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
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.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
By Patricia Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies, Ithaca College; co-director, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
I've never been more unsettled, confused — and excited — about documentary.
Everything I have ever theorized, historicized, analyzed, criticized, programmed, and written about documentary in its linear, argumentative, analog forms needs a serious gut job. A total renovation from the attic to the kitchen.
Over the past few years, when I've gone to film festivals or scholarly symposia, it's the new media sidebars — where no one wants to be called a director anymore and everyone is a convener or a designer — that yank me away from the movie theaters.
Example: Helen De Michiel's Lunch Love Community Project — a lush mosaic website of short collaborative videos chronicling the movement for healthy food in Berkeley, California, public schools, produced with the teachers, cooks, kids, and parents.
Three-dimensional spheres of place-based issues and people, these transmedia projects dismantle all of my previous theories — intellectual wrecking balls, if you will. Beyond the trendy tropes of mash-ups, crowdsourcing, user-generated, "produser," and marketing engagement through double-screening, open-space documentaries invite encounters with people, ideas, places and technologies.
Example: Saving the Sierra, produced by jesikah maria ross and Catherine Stifter — a collaborative project charting the stories and voices of Californians and environmental issues in the Sierra Nevada Mountains using radio, community meetings, and innovative story mapping.
Collaborative and shape shifting, these projects open up dialogue, convenings, stories, and a new form of collaborative, grounded space. They migrate fluidly across the analog and the digital, using adaptable platforms and inviting in newly interactive communities.
Example: The Cotton Road Project, by Laura Kissel with Li Zhen, tracing the supply chain of cotton from South Carolina to Shanghai manufacturing, with short video vignettes, multiple stories, and the innovative "sourcemap" that tracks supply chains of commodities through crowd research.
Although I still love their gutsy vigor, long-form doc features loom a bit like skyscrapers from the 1960s — overbuilt and probably not sustainable. In comparison, these more modest, open-space transmedia projects, seem more agile, more adaptable, more alive, more responsive, less predictable.
If you want to dig further into open-space documentary, you can join De Michiel, ross and Kissel for conversation at the working session on "Open Space Documentary" (I will moderate) at this year's utterly alluring NAMAC Conference, Leading Creatively, in Minneapolis, September 6-8.
This conference promises one of the biggest open spaces in the new media ecology.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
Blog posting written by Patricia Zimmermann, professor, cinema, photography and media art at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
What Makes Me Mad
We need more top ten lists of the best documentaries of the year.
Enough of this entertainment industry pablum about the rise of the theatrical documentary. Most of the documentaries celebrated in these reviews are American, use narrative arcs and characters, and draft genre conventions to minimize complexity, abstraction, and explanation.
Here’s my challenge: we should multiply and amplify as many lists as possible of the best documentaries of the year. And not just the wanna-be-theatricals-coopting-community-as-outreach-until-the-feature-is-greenlighted films.
This is that endlessly fun time of year when e-blasts from Variety, the New York Times, The Village Voice and Indiewire announcing endless top ten lists percolate like mustard seeds popping in hot oil in a wok in my inbox.
Okay, I’ll admit it: I love the lists.
They rank up there with the Academy Awards as beloved film rituals that mean everyone I know will want to chat about film rather than the Republican coup d’etat in Washington. How glorious: at my local haunts, Island Fitness and Gimme Coffee, the talk shifts from Obama and nautilus and sustainable coffee to…cinema. Heaven!
These lists jab me with guilt about films I saw earlier in the year that drifted away from memory. And then they flood me with regrets about other films that I never got around to seeing or that only had a short run at Cinemapolis in Ithaca. Netflix can’t remedy the exhilaration of a packed house and popcorn.
But something really, really bugs me about these lists. They overflow with commercial American industry narrative films with big budgets for marketing even though the films pirate the ambiguities of episodic plots and exploration of philosophical ideas from international art cinema. So please, DO NOT TALK TO ME ANYMORE about BLACK SWAN!
Professional film reviewers joust to outdo each other to write the most pithy one-line descriptions advertising their penetrating wit and puns. They always seem to toss in a film that only rarefied people who go to film festivals in Rio, Seoul, Mumbia or Berlin can see.
What I Did About It
So, I am fighting back.
I'm reverse engineering these lists. I ‘m crowdsourcing top ten lists, call it participatory listmaking, or the end of the US centric cinematic empire of the top ten list.
I popped out a status update on Facebook asking my friends for their picks for groundbreaking and game-changing documentary of 2010. Then I culled the lists and put them in alphabetical order.
If you want to know what the films are about, just click on the link. If you want to add a film, just slide it into the comments section of this blog, or find me on Facebook.
