Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, December 14, 2009
Torquing Documentary Form
Top ten lists of commercial films, high end art exhibitions, and books from the big publishers jam the press and commercial news websites this time of year.
I devour these lists. I end up saving them for my Netflix queue and my travel reading.
That said, I find myself a lot more energized by projects that jack me into thinking about archives, history, concepts, politics, real people, real struggles and documentary practice in new ways. Sites that seduce me to keep coming back to see what’s new. Projects that prod one sentence: gosh, I wish I could think like that.
The projects on my list engage some common strategies: collaborative, interactive, merging the digital and the real, the urgent and the imaginative. These are not auteurist projects—they are convenings.
And they are in alphabetical order, in no particular ranking of importance.
A big huge shout out to the ever-inventive, open space afficionado Dewey Schott at the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, who conjured up this great idea of ten best lists of the year for public media so that the mainstream press can't maintain its monopoly on curation and aggregation.
1.The Hub, by Witness (an NGO based in NYC)
A user-generated, issue-focused, easy-to-search portal for uploading videos from around the world documenting a staggering array of human rights including armed conflict, labor, children’s rights, prisons, sustainable development, discrimination, violence, health, women’s rights, humanitarian issues, justice. A model of ethical, collaborative, social media, where uploading and sharing means taking action and campaigning for real world change for real people, not avatars or products.
2. Iranian Social Protest on Facebook
The Zapatistas wrangled the internet for politics. 15 years later, the Iran protest movement has nabbed social media and grabbed attention for turning recent updates into something more than your favorite youtube video or latte hang out. Despite the US state department’s enthusiasm for toppling regimes by any digital means necessary, Facebook and blogs have rendered the separation between the local and the global inoperative. Check out the link above for news about the men in head scarves movement.
3.Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, Nunuvut, Canada
From Zacharias Kunuk and Ian J. Mauro, an exciting, interactive web project the gathers centuries of Inuit knowledge by elders and hunters on climate change in the Arctic, featuring blogs, multimedia, raw footage, live internet shows and skype. Say farewell to Al Gore and his multimillion dollar power point films.
4.Post Secret, by Frank Warren
This community art project is simple: people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard. But the results are complex: condensations of psychic fissures and social relations. Images and words are posted on the blog daily. Several books have been published from this material and hit the NYT bestseller list. But it’s still a model of engagement worth taking a look at..and, according to its own website, it’s the largest advertising free blog in the world. Send one in. Noone will know it’s you.
5.Public Secret, USA, project conceived by Sharon Daniel in collaboration with Justice Now
A massive collaboration between digital artist Daniel, the Vectors Journal at USC, Justice Now, and incarcerated women. It explores gender, family, and the prison industrial complex with an elegant, spared down design that remaps our preconceptions all the first three. It also cuts through decades of documentary debate about images, victims and ethics with more clarity than most scholarly essays on the subject.
6.RMB City, China, by Cao Fei, aka in SL China Tracy
A project spanning RL (real life) and SL (Second Life) that satirizes overdevelopment and overbuilding in China through avatars and buildings in Second Life, and a web site promoting the RMB city including press releases, city channels, manifestos, maps, city views and a blog. Strapped for cash? You might want to book your next weekend getaway in RMB City…
7.Sarai, Delhi, India
The go-to hub in South Asia for cracking open the liminal zones between the digital and the real with the edgiest new media theory around, practical and concept-changing on the ground projects mapping urbanism, and endless innovations in convening people and ideas with art shows, editable and free CDs, books, audio, free software, publications, translations and dialogue across languages (Hindi and English), and cybermohallas (you gotta love it—exploring the alley ways and corners of communities and cities.)
8.Saving the Sierra, California, USA, project coordinated by Catherine Stifter and jesikah maria ross
A compelling, elegant, clear-sighted regional project chronicling the culture, economy and environment of the Sierra Nevada as it confronts development challenging sustainability. It marshalls public media, radio documentary, citizen storytelling, and story mapping. The multiple and diverse voices in this project as a mighty and awe inspiring as Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and the sequoias, the spectacles and clichés of the Sierras.
