capital assets. Such a photographer or cinematographer could hardly even imagine such a picture, much less as a desired objective, nor would any well-paying magazine or film producer – such as National Geographic or CBS, or Random House or Secker and Warburg (publishers of some of Eggleston’s books), nor even the committed socio-political work of Magnum Photos – likely pay for such a picture. Such venues, and virtually any venue investing significant money in such image content, would expect to see their investments returned in profits, and would feel the need to see conscious, identifiable aesthetic value – some perceptible beauty – added to the content of the images.9 That is part of what well-capitalised media mean when they demand minimum technical standards, and they use their capital to produce work whose standards only capital can meet. By definition, the picture of the mother and two children under discussion here is sub-standard in that discourse, and thus money is very relevant to the production of such an image.

The same can be said for the other two images above – that is, that, in the more capitalised discourses of film, they are all technically sub-standard. As a consequence of the images’ poor fit within the better-capitalised systems, the aesthetically high-quality characteristics of the images that are identified in my analysis above are perhaps not readily recognizable. Analytical labor is required in order to demonstrate those aesthetic qualities, a characteristic not sought by well-capitalised film producers. Such analytic labour was necessary for every scene in every film discussed in my two books on Oscar Micheaux; and prior to that particular labour, Micheaux’s work had been considered by most critics as important only for its content, not for its aesthetic power and originality.

It may be, then, that only a poor cinema can deploy many of the particular aesthetic effects analysed in the images above, effects that avoid traditional beauty but reach an aesthetically rich sublimity apparently dependent on financial poverty. Jafa implies as much in his questions to Holdt in the interview mentioned above, where Jafa also says: “In my own particular upbringing in the Delta, which is[,] outside of the Appalachians[,] in the poorest region in America, I feel like poverty was more defining than culture, so to speak, or even race. The culture grows out of the poverty, or is inflected or deflected or shaped by the poverty.”10


So far, I have been discussing film stills that might as well be – in fact are – also in a photography book. They are, however, also the visual elements in one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen, which is the object of this essay. The primary difference between book and film is temporal editing. Virtually every edit in American Pictures is efficient and discernibly relevant to the discursive vector. Many edits are worthy of special comment for their skill, and some are utterly brilliant. For example, within the first couple of minutes of the version of Part I that is presently available for streaming on Holdt’s website, one finds an image of a white woman in the foreground and a black woman in the background.

American Pictures

Before the next edit occurs, one can hardly help noticing that the two women, though in the same frame, are treated differently by the shot. The white woman is in the foreground, body and face toward the camera, looking up and only slightly off the camera’s axis of orientation—she is in classic suture position, seemingly ready for a reverse angle edit along the axis of the shot; the black woman, however, is in the background, body turned away from the camera, face looking slightly down and almost ninety degrees off the axis of the shot. The white woman is in classic position, seemingly ready for a reverse-shot to any pro-filmic interlocutor that might suture the white woman with the eavesdropping viewer. The black woman is a more distant object in every way, not positioned for suture with the viewer, but nonetheless observed by the viewer. It is a disturbing image in its own right, since the emotional appeal of the ingenuous, outgoing, confident white woman is burdened by the recognition of the pensive, diffident, more alienated black woman. The next full image is a powerful statement of that same relationship, but in a different register.

American Pictures

This image of black and white Americans handcuffed together would be a strong edit if it were a straight cut from the previous image, and as such quite representative of the cutting throughout Holdt’s film. It is not a straight cut, however, but a lap dissolve, which produces not just a good editorial juxtaposition, but a brilliantly synergistic new image.

American Pictures

During the second or so of the dissolve, the two women are chained together, like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958). While Holdt’s intertitles are stating that the patterns of racial distrust are chronic, and that “we dare not face the fact that in such systems we are both victims and oppressors,” we see, in the brief image of the dissolve, the chains of that condition, we see a kind of collar around the black woman’s neck formed by one of the handcuffs, we see the white woman’s head in some kind of clamp, and we see that the white woman facing us “dare[s] not face the fact” that she is both a victim and an oppressor, as the intertitle states. The dissolve produces an unusually rich metonymic-metaphoric nexus, a nexus that is carried forward to the next edit, which is another dissolve that uses the handcuffs to link together black and white.

American Pictures

We can see in the dissolving image that one of the handcuffs is now perfectly aligned with the necks of two children, collaring them and clamping them together. When the dissolve is complete, the image changes register again from compulsion and discipline to affection and magnetism; instead of a steel clamp, a black child’s arms are hugging a white child’s smiling face to his own, and the collar/handcuff has dissolved.

