Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Rerouting Our Vectors
The Sepancine Film Theory and Analysis Conference at the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico underscored for me in very bold and startling ways just how euro-centric and global north-located so much of what we consider film theory has become, despite its embrace of interrogations of :
While sitting in the Palacio Clavijero lecture hall with the elegant, sweeping, baroque fountain sprouting water outside the door, I heard brilliant analyses about films I didn’t know about. I listened to debates that never migrate el norte. I met passionate scholars mining the theoretical complexities of Mexican and Latin American cinemas beyond the confines of national identity formation. It was exhilarating. I loved being thrown into a place where I didn't have any of the usual coordinates.
Larger Conversations beyond El Norte
Sitting there drinking endless limonadas (a mix of freshly squeezed lemon, seltzer, salt and some sugar—organic , non-corporate Gatorade!) to fortify myself against the high altitude and dry desert climate, I realized how vitally important it is to reroute our vectors as intellectuals, programmers and cultural activists to enter into larger conversation.
This strategy is especially urgent when we as film theorists and historians are located deep in the intestines of the most powerful transnational film industry the globe has ever seen. It rules the world through the soft occupations of this mega-industry called:
In the open air café where strolling guitarists played at my table while I furiously typed notes and ideas on my blue Asus netbook, I thought about how urgent it is at the current moment of panic and fear to open our own spaces to debates and ideas beyond our own training and comfort zones.
Meet Dr. Lauro Zavala, Universidad Metropolitana (UAM), Mexico City and Sepancine
And I wondered, who is behind this gathering bringing together film scholars from Mexico with scholars from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa? Someone had the vision to pull this off.
I searched. The answer: Lauro Zavala.
So I contacted Dr. Zavala in the hopes he would share his ideas about Mexican film theory with a North American audience, so that those vectors could bend, shift, and maybe point in another direction. And open up space for some transnational dialogue between scholars, film programmers, and students.
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 autor 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. Of Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) is the second most important university in Mexico, after the National University. He holds a Ph.D. in literary theory from El Colegio de México. He serves as editor of El Cuento en Red, a refeered scholarly journal focused on short story theory, created 10 years ago. http://cuentoenred.xoc.uam.mx
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.
In 1998, Dr. Zavala initated the International Conference on Short Short Fiction (Minificción). This compelling conference is held every other year in European and Latin American universities. Minifiction is the most recent genre in literary history, and its extraordinary growth in Latin America (in the writings of Borges, Cortázar, Arreola, etc.) has produced the first literary theory in the Spanish language. As an extension of this theorizing, he is also working on a semiotics of audiovisual minifiction (trailers, spots, credits, videoclips, etc.).
Dr. Zavala’s research interests focus on producing models of analysis in narrative theory, aesthetics of film and related fields. Some of his books are devoted to the theory and analysis of irony, metafiction, short fiction, post-modern narrative (from a formalist perspective), and intersemiotic translation. As measure of his influence, he has supervised over 200 dissertations on film and literary analysis.
The Interview, Part I
PRZ: Can you describe and explain Sepancine? Why was it formed? What purpose does it serve in the development of Mexican film theory and? What are its goals?
LZ: Sepancine is the Mexican Society for Film Theory and Analysis. Its name means Seminario Permanente de Análisis Cinematográfico. It was created last year (2008) with the purpose of promoting the construction of a strong humanistic scholarly tradition on film theory and analysis in Mexican universities. Whereas the prevailing approach in cinema studies in Latin America is focused on social sciences, Sepancine holds a humanistic approach, focused on the viewer and his/her aesthetic experience.
The main goal of Sepancine is contributing to the creation of film theory and analysis in the region. This means the creation of graduate programs, scholarly journals, international conferences, collective books, public film archives, digital video discs with simultaneous comments from experts, and other similar projects.
Sepancine holds a permanent seminar for the discussion of film theory, which meets every month since 4 years ago. So far we have produced three journal issues, four collective books, and five scholarly conferences. Also, we have been participating in institutional projects, such as the creation of the National Museum of Film (Museo Nacional de Cine en México, to be opened in 2010), and the creation of a national and international net of research groups, especially with our colleagues in Argentina (ASAECA), Brazil (SOCINE), Spain (AEHC), and France (AFECCAV).
During the Morelia conference (held in October 2009), we presented the translation into Spanish of the most recent book by Robert Stam, The Theory and Practice of Adaptation (a coedition between Mexico National University and Sepancine). Now we are translating the most recent book by Michel Marie, about cinema studies in France. Last year we had Warren Buckland as our conference keynote speaker, and we produced a subtitled DVD with his lecture and film clips.
PRZ:What has been your role in the organization of Sepancine?
LZ: I am the founder of Sepancine, and have been the president since its creation. Of course, there is also a directive committee, and we have an assembly every year. I usually make the calendar of activities for the following year, and I organize the working sessions at the international conference. At this moment there are over 50 active members of Sepancine, most of them holding a Ph.D., or preparing a dissertation on cinema studies.
In 1996 I organized a national conference on film teaching and research, as a celebration for the first 100 years since film arrived in Mexico. Ten years later I created a national conference on film theory and analysis, which has been held every year since then. Last year (2008) the conference became international. In 2009 we had papers from a dozen countries.
PRZ: 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?
The main debates in film theory and analysis in Latin America are related to the overall project of having cinema studies acknowledged as a relevant field worth being taught from elementary to grad school. I understand this is not necessarily so in the US or in Europe, or even in some Asian universities. We are involved in what we call an audiovisual alphabetization process, which enables every citizen of a democracy to be able to read critically the products of audiovisual media. And this involves not only the perspective of social sciences, but the semiotic, philosophical and aesthetic dimensions of watching a movie. This is the main debate.
Another important difference with film research in Europe and the US are our working conditions. There is no Mexican university holding a Department of Cinema Studies. There is no Mexican (or Latin American) Institute of Film Analysis, or even a scholarly journal devoted to cinema studies. In contrast with this, every university in Latin America holds a Department of Literature, and there are magnificent centers for literary research. Many of us hold a Ph.D. on Literature (or on any other field), because there are no graduate programs on Cinema Studies in any Latin American university.
Finally, film research is based on film archives. Here we have an important difference too. There is an urgent need to promote the creation of public film archives available in every city in Latin America, and a need to have access to films that are being produced. We do not have access to films produced in the rest of Latin America at all. Over 90% of all Mexican screens are showing US movies. This was stated by Sepancine during the recent Iberoamerican Cultural Summit, held in Mexico in October 2008.