Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Sunday, February 3, 2013
By Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of screen studies and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, at Ithaca College
Monday afternoon in megacity Guangzhou, China, in Guangdong Province in south China, for the American Film Showcase.
I’m popping Zyrtec and inhaling Albutorol daily to prevent gagging from pollution so thick my face and hands feel grimy all the time. My lungs feel like I smoked a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.
Famous in China for its cuisine rich in vegetables and complex spicing, Guangdong has become known as a bit of a hotbed for its active and courageous civil society in labor, women’s, LGBT, and environmental issues and its bold investigative journalism that rejects party control and censorship. Guangzhou journalists are renowned, for example, for their fearlessness in breaking the story of SARS-- initially denied by the Chinese government-- ten years ago. Guangzhou was ground zero for this transnational pandemic.
Another long van ride through stalled traffic, grey particle-infused skies, and endless new highrises jutting out in every direction took me to Sun Yat Sen University, one of the top universities in Guandong Province. Professors and students road bikes around campus, an image summoning up older images of China before Deng Xiaopeng's Opening and Reform policies instituted after Mao's death in the late 1970s got translated into “everyone needs to own a car.”
My presentation was entitled “Open Space Documentary: Participatory Media in Action,” a look at new ways of considering documentary as it migrates to online and interface forms.
My argument is simple.
Documentary is undergoing a radical, tectonic change in form and format as significant--if not more so-- as the coming of sound. Transmedia forms migrate across interfaces in digital, analog and embodied domains, recalibrating documentary practice and theories in the process.
At the opening of my lecture, I drew a large triangle on the board and then an arrow to an equally large circle.
The documentary triangle of director, subject, audience has recalibrated into the documentary circle, where designers, participants, audience and form feed into and change each other.
The Chinese Department Building was comprised of 7 floors. My lecture was in Room 207. Two architectural details confronted me immediately.
First, in contrast to the five star Garden Hotel with its Western-style toilets and marble, the Chinese Department Building bathrooms featured squat toilets. Second, every single classroom featured fixed lecture hall seating with about twenty rows on an raked incline, each with a long table for note taking.
At Ithaca College, where I teach, it’s hard to book one of the very few large lecture halls on our campus. The emphasis in American higher education, at least at private (read expensive and “student-centered”) four year colleges, drills down into small classes in the round privileging discussion and student engagement. At Sun Yat Sen, I saw only lecture halls.
But even that cursory observation as we looked for the lecture hall ended up being more culturally complicated than I anticipated. I also encountered much better and more seamless smart classroom lecture podiums and projection than I have at Ithaca College.
I was slated to give a lecture on open space transmedia documentaries to undergraduates and graduate students studying theory in the Chinese department. I was not sure what “theory” meant in a Chinese university context. Was it Continental theory? Postcolonial theory? Cosmopolitanism? Or work in Freud, Marx and the poststructuralists? I was intimidated and a bit insecure, not sure what to expect.
I had a bit of anxiety about whether the concepts of participatory new media I was exploring would connect with students of literary theory. I also had some anxiety about talking about new media projects in a country where Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google are blocked.Both anxieties ended up being ungrounded in unexpected ways.
Coached by the ever-generous and astute Janice Engelhart from the U.S Consulate in Guangzhou, my powerpoint was composed of two elements: images and then short headlines of the theoretical concepts of open space. It featured screen grabs of the American open space transmedia projects like Lunch Love Community, Cotton Road, Preemptive Media Collective, Sourcemap, Triangle Fire Open Archive, Precious Places, The Counter Kitchen. Janice and her excellent editing skills helped me to craft a punchy title for my talk.
Uncertain whether the content would be blocked on Chinese servers, and uncertain as to whether the venues where I was speaking would have a live internet connection, I made my PPT (as it was referred to by my Chinese contacts) with screen grabs from these web-based projects.
I worried that these exciting, user-generated projects would lose their vitality and “liveness” as they became immobilized in a still image.
But I was wrong.
Instead, showing static shots of these various projects and headline concepts spurred the audiences to want to see more on their own. It also gave me space to show many more projects and examples.