9.Soweto Uprising, South Africa, project by Ismail Farouk and Babak Fakhamzadeh
An interactive website creating a living archive and new cartography of the student uprisings on June 16, 1976 with participants and people living in Soweto, with video mapping, blogs, routes that are tagged, Flickr projects for image uploading, comments on the maps of the routes.
10. Transborder Immigrant Tool, A Mexico/US border Disturbance Project by Ricardo Dominguez, Brett Stalbaum, Micha Cardenas, and Jason Najarro
A mind-blowing and controversy-igniting project where cell phones as digital coyotes meet phone apps meet GPS to help immigrants from Mexico cross the border. Before they’ve been built, they’ve generated a lot of blowback all ready. Start googling and find out what all the fuss is about. And then, start thinking apps and maps as a new media form.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
More with James Ramey
Mexico-based film scholar and festival organizer James Ramey lives in many worlds--literature, film, teaching, festivals. In my conversations with him, he always seems to be moving across, between, through and around all those somewhat different terrains. He's the ultimate ambassador of intellectual goodwill and comraderie.
Today I continue my interview with him. The Mexican New Wave, with filmmakers like Inarritu, Cuaron, del Toro and screenwriters like Guillermo Arriaga is one of the most exciting cinemas to emerge in the last ten years. It's a cinema that cuts the jugular vein of popular culture. It boils up with energy: violence, realism, aggressive editing, pulsating acting. It generates debate.
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?
James: This is where I have to mention that until recently, most Mexican departments of literature, art history and other areas hospitable to students and faculty working on film, were relatively indifferent, or antagonistic, to theoretical humanistic discourse.
That has changed somewhat recently, and the two conferences we have done in Morelia showed some truly excellent theoretical work being done on film, but in general there has been very little communication between film theorists, film critics and filmmakers in Mexico. The mission of the Morelia International Film Festival is to promote and nourish a new generation of Mexican filmmakers, so we thought it would be relevant to put these communities together and see what would happen.
Moreover, as we all know, successful artists, including filmmakers, seldom have much truck with the contemporary theoretical discourses of their time. However, before the film festival included a formal academic conference, we also organized some very stimulating panels and master’s classes, some of which showed evidence of interest in theoretical topics among filmmakers.
In one example, at the 2007 festival, Shannon Kelley and I organized a “First Nations Forum” with the Cameras de la Diversidad program of UNESCO, which was attended by 10 or 12 Mexican indigenous filmmakers. In addition, that year the festival offered Master’s Classes by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón in the beautiful 16th century painting gallery of the San Agustín Church.
González Iñárritu’s excellent talk on the making of Babel was attended by dozens of the young Mexican filmmakers at the festival, among whom was Pedro Daniel López, one of Mexico´s finest indigenous makers. In the Q & A, López asked González Iñárritu about his rapid-fire editing technique, and wondered what it implied about the intended audience of Babel. González Iñárritu was perplexed by the question, so López explained when he had done documentaries about religious ceremonies in his Tzotzil village in Chiapas, he had to produce a 20-minute version for the international film festival circuit, and a 5-hour version of the same ceremony for his village community. The 5-hour version had to be done because community could not bear to watch a representation of their ceremony with even the smallest detail edited out.
González Iñárritu gave a stumbling answer, saying something to the effect that his editing style matched his rapid-fire personality, but he was clearly beguiled by López’s question.
The next day, when Alfonso Cuarón gave his own Master’s Class in the painting gallery, he began by giving an amazingly erudite history of cinematic editing techniques, from the earliest short films through Griffith’s Intolerance, to the regimentation of the Hollywood feature at 90 minutes, to today’s more variable lengths.
Cuaron also compared Western cinema to contemporary Bollywood, which has a radically different editing paradigm, in which narrative elements are repeated four or five times so that people in crowded dining halls can watch, eat and socialize at the same time, without losing the plot. He then explained that his comments were spurred by a long debate he he’d had the night before with González Iñárritu about López’s comments regarding indigenous vs. international editing techniques.
