Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
The Big Question
Film studies online? Impossible, you say?
This winter term, I took the dive. I gulped down the red pill and jacked into the matrix of online film studies.
And I am having one of the absolutely most transformative and best teaching experiences of my career as a film studies prof.
I have to thank Facebook for teaching me how to engage by asking questions and responding, rather than lecturing and having positions on everything…crazy, I know.
I nestled my intro film studies course into a participatory Web 2.0 environment. I decided to teach online. Insane? Not quite.
I figure, if students can argue about the delicacies of self-amputation in 127 Hours and the obsessive intricacies of anorexic, self-scratching ballerinas Black Swan on Facebook, they can handle some discussion about Battleship Potemkin and other, well, battleships of film history.
I tossed out all of my graduate-film-school-in–the-1970s-cinephiliac-film must-be- seen-in-a-theater–on-35mm-film-preconceptions along with all of my dog-eared copies of Christian Metz and various imaginary signifiers this winter.
And I dove into teaching an intensive two week winter term course called Introduction to Film Aesthetics and Analysis for Ithaca College. Online. All of it. And, I’m having one of the best teaching experiences ever.
Here’s some context.
Film studies is not one of those intimate, 10-15 person, sit in a circle, know your professor, talk-a-LOT-about-your-impressions kinds of experiences. The topography features a body of knowledge to learn, complex histories to understand, and methods for deconstructing films that require rigor. And reading. Lots of it.
At Ithaca College, our lower level film studies courses are large, like they are at most places that teach disciplinary based undergrad film. My Intro course had 155 students, with “small” (really?) break out sections of 32. I love the large classes. Programming films and ideas for a large, mostly eager, crowd entices intellectually.
But here’s the rub.
I’ve only taught smallish classes a handful of times in three decades of teaching—a couple of 24 person seminars at Ithaca College, and then, some seminars on new media during two different stints at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I’m one of those traditionalists, with lectures, books (more than one, and at least 100 pages a week ), and screenings on big screens, often in the local art cinema on 35mm.
So online, guess how many students I have? 5.
Yes, that’s not a typo. 5.
I know them all. They are reading more than Julian Assange at WikiLeaks.
They write EVERYDAY. I can drill into their exegetical work on the readings as well as their analytical work with much more precision and care than when I have so many more students.
In this context, I can coach them to become more sophisticated deconstructors of cinema, and more persuasive argumentative writers. I’ve seen these students make huge, huge leaps in just two days after absorbing detailed criticism from me in the form of track changes, a system I actually use when doing collaborative research with partners in different parts of the US.
For the last two years, I’ve been working with Sam Gregory from WITNESS, the nongovernmental organization working with human rights participatory media, on a large, on-going research project probing ethics in human rights social media.
We’ve been thinking quite a bit about questions of representation in participatory online environments where images and words circulate, remix, morph, change. In these networks, images can not be controlled.
So questions of who says what to whom in what channel--traditional research questions of communication-- and how and why it said--the domain of traditional documentary studies-- shift a bit. When social media meets human rights meets advocacy campaigns in RL (real life), the body enduring oppression and the bodies recirculating its images in Web 2.0 landscapes end up functioning as equal parts of the equation.
Production and consumption, representation and exhibition, giving voice and sharing voices, merge. And this blend is rife with ethical problematics. The human rights issues of protecting the dignity of the victim get amplified, as images can no longer be controlled, and representations are no longer fixed.
This research has prompted me to rethink how my students engage online with courses.
What parts of what they do in a class should be public, open for circulation and commentary? What parts should be shared in a controlled environment open only to the class? What parts should be private communiqués between professor and student?
Can thinking through the ethics of human rights social media and forms of engagement that connect to important advocacy campagins about rape in the Congo or water rights in Bangalore be mobilized to engage another group that is not part of the power elite, and can also be victimized by networks, i.e. undergraduates?