Dr. Wang Dun, associate professor of Chinese, warmly greeted me and my fabulous and patient English to Chinese translator, Jean. I could not read the computer as all the symbols were in Chinese characters, so Dr. Wang set up my PPT. When I asked whether there was an internet connection, he apologized and said no. He then offered the more positive spin that students would not be surfing or doing social media networking during my talk.
But most importantly, Dr. Wang wanted me to provide him with two ideas: first, my bio (which I had printed out just in case), and second, a short précis of my theoretical model so he could position my talk for these advanced students.
I explained my model combined documentary theory, new media theory, and postcolonial historiography, particularly ideas from Ranajit Guha and the subaltern school. It was not based on one theory, but an intersection of ideas, like a good stir fry, I offered. He said he was very happy that my talk would have theory, since that would be more congruent with the students work.
My talk argued for a consideration of these new forms of documentary as participatory rather than as arguments from a director. Rather than taking on large events, these projects focus on microterritories like good food in Berkeley schools in Lunch Love Community by Helen de Michiel, or deconstructing the chemicals in hair products in Brooke Singer's The Counter Kitchen.
Open Space transmedia documentaries utilize combinatory, user-generated storytelling to create mosaic forms. I emphasized to the students that these projects move from pushing out an idea or an argument towards a pulling in of participants. In this way, they are constructed on ideas not of fixity but of permeability.
The audience surprised me.
First, out of over 100 students ( I multiplied the number of rows by the number of seats in each row), only six were men.
Throughout my lecture, I noticed students smiling at me warmly, nodding their heads, and taking notes with a ferocity and focus I do not see in my American classrooms. In the US, not a week goes without a student pulling down their baseball cap, stretching out,and sleeping during a lecture or even a small group discussion. Almost every week I need to ask a student to stop texting during class--and I have an strict electronic gadget policy.
At Sun Yat Sen University, not one student texted on a smartphone or surfed on a computer while I spoke. Jean asked me to say a few sentences and then wait for her to translate. This process helped me to focus on expressing myself clearly and slowly, a challenge since I tend to lecture rapidly. The students all spoke English, but the professor, Jean, and I decided that the theoretical ideas and digital works would be clearer to the students with some assist in translation into Mandarin.
At the end of my lecture, I asked if there were any questions. In higher education, the stereotype of Chinese undergraduates never speaking, writing down every word, and obediently memorizing constitutes a powerful meme in the so-called "west." However, when deconstructed for its colonizing phantasmatic, it only serves to reinforce an somewhat unexamined ideology of United States academic superiority founded on individuality, feeling, consumerism, and opinions.
I actually found myself charmed by the respectful lecture hall environment at Sun Yat Sen Univesrity, where the students seemed more interested in how these works provoked "civil society" and "participation" than in dismissing anything not related to internships or careers as inconsequential because it was not instrumental. It was exhiliarating to be with students interested in big philosophical questions--and ones that China as a rapidly developing world economy is grappling with, such as the tensions between state control, the global market, human rights, and emergent civil society.
These students complicated the Chinese stereotype advanced in places like The New York Times and The Economist. Many hands popped up with questions.
How did these projects get people to participate? Did the designers ever fear going to jail? Why did they combine analog and digital? How did they use social media? Why did they reject documentary as a form a propaganda to tell people what to think? Were there projects like this in China? How did the designers and communities use social media networks to get their projects out? What if too many people wanted to participate? How did the designers figure out how to embody a polyphonic historiography? Did the government pay for these projects or did the designers? How does one think through and structure many ideas and arguments instead of one idea from a central source?
At the end, Professor Wang thanked me for my presentation . He then lauded the students for their active participation in the discussion. Three young women dressed in black came down and asked to photograph me with their friends. They snapped photos of me with their smartphones. I noticed one smartphone case was decorated with glittering orange and purple sequins. The orange sequins were a Chinese character.
These young women thanked me for sharing ways to design encounters for participation and told me that social media networks in China crackled with “issues that were the same but looked different.”
These women students shared in private that they could find any of these projects or even shorts on YouTube with their “secret” networks, which I assumed were VPN (virtual private networks with servers outside China).
Then one asked me something that I do not think I have ever encountered in an American college classroom.
