Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Saturday, October 24, 2009
“So what is wrong for artists to design a product, or to collaborate with the industry to make people a little happier?" probes Japanese new media scholar and curator Machiko Kusahara. She's showing us all kinds of new technology design projects invented by avant garde artists. She's arguing that more and more examples of artists working with commercial products are emerging--especially in Japan.
Machiko is taking us all on a jolting powerpoint journey through the emerging worlds of gadgets and devices.
Machiko's presentation works the cracks between the avant garde, concept design, industry and commercial applications. Here in the United States, we often ping poing within westernized binary logics: mainstream media bad, independent media/arts good; industry bad, experimental practice good; popular culture bad, criticality good. Machiko contends that these dualities aren't operative in Japanese culture.
One of the most interesting examples she screened on her densely packed, visually engaging , and utterly exciting powerpoint is the Tenori-on, designed by artists Toshio Iwai and Yu Nishibori. It's a new interface to make music and visuals simultaneously through a user -friendly touch screen interface. Yamaha sells it.
It's day two of the Spatialized Networks and Artistic Mobilities International Workshop at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell. I'm sitting in the lovely 19th century meeting room padded with a thick Persian carpet and a Steinway grand rumored to have the best tone in Ithaca. Oil painting portraits hang from the wainscotted walls.
The contrast between these wild new media designs from Japan--we just saw documentation of an installation of digitized water flows--and these surroundings that feel like part of the set from Pride and Prejudice could not be more extreme. And that's part of the pleasure of this gathering--it's an infiltration of original interrogations into networks, startling designs and the new horizons of digital theory into a domain I have come to associate with an emphasis on written texts and dispassionate, distant, often overly qualified theorizing.
Tim Murray, director of the Society for the Humanities, has occupied the forefront for creating think tanks where digital meets texts meets artists meets politics. The many digital culture symposia and workshops he's organized over the last decade have spurred collaborations, artists 'projects, theoretical writing. Murray is an intellectual and creative shaman fashioning creative cauldrons where new ideas emerge from unexpected interactions. He's also one of the most generous, gracious, and open intellectuals in upstate New York, according to reconnaissance from several of the participants in the Spatialized Networks workshop. He conjures vital, urgent communities and convenings.
We're now looking at Robot Tile by Hiroo Iwata, an Japanese engineering professor who works with nano-technology materials and makes tiles which use infrared sensors on the floor to move. A person walks on the tiles but they move to keep the walker in a room, always in the same place. The tiles are programmed to move in a specific direction. You walk forever but get nowhere.
Hiroo Iwata also invented a video camera attached to a blimp that sends the view from above to a spherical immersive screen in an oversized helmet. This sphere attaches to the head of the participant, making them look like an overgrown ant.
Machiko's talk is mind -stretching and challenging in this environment of artists and critical intellectuals. I sense that some in the room are uncomfortable with the contention that avant garde artists and designers would work in a bottom up way with industry. We've been watching a dizzying multitude of examples of experimental artists moving into design. Right now: Straw straw. The Muji prize winner with the gold prize, these artists have repositioned straw--yes, that's right, straw, as in barn, as in farm-- as wall art. These straws of wheat have a long history traced back to Mesopotamia. And now, they are art on a wall, or suspended in a plastic bag. Minimalist art? Design? A joke?
Senseware, explains Machiko, is the association of manufacturers of synthetic fibers in Milan, Italy. They offered the high-tech fabric to artists, designers, and architects who would realize new works using the latest textiles offered by the sponsoring companies.
Next up: the cleaning robot by Fukitorimushi designed by a Panasonic designers team. It looks like a white pillow, but crawls like an insect. It cleans the floors. The crowd of academics and artists here are laughing and smiling. The product uses nano-fibers. The nano fiber offers more surface than other fabrics--so it can pick up more dirt and dust. So, is it art? Is it design? Is it commercial? The form resembles a traditional zokin (cleaning cloth) used for fukitori (wiping). Cleaning, claims Machiko, constitutes a central part of Japanese everyday culture.