Is there a way to organize a course to traverse these different kinds of publics, respecting the dignity of the student in a human rights framework? And is there a way to think of teaching as advocacy work for serious intellectual engagement?
My tentative, provisional answer: yes
The third context emerges from my sabbatical teaching at Nanyang Technological Univesrity in Singapore, a country besotted with bad press and postmodern orientalism.
At NTU, one week of every term is MANDATORY (yes, you read that right, MANDATORY) online education, called e-learning week. This week where faculty are instructed NOT to appear in their classrooms was not prompted by some marketing firm telling an institution of higher education to get with the dizzying apps of Web 2.0, or any dreams of creating a profit center to offset the Great Recession.
A small country at the equator, Singapore also boasts of the best public health systems in the world.
Connection, you ask?
Well, it turns out that e-learning week is designed for emergency preparedness in case of punishing monsoons or the need to quarantine to stall the outbreak of deadly diseases like SARS.
Full disclosure: I was quite skeptical about doing film studies this way. But this was a case study in the lessons of cyber-Buddhism. My students taught me something I would never have learned in an e-learning seminar--they loved it.
They wrote more, argued more, watched more, dug in deeper, and engaged complex ideas in a more systematic way. They studied media produced around the war in Vietnam, which, in Southeast Asia, is actually called The American War.
IMPOSSIBLE to hide, and IMPOSSIBLE to not participate (well, I required participation by specifying the number of postings required on Blackboard. ) students just keep on writing, and writing, and writing. I learned that how I structured the discussion board questions made a huge difference: questions need to eschew easy, instrumental answers.
I also learned to just keep asking questions. That’s my Facebook apprenticeship (shout out: my friend and writing collaborator Helen de Michiel pushed me to get on FB about two years ago. She told me to imagine it as a “cocktail party” not a “soapbox.” Thanks, Helen!)
Since I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1970s, the discipline of film/media studies has pushed and pushed to frame cinema as a “text.”
The convergence of semiotics, structuralism, Marxism and feminism argued films were constructions that obscured power relations, meanings, and ideologies. Doing a decoupage of a film, cutting it apart shot by shot to unpack its structure and meaning, was central.
We were all a bunch of decoupage junkies. The thrill of the deconstructive kill. But back then, it was really hard to do: you needed an archive with a flatbed editor.
As film theorists Charles Acland, Barbara Klinger and Dale Hudson have pointed out, cinephilia has changed. Films no longer function as rare objects in archives. Screens multiply, shrink, blow up, expand, migrate.
Films are finally, after all these years, TEXTS. Literally, figuratively and metaphorically.
Netflix functions as an archive, but then, so too does Amazon, Ubuweb, archive.org, and Facets Media. Films live on DVD and also get streamed.
And, in the space of about five years, it's no longer a Hollywood-only environment—my students purchased Fatih Akin’s Edge of Heaven, Deepa Mehta’s Earth, Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless, each for the cost of sending five text messages from London to Ithaca on Verizon.
In film studies, we have moved from cinema as a place of aesthetic worship to cinema as an object you can collect, dig into, discard, trade, loan, slow down, speed up, take apart.
Rather than lamenting the end of film rental budgets that often support modernist ideologies of artifactual fetishization, maybe we need to explore what possibilities this proliferation of images in a new technological dialectic might offer us. I doubt any of us film profs out there will have our once-ample budgets restored.
And, we can now move cinema studies online, and finally, three decades after the “linguistic” turn in film studies, film is finally, at last, a text. Students can buy them like textbooks or CDs of their favorite indie bands, do close readings, and learn the addictive thrills of decoupage as undergrads, all while jacked into their Macbooks.
In my online class (full disclosure, it’s running while I type these words and students are posting on the use of color in Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad ), I can work much much more closely with students on developing exegetical skills to describe structures of arguments and deployment of facts.