“Professor Zimmermann, “ she inquired “would you mind if we copied your PPT to this flash drive before you leave? We want to study the examples and the theories and see if there is a match in China. We want to discuss more.”
I said, of course, ideas are to be shared and circulated.
They quickly inserted a purple flash drive into the university PC, downloaded my slides, and then slipped out of the room while I spoke with Dr. Wang about the challenges of teaching theory.
Monday, December 10, 2012
23 students sat in a room with gray tables at the Guangzhou English Training Center for the Handicapped (GETCH). The night before, they screened Jim Bigham’s For Once in My Life, a compelling documentary following seven disabled adults working at Goodwill Industries in Miami, Florida, who form a band.
Jim and I had left the Garden Hotel lobby at 10:20 in a cab with Esther Yang, our escort from the US Consulate in Guangzhou. The cab inched forward slowly on massive expressway arteries crammed with trucks, cars, and cabs and rimmed with endless high rise apartment complexes shooting 30 stories high into the constant umbrella of gray skies. We were in Guangzhou, China, as film envoys for the American Film Showcase, an initiative between the US State Department and the University of Southern California to foster international dialogues through film and conversation.
Then, the scale shifted abruptly. Our driver snaked through a neighborhood with three story, older buildings, the street level bustling with small shops selling roast pork and chicken, noodles, or bottled water. Shirts and skirts hung out to dry on poles from windows flapped overhead from the second floor.
We walked down a quiet street lined with small shops selling plastic buckets and brooms. A man riding an old blue bicycle with fat tires rolled by. Esther pointed out that these smaller scale areas were called “villages.” I imagined that before the development fueled by China’s rapid growth in its Reform and Opening, post-Mao period, this area—which felt much more manageable than other parts of Guangzhou-- might have been a stand-alone village. With its 25 million people and rapid industrialization in the last 30 years, Guangzhou is the second largest megacity in the world.
Crossing a concrete threshold, we walked into the open courtyard of GETCH. A student on crutches moved slowly across the open space. “Hello”, he said in English.
A two by three foot picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the US President struck by polio, hung on one wall and on another, a similarly-sized picture of Stephen Hawking, autographed for the school. GETCH trains young adults between 18 to 23 to learn English and computer skills such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other computer program so that they can join the booming Chinese economy, one of the most high growth and powerful economies in the world. Tuition is free. Students pay for meals and the dormitories.
Jim and I entered the room. It was simple: white walls, a fan, gray metal tables, a beat up wooden lectern with a computer, a white screen pulled down from the ceiling. Rae Zhuang, a professional translator, greeted us. However, the students wanted to speak English.
Jim turned on his camera, holding it at waist level. Jim Bigham has vast experience in the feature film industry, commercial television, advertising, documentary, and indiewood. I noticed he made constant eye contact with the students, only glancing through the viewfinder sporadically. He asked the students, all of whom had various disabilities, their names. They all shared their English, rather than Chinese, names: Helen, Serena, Bessie, Max, Victoria, Sophia, Ben, Cherry, Sky. Annie, from Shanghai, proclaimed that she lived in the school and “loves it here.”
“Did you see the movie?” Jim asked. “Yes” the group shouted in unison. “Have you ever wanted to play a musical instrument?” The students just smiled. They asked “What difficulties happened when you made the movie?” Jim answered “ I wanted to make a story about people with disabilities without statistics, about the hearts of the people.”
Drawing its title from a song by Stevie Wonder, who is blind, For Once is My Life deploys the structure of a Hollywood musical, with frequent breaks from the narrative to immerse in the music.
Another student queried “How did you communicate with members of the band when they speak different languages, like Spanish, Creole?” Jim pointed out that some of the band members featured in For Once in My Life could speak but not comprehend. He revealed that all band members could communicate through music.
Another young woman probed further. “Are there any companies in the United States willing to accept people with disabilities?” Goodwill Industries, Jim said. He also explained that in the United States, we have an Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) that prohibits discrimination based on disabilities.
“For Once in My Life is a love letter from them to you,” Jim added. The students smiled, and then clapped.
At that point, the session transformed from a q and a with a film director into an interactive, engaged community. One student shared she really liked one of the band members because he was “so cute.” Another student pointed out the Goodwin, the Chinese American, played piano well. Camera running, Jim then asked the students if they would like to send a video letter to band. They all shouted “YES!”