American Pictures

These edits alone are convincing evidence that a severely underfinanced film of edited still pictures shot in poverty can produce great art. There are many more examples of nuanced resonance in American Pictures’s editing. Soon after the above edits, Holdt’s intertitles tell us that the first American home to take him in was a black home in South Side Chicago.

American Pictures

Holdt counts himself lucky to have landed at this address first, since it immediately preempted the racist assumptions prevalent in what he calls the “distant faces on TV or in hostile suburbia.” The denotative meaning of these visual and verbal juxtapositions is clear, but the visual snapshot of the black home adds a possible nuance. If one juxtaposes, in particular, the mainstream white idea of the location of this home, “the south side of Chicago”, with the image of the home itself, there is, for many white viewers, a mismatch. The location “South Side of Chicago” is often rendered in capital letters, and often connotes “ghetto”. But Holdt’s image shows, not ghetto poverty, but an average tract house with a porch light and house numbers like any working-class house in any American suburb or small town. It is very like the average, white, middle-class houses I grew up in, and there is no reason why it should not look like that, except for the part of the mainstream American mind that may have had difficulty reconciling that image with a received idea of Chicago’s South Side.

The image of this family home sets up another edit that, though not necessarily as brilliant as the handcuffs-and-chains edits discussed previously, is nonetheless careful and nuanced. In the image above, we notice the girl holding Holdt’s hitch-hiking sign, “Touring USA from Denmark”. We have consciously to assimilate that sign because it is an aberration, since the phrase obviously does not refer to the person holding the sign. It is the filmmaker’s sign that the girl is holding. In the intertitles, the filmmaker is also narrating something directly related to that sign: “Later, traveling into the white world, I was [because of my initial stay with this black family] no longer as vulnerable to [the white world’s] racist patterns of guilt and fear.” That sentence refers directly to the feel of this picture of an African-American home that is welcoming to Danish strangers, but it also refers forward to the next picture, the context of which is white.

American Pictures

The edit uses the punctum of the “touring” sign, which rivets the edit by its placement almost in the same place in the frame as in the preceding shot, overlapping with itself in the course of the dissolve from the preceding shot to establish a graphic match between the two shots across the edit. The “Touring” sign also becomes, within this new shot, one term of a double punctum, the other term of which is the “DENMARK TOWN LIMIT” sign. The intertitles accompanying the second shot continue the reference to Holdt’s move away from the black home in Chicago and into a racially divided America, referring directly to the resultant violence. The picture does not yet show that violence, but Holdt soon takes the viewer through his hair-raising snapshots that will end this chapter of the film. The proximity of this image with the violence that follows, and the binding of the shot with the previous shot of the non-violent, welcoming, African-American home, lends a nuance of anxiety to the peaceful, rural, small-town American landscape around Denmark, USA. In fact, the same “Touring USA” punctum will in a later double-punctum image show a Ku Klux Klan billboard in the background of small-town America. The anxiety Holdt associates with small-town America is exactly complementary to the connotation of security in the South Side Chicago family’s home, and a reversal of the American mainstream norm of venerable small-town values.

Anxiety, violence, and insecurity are the dominant issues of the rest of this chapter of the film. Once Holdt introduces the issue of violence with the “Touring USA from Denmark” sequence, he accompanies those ideas with images of places in small-town and urban America that most Americans would never go.

American Pictures

Reasons why one would want to avoid such places are recognised by Holdt, and direct evidence of the danger is shown in Holdt’s documention of physical violence, including possibly murder, later in this chapter. But, as the intertitle of the above shot implies, Holdt is committed to the basic goodness of the people in these places, and his project is to bring the viewer along.

He starts that journey by reviewing the history of slavery. He constructs the journey as an attraction for the audience. It is important to mention here that his use of sound, an important element of film style, is a significant part of the editing here and a major element of the film journey’s attraction in general. The film’s first chapter thus far has been accompanied by sounds representing the creaking hull of a heavy wooden slave ship rolling on the high seas. When Holdt’s mention of violence occurs for the first time, an appealing but hauntingly minor-keyed music begins. When the theme of black anger and violence becomes the main focus of Holdt’s intertitles, popular black protest music from the 1970s or ‘80s is foregrounded on the soundtrack and its lyrics become the film’s narration. These editing decisions create a strong flow that sweeps the audience into territory it might otherwise want to avoid. This is all occurring during sections of the film where Holdt is giving the history lesson of slavery and introducing to us the people who are dangerous, but who are also worthy of basic trust, as Holdt’s own decades-long journey into their world is meant to prove. Holdt’s editing, then, does not depend only on the attractions of “epistephilia” that Bill Nichols has described, but also on attractions such as sensational visual testimonials and popular music such as Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.”11

The editing in the history-of-slavery lesson is extraordinary, as it would need to be to hold the attention of average viewers, who are not famous for their interest in history lectures. A good example of the quality of the editing is the way Holdt ends that lesson. At this point, he is letting recent Black American pop music about slavery narrate the lesson, and as the song comes to an end, eighteenth-century engravings are used to portray the flogging and branding of slaves, with the lyrics of the pop song reproduced as titles.