Oh, I forgot to mention something. On my lists, the films don’t have to be theatrical. They just need to be game-changers.
Bhutto (Duane Baughman and and Johnny O’Hara, USA, 2010), submitted by Elisabeth Hoffman, Northwestern University in Qatar
Catfish (Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, USA, 2010), submitted by Terry Huynh, Los Angeles
Exit through the Gift Shop (Banksy, USA/UK, 2010), submitted by Jason Longo, self-employed Director of Photography
His and Hers (Ken Wardup, Ireland, 2009) , submitted by Matt Fee, Ithaca College
I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck, USA, 2010), submitted by Emily Gallagher, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York
Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, Canada/China/UK, 2010), submitted by Elisabeth Press, Open Plans, New York
Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, USA, 2009) submitted by Patricia Zimmermann, Ithaca College
Tears of Gaza (Vibeke Lokkeberg,Norway/Occupied Palestinian Territory, 2010) , submitted by Bjorn Sorenssen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
The Regretters (Marcus Linden, Sweden, 2010), submitted by Patrick Sjoberg, Karlstad University, Sweden
Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim, USA, 2010) , submitted by Dave Prunty, Ithaca College
Sunday, 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.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Narcotrafficantes, U.S. State Department travel advisories, and swine flu.
That’s the incantation I’ve heard repeatedly when I mention to friends and family that I am traveling to Mexico for a film theory conference and an international film festival. Be careful, they warn. If you don’t get abducted, you’ll be stopped at a roadblock, machine guns rammed up your armpits. If you don’t get slammed with swine flu, the narcos will get you.
But another trio populates my cinematic landscape.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alfonzo Cuaron.
These three directors broke open the Mexican New Wave in the early 2000s, a gritty, passionate, violent, visceral, neorealist style mixed with complex –to-the-edge –of-discomfiting acting, with films like Amores Perroes (Inarritu), Y Tu Mama Tambien (Cuaron) and Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro).
The industry trade paper Variety has pointed out that Mexico’s cinematic resurgence and seemingly endless innovations in documentary and narrative films of the last decade did not just hatch from the minds of artistes suffering alone. This movement has been fueled by a convergence of what Variety has euphemistically dubbed “protracted political, social, and economic crises” since the 1990s, the disturbances of the Free Trade agreement, and the shift from one party to a sputtering, troubled democracy. Recently, the Mexican government has provided tax incentives for production.
When I attended the Morelia International Film Festival in 2004, a conversation I had with a Hollywood entertainment industry insider underscored for me the intricate connections between a vibrant film culture and politics. This industry player joined me for breakfast in our classic colonial hotel on the plaza next to the magnificent cathedral. He wanted, he said, to hang out with a “real film theorist.”
Of course, I was instantly flattered even though I knew that schmoozing people up is hard wired into the software of the entertainment industry. I never have minded this—I am often charmed by its civility since it is about as opposite of academia as I can imagine.
In Ithaca, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone exclaim, “gee, I’d really really like to talk to a film historian and theorist. Really, I would. Really. No lie..” So I asked Mogul X why. He said, “why not?"Then he let out a big chortles. "It’s a film festival," he explained. " You get to talk to people you wouldn’t normally meet and learn new concepts and words you can toss around at pitch meetings.”
I shared that I usually don’t have breakfasts with movie moguls from Hollywood back in upstate New York, since our commercial film industry went under almost a century ago in the late teens.
I asked Mogul X why he was in Mexico. “Talent raids,” he calmly replied. “When you have political destabilizations, poverty, violence, huge international issues, uprisings, demonstrations, passion, and guts to do something new with narratives and camera angles and actors, you have a recipe for great filmmaking.”
I must admit, I really liked this guy. His honesty utterly engaged me. He cut through the hype and the buzz that infects even the most serious festivals. There, at breakfast, was the history of Hollywood—always mining the globe for talent and markets, a practice that originated in the studio system of the 1920s with moguls like Carl Laemmle who journeyed back to Germany to pick up talented directors and actors for Universal Studios.
Talent raids and moguls aside, another trio actually resonates for me more deeply—and with greater anticipation-- as I wait at Newark International Airport, sipping bad coffee from MacDonalds and typing on my new blue Asus netbook on the Boingo international wireless network used by transnational airport denizens. Around the corner from me is a Juan Valdez Café, with a large line drawing of what I guess is Juan the man himself, topped off by a sombrero. Mexico for export. Mexico shorn of its problems, its specificities and its images in a place-less transnational airport zone.
But then, there's a counterattack to the neutralization of Mexico for export: Natalia Almada, Dante Cerano, and Daniela Michel.
These are the three people I’m looking forward to seeing in Morelia.