His camera at eye-level with the seated students, Jim asked each student to send a video letter to a member of the band. He kept eye contact with the students, as though the camera was invisible. Jim had mentioned in an session the day before that his direct cinema style was directly influenced by his mentor, D.A. Pennebaker, one of the originators of direct cinema who adhered to becoming invisible as a filmmaker. I saw Jim’s style in action: the camera and his technique became invisible as he focused on his interactions with the students.
Bessie said to the camera “I like your music. I like one boy in the band,David. He plays the horn. You are very handsome.”
Serena pronounced “ I am so moved at the moment. No matter what kind of disability we can succeed.” Jim asked her what her disability was. “ I have an artificial leg.”
“ I learned a lot from this movie,” Sky shared. “I was impressed by Javier (the able bodied band leader) because he acted like a father to everyone. Will you bring the band to China?” Jim explained that the band leader, Javier, lost his full time job. He was leading the band part-time. He is now in Memphis, Tennesse, doing the public relations for children with cancer.
“To Melissa (a young woman with Down’s Syndrome whose father deserted her and her mother), you father missed out on an opportunity,” shared Sophie.
After shooting video letters with several more students, Jim announced that he would put each of the GETCH students video letters up on Facebook. The students started to laugh. “Facebook is blocked in China!” a student noted. Jim replied he would then have to figure out another strategy to post the videos.
He then queried the students: “What would you like me to tell people? What advice would you give Americans?”
A student raised her hand. “Why don’t Americans learn Chinese?”
As the session ended, Jim asked the group if they could sing a song he could film. Encouraged by their teacher, the students inched slowly to the front of the classroom. They sang a Tiawenese pop song by Chang Yu Sheng called “My Future is Not A Dream.”
Jim filmed with his small black camera.
He moved around the group as they sang, softly at first, and then gaining volume as confidence grew. He shot in very close range, maybe 18 inches from each face.
Jim own eyes rarely looked through the viewfinder.Smiling, he always looked straight into the eyes of the students.
Monday, December 10, 2012
A red banner bedazzled with gold words in Mandarin hung beneath the white screen, announcing the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival (GZDOCS)with a little sign in English, “Director Meet and Greet.” Chinese pop music played loudly from a computer at the lectern.
About 35 students and some unidentified adults sat in the small classroom with fixed long tables and fixed metal chairs in a very large building with a huge open atrium at Sun Yat Sen University (SYS), the most prestigious university in economically booming Guangdong province in south China. Jim Bigham and I were there as part of the American Film Showcase, an initiative between the US State Department and the University of Southern California for people to people exchanges to foster greater understanding.
Jim Bigham , the voluble, charming, and open director of the feature length documentary For Once in My Life, Esther, our patient escort from the consulate, and myself finally found the screening/classroom room after our driver got lost on the vast SYS campus at night. He and Esther, who spoke Mandarin, had stopped three different groups of students strolling around campus at night to ask for directions to the building.
It took nearly 45 minutes to get from the Garden Hotel to SYS. The traffic in Gaungzhou, known as GZ, clogged the expressways no matter what time of the day or night. With the intense pollution and constantly gray skies, I resorted to daily doses of Zyrtec and shots from my Albutorol inhaler so that I could keep my voice, stay alert, and breathe.
Two “interpreters” greeted us. Emily and Leo (their English names) were students at another university volunteering for the festival. Emily studied law, Leo, economics. They were interested in the festival as a way to expand their “cultural skills” beyond their studies. We thought they needed to translate. We were wrong: they told us the people in the room, mostly students at SYS, spoke English.
Jim and I were not sure what our role was. Noone official beyond the “interpreters” guided us. Jim asked a man at the computer to do a sound check, thinking that he was technical support. Later, at the end of the post screening Q and A, we discovered, much to our embarrassment, that he was the professor of anthropology and that the assembled students were enrolled in his class.
Echoing the tradition of hand-held direct cinema that fashions characters and a narrative, For Once in My Life lovingly chronicles 28 disabled musicians who form a band. They all work at Goodwill Industries in Miami, Florida. The film focuses on seven characters in their attempts to learn the music for a big concert for a conference of U.S. mayors—and to navigate their own independence as they deal with blindness, autism, down’s syndrome, physical disabilities.