In a world of quick status updates and sharing feelings, systematic exegesis is, uh, undeveloped. A lost art. So is deductive, analytical writing, where one drills into a film (read text) and works through how it negotiates a concept or a history derived from readings in a systematic way.
It’s not about whether you “relate to” or “like” a work ( refrains I hear repeatedly from my hordes of first year students who are experiencing analytical film studies for the first time), but how you engage its structures, and find patterns,and think about meaning.
These two skills—exegesis and analytical writing—constitute the most necessary professional skills for any job, whether in the entertainment industry or selling stocks.
Both require time, detail, patience to learn, a pas de deux of trial and error, gentle coaxing and hard critique, between teacher and student. With less students, it’s possible to function more like an Olympic coach of a top athlete than as a police officer of syntax. And my five students respond like world-class, elite mogul skiers, adjusting and recalibrating based on my constant feedback.
I will admit a few things to you. Teaching film studies online differs from the embodied version. They are not equivalent. They offer different gifts.
The online class slants more towards very very close readings of both the films and the books. While it deemphasizes group viewing, it amplifies writing, an epistolary engagement rather than a performative structure.
The students write so much more than they do in a traditional course. It’s harder. They can’t sit back and plug in their iPods and cruise FB and pretend to listen. They write in public on FLEFF blogs, they write in semi-private on discussion boards, they write to me privately with their assignments. Like my thinking about social media and human rights, it's a process of exchange and respect for what circulates.
I have a suspicion that they are learning something new about how to think about and how to see cinema in a way that differs from their multiplexed pasts.
And I have finally learned, after all the traumas and insecurities of graduate school, that all those theorists from the 1970s had it right: film, and film studies, is a TEXT.
In case you're thinking I'm a cinematic heretic, l do believe adamantly in the power of cinema as a collective experience that can jolt your senses and mind like lightning in a theatrical setting.
Of course. That’s why we became film professors in the first place, its why film festivals intoxicate us, and its why we so passionately and often desperately want to invite our students into a larger conversation about cinema that exceeds the limitations of commercial blockbuster intoxications.
Maybe online film studies teaching can function a bit like e-harmony, a sort of online dating service with conceptual ideas about cinema that are bigger than you, but that you eventually want to meet in the flesh. Or on celluloid!
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Blog posting written by Patricia Zimmermann, professor, cinema, photography and media art at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
What Makes Me Mad
We need more top ten lists of the best documentaries of the year.
Enough of this entertainment industry pablum about the rise of the theatrical documentary. Most of the documentaries celebrated in these reviews are American, use narrative arcs and characters, and draft genre conventions to minimize complexity, abstraction, and explanation.
Here’s my challenge: we should multiply and amplify as many lists as possible of the best documentaries of the year. And not just the wanna-be-theatricals-coopting-community-as-outreach-until-the-feature-is-greenlighted films.
This is that endlessly fun time of year when e-blasts from Variety, the New York Times, The Village Voice and Indiewire announcing endless top ten lists percolate like mustard seeds popping in hot oil in a wok in my inbox.
Okay, I’ll admit it: I love the lists.
They rank up there with the Academy Awards as beloved film rituals that mean everyone I know will want to chat about film rather than the Republican coup d’etat in Washington. How glorious: at my local haunts, Island Fitness and Gimme Coffee, the talk shifts from Obama and nautilus and sustainable coffee to…cinema. Heaven!
These lists jab me with guilt about films I saw earlier in the year that drifted away from memory. And then they flood me with regrets about other films that I never got around to seeing or that only had a short run at Cinemapolis in Ithaca. Netflix can’t remedy the exhilaration of a packed house and popcorn.
But something really, really bugs me about these lists. They overflow with commercial American industry narrative films with big budgets for marketing even though the films pirate the ambiguities of episodic plots and exploration of philosophical ideas from international art cinema. So please, DO NOT TALK TO ME ANYMORE about BLACK SWAN!
