Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, November 9, 2009
More on Film Theory in Mexico
As several commentators both on this blog (thanks, Ruby, for reminding us about the importance and urgency of conversations beyond borders )and in private emails have pointed out, the discipline of cinema studies in the US could be enriched and truly internationalized through exchanges and dialogues with scholars in the rest of the world--especially Mexico and Latin America.
To continue the conversation, this blog features Part II of my interview with Dr. Lauro Zavala, where he further explains some of the issues in cinema studies in Mexico.
Meet Dr. Lauro Zavala
Dr. Zavala is on the faculty at Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) at Mexico City,where, since 1984, he has worked on intertextual semiotics. He is the author of the only textbook on film analysis in Latin America, Elementos del discurso cinematográfico, which won the Textbook Award at UAM, and has been reprinted several times. Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) is the second most important university in Mexico, after the National University. Incredibly prolific, Dr. Zavala has written a dozen books on narratology in film and literature. He’s also written a dozen books on other subjects such as semiotics, scholarly publishing, museum theory. And, he has served as editor of a dozen literary anthologies, published in different universities. These are significant achievements since scholarly publishing in Mexico is extremely difficult. Dr. Zavala’s research interests focus on producing models of analysis in narrative theory, aesthetics of film and related fields.
The Interview: Part II
Patricia: What is the role of film theory and analysis in Mexican universities? How is it developing? How is film education in film theory and analysis organized for graduate students and undergraduates in Mexico?
Lauro:In Mexico and the rest of Latin America, cinema studies have been a small field that belongs in communication studies, which in its turn belong in the social sciences. That is why cinema studies have been oriented here only towards the study of film as a cultural industry and as a tool for History, Anthropology or Psychoanalysis. Therefore, there is not a strong tradition in the humanistic approach to cinema studies, that is, in studying film from the perspective of semiotics, aesthetics, or philosophy.
Sepancine is creating the first graduate program in Latin America that will be devoted to film theory and analysis. It will be held at Metropolitan University (UAM), Xochimilco campus, and we hope it will start in a year or two. By the way, it will be the first academic program in Humanities in our campus.
I think what is at stake in cinema studies, both locally in Mexico and globally, is establishing its relevance to humanities, considering the place of audiovisual language in traditional and digital media. In Sepancine we are focused on Formal Analysis (that is, the analysis of film as film, as V. F. Perkins would say), but we are well aware of the relevance of Instrumental Analysis (that is, the use of cinema for pursuing any personal, disciplinary or professional ends). We believe both kinds of analysis should not necessarily be opposed to each other, but they might have a productive dialogue, as it is the case in the historical approach to cinema studies in France and the US.
Also, in Sepancine we are aware that 85% of all humanities freshmen have the intention to study film during their career, but practically none is able to do so, simply because there are not enough researchers in their campus (if any). We hope that in the near future film theory and analysis become as important in the main universities in Latin American cities as they are now in Paris, Madrid, London, San Francisco, or New York. We hope our specialized libraries on cinema become as complete and actualized as those at NYU, Stanford, the BFI, Cinématéque Francaise, or Filmoteca Española.
Patricia: How is film theory and analysis in Mexico distinct from film theory and analysis as it has developed in Europe and the United States over the last four decades? What are the major theoretical models? What films and topics have emerged as important areas of inquiry? (please specify so our readers can learn more about these ideas and specific works)
Lauro: Film theory and analysis in Mexico is a very young field of study. In the past four decades there has been a prevailing interest in film history. In this period there have been published near 500 books on film, of which only 5 titles are related to film theory and analysis (all of them published in the past 5 years). Therefore, we do not have any pre-established agenda about studying specific theories. We give absolute priority to films themselves, and to our questions towards them.
Also, we are still in awe when we discover this or that theoretical debate, most especially when we are able to study some canonical films that have never been screened and studied here before. Being newcomers is also a guarantee of having a new look at things, and I hope in the long run this becomes also a fresh look at film theory, and the production of new models of film analysis.
Traditionally, the international community has identified film scholarship in Mexico only as the field of film historians, and historians who use films to illustrate Mexican history. Therefore, whenever there is a museum exhibit of pre-Columbian art, foreign institutions invite a Mexican historian to give a series of talks about the presence of Pyramids in Mexican cinema. But Mexican scholarship about film is not reduced to what historians do. As we are entering the international community of scholars, we want to emphasize our interest in fields other than history and social sciences in general. This is why Sepancine is oriented to the humanities.
Another very important difference with European or US film scholars is that all of us (film scholars in Mexico) are not only working on cinema studies. Considering our personal background, and also the institutional absence of Cinema Studies in our universities, all of us are also working on literary theory, philosophical theory, media theory, translation theory, or image theory. Film theory, to us, is a field of synthesis, dialogue, translation and encounter with many other theories.
I think this approach to film theory and analysis (that is, this inter, multi, and transdisciplinary approach) is the main profile of Mexican film scholarship. This is its distinctive voice.
Patricia: What is the relationship of film theory and analysis in Mexico in relationship to what many scholars and programmer's have called "the Mexican new wave" of exciting new cinematic works emerging in documentary and narrative film in Mexico in the last ten years?
Lauro: None. In Mexico, universities and industry have been completely away from each other. Film production and cinema studies are two professional fields that have never had any connection between them. University research on film has always existed with no relation to any institution (or person) in film production or film schools. For example, the members of Sepancine belong in the Departments of Philosophy, Literature or Communication, and basically we relate to our colleagues in these Departments, here and abroad.
Patricia: As a film scholar, can you share with us historical movements or works in Mexican cinema we should know more about to expand our knowledge of Mexican cinema? What new and emerging works in documentary, narrative and experimental film interest you at the moment as works that are provoking new questions in Mexican film theory/analysis?
Lauro: Most observers of contemporary Latin American cinema are aware of a sort of tendency to produce a very modern film language during the past ten years or so. When studying these films (either documentary, narrative or experimental), we find in them a radical distance from what Rudolf Arnheim would call the power of the centre, that is, a transparent, classic, and stable story.
This new cinema belongs in what Paul Julian Smith, in Cambridge, ironically calls Mexican Festival Films. These films are provoking questions about the formal stakes of this kind of postmodern aesthetics, where narration seems to be at once didactic and dissolved (that is, at once direct and disguised). It is an Aesthetics of Paradox, well worth noticing (not only in feature films, but also in short and short short films).
Patricia: Why was Sepancine connected to the Morelia International Film Festival? What were the advantages of connecting the conference to the festival? (this is highly unusual in the world, and for me, quite wonderful and eye opening)
Lauro: The Morelia Film Festival is now one of the most important film festivals in Latin America. We are proud that last year they (the Festival organizers) approached us (Sepancine) to have this collaboration. The obvious advantage of this connection is the amazing national and international resonance that a prestigious festival has, which is something no scholarly conference will ever have, no matter what field it belongs to.
Nevertheless, all the educational and cultural institutions that would otherwise collaborate with us for free, as soon as they learned that we were connected to the Festival, immediately tried to take a financial advantage that we, as a scholarly association, were absolutely unable to satisfy. I think this explains why there is no film festival connected to any film conference in the world. In our case, this experience has been unique in metaphorical and literal terms.