American Pictures

These prints are followed by nineteenth-century photographic evidence of such flogging and branding.

American Pictures

American Pictures

Then occurs one of the most startling edits in the film, as these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century documents – seemingly ancient history – are, without missing a beat, replaced by Jacob Holdt’s own photographs of a “134-year-old former slave.”

American Pictures

The power of this move “out of history” and into the present is supported by a similar edit on the soundtrack, where we hear Holdt’s voice for the first time in the film, the voice of the person who will be testifying to the truth of these conditions and of this sort of audio-visual evidence, the voice of the Virgil who will guide the audience for the next three or four hours. Holdt then one-ups this strong sound edit by presenting the voice of the former slave speaking for himself, which Holdt had recorded at the same time he took the above images. This living example of America’s past is an epiphany, the effect of which is magnified by the editing. Those nineteenth-century, ancient-history images of physically mutilated slaves come to life, morphing into colour, their tape-recorded voices telling us their stories “directly”.

Holdt continues the history lesson, returning to historical images, though now illustrating the testimony of an “honest-to-goodness” former slave who was “really there” when those old engravings, prints, and photographs were made.12

American Pictures

The most uncannily lifelike of those accompanying images is from a diorama, probably found by Holdt at a civil rights or history museum somewhere.

American Pictures

In the next edit, the sculptural forms of the diorama on the left above, and the pedestal on the right-hand image, are made to rhyme unnervingly with familiar post-slavery monuments.

American Pictures

Holdt’s edit between these two diptychs of frightening-vs.-comforting, three-dimensional figures implies that the aspects of the history of slavery that we keep prominently in public view are those that some of us – the white monument-funders – prefer to remember. Holdt’s career-long project has been the continual creation of a record that remembers differently, and aspects of Holdt’s style, such as the edit above, contribute to that differentiation of remembering.

Soon after this sequence, Holdt continues the images of emancipation with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the soundtrack, illustrated by both heroic portraiture and vernacular Holdt snapshots.

American Pictures

But then, to conclude this opening chapter of his film, Holdt returns to the world of today, decades after King’s speech, where African-Americans are still steeped in poverty and murderous violence.

American Pictures

American Pictures

It is into this world, primarily, that he invites the audience to follow him for the remainder of the film.

Mise en scène

Mise en scène is the selection and arrangement of everything in front of the camera, all the stylistic decisions that do not involve the handling of camera and film. It includes, in fiction films, choices such as actors, acting style, blocking, sets, locations, costumes, makeup, art direction, and lighting. In documentary filmmaking, mise en scène potentially includes all of the above, but most generally it includes decisions about what people and places to film, as well as how to alter and arrange those people and places before or during the shooting. Holdt’s mise en scène can be characterised is minimally arranged. He typically films people and places as he finds them. He probably does not ask them to act or re-enact; he does not use sets nor often alter the locations where subjects and objects find themselves; his only lighting effects are primitive flash when available light is inadequate to securing a basic photographic record. He does not professionalise the interview situation by constructing a dramatically lighted, talking-head, and re-enactment aesthetics such as can be found in countless documentaries like Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) or Fog of War (2003) or Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side (2007). Nor does he schedule his filming of landscapes and locations to utilise the sublime early-morning and late-afternoon light to add aesthetic appeal or gratuitous sublimity, as so many documentaries do.

He does, however, intervene in some important ways in the situations that he documents. He directs people to stand or sit for a picture, like the family in front of their South Side Chicago home; he asks people to take pictures of him in certain positions, such as standing beside the “DENMARK TOWN LIMIT” sign. There are other such interventions, but they are both transparent and minimal. Holdt’s people and places are as ordinary as those in much of the mise en scène on YouTube. Also, the inclusion of these interventions is intrinsic to the first-person nature of the project; Holdt, as filmmaker, narrator, and storyteller, is always meant to be part of – and active agent within – the story told. It would be more manipulative, intrusive, and directorial of him to excise himself from the mise en scène, as is standard procedure in most documentaries.