Machiko's conclusions are provocative. They ask us to dive into the blurs between art, design, industry:
My friend Stephanie Owens, herself a new media designer and artist, enters the discussion: Is the playful tradition of design in Japan connected to any where else? How do we think about the Japanese "tradition" of appreciating "gadgets" and "useless" design?
Machiko's answer: an image of the Chameleon USB, a USB stick designed to look like a chameleon. Some other models are designed to look like sushi, and others, like underwater creatures you'd see while snorkeling in the South China Sea.
"Designers need to think about the culture, rather than just selling it," suggest Machiko. Later, over a lunch of ham and brie sandwiches and spinach salad crackling with upstate cheddar cheese chunks, I asked Machiko how she defines the difference between a "device" and a "gadget." A device, according to Machiko, is something that is used. A gadget is something that in its utter uselessness, is fun.
As for me, I'm ready to snap up one of those nanotechnology pillows to clean the wood floors in my house. And on another screen as I write these words, I am scouring the internet to shop for one of those Japanese creature USB sticks to plug into my Asus netbook. Might be a good way to start a debate about what is art, what is design, what is experimental, what is a device, what is a gadget, what is industrial application, and....what happens when the avant garde and the everyday find each other in an intellectual and artistic traffic jam?
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
FLEFF international advisory board member, curator and speaker Tim Murray is organizing an international workshop this weekend at Cornell University.
It's not to be missed--cutting edge thinkers and practitioners exploring networks, mobilizations, and spatialization in a series of mind-stretching and utterly engaging workshops and forums. Featured FLEFF installation artist and friend of FLEFF Renate Ferro is on the THINKING NETWORKED PRACTICE panel at the end.
Stay tuned for my reports from the front of digital thinking this weekend---I'll be doing live blogging from inside the workshop. Hope some FLEFFers can join me there...
SOCIETY FOR THE HUMANITIES AT CORNELL HOSTS INTERNATIONAL WORKSHOP:
"SPATIALIZED NETWORKS AND ARTISTIC MOBILIZATIONS: A CRITICAL WORKSHOP
ON THOUGHT AND PRACTICE"
OCTOBER 23-24 A. D. WHITE HOUSE, CORNELL UNIVERSITY
ITHACA NEW YORK
In conjunction with the annual research, "Networks/Mobilities," the
Society for the Humanities at Cornell University will be host to an
international workshop on "Spatialized Networks and Artistic
Mobilizations." Organized by Timothy Murray, Director of the Society
for the Humanities, the Workshop gathers together international
figures in the practice and theory of spatial networks and artistic
mobility. This is the first of a series of 2009-10 public events on
"Networks/Mobilities," that will foster discussion of the flows of
peoples, materials, images, and ideas across physical and virtual
boundaries. The Workshop opens, Friday, October, 23, at 1:45 in the
A. D. White House.
Friday, October 23, features plenary presentations by architects
Teddy Cruz and Keller Easterling who have fostered international
reflection on the role of spatial networks, capital systems, and
migration patterns in contemporary globalization. Teddy Cruz,
speaking at 2pm, teaches in the Department of Visual Arts at the
University of San Diego where he mixes practice and teaching on
housing design for immigrants in a matrix of communal spaces with
foci on suburban San Diego and Hudson, New York. Keller Easterling,
speaking at 3pm, teaches in the Architecture Department at Yale
University and is Senior Scholar in Residence at the Society for the
Humanities. Her research project, "ExtraStateCraft: Hidden
Organisations, Spatial Contagions and Activism," investigates shared
protocols, managerial subroutines and financial instruments as they
produce and program physical space in the global market. At 4:30,
Easterling and Cruz will be joined in conversation with Dagmar
Richter, Chair of the Department of Architecture.
Saturday October, 24, will feature a 9:15 panel with the Cornell
graduate student HASTAC Fellows, and presentations at 10:00 by
Machiko Kusahara, Department of Media Art, Waseda University, Japan;
11:15 Kevin Hamilton, Department of New Media, University of
Illinois; 1:45 Geert Lovink, Department of New Media, University of
Amsterdam, The Netherlands; 2:45 Paul Vanouse, Department of Art,
University of Buffalo; and a 4:00 panel on Thinking Networked
Practice with Timothy Murray, Maria Fernandez, Timothy Campbell,
Renate Ferro, and Prita Meier, all participants in the Society for
the Humanities Fellows Seminar.
