Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
More with James Ramey
Mexico-based film scholar and festival organizer James Ramey lives in many worlds--literature, film, teaching, festivals. In my conversations with him, he always seems to be moving across, between, through and around all those somewhat different terrains. He's the ultimate ambassador of intellectual goodwill and comraderie.
Today I continue my interview with him. The Mexican New Wave, with filmmakers like Inarritu, Cuaron, del Toro and screenwriters like Guillermo Arriaga is one of the most exciting cinemas to emerge in the last ten years. It's a cinema that cuts the jugular vein of popular culture. It boils up with energy: violence, realism, aggressive editing, pulsating acting. It generates debate.
Patricia: What is the relationship of film theory and analysis in Mexico in relationship to what many scholars and programmer's have called "the Mexican new wave" of exciting new cinematic works emerging in documentary and narrative film in Mexico in the last ten years?
James: This is where I have to mention that until recently, most Mexican departments of literature, art history and other areas hospitable to students and faculty working on film, were relatively indifferent, or antagonistic, to theoretical humanistic discourse.
That has changed somewhat recently, and the two conferences we have done in Morelia showed some truly excellent theoretical work being done on film, but in general there has been very little communication between film theorists, film critics and filmmakers in Mexico. The mission of the Morelia International Film Festival is to promote and nourish a new generation of Mexican filmmakers, so we thought it would be relevant to put these communities together and see what would happen.
Moreover, as we all know, successful artists, including filmmakers, seldom have much truck with the contemporary theoretical discourses of their time. However, before the film festival included a formal academic conference, we also organized some very stimulating panels and master’s classes, some of which showed evidence of interest in theoretical topics among filmmakers.
In one example, at the 2007 festival, Shannon Kelley and I organized a “First Nations Forum” with the Cameras de la Diversidad program of UNESCO, which was attended by 10 or 12 Mexican indigenous filmmakers. In addition, that year the festival offered Master’s Classes by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón in the beautiful 16th century painting gallery of the San Agustín Church.
González Iñárritu’s excellent talk on the making of Babel was attended by dozens of the young Mexican filmmakers at the festival, among whom was Pedro Daniel López, one of Mexico´s finest indigenous makers. In the Q & A, López asked González Iñárritu about his rapid-fire editing technique, and wondered what it implied about the intended audience of Babel. González Iñárritu was perplexed by the question, so López explained when he had done documentaries about religious ceremonies in his Tzotzil village in Chiapas, he had to produce a 20-minute version for the international film festival circuit, and a 5-hour version of the same ceremony for his village community. The 5-hour version had to be done because community could not bear to watch a representation of their ceremony with even the smallest detail edited out.
González Iñárritu gave a stumbling answer, saying something to the effect that his editing style matched his rapid-fire personality, but he was clearly beguiled by López’s question.
The next day, when Alfonso Cuarón gave his own Master’s Class in the painting gallery, he began by giving an amazingly erudite history of cinematic editing techniques, from the earliest short films through Griffith’s Intolerance, to the regimentation of the Hollywood feature at 90 minutes, to today’s more variable lengths.
Cuaron also compared Western cinema to contemporary Bollywood, which has a radically different editing paradigm, in which narrative elements are repeated four or five times so that people in crowded dining halls can watch, eat and socialize at the same time, without losing the plot. He then explained that his comments were spurred by a long debate he he’d had the night before with González Iñárritu about López’s comments regarding indigenous vs. international editing techniques.
The audience was truly fascinated by all this, as evidenced by the questions that followed, and it certainly felt like a powerful “moment.”
So I would say that there is indeed some intellectual feedback going on between different film constituencies in Mexico, and that this reflects a growing appetite for theoretical approaches to film, including among the major Mexican New Wave makers.
Monday, December 7, 2009
The Dialogue on Mexico, Film Theory, Cinema, and Nation Continues
The next installment of my interview with film scholar and festival organizer James Ramey (USA/Mexico) looks at questions of nation, cross border issues, mobility studies, and organizing academics in cinema.
Patricia: What are the major debates in film theory/analysis in Mexico and Latin America? How do these debates and their contexts differ from the debates in film theory/analysis in Europe and the United States?
James: Actually, these very questions motivated me and my working group at the UAM-Cuajimalpa (Expression and Representation) to organize a film colloquium in 2008 at the Morelia International Film Festival.
We had done panels and workshops on various film-related topics over the years, but we had not made a concerted effort to find scholars in Mexico doing theoretical work on film. Since the field is still relatively inchoate here, it was a challenge to locate such people, but we decided to focus the colloquium on a debate we suspected would be widely relevant: the status of "national cinema" in Mexico.