Professional film reviewers joust to outdo each other to write the most pithy one-line descriptions advertising their penetrating wit and puns. They always seem to toss in a film that only rarefied people who go to film festivals in Rio, Seoul, Mumbia or Berlin can see.
What I Did About It
So, I am fighting back.
I'm reverse engineering these lists. I ‘m crowdsourcing top ten lists, call it participatory listmaking, or the end of the US centric cinematic empire of the top ten list.
I popped out a status update on Facebook asking my friends for their picks for groundbreaking and game-changing documentary of 2010. Then I culled the lists and put them in alphabetical order.
If you want to know what the films are about, just click on the link. If you want to add a film, just slide it into the comments section of this blog, or find me on Facebook.
Oh, I forgot to mention something. On my lists, the films don’t have to be theatrical. They just need to be game-changers.
Bhutto (Duane Baughman and and Johnny O’Hara, USA, 2010), submitted by Elisabeth Hoffman, Northwestern University in Qatar
Catfish (Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, USA, 2010), submitted by Terry Huynh, Los Angeles
Exit through the Gift Shop (Banksy, USA/UK, 2010), submitted by Jason Longo, self-employed Director of Photography
His and Hers (Ken Wardup, Ireland, 2009) , submitted by Matt Fee, Ithaca College
I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck, USA, 2010), submitted by Emily Gallagher, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York
Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, Canada/China/UK, 2010), submitted by Elisabeth Press, Open Plans, New York
Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, USA, 2009) submitted by Patricia Zimmermann, Ithaca College
Tears of Gaza (Vibeke Lokkeberg,Norway/Occupied Palestinian Territory, 2010) , submitted by Bjorn Sorenssen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
The Regretters (Marcus Linden, Sweden, 2010), submitted by Patrick Sjoberg, Karlstad University, Sweden
Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim, USA, 2010) , submitted by Dave Prunty, Ithaca College
Sunday, January 2, 2011
Agriculture and Cinema?
What do agricultural economics and cinema have in common?
And five more... the Global Social Change Film Festival (GSCFF) slated to unspool in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia April 13-17, 2011.
For Cynthia Phillips, the founding director of this new festival, the challenges of food security, world hunger, poverty, and sustainable futures lead directly and logically to film and media for social change.
A New Film Festival in Indonesia
The Global Social Change Film Festival and Institute focuses not on film markets, deals, auteurs, landing big movie stars, discoveries of the next breakthrough genius, or launching the next new wave.
“We’re about creating spaces for dialogue around these films,” explains Phillips. “We want to connect filmmakers and activists for community building.”
To this end, the festival plans to convene filmmakers, activists, and audiences for meaningful discussion in Bali, an island renowned for its embrace of the arts, slower pace, and open culture. With only 8 feature films screened in open air venues over 4 days, the festival is making a strong statement that extended dialogue matters.
Phillips hopes that filmmakers will explore how to build audiences beyond festivals by linking with activist groups. And she hopes that activists will learn more about the possibilities of a range of media.
In an international media landscape crammed with film festivals in nearly every city on almost every theme imaginable, the GSCFF possesses an impressive clarity of vision by answering real needs. According to Phillips, the festival focuses on “ addressing the needs of filmmakers to become more effective at outreach, and addressing how activists can become better storytellers.”
It’s a large mandate—but scalable. For Phillips, one word keeps everything in focus: outreach.
From Economics to Outreach
Phillips sports an unusual background for a film festival director.
After getting her PhD in agricultural economics from Michigan State University, she pulled together a team to record a convening by the USAID on hunger and poverty in Africa. That lead to a stint in Singapore working in international marketing for American Express. And, now, she’s a high profile, high energy strategic planning consultant for a range of high end clients like One Degree Media, 2020 Fund, and others via her C. A. Phillips Company.
Along the way, she did some programming for the Sedona International Film Festival in Arizona around sustainability issues and locally sourced food.