For further information, please contact Mary Ahl (firstname.lastname@example.org)
or Timothy Murray (email@example.com).
Society for the Humanities
Spatialized Networks and Artistic Mobilizations:
A Critical Workshop on Thought and Practice.
A .D. White House
Friday, October 23
Tim Murray, Director, Society for the Humanities
Convener, Milton Curry, Department of Architecture
Teddy Cruz, Department of Visual Arts, University of California, San Diego
Convener, Mary Jacobus, Society for the Humanities /CRASSH, Cambridge
Keller Easterling, Society for the Humanities / Department of
Conversation: Dagmar Richter, Chair, Department of Architecture
withTeddy Cruz and Keller Easterling
6:00 Public Reception
Saturday, October 24
9:15 HASTAC Networked
Richard Guy, History of Architecture; Claudia Costa Pederson, History
of Art; Seth Perlow, English; Ryan Platt, Theatre Arts
Convener, Brett de Bary, Department of Asian Studies & Comparative Literature
Machiko Kusahara, Department of Media Art, Waseda University, Japan
" Vanishing Borders - Media Art, Design, and Popular Culture in Japan"
Convener, Kevin Ernste, Department of Art
Kevin Hamilton, Department of New Media, University of Illinois
"From Legs to Fingers: Relational Mobilities at the Interface"
Convener, Phoebe Sengers, Faculty of Information Science and
Department of Science and Technology Studies
Geert Lovink, Department of New Media, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Convener, Stephanie Owens, Department of Art
Paul Vanouse, Department of Art, University of Buffalo
"Active Stimulation Feedback Platform"
4:00 Thinking Networked Practice: A Discussion
Panelists: Timothy Murray (Chair), Timothy Campbell, Maria Fernandez,
Renate Ferro, Prita Meier
Sunday, October 18, 2009
There’s a lot more to Mexico than cheap location shooting for Hollywood films and narcotrafficantes.
At the 7th Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia from October 3-11, the Mexican documentary, feature, and shorts scene pulses with topics like labor, agribusiness, and toxins in the muckraking documentary Pueblos Unidos (Felipe Casanoa, Miguel Angel Diaz, Mexico, 2008) charting the relationship between swine flu and the Carroll Company pig farm in Veracruz, and visual and editing innovations in epic hybrid experimental/documentary films like Natalia Almada’s exquisite El General (Mexico/USA 2009), a film questioning Mexican political history and the articulation of power.
Exceptionally programmed and impeccably organized, the Festival Internacional de Cinema de Morelia is one of three major film festivals in Mexico--and the only one to showcase Mexican cinema in all its forms and production levels. It’s a heady, intoxicating, eye-opening concoction that changes how you see and think about Mexico. One notable programming sidebar was a screening of Hollywood film director John Huston's films shot in Mexico called Imaginary Mexico, featuring Night of the Iguana (1964), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and Under the Volcano (1983). The mostly Mexican audience chuckled at the stereotyped muraca-wielding cabana boys in Night of the Iguana, but gave the film a rousing reception anyway.
The Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival screens international fare, while the Guadalajara International Film Festival serves as a market for Latin American Cinema. Unlike these other two festivals, the Festival Internacional de Cinema de Morelia, although it rolls as many as 12 films at a time, is easy to navigate, since most of the screening venues are within four blocks of each other.
A historic, well preserved colonial city founded in the 1500s, Morelia, the capital city of Michoachan, was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1991. The city center, where most of the festival screenings, parties and panels take place, features a large plaza constantly throbbing with music, clowns and people, a jaw-droppingly beautiful 17th century cathedral, and well-preserved colonial architecture and porticos flanking picturesque cobblestone streets. Outdoor cafes abound, where you can sip chocolate moreliano, a regional speciality.