Holdt’s minimal treatment of the reality in front of his camera and tape recorder, combined with the unprecedented range of his choices of what sorts of people and places to film, is probably the most rhetorically and aesthetically powerful aspect of his project. It is the aspect of Holdt’s style that produces the effect of intimacy that Jafa finds unique in Holdt’s work. One might be tempted to think that Holdt’s minimalist realism, a kind of cinéma vérité, is the easiest of the stylistic elements available to him, since it takes professional training, visual literacy, and skills to handle mise en scène the polished way that Alex Gibney and Errol Morris handle it. But in fact Holdt’s way is not easy and its value is proportional to its difficulty. The level of difficulty can be assessed in terms of time, suffering, and risk. The material that Holdt presents is almost-literally unbelievable – after all, he started the project when his family and friends in Denmark refused to believe what he was writing home about, and they sent him a cheap camera to prove his claims. His incredible images and events, including the occasional show stoppers that all documentarians hope for – including his close encounters with inaccessible figures such as 1970s slaves in America’s sugar plantations; pre-Civil War former slaves, all of whom one had assumed to be long dead; presidents’ daughters such as Julie Nixon; FBI directors such as Clarence Kelly; famous Rockefellers and Kennedys; FBI informants and presidential attempted-assassins such as Sara Jane Moore (who is still in prison today); black-power martyrs such as Popeye Jackson – are available to Holdt’s film because of the time and risk invested in the project, and, in fact, as Holdt tells Jafa, because of his own poverty as a filmmaker.

Human Scale Aesthetics

The levels of time and risk invested by Holdt are simply too high for most filmmakers to consider, and it is partly the viewer’s recognition of the time and risk taken to deliver this material that makes the experience of the film so affecting. But there is an additional mise en scène effect that adds value beyond the viewer’s recognition of the time and risk. The unbelievable material – such as the plantation-like, contemporary slave camps and the people who still eat dirt, and the epiphanic close encounters with power, celebrity, and danger – are human-scale. They emerge out of the life experience of a person much like the average viewer, a person who has little wealth, no professional film skills, no special access to power and celebrity, and whose prior experience of the dangerous realities inherent in the realms of racism, poverty, and crime is limited to fiction and more-or-less distanced, objective documentary. The average viewer’s documentary knowledge is derived from the institutions of documentary – the evening news, National Geographic, the History Channel, Frontline, the classical film-studies canon, and the like.

These days, an increasing amount of the average viewer’s documentary experience comes from new institutions like YouTube and similar platforms, but that is my point. Holdt’s project foreshadows that YouTube world of publicly accessible films by ordinary people. YouTube is the world from which the somewhat younger Jafa draws for his own powerful work. Holdt’s earlier œuvre has the authority of those works in that it is embedded in ordinary lives, including Holdt’s own drop-out vagabonding. While it falls short of perfect authorial authenticity by not being a documentary by the people it portrays in that vagabonding, it rises well above the average YouTube work by its unprecedented investment of time (virtually an entire life), of suffering (Holdt was often miserable), and literally the risk of life and limb.

This investment of human-scale labour and bodily and psychic risk-taking is what makes Holdt’s mise en scène, and his entire resulting aesthetic, significant. The effect of a professional, capitalised-scale documentary film that attempted to do what Holdt has done would be different; the more capital value – such as camera quality, production and post-production skills – that one might add to the project would proportionally alienate the mise en scène from the people, places, and situations portrayed, and that alienation would be visible and audible to the viewer.

Holdt’s film has the feel of an unusually careful and thoughtful home movie. And since almost anyone can make a home movie today, Holdt’s mise en scène contributes to a democratic aesthetic. Michael Moore’s, Errol Morris’s, and Alex Gibney’s movies do not look homemade; few viewers feel when watching such films that they look like home movies that they could have made themselves. Thus, Moore’s, Morris’s, and Gibney’s films, important as they are to the democratic process, are less democratically produced, and thus less fundamentally democratic, than Holdt’s. This suggests the question as to which aesthetic is more effective, Holdt’s or Gibney’s, which is a good question but that is not the issue here. My point is that if one is looking for aesthetics that can produce films as powerful and affecting as any in film history, and that at the same time are truly democratic, Holdt’s project is an instructive model, one that cannot be matched by better financed, more-widely distributed films. There is apparently an art of cinema, which I am calling Poor Cinema, that is not only beyond the reach of money, but is averse to money, and it can be more sophisticated in its making, and more affecting in its beholding, than most filmmakers and audiences are yet aware of.