The audience was truly fascinated by all this, as evidenced by the questions that followed, and it certainly felt like a powerful “moment.”
So I would say that there is indeed some intellectual feedback going on between different film constituencies in Mexico, and that this reflects a growing appetite for theoretical approaches to film, including among the major Mexican New Wave makers.
Monday, December 7, 2009
The Dialogue on Mexico, Film Theory, Cinema, and Nation Continues
The next installment of my interview with film scholar and festival organizer James Ramey (USA/Mexico) looks at questions of nation, cross border issues, mobility studies, and organizing academics in cinema.
Patricia: What are the major debates in film theory/analysis in Mexico and Latin America? How do these debates and their contexts differ from the debates in film theory/analysis in Europe and the United States?
James: Actually, these very questions motivated me and my working group at the UAM-Cuajimalpa (Expression and Representation) to organize a film colloquium in 2008 at the Morelia International Film Festival.
We had done panels and workshops on various film-related topics over the years, but we had not made a concerted effort to find scholars in Mexico doing theoretical work on film. Since the field is still relatively inchoate here, it was a challenge to locate such people, but we decided to focus the colloquium on a debate we suspected would be widely relevant: the status of "national cinema" in Mexico.
Mexico has an extraordinarily rich film history dating to 1895, and there can be no doubt that its national culture evolved in dialogue with its film industry’s representations of that culture over the twentieth century; thus film and nation are intimately related in contemporary Mexico. Here is the description of that colloquium, which I think covers many of the salient theoretical debates in Mexico:
Nation, Image, Reading: An International Colloquium on Film in Mexico
The Morelia International Film Festival is pleased to host a colloquium on cinematic representation in Mexico.
Presentations by scholars and critics from Mexico and abroad will constitute a space in which topics of special interest to Mexican film scholarship can be addressed and questioned: When we invoke "Mexican cinema," we imply that some kind of "national cinema" exists—but what exactly is a national cinema? Is the cinema made in the United States, with its legion of foreigners working in Hollywood, a national cinema in the same way as that of Mexico? Is a film made by a foreigner in Mexico, like Henry King’s Captain from Castile (1947), part of Mexican cinema in the same way that Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter III (2004) is part of U.S. cinema (or British cinema)?
How does the reception of such transnational films differ for viewers in Mexico, the U.S., and other countries? And how do these questions, related to the festival’s "Imaginary Mexico" series, prompt further questions related to the "Cinema Without Borders" section? What does it mean for a film to cross a border? Are cinematic borders to be defined in geographical terms only, or can they also be cast in terms of gender, sexual-orientation, race, or perhaps film’s formal language, as suggested by the title and structure of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006)?
How do models of nation-representation and border-crossing relate to Mexico’s indigenous "first nations," whose concepts of nation and borders tend to differ radically from European paradigms? And how do these traditional Mexican societies come to terms with—and master for their own purposes—new media and new technologies?
The colloquium will thus focus on modalities in which an imaginary Mexico has been constructed from within and without, as well as specific strategies of cinematic self-representation by social and ethnic groups in Mexico.
This colloquium is presented by FICM and the Working Group Expression and Representation of the Humanities Department of the Metropolitan Autonomous University at Cuajimalpa.
This colloquium in October 2008 brought together 32 professors representing 13 working groups in Mexico, as well as scholars from the United States and England. It provided an extraordinary platform for dialogue on these subjects, and led to the creation of a book of essays derived from presentations at the conference.
This book, México imaginado: Nuevos enfoques sobre el cine (trans)nacional, captures the essence of several crucial theoretical debates in Mexico today, with sections on "Nation, Representation, and History," "Ethnic and Subaltern Identities," "Gender and Nation" and "Transnational Perspectives". The authors of the essays are, in their order of appearance: David Wood, Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro, Claudia Arroyo, Aleksandra Jablonska, James Ramey, Jesse Lerner, Mauricio Díaz, Mara Fortes, Alicia Vargas, Michael Schuessler, Jesús-Mario Lozano, Lauro Zavala, and Paul Julian Smith. It will be published by CONACULTA and UAM in 2010.