Through collaborations with the Critics’ Week of the Cannes Film Festival, the Oberhausen Festival, the Romanian embassy, and curators like Daniela Michel (the General Director of the festival), Jesse Lerner, Shannon Kelly, Elena Fortes, the Morelia Festival functions as a fulcrum where international art cinema, experimental shorts, Mexican films, indigeneous community productions, and long form documentaries coexist in dynamic intersections.
This year, director Cristian Mungiu curated 26 Romanian narrative, documentary and short films. Highlights included the silent film The Independence of Romania (1912) with live piano accompaniment, Boogie (Radu Muntean, 2008) a look at gender and postcommunist capitalism starring Anamaria Marinca (from Four Weeks, Three Months, Two Days), and the stunning Children of the Decree (Florin Iepan, 2004), a startling documentary expose of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Decree 770 that forbade abortion and all forms of contraception.
You can see Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon and then watch a program of Mexican short films in the same theater. Extraordinary detailed, nuanced narrative films exploring diasporan North African muslim populations in Europe like London River (Rachid Bouchareb, UK/France, 2009) and Adieu Gary (Nassim Amaouche (France, 2009) were mixed in with more commercial festival fare like Coco before Chanel (Anne Fontaine, France, 2009)and The Informant (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2009). One of the most compelling, evocative discoveries of the festival was Whisper with the Wind (Shahram Alidi, Iran/Iraq,/Kurdistan, 2009), a surreal narrative with compelling cinematography telling the tales of a postman who makes and delivers recordings of people’s messages amidst the devastation of depopulation, genocide and destruction in the mountains of Kurdistan.
US based programmer Jesse Lerner curated the Cine sin Fronteras section, a challenging, well conceived mix of Mexican and American short experimental and documentary films exploring immigration and its devastating human costs. Two of the most dramatic, well researched films on this topic were In the Shadow of the Raid (Greg Bosnan, Jennifer Szymaszek, UK, 2009) and Migrar o Morir (Alexandra Halkin, Mexico, 2008). Omar Delgado, Elena Pardo, and Regina Melo represent new voices in Mexican experimental work.
The Morelia Festival provides a critical space for art cinema in an exhibition environment colonized by Hollywood transnationals. As a result, it also functions as an incubator for an astoundingly heterogeneous array of Mexican films: a retrospective of Purepecha filmmaker Dante Cerano, films from Michoacan, Mexican narrative films (particularly notable was Alamar by Pedro Gonzales-Rubio, , Mexican shorts (with provocative works by David Romay, Benjamin Lezama Gonzalez, and Ileana Leyva, Isaac Ezban), and documentaries.
Presumed Guilty (Roberto Hernandez and Georffrey Smith, Mexico, 2009), about the problems of evidence and injustices in the legal system in Mexico, grabbed a ten minute standing ovation and nabbed the top prize for documentary. Clearly, a new wave of Mexican documentary has blossomed beyond the tales of immigration, in such collaborative poetic films like Flores en el Desierto, made with the Huicholes people, hybrid experimental, performative documentary essays about violence in border towns like Tijuaneados Anominos: Una Lagrima, Una Sonrisa (Ana Paola Ridriquez, Jose Luis Figueroa, Mexico 2009), and La Cuerda Floja, a Spanish produced acutely photographed observational film about a traditional circus family.
By jacking Mexican cinemas into conversation with other international cinemas, The Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia is one of the most thoughtfully programmed, politically provocative, high profile festivals in the world. It reverses one’s vectors in every way, where you leave seeing the world through Mexico's eyes.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
I dare you: Imagine a world where innovative documentaries tour around a country in major cineplexes with state of the art digital projection and THX sound.
No, not the next Michael Moore sardonic-missionary-I’m-gonna-teach-you-about-America’s-problems doc. No, not the next-big-budget –genre-pix-hipster-white-dudes-with-a-purpose theatrical docs like Food Inc, The Cove, Chicago 10.