Almada is perhaps one of the most talented documentary filmmakers in Mexico, exemplified in her film about narcocorridos and immigration, Al Otro Lado (screened with Natalia at FLEFF 2005) She’ll be at the Morelia Film Festival with her stunning new epic, El General, an evocative and probing feature documentary poetic essay on the Mexican Revolution and her family’s relationship to the complex political legacy of Mexico.
Dante Cerano is one of the most original indigenous filmmakers in the world. A P’urhepecha from Michoacan state, his films opened my eyes to the variety of works--poetic and political and environmental--produced by indigenous makers. We’ve programmed indigenous works at FLEFF ever since.
And Daniela Michel is the effusive, gracious and cuttingly brilliant director of the Morelia International Film Festival who has the vision and the moxy to mix Hollywood movie stars, art films from Cannes, indigeneous works, experimental cinema, and political documentaries together to rusrtle up a combustible brew.
This year, she’s done something that literally stopped me in my tracks: she’s programmed 20 Romanian films, contending that Mexico and Romania share some similar trajectories. Christian Mungiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days was probably the most powerful and disturbing film we programmed for FLEFF’s 2008 edition. It’s a rigorous, disciplined style of filmmaking that captures the intensities of being pregnant—and not wanting to be—in communist Romania before the fall.
Groundbreaking cinematic New Waves have erupted in both countries with some of the most riveting, gut wrenching, disturbing, stay-with-you-for weeks films. I am intrigued to see more and to figure out the connections between these big three.
No, not narcotrafficantes, travel advisories, or swine flu. I’ll leave those overwrought sensationalized beats to Fox and CNN. I’m resolved to be “al otro lado”, working on figuring out a different triad: international feature films, Mexican political documentaries, and indigenous media.
More on-the-ground reports from Morelia to come.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
We’ve decided to roll out Part II of our working papers on our open space documentary project so that folks at the Sepancine Film Theory Conference and Morelia International Film Festival in Morelia, Mexico—and readers of this blog-- can have access. We’ve included the Spanish translation as well in the document on the sidebar. We wanted to share a bit more about our new research initiative, The Open Space Documentary Project. We also decided to open up the conversation further before we arrive in Morelia in central Mexico this week. The comments on our previous posting have been really provocative. They have pushed us into some new thinking. We’ll be writing more from Morelia, Mexico, so stay tuned…Join the conversation and share your thoughts. A WORK-IN-PROGRESS: SPECULATIONS AND PRINCIPLES FOR OPEN SPACE DOCUMENTARY 1. If technology is now the primary shaper of human identity in a world of increasingly seductive illusions, how can we re-envision those illusions as a step to dreaming them in a new and different way? 2. Open Space documentary stimulates creative inquiry into how we practice empathetic dialogue: within ourselves, with other individuals, in a larger community, and across our broader society. 3. In this model, rapidly evolving technological interfaces liberate artists to explore new ways to frame community activities as creative practice, and weave them into a larger social fabric of history and memory rather than as simply products for purchase and consumption. 4. For Open Space documentary to be successful, a project team must agree with a group of commonly shared values that organize the project. They must also constantly articulate and test how much they can tolerate a horizontal process that allows inputs from a variety of different participants. 5. This model holds the promise to help in the building of strong local infrastructures by developing living archives of public memory and history that resist control by consumer and corporate agendas. 6. Open Space projects embrace a spirit of "amplitude" including: * the intention to view a subject from every possible perspective; * a curiosity about and compassion for the thinking of other people and other eras (i.e. holding deep historical perspectives and transmitting values across generations); * the assumption that collaborations and interactions are reciprocally beneficial and open-ended. 7. Open Space documentary reanimates the processes and outcomes of co-creation among individuals and groups. These processes can be: * Playful, reflective and capable of endless variety; * Always moving between self-awareness and the external world of public interaction; * Permissive of competing theories and systems; * Protective of the capacity to learn and grow beyond original conceptions or storylines. 8. Open Space documentary equals a networked game structure with many potential outcomes that cannot always be planned for. 9. This model offers an environment for dialogue around a topic or issue that is not based on opinion or argument; but rather catalyzes possible next steps needed to connect, communicate and collaborate on human-scaled local actions. 10. Open Space documentary intentionally reclaims media technologies in order to re-envision interactive public, democratic and social relationships in all their subtle and complicated interactions.
We’ve decided to roll out Part II of our working papers on our open space documentary project so that folks at the Sepancine Film Theory Conference and Morelia International Film Festival in Morelia, Mexico—and readers of this blog-- can have access. We’ve included the Spanish translation as well in the document on the sidebar.
We wanted to share a bit more about our new research initiative, The Open Space Documentary Project.
