My film is a short visual illustration of life at Café des Amis, a Mexican restaurant in Canterbury. Through my camera, I invite the viewers to spend one day at the restaurant, take a look at morning preparations, visit the kitchen, follow the front house staff and join the customers in experiencing the Café des Amis atmosphere. The aim of this project was to introduce Café des Amis not as a restaurant but as place that contributes to community creation within Canterbury.
I started working in Café des Amis as waitress in 2016 and I was immediately struck by its loving family orientated character. I soon realised that food did not play the most important role in the restaurant. It was the warm, cosy physical space decorated with colourful paintings. It was the sound of cheerful Latin music, sizzling fajitas, loud chats and laughter. It was the people coming in to meet their family, partners, and friends. Some people came for a quick dinner hiding from an unexpected rain, others booked months in advance to celebrate their fiftieth birthday with twenty relatives. First dates, proposals, anniversaries, birthdays, graduation dinners, Christmas parties, school reunions. Each customer brings their own story that stays trapped between the restaurant walls and creates the spirit of the place. After two years of working in the restaurant, I found out that there is a strong emphasis on individuality. All the staff members are encouraged to be themselves which makes them contribute to the diverse ethos of the place. Each customer is different and through the memories they create, the guests bring a part of themselves to the restaurant. My own experience of Café des Amis is various experiences of other people that accumulate within the restaurant, experiences that are accommodated through the familial atmosphere of the place.
In their paper, Beriss and Sutton (2007) provide ethnographic outlook on restaurants. They argue that restaurants are strongly related to the local practices, but simultaneously, in the postmodern world, they enable to represent local symbol more globally. The authors attribute representative function to restaurants and associate it with representation of the local. “Moreover, restaurants have become important symbols of postmodern life itself, […] restaurants increasingly carrying out symbolic work previously reserved for monuments and parades, representing the ethos of cities, ethnic groups and nations” (Beriss and Sutton, 2007). Proceeding from my own observations at Café des Amis, I noted the representation of the individual more strongly, than its representation of the local. The initial background of a small family business and the peculiar character of the place invite the guests and staff members to reflect on their own individuality and difference which is warmly welcomed and encouraged in the restaurant. One could perceive this as practice that deepens the abyss between the individuals. However, I argue that the familial mood, sharing food with relatives and friends, together with characteristic decorations and music build a bridge across such abyss and encourage people to explore the individuality of their companions. As Sutton and Beriss (2007) suggest, different notions about culture could be observed in restaurants. “Many of the central concepts used to define cultural worlds – such as the distinction between domestic and private life, or the rules surrounding relations with kin or with strangers – are challenged in restaurants” (2007). Therefore, in my project, I wanted to stress that Café des Amis contributes to the creation and shaping of relationships and community.
I suggest that customers are able to feel and perceive how the restaurant momentarily impacts the relationships around the tables. However, the employees can observe this occurrence. Because I experienced both positions, I attempted to share this observation through my film. The main challenge was to capture the idea I had been developing through spontaneous participant observation (as a waitress) for months in a short video. The only way to face the challenge was to choose a suitable style of presenting the message. I decided that the best way to share the thought was to return to how I began experiencing the power of the restaurant – through observation.
As I mentioned above, Café des Amis’ atmosphere is created by combination of various factors that relate to different senses. The taste and smell of the food, music and laughter, the visual aspect of decoration, the cramped space that make people sit close to each other. These are all sensual experiences of the place that are meant to be captured through observational filming. Di Gioia believes that the filmmaker becomes the body that shares those experiences with the viewers (Grimshaw and Ravetz, 2009). Therefore, I devoted a significant part of the film to such observational practice; and as a cameraman, I became the body that experiences the surroundings for the viewers.
It has been argued that observational filmmaking might objectify and dehumanize the protagonists (Grimshaw and Ravetz, 2009). However, my experience was that the subjects appeared more human during the observational scenes rather than in the scenes where I asked them questions. The feedback provided by my first viewers suggested that the observational parts of the film made the subjects appear more genuine and relatable. Even though, I decided to add interviews, I included observational footage in order to present the subjects as humans that can be easily understood and empathized with.
My aim was to share sensual experiences of Café des Amis that contribute to a more profound idea about the restaurants as places that create, shape and challenge people’s relationships and communities. I decided to include observational footage as I believe it shifts the viewer to the restaurant and enables the subjects to share their experience. This practice helped me to present Café des Amis as more than a place to dine at. I portrayed it as a place where people create something, as well as, the place where people leave something behind. Sharing the film with my viewers means capturing those simple experiences that make the place so powerful and magical.
Beriss, D. and Sutton, D. (2007). The restaurants book. Oxford: Berg.
Grimshaw, A. and Ravetz, A. (2009). Rethinking observational cinema. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 15(3), pp.538-556.