Imagine yourself going to a multiplex theater with a rooftop bar and seeing films like Natalia Almada’s El General, a feature length, epic, experimental essay ruminating on one hundred years of power in Mexico, or Alexandra Halkin’s Migrar y Morir, an expose of transnational agribusiness exploitation of workers and the environment in Sinaloa.
Now, remember this name and repeat after me: Ambulante.
Ambulate is a traveling documentary film festival in Mexico that brings new long form documentaries pushing the edges of the genre to 12 cities around Mexico, spanning Monterrey, Tijuana and Leon in the north, Morelia, Mexico City and Puebla in central Mexico, and San Cristobal and Oaxaca in the south. The screenings fill the house.
“There are no opportunities to distribute documentaries in Mexico,” explained Elena Fortes, the feisty, focused, and ferociously sharp director of Ambulante. “ There is basically no educational market for documentary like in the United States, plus, very few independent art houses exist.” Fortes, 30 years old, is also one of the documentary programmers for the Morelia International Film Festival. Her twin sister Mara Fortes, a PhD student in film theory at the University of Chicago, also works at the festival.
In 2005, movie stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna (who first came into prominence in the 2001 breakthrough Mexican new wave narrative Y Tu Mama Tambien directed by Alfonso Cuaron) devised a plan to produce low budget films to counter the caricatures and stereotyping of Mexicans in commercial Hollywood films. To address this issue as well as the bottleneck on distribution and exhibition, they created Ambulante to promote the screening and production of documentary in Mexico.
Ambulante carves out space for documentary in an economic context offering very few openings for independent Mexican cinematic visions to blossom. Transnational Holllywood films from TriStar, Universal, Warner and Columbia dominate 92% of Mexican screens. 87% of television is controlled by two broadcasters.
Through a partnership with the Morelia International Film Festival and Cinepolis, the largest motion picture exhibitor in Mexico and Latin America and the fifth largest in the world, Ambulate programs Mexican and international documentaries for theatrical exhibition. With its stadium seating, state of the art projection, excellent sight lines, and surround sound, Cinepolis removes some of prejudice against documentary in Mexico, where it is often confused with news or broadcast fare.
In the United States, it’s hard to imagine a major exhibitor partnering with a nonprofit to get demanding and aesthetically sophisticated documentaries into theaters. But with very few art cinemas left in Mexico, Cinepolis is the only game around. Plus, the CEO of Cinepolis, Alejandro Ramirez, is a movie mogul cut from a different cloth than his counterparts el norte: as well known internationally as an exhibitor as a human rights activist (he worked on poverty for the United Nations Development Program), he is committed to documentary and nurturing Mexican film.
“Develar realidades, confrontarlas, inventarlas, criticarlas, transformarlas” (unveil realities, confront them, invent them, criticize them, transform them) is the mantra of Ambulante. Ambulante, according to Fortes, does as much work programming as it does building audiences. It works: their screenings at the multiplexes are jammed.They are bringing documentaries to different regions and audiences in Mexico, not waiting for audiences to find them.
For their 2009 season, Ambulante programmed a gutsy mix of international and Mexican documentaries. Burma VJ (Anders Ostergaard, Denmark, 2008), Emerald (Apichatpong Weerasethal, Thailand, 2007), Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, US/Germany, 2007) and Invisible City (Tan Pin Pin, Singapore, 2007) suggest the range of styles and approaches, from compilation to observation to reenactment to meditation. Mexican documentaries included Presumed Guilty (Roberto Hernandez, Mexico, 2009)which questions the legal system and rules of evidence in Mexico, Those Who Remain (Juan Carlos Rulfo, Mexico, 2008), an exploration of the impact of immigration on families, and Voices Silenced (Maria del Carmen de Lara, Mexico, 2008), an expose into the question of civil rights and freedom of speech in Mexico.
At this year’s Morelia Festival, Presumed Guilty not only grabbed a long standing ovation and shouts of “bravo” but nabbed the top prize for documentary.
“The 60s and 70s filmmakers were heavily influenced by film movements in Argentina and Cuba as well as the international student movements of the period,” observed Fortes. “Their works were much more interventionist than the documentaries we see today, which have a new form, often more observational or using different forms.”