We also decided to open up the conversation further before we arrive in Morelia in central Mexico this week. The comments on our previous posting have been really provocative. They have pushed us into some new thinking. We’ll be writing more from Morelia, Mexico, so stay tuned…Join the conversation and share your thoughts.
SPECULATIONS AND PRINCIPLES FOR OPEN SPACE DOCUMENTARY
1. If technology is now the primary shaper of human identity in a world of increasingly seductive illusions, how can we re-envision those illusions as a step to dreaming them in a new and different way?
2. Open Space documentary stimulates creative inquiry into how we practice empathetic dialogue: within ourselves, with other individuals, in a larger community, and across our broader society.
3. In this model, rapidly evolving technological interfaces liberate artists to explore new ways to frame community activities as creative practice, and weave them into a larger social fabric of history and memory rather than as simply products for purchase and consumption.
4. For Open Space documentary to be successful, a project team must agree with a group of commonly shared values that organize the project. They must also constantly articulate and test how much they can tolerate a horizontal process that allows inputs from a variety of different participants.
5. This model holds the promise to help in the building of strong local infrastructures by developing living archives of public memory and history that resist control by consumer and corporate agendas.
6. Open Space projects embrace a spirit of "amplitude" including:
* the intention to view a subject from every possible perspective;
* a curiosity about and compassion for the thinking of other people and other eras (i.e. holding deep historical perspectives and transmitting values across generations);
* the assumption that collaborations and interactions are reciprocally beneficial and open-ended.
7. Open Space documentary reanimates the processes and outcomes of co-creation among individuals and groups. These processes can be:
* Playful, reflective and capable of endless variety;
* Always moving between self-awareness and the external world of public interaction;
* Permissive of competing theories and systems;
* Protective of the capacity to learn and grow beyond original conceptions or storylines.
8. Open Space documentary equals a networked game structure with many potential outcomes that cannot always be planned for.
9. This model offers an environment for dialogue around a topic or issue that is not based on opinion or argument; but rather catalyzes possible next steps needed to connect, communicate and collaborate on human-scaled local actions.
10. Open Space documentary intentionally reclaims media technologies in order to re-envision interactive public, democratic and social relationships in all their subtle and complicated interactions.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
In the old world order, writing entered public space like a piece of fine artisanal pottery, all the edges smoothed, the colors subtle, the shape pleasing and proportioned, the surface carefully etched with perfectly balanced markings. Precious, perfect, poised.
In the new world of “open space,” writing, we think, enters other worlds as an incomplete text inviting context and collaboration. It’s a space where ideas need other people and their insights to breathe, expand, get pushed. It’s a process of letting go, in order to go somewhere else.
So we’d like to invite you to comment and respond to some of our arguments about Open Space Documentary below. We need you. And we need to put these ideas into a larger conversation.
We’ll be presenting our ongoing research project, “The Open Space Project: Towards a Collaborative and Relational Documentary Practice” as one of the keynotes at the Sepancine 5th International Conference on Film Theory and Analysis in Morelia, Mexico, October 1-3, 2009. Sponsored by the Mexican Society of Film Theory and Analysis of the Metropolitan Autonomous University-Cuajimalpa (UAM-C), the conference is also part of the Morelia International Film Festival, one of the premiere film festivals in Mexico and Latin America. The festival runs October 3-11, 2009.
Oh…almost forgot…if you are a reader of Indiewire.com and Variety, you might be wondering what a film theory conference has to do with major world class film festival. The answer is simple: in the exciting, explosive, and expanding space that is Mexican film, video and new media at the moment, practice needs theory and theory needs practice because the stakes are high, the politics intense, and the questions large.
We hope you will comment on some of our opening arguments, posted below.
WHY “OPEN SPACE” FOR DOCUMENTARY?
1. It can restore social, human-scaled and local agency in new and unimagined ways. It invites new conversations and behaviors while connecting people. It fights fear with pleasure and fun.
2. It can convene people intentionally around and in real community spaces, offering an experience that reclaims patches of the social media environment from global corporatism.
3. It lives in and evolves through expansive networks, communities and clusters beyond traditional media distribution channels by experimenting with multiple versions and reaching out to contributors across disciplines and generations.
4. It invites media makers and exhibitors to become “context providers” rather than “content providers,” reframing the more fluid movement and interconnections across disciplinary, epistemological and political boundaries.
5. It encourages attention to micro-territorial media ecologies where different discourses, practices and dynamically shifting elements will engage both convener and participants in unanticipated ways.
6. It acknowledges and works within a permeable space in which collaboration, contingency, horizontality, adaptability, decentralization and the migration across media platforms occurs frequently and with force.