Structured like a backstage musical, with dramas and romances ensuing between characters and struggles to mount the show, For Once in My Life places the audience into the rehearsal room and in the characters apartments and homes, immersing us in a world of disability that asks us to dispose of our preconceptions about our own able bodies. The film coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). According to Jim, it was screened in Washington,D.C.
I parked myself in the back of the room during the screening so I could watch the audience. I expected non-stop texting. Instead, I witnessed uninterrupted rapture. Not a screen or smartphone in sight.
Jim, who has enjoyed a high profile, three-decades-plus career in the commercial media and indie sectors, skillfully started the discussion by stating “ I need you to know, I have a disability. I can’t play music.” After that, the post-screening discussion percolated with some surprising questions and insights.
First, it was a lively discussion, with non-stop questions about the film, about disabilities in America and China, about the characters. Jim pointed out that in the US, most feature-length documentaries only focus on a maximum of three characters. He emphasized that his style of documentary is character-centric, a way to expand the audience for documentary through narrative framing techniques. But his ethics of documentary reveal a deeply humanistic and ethical grounding: Jim not only drove many of the characters to and from rehearsal, but keeps the characters in the film continually informed of the response he receives at screenings. His dream: to take the band on tour.
For Once in My Life sustains a complex weave of seven characters and a behind-the-scenes story about rehearsing for a big concert. Many in the audience expressed their interest in Goodwin, the Chinese American autistic pianist. Jim pointed out that the characters all represent the ethnic and racial mix of Miami: Cuban, Latin America, African American, Asian, caucasion. One young man wanted to know what the characters in the film thought of the film. Jim said they loved it, and were honored to have the film and their work screened in China.
Another young woman wanted to know what people in the United States knew about Chinese film. That’s where I morphed from my role as moderator to my role as screen studies professor, sharing that I taught the works of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jia Zhangke, and more emerging contemporary Chinese independent documentaries, called d-cinema or the Chinese new documentary movement.
One young woman in the audience then shared that she really liked the music, prompting enthusiastic head-shaking from most of the room.
Another young woman said that the film confused her. She thought documentaries were always boring. Instead, she found herself absorbed in For Once in My Life. Jim thanked her. He explained he seeks to blend difficult, activist content with entertainment values to reach a larger audience. One young man asked how he might make a film about disabilities in China. Jim replied with a simple statement: find a character.
Jim ended the public discussion with a moving statement: “We all need to remember that in the space of one second, any of us could move from able-bodied to disabled.”
The “interpreters” wanted their picture taken with us. A young man who identified himself as a professional photographer for GZDOCs placed us in front of the banner which was at knee level and not easy to see..
In the hallway, a different, more driven, much more intense exchange occurred. The young students swarmed around Jim, who is over six feet tall with curly reddish blond hair and an open, engaging, generous manner. I heard one question repeated: “How can I make a documentary film?” And another question: “How did he shoot these people? How did they respond to the camera?” Jim pointed out that some characters “hammed it up” while others were shy.
A group of five young women, smartphones clutched in one hand, bookbags in the other, pulled me away from the larger group. One asked “How can we be trained to make a documentary in the proper way? How can we make a documentary if we do not have good enough equipment? “
I replied there is not just one way to make a documentary. The route looks different depending on age, history, politics, place, nation. I suggested that watching as many films as possible, going to art museums, and engaging the world without preconception through questions yielded more than “training,” which might produce a standardized vision. Documentary is about learning to see the world with new eyes and to ask hard questions of that world.
I then pointed out that they had the best equipment imaginable.
I pointed to my head. They queried “your brain?” I said yes.
Then I pulled out my iPhone. Holding it in the air, I whispered: remember, we all have cameras. These small amateur cameras are powered by ideas, not specific training or electrical outlets.
With bluntly cut bangs and bright purple blouse, one young woman smiled shyly. She replied "Oh, I think I understand. It is about us, not you or copying this film."
Note: If you look at the image with this blog, you will notice that as soon as the screening ended, the GZDOC festival banner was removed.