In Mexico, a new wave of documentary has blossomed beyond the more typical stories of immigration, in such collaborative poetic films like Flores de Diesierto, made with the Huicholes people, hybrid experimental, meditative documentary essays like El General , and La Cuerda Floja, a Spanish produced acutely photographed observational film about a traditional circus family. All of these films screened at the Morelia International Film Festival this year.
But there’s a rather disturbing gender divide in Mexican film production. Most of the Mexican narrative features and shorts at this year’s Morelia International Film Festival were directed by men. With its smaller budgets and crews, documentary has been more accessible. Lucia Gaja, Natalia Almada, Alejandra Sanchez, Daniela Ludlow, Guadalupe Miranda, and Eva Andjis are important figures in Mexican documentary with international visibility.
But Elena Fortes foresees some possibility for change. In 2008, the Mexican government inaugurated a tax incentive to stimulate the Mexican film industry. Still, most production is concentrated in Mexico City and Quadalajara, where the major filmmaking schools are located.
Despite the challenges of the gender divide, transnational corporate control of product, and the documentary moniker stigma, Ambulante has done something hard to imagine anywhere else in the world: they’ve connected necessary and urgent documentaries, a major multiplex and large engaged audiences.
They’ve dared to make the unimaginable possible. Ambulante. Remember the name.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Posted from Morelia, Mexico
“We are conquered by Hollywood cinema,” assert Anamaria Marinca, the Romanian actress who starred in Christian Mungiu’s breakout film, Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (Romania, 2007), which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes.
In her white t-shirt, khaki cargo pants, and clipped short hair (she had long blond hair in Four Months), Marinca looked more like a casually dressed graduate student festival goer than an international cinema sensation. We had just watched a Romanian film she had starred in, Boogie (Radu Muntean, Romania, 2008), a film about a mother on vacation with her young child and furniture manufacturing husband at a Romanian sea resort. She suffers through her husband ‘s night of debauchery with his friends from high school.
She explained that in Romania, people do not watch Romanian films— considered a major new wave movement in international cinema. They watch Hollywood.
Marinca reminds me a bit of Jean Seberg in Jean Luc Godard’s A Bout De Souffle (France 1960). She has an insouciance and sharpness mixed with a deep intellectuality and ethics that differs considerably from American Hollywood acting styles, where women are fetish objects of sexuality, action stars with hard bodies, or femme fatales.
I asked her about her acting style. I was intrigued by its complexity, its details, its creating a texture of daily life that is not about fetishes, spectacle or sexual display. Marinca said she was never trained in an acting style, instead, she was driven by “staying in touch with life, and staying in touch with people.” She explained that her choices in her acting and in the projects she works on are always political and social subjects that ask: Who are we? Why are we here? Her major influences? Painting, music, and the films of Russian director Andrew Tarkovsky.
This year, the Morelia International Film Festival is showcasing a selection of Romanian features, documentaries and shorts curated by Romanian film director Christian Mungiu and presented by Marinca and other film directors.
At a breakfast sponsored by Mujeres en el Cine y la Television on Monday morning hosted by Catherine Bloch, its president, about 30 women from the US and Mexico were seated at tables joined together to form a large square. Helen de Michiel and I sat with Daniela Michel, director general of the festival, and Carmen Landa y de Aguiar from the US Embassy in Mexico City. We asked them about the connection between Romanian cinema and Mexican cinema.
Daniela had recently returned from Romania, where she met with Mungiu and other filmmakers to prepare the program. She said that Romania and Mexico shared a similar history of many decades of a dictatorship of one party. The Romanians, she observed, were warm, gracious and dedicated to hospitality to guests, for her, a key way to understand Mexico beyond narcos, swine flu and immigration.
Both countries have spawned explosive, riveting new wave cinemas bursting with social realism, violence, intimately observed details of daily life, sexuality, and an emphasis on close ups and medium shots in interiors. Both cinemas drive into the contradictions involved in surviving on a day to day basis through melodrama, where private life becomes the landscape where the suffocating press of larger social, economic and political issues etch themselves on bodies. Both countries confront emigration as a economic survival.