That experience ignited her interest in solving a key unresolved problem lurking underneath the utopian, user-generated, all-tools-are-accessible-everyone-can-do everything, Web 2.0 media ecosystem: how do we build audiences for beautiful, well-produced social change films?
Staying on Point
The Global Social Change Film Festival seems to be unpacking that gnarly audience and outreach question in innovative ways. It’s honoring the nongovernmental social media group Engage Media in Jakarta, Indonesia with a special innovator award. It’s giving a special activist award to the Women and Children Crisis Center of Tonga. And it is honoring Indonesian filmmaker and social activist Nia Dinata.
During the day, the Institute part of the festival will offer a range of pointed workshops on pressing, unresolved, but necessary topics like Commercially Viable Social Change Filmmaking and Distribution, Hybrid Models of Distribution, and Film, Audience Building and Social Action and Environmental Film.
Challenges and Dialogues
However, challenges lurk despite this clarity of vision, marketing savvy, and ability to pull in partners like the Global Fund for Women, Global Girl Media,and First People’s Worldwide. All films need to pass through the government review board for approval, a time consuming process but one that GSCFF respects as part of the media regulatory environment in Indonesia. It’s also hard to pull together resources in a tough economy for a first-time film festival.
Drilling down into details like how to get different activists from around the Southeast Asian region to Ubud for workshops, the endlessly optimistic and undaunted Phillips observes “People are always asking me why start a film festival festival in this tough economy? “
Her answer is simple: “I tell them we need to creative a space for dialogue about social change media and activism and outreach.”
Saturday, January 1, 2011
The Favorite Film Challenge winners and honorable mentions wrote about features and shorts, commercial cinemas and international art films. All the winners were students enrolled in Introduction to Film Aesthetics and Analysis at Ithaca College in Fall 2010.
They wrote passionately and eloquently about films from China, the US, Germany, Senegal, Canada, India, and the United Kingdom. The time periods spanned from the 1920s to the present.
The grand prize winners and winners received complimentary passes to Ithaca’s local art cinema, Cinemapolis, and a copies of recent books written by Ithaca College cinema studies faculty Dr. Steve Tropiano and Dr. Patricia Zimmermann.
GRAND PRIZE WINNER
James Earl, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, ’14, for Shanghai Triad (Zhang Yimou, China, 1995)
Ian Carsia, Cinema, Photography and Media Arrts, ’14, for Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, United States, 1964)
Janet Early, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, ’14, for Singin in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, United States, 1952)
Neli Gacheva, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920)
Rachel Lewis-Krisky, Documentary Studies and Production, ’14, for Black Girl (Ousmane Sembene, Senegal, 1966)
Samantha Towle, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, ’14, for Earth (Deepa Mehta, Canada/India, 1998)
Kevin Campbell, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, ’12, for Lemon (Hollis Framptom, United States, 1969)
Jon DeMaio, Philosophy, ’14, for Street of Crocodiles (Brother Quay, United Kingdom, 1987)
Lexus Lomison, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, ’14, for Earth (Deepa Mehta, Canada/India, 1998)
Aimee Rizzo , Culture and Communication, ’14, for Soul Kitchen (Fatih Akin, Germany, 2009)
Shane Rubano, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts, ’14 for Street of Crocodiles (Brother Quay, United Kingdom, 1987)
Emily Sussman, Writing, ’12, for Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, United States, 1943)
To our generous sponsors of the Favorite Film Challenge, Cinemapolis, Ithaca’s downtown art cinema on the Ithaca Commons and major partner of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, for the complimentary movie passes for our winners.
To Dr. Steve Tropiano of Ithaca College’s James B. Pendleton Center in Los Angeles for generously supplying copies his books as prizes.
And to Mickey Casad and Corinna Lee, part of the teaching team for Introduction to Film Aesthetics and Analysis at Ithaca College, for serving as the jury for this contest.