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.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Post Screening Discussions and Development, Bangalore Style
In Bangalore, the post screening discussion is as important as the film itself.
In fact, if the Bangalore Film Society is any indication, it often lasts longer than the film itself. The discussions open up with debates, denouncements, deconstructions—and urgency. It’s an exhilarating experience—especially in contradistinction to the current state of cinema in the United States, where audiences are often passive, ironic and detached, cinema intellectuals camouflage ideas and politics with obtuse theory, and social media siphons off people from embodied interaction. It’s hard to fill a theater. Most people leave before the credits.
In Bangalore, the screenings I participated in were just about as opposite an experience as could be imagined. If German critical theorist Jurgen Habermas’s imagined public sphere exists, it most certainly is being conjured up in Bangalore as a public place to debate how development, cars, information technology(IT), genetically modified plants, pollution, poverty, drought, water, the IT economy, gender, and food are resolutely and absolutely interconnected. In Bangalore, I learned that cinema is only as good as the people and debates it convenes. Cinema is critical to civil society in Bangalore: it’s where it happens.
At the post-event vegetarian dinner at The Green Path, I asked journalist S. Vishwanath and BFS’s Georgekutty why the screenings were so successful. They explained that there was almost a total blackout on development issues in India—commercial newspapers, radio and television didn’t cover it, unless it was a positive story embracing IT and economic growth. Independent documentary produced in different regions has developed to address this gap—and provide a voice of criticality and a space for debate lacking in the more dominant media.
A New India
In fact, a few years ago in 2004, the prestigious Mumbai International Film Festival refused to screen films with an anti-development argument arguing they needed a certificate from the censor. This action galvanized the formation of Films for Freedom. BFS, according to Georgekutty, puts as much energy into their mass mobilizations to get diverse audiences to screenings as they do to their programming. As a result, they not only find films but they create spaces for open political discussion across difference.
The Economist hails Bangalore and Hyderabad as the new miracles of the shiny new Indian IT economy that is contributing to India’s astronomical growth. Cinema scholars from across the globe dive headfirst into Bollywood, the largest film industry in the world. And environmentalists fight the introduction of genetically modified plants. These different strands of India are usually presented as separate issues, separate politics, separate worlds--except at these Bangalore Film Society screenings. Here, the films operate as springboards for discussions and debates that commingle these myriad issues in a political masala that makes connections, literally and philosophically.
Water and The City: A Documentary about Water and Bangalore
The two screenings I attended, both celebrating World Water Week, were jammed. They were both free—a measure of all the hard fundraising done by BFS. It was exciting—and intimidating, since I was speaking at both events. The first night, a new film premiered, Water and the City (Sawati Dandekar, India, 2010) a lovely, powerful, muckraking documentary that follows the Kaveri River as it leaves the Western Ghats and travels to Bangalore. Sawati, a filmmaker who has made many films about environmental issues in South India, was there to introduce the film and discuss the film afterwards.
The screenings were held in a modest hall with no air conditioning, movable chairs, a pull-down screen , and a projector dangling from the ceiling at a Catholic monastery—about as opposite as you can imagine from the stadium seating, surround sound of the gargantuan multiplexes of Singapore. The staff at the Bangalore Film Society hauled in their own Mac and PC laptops as well as a DVD player, not sure if the films would run properly and wanting backup. The screening facility was more of a meeting room than a theater. The set-up took a while: the screening started late. The Bangalore Film Society invited the audience to a pre-screening tea replete with rich dark Indian black tea, organic coffee, samosas, and mint chutney. We were asked to wash our own dishes.
But the capacity crowd didn’t seem to mind—they were talking to each other. Scanning the audience, I noticed a surprisingly heterogeneous mix of people: older retirees, younger students, people who came directly from work, NGO activists, cinephiles, exchange students from the US and Europe, activists on water issues, journalists, young hip couples out on what looked like dates.
Compelling as an argument and visually well crafted with long takes, Water and the City shows how the privatization of water has left poor people without any access, carrying water in vessels for long distances. It features a haunting bhangra soundtrack with anti-development lyrics. The film interviews poor people searching for water in Bangalore, the public taps removed in their neighborhoods.
Water and the City interviews water experts who describe the devastation of the ground water in Bangalore by development—all of Bangalore seems to be under construction with bulldozers chewing up the landscape and spewing dust everywhere. It interviews a middle class couple who argue water should be taxed. According to the film, 7 million people now live in Bangalore, 35% of them in slums. Lakes, tanks, and groundwater is disappearing. Sewage is dumped into the lakes that have not yet dried out.
One amazing scene features a woman who has dug a well and paid for it herself. Each day, she sits with a hose and gives out free water to women carrying yellow, red, blue and green water vessels. She is a heroine in the film. The women haul the water back on their heads and hips.
Cinema, Social Change, Engagement, Public Space
It’s an intellectual commonplace in film culture to ask if cinema can motor social change. Some say no, it just preaches to the converted and those who bother to show up. Others say, yes, it gives voice to the voiceless, visibility to the invisible. Others probe how style generates political meaning by intervening into more industrial tropes that standardize and limit expression.
Cinema studies and its subset, documentary studies, often reveals a fetishistic obsession with the films themselves, analyzing formal elements, structure, theoretical implications—important textual work, of course, but work that seals films within the protective, safe coating glaze of theory. This move isolates films from how they move through culture as historical agents of change and how they spur everyday people to engage with issues of significance.
The screenings in Bangalore taught me that these debates are perhaps mired in sort of “global north privilege” where artistic practices have the luxury to be cut off from people because development has not destroyed our livelihoods and our lives. I learned a valuable lesson from the Bangalore Film Society: a film is not the same thing as film culture. A film ends when the credits finish. Film culture—at least the political kind of film culture that changes how we see and interact with and think about the world—does not end. Ideally, film culture provokes debates and invites people to create a public space together.
After the Film
Post screening, I met a French environmental activist working on organic farming in South India, an American college student from Reed College on an exchange program, an architect who had been laid off from one of the high tech companies who was now creating radical vernacular movable architectural spaces for arts events, a radical muckraking journalist committed to water rights but making his living covering new media, a couple of guys who worked as IT executives, and some university students. In short, a diverse crowd ranging from students to cinema lovers to activists to corporate executives to retirees. People hung around and wanted to continue talking about water issues and documentary cinema.
Although water may be in short supply in Bangalore, an urgent political cinema that fertilizes civil society is gushing forth, a waterfall of powerful documentary debate, community, and political passion.