These realist styles of filmmaking forego elaborate lighting, make-up, costuming, and completely amputate the classical Hollywood linear three act structure for something much more nuanced, human scaled and complex. Characters and their interactions with each other in the intimate spaces of kitchens, bedrooms, bars, and restaurants emerge as microterritories and unexplored frontiers. The films forego action scenes or spectacle. These are cinemas of small moments enfolded in struggles and contradictions spoken through bodies in tight spaces.
Yesterday, I watched La Cuerda Floja, a documentary about a small family owned Mexican circus struggling to survive as they traveled with their tents and animals around the Mexican countryside. The film barely focused on the spectacle of the trapeze acts, the jugglers, the clowns, the rope acrobats: many scenes took place in the family’s camper where they were eating together, cooking, putting on costumes and makeup, other scenes focused on the mother and father talking about their failing business, or their daughter and her boyfriend trying to figure out if they should leave the circus for a better life as they watched a DVD of Cirque du Soleil. Most of the time, the family performed to audiences of only ten or twelve people.
As we finished our omelettes and deep, rich Mexican coffee, I asked Daniela and Carmen about the reception Four Months Three Weeks Two Days in Mexico. Daniela had helped to bring the film to Mexico City, with Mungiu. She felt the screening was electric, intense. Mungiu had wanted to screen his film in Mexico. Carmen then reminded us that abortion in Mexico is only legal in Mexico City.
It’s not fashionable in intellectual circles of the global north, particularly in film studies, to find resonances and echoes among different national cinemas. Or to admire an actress like Anamarie Marinca who believes acting offers a way to enter into and to understand history and politics.
The claim in film studies is that specificity is lost in parallels, false congruencies, a formalist approach vacating ideologies and social relations.
But here at the Morelia International Film Festival, where I’ve been very blessed to see Romanian and Mexican films I would never have access to easily in Ithaca (full disclosure: I’ve seen four to five films a day), I’ve been wondering if that position is just another form of isolationism that preserves borders imposed and then refuses messy, complicated exchanges.
And I’ve noticed that in these ferocious and bold cinemas of Romania and Mexico, whether narrative or documentary or genres yet to be imagined, I am left with a renewed sense that cinema can matter, can speak to the world, and then...upset it.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
La India Maria is a contradictory figure in Mexican popular culture. An indigeneous media figure played by Maria Elena Velasco, La India Maria, one of the most famous figures in Mexico, is a comic female warrior figure who fights, does karate, and boxes. She attacks the church, the police, corruption. A cross between a female Charlie Chaplin and a kung fu warrior princess, she is also one of the most remixed and commented about figures on You Tube for the Mexican diaspora. Her film Ni de Aqui, ni de alla (1988) outsold Rambo III in Mexico.
Seraina Rohrer, Helen De Michiel and I were drinking Mexican coffee in Lilian’s Coffee Shop on Francisco Madero Oriente in Morelia. A panel we had wanted to hear at the Sepancine Internationale Congresso for film theory was canceled. Rumors circulated that some international scholars canceled due to fears of swine flu or the armed attacks in the Plaza de M. Ocampo when President Calderon, a native of Morelia, had visited.
Seraina is a Swiss scholar who speaks fluent Spanish and has lived in Mexico. She had been an exchange student in Texas during secondary school, got interested in Spanish there and then ended up back to Mexico to study. She’s researching La India Maria and her migration to Web 2.0 on You Tube. Seraina also works for the Locarno Film Festival, one of the most important European festivals.
Seraina warned us that an academic analysis of the popular culture reception of La India Maria on either side of the border would be controversial with Mexican film theorists, who like to analyze high art Mexican films rather than works that are popular. Intellectuals, she pointed out, see La India Maria as the epitome of racist burlesque. Later, after the panel where Seraina presented, these controversies erupted in full force, with Mexican women film theorists arguing that La India Maria was not an authentic indigenista. The Mexican government, Seraina pointed out, tends to fund art films for export, and these are the films that scholars like to deconstruct and unpack.