The Poor-Cinema Project

To begin this essay, I mentioned that Arthur Jafa had praised the uniqueness of the content and style of Holdt’s images, and had admired the authenticity, effectiveness, and integrity of those pictures. Jafa compared Holdt’s images favorably to similar images by artists firmly in the canon, such as William Eggleston, and I have compared Holdt’s filmmaking to canonical filmmakers such as Michael Moore. In search of general principles to explain the relative value of Holdt’s work, this essay has explored one aspect of the images and filmmaking that Jafa and I have admired – their style. It appears significant that Holdt’s style grew directly from his working conditions.

In the larger-scale book project on poor cinema, the unpublished chapters that follow this essay dig more deeply into the specific filmic content that Holdt’s methods produced, including specific critical targets, and issues of critical integrity – specifically in relation to money. The larger poor-cinema project includes my two books on Oscar Micheaux, plus a manuscript on Terminator 3; Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow, 2003) as an example of a critically ambitious rich cinema. The larger hope for these essays is to encourage more attention to under-the-radar modes of relatively inexpensive filmmaking, wherever worthy examples are found. Poor cinema is an acquired taste, but a taste worth acquiring.


  1. “A Message of Love:  Arthur Jafa and Jacob Holdt, in Conversation,” in Arthur Jafa: MAGNUMB (Humlebaek, Denmark: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2021), p. 43.
  2. The present text is adapted from a chapter of a completed book manuscript on Danish activist Jacob Holdt’s film, American Pictures, which is the topic of Jafa’s and Holdt’s conversation above. American Pictures can be found on the Web in two parts: Part One at
    and Part Two at
  3. Holdt’s draft of the new revision can be found at www.american-pictures.com/roots/.
  4. See J. Ronald Green, Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), and With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).
  5. Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” in The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), pp. 31-45.
  6. Holdt’s film is a bit of a moving target; it evolves over his lifetime. This analysis of the shooting, editing, and mise-en-scène, is based on the online version of the film at Holdt’s website in 2010; the version at that site today has been revised, but is similar in structure and detail.
  7. For my usage of “the Kantian sublime” see J. Ronald Green, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Girls: The Sublime in Jennifer Reeder’s A Million Miles Away,” Millennium Film Journal No. 67 (Spring 2018), pp. 74-83, extensive footnotes at http://www.mfj-online.org/green-praise-girls-notes/
  8. Roland Barthes defined his term, “punctum,” in Camera Lucida as denoting a wounding, personally touching detail that establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it. He opposed the punctum to the term “studium,” denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph.
  9. Of course, after a work of poverty has proved its marketability, as Holdt’s book and film did, such producers come forward. To protect his aesthetic and his critical integrity, Holdt initially refused their offers and produced and distributed the book and film himself, employing many of the poor subjects he had filmed.
  10. “A Message of Love:  Arthur Jafa and Jacob Holdt, in Conversation,” op. cit., p. 46. Jafa never argues that poverty itself is a good condition. He has said, however, that “inside of the black worldview, black being, the black continuum, it’s impossible to completely separate out what’s magnificent about it and what’s miserable about it. They are intrinsically bound up. (…) I used to always pose it in the simplest terms possible: If some supreme being said to you, ‘Yo, it’s on you. If you want, I can make it so that none of this crazy shit that happened to black people, being brought to the Americas against their will—we’re just going to erase that, none of that happened.’ Well, if you do that, you erase us. We are erased. So, something about that as a fundamental, paradoxical conundrum for black people in the Americas is that our ontological construction is totally bound up with horror.” (Arthur Jafa and Greg Tate in conversation at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, June 2016, quoted by Mathias Ussing Seeberg, “Beauty Through Horror: An Introduction to the Work of Arthur Jafa,” in Arthur Jafa: MAGNUMB (Humlebaek, Denmark: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2021), p. 37. Seeberg also notes that “in Jafa’s Le Rage (…) a stand-up cut-out of a Hulk-like Black figure, a monster moulded by slavery and its repercussions”, this “great beauty, virtuosity and creative power” is “represented as a superpower that makes Black Americans capable of doing things no one else can do (op. cit., p. 37).”
  11. On epistephilia (“desire for knowledge”), see Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), p. 40; and Bill Nichols, Representing Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), passim.
  12. The longevity claims of the informant, Charles Smith, have since been challenged by researchers and journalists. On his website, on later editions of his book, and more-recent versions of his slide show, Holdt has contextualised and revised his account of Smith’s story. Since Holdt’s testimony of his encounter is truthful, the later factual revisions of Smith’s age do not dampen the effect of the sequence for me.

About The Author

J. Ronald Green is Emeritus Professor of film studies in the Department of History of Art at Ohio State University. His books include Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux and With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux. Other publications treat media policy, documentary, avant-garde film, video, photography, installation, and digital arts.

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