The colloquium in 2008 set the stage for the Sepancine conference that you attended in 2009. Judging from that, some of the topics that seem to spur the most interest among film scholars in Mexico are: border theory and migration, mobility studies, national vs. transnational cinema, queer theory, adaptation, intertextuality, semiotics, gender studies, ethnicity (especially indigenous film issues), documentary theory, and cinematic representations of Mexican history/cultures/races/gender/nation.
Patricia: What has been your role in the organization of Sepancine?
James: Along with Lauro Zavala and Jacqueline Gómez, I was a member of the conference’s Organizing Committee for the 2009 conference in Morelia.
Since 2003 I have worked with the Morelia International Film Festival as Academic Adviser, so I also served as liason between the two events, which were scheduled in tandem. This all came about as a result of the Nation, Image, Reading colloquium that I organized with my UAM colleagues Michael Schuessler and Claudia Arroyo at Morelia in 2008.
In preparation for that, in order to find people working on topics related to national cinema theory in Mexico, we took recourse to a government system called "Promep" that lists Cuerpos Académicos (working groups of professors) at hundreds of Mexican universities, along with their areas of interest. Basically, we sent the 2008 conference description to 28 groups who mentioned "cine" in their online profile. We got enthusiastic responses from most of them, and discovered that none of them knew about the existence of the others.
One of the responses came from Lauro Zavala, and it was thus that we discovered, to our happy surprise, the existence of an association of Mexican film theorists: Sepancine. Lauro and Sepancine were not yet in contact with most of the 28 working groups we had found, and I think he was impressed with our outreach, so he offered to set up a special session of Sepancine during the 2008 colloquium. That was the beginning of our working relationship, and now I am pleased to say that Lauro is a member of my own working group, Expression and Representation.
I should also note that we saw the need to create a network of those scholarly groups working on film, and this network has now coalesced into something called "Red CACINE", which means "network of academic groups working on film". It has 12 members in Mexico and Argentina so far, and we think it will continue to grow (those groups, Mexican or international, interested in joining us should email me at email@example.com).
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, professor of cinema, photography and media arts and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
As promised a few weeks on this blog, Lauro Zavala, Mexican film and literary scholar and the head of Sepancine, has sent us his list of the top ten best Mexican documentaries that we in el norte need to see.
He writes "Here are some recent interesting documentaries produced in the past ten years in Mexico, which belong in an avalanche of festivals, archives, and conferences devoted to them in all of Latin America."
TOP TEN MEXICAN DOCUMENTARIES
Promesas (Carlos Bolado y B. C. Goldberg, 2001)
Already a classic about the perspective of children in Palestine-Israel war
Los rollos perdidos de Pancho Villa (Gregorio Rocha, 2003)
Metafictional trip around a dozen international archives in search of lost reels
Los últimos zapatistas (Francisco Taboada, 2005)
Last survivors of the original Zapata rebellion
Los que se quedan (Juan Carlos Rulfo, 2008)
Lives of those who do not cross the border in the same family
¿Más vale maña que fuerza? (María del Carmen de Lara, 2007)
Women wrestlers talk about their career
Ramo de fuego (Maureen Gosling & Ellen Osborne, 2000)
Zapoteca women in southern Oaxaca
Laberintos de la memoria (Guita Schyfter, 2007)
Two women in search for their origins, whether in Chiapas or Lituania
Bajo Juárez (Alejandra Sánchez & José Antonio Cordero, 2006)
Ciudad Juárez: 500 dead women in 15 years
Ni muy, muy... ni tan, tan... simplemente... Tin Tan
(Manuel Márquez, 2005)
Thorough research on the most popular comedian in Mexican cinema
Un retrato de Diego (Gabriel Figueroa Flores & Diego López Rivera, 2007)
Recovery of lost materials filmed by Manuel Álvarez Bravo
Special Treats If You Read This Far: DOCUMENTARY MUSIC VIDEOS FROM MEXICO