As we chatted in the coffee shop with Madonna's Hard Candy CD swirling out of the speakers hung in the colonial courtyard, we suddenly heard chanting. We looked out and saw a huge demonstration of teachers, 20 people deep, extending for many blocks. We all went outside. Madero Oriente was packed with protesters as far as we could see, chanting, carrying signs about their wages. Teachers in Mexico earn only about $700 a month. A man with a hand cart sold fresh squeezed limonada to the protesters. Another man on a bike sold churros.
Earlier in the day on our 7 a.m. walk through Morelia, Helen and I had noticed red and black posters announcing a student demonstration against the neoliberalization of universities for October 2, followed by a rock concert in the plaza.
With American feminist scholars Patricia White and Rosa Linda Fregoso, we were invited to a special working lunch with women from the US Embassy, Mexican universities beginning to develop film studies programs, and the Mexican Cinemateque.
We sat with Catherine Bloch, head of research at the Mexican Cinemateque. We asked her about the demonstrations. She said the demonstrations on October 2 commemorate one of the two darkest days in the history of Mexico, when government troops shot and killed student demonstrators in October of 1968. Catherine was there, marching with her brother. The government wanted to clear Mexico City of student protest in order to pave the way for the Olympics. They smashed the student movement with guns.
Catherine told us that no one knows how many were killed that day 41 years ago. So students, workers, teachers, indigeneous people gather in the streets each year on October 2 not only to remember this day when the government smashed down protesters with violence, but to also protest contemporary issues like teacher's wagers, health care, universities, the government.
Two day later, Helen and I took a break between the Sepanine Congresso and the Morelia International Film Festival to attend the Lila Downs concert at the Teatro Morelia away from the city center. Lila Downs is from Oaxaca, of mixed American and Zapotec heritage.
At the sold out concert, Lila wore a tight, multicolored embroidered dress with fringe, high heels, and red lipstick. She was backed up by a band of guitars, accordion, saxophone, violin and two percussionists in a musical style that mixed ballads, corridos, ranchera, and rock. Part Frida Kahlo (she did the soundtrack for Julie Taymor’s film of the same name) , part shaman, part an indigenous sensual visual remix of Madonna, Lila Downs has a voice of such power, intricacy and depth that it didn’t really matter that we did not speak much Spanish.
Throughout her performance, Lila draped herself in various pink, orange, blue, purple rebozos with long black fringe, swirling and swaying them in patterns while she danced. Behind her were projections of films made by young Mexican experimental film and video makers. When Lila walked into the audience, women rushed to the front of the stage to kiss her. We heard screams of “te amo” throughout. Lila’s performance style not only occupies the room, but transports the audience to a place where Mexican traditional music, rock, jazz, indigenous ritual, and experimental film mix together to generate female power that stuns.
Lila's last song was called Black Dog. The images behind the band were from the teacher protests in Oaxaca last year, where several were killed. Oaxaca has been a site of struggle for many years. It is one of the states in Mexico with a large indigenous population. Fair trade coffee is grown here. Images of graffiti of teacher’s faces were superimposed on shots of the markets where guava, avocados, oregano piled in pyramids on tables.
The next morning, Helen and Lila were chatting in the lobby of the Hotel Catedral where we are staying, with its baroque colonial architecture and wrought irons so intricate you can’t see all the details on the first viewing. Helen’s husband knew Lila Downs and her family from Minnesota. Warm, direct, forceful, Lila explained to us that the Zapoteca have a myth that is thousands of years old that evil spirits return in the form of black dogs. They believe that the black dogs have infiltrated the government forces. Perro Negro. Black dogs.
Lila’s song is not just a political protest song, but an exorcism of all black dogs through pulsing rhythms, intricate accordion, virtuoso violin, complex polyphonic percussion, experimental montages of images from Oaxaca and its protests. Lila Downs is woman who, like La India Maria, remixes popular culture, politics, physical strength, and presence to make a space to consider how the power of mujeres is the power of mixtures, crossing and partipation in other worlds. The power of mujeres is the power to fight the perro negro.