Mexico has an extraordinarily rich film history dating to 1895, and there can be no doubt that its national culture evolved in dialogue with its film industry’s representations of that culture over the twentieth century; thus film and nation are intimately related in contemporary Mexico. Here is the description of that colloquium, which I think covers many of the salient theoretical debates in Mexico:
Nation, Image, Reading: An International Colloquium on Film in Mexico
The Morelia International Film Festival is pleased to host a colloquium on cinematic representation in Mexico.
Presentations by scholars and critics from Mexico and abroad will constitute a space in which topics of special interest to Mexican film scholarship can be addressed and questioned: When we invoke "Mexican cinema," we imply that some kind of "national cinema" exists—but what exactly is a national cinema? Is the cinema made in the United States, with its legion of foreigners working in Hollywood, a national cinema in the same way as that of Mexico? Is a film made by a foreigner in Mexico, like Henry King’s Captain from Castile (1947), part of Mexican cinema in the same way that Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter III (2004) is part of U.S. cinema (or British cinema)?
How does the reception of such transnational films differ for viewers in Mexico, the U.S., and other countries? And how do these questions, related to the festival’s "Imaginary Mexico" series, prompt further questions related to the "Cinema Without Borders" section? What does it mean for a film to cross a border? Are cinematic borders to be defined in geographical terms only, or can they also be cast in terms of gender, sexual-orientation, race, or perhaps film’s formal language, as suggested by the title and structure of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006)?
How do models of nation-representation and border-crossing relate to Mexico’s indigenous "first nations," whose concepts of nation and borders tend to differ radically from European paradigms? And how do these traditional Mexican societies come to terms with—and master for their own purposes—new media and new technologies?
The colloquium will thus focus on modalities in which an imaginary Mexico has been constructed from within and without, as well as specific strategies of cinematic self-representation by social and ethnic groups in Mexico.
This colloquium is presented by FICM and the Working Group Expression and Representation of the Humanities Department of the Metropolitan Autonomous University at Cuajimalpa.
This colloquium in October 2008 brought together 32 professors representing 13 working groups in Mexico, as well as scholars from the United States and England. It provided an extraordinary platform for dialogue on these subjects, and led to the creation of a book of essays derived from presentations at the conference.
This book, México imaginado: Nuevos enfoques sobre el cine (trans)nacional, captures the essence of several crucial theoretical debates in Mexico today, with sections on "Nation, Representation, and History," "Ethnic and Subaltern Identities," "Gender and Nation" and "Transnational Perspectives". The authors of the essays are, in their order of appearance: David Wood, Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro, Claudia Arroyo, Aleksandra Jablonska, James Ramey, Jesse Lerner, Mauricio Díaz, Mara Fortes, Alicia Vargas, Michael Schuessler, Jesús-Mario Lozano, Lauro Zavala, and Paul Julian Smith. It will be published by CONACULTA and UAM in 2010.
The colloquium in 2008 set the stage for the Sepancine conference that you attended in 2009. Judging from that, some of the topics that seem to spur the most interest among film scholars in Mexico are: border theory and migration, mobility studies, national vs. transnational cinema, queer theory, adaptation, intertextuality, semiotics, gender studies, ethnicity (especially indigenous film issues), documentary theory, and cinematic representations of Mexican history/cultures/races/gender/nation.
Patricia: What has been your role in the organization of Sepancine?
James: Along with Lauro Zavala and Jacqueline Gómez, I was a member of the conference’s Organizing Committee for the 2009 conference in Morelia.
Since 2003 I have worked with the Morelia International Film Festival as Academic Adviser, so I also served as liason between the two events, which were scheduled in tandem. This all came about as a result of the Nation, Image, Reading colloquium that I organized with my UAM colleagues Michael Schuessler and Claudia Arroyo at Morelia in 2008.
In preparation for that, in order to find people working on topics related to national cinema theory in Mexico, we took recourse to a government system called "Promep" that lists Cuerpos Académicos (working groups of professors) at hundreds of Mexican universities, along with their areas of interest. Basically, we sent the 2008 conference description to 28 groups who mentioned "cine" in their online profile. We got enthusiastic responses from most of them, and discovered that none of them knew about the existence of the others.
One of the responses came from Lauro Zavala, and it was thus that we discovered, to our happy surprise, the existence of an association of Mexican film theorists: Sepancine. Lauro and Sepancine were not yet in contact with most of the 28 working groups we had found, and I think he was impressed with our outreach, so he offered to set up a special session of Sepancine during the 2008 colloquium. That was the beginning of our working relationship, and now I am pleased to say that Lauro is a member of my own working group, Expression and Representation.
I should also note that we saw the need to create a network of those scholarly groups working on film, and this network has now coalesced into something called "Red CACINE", which means "network of academic groups working on film". It has 12 members in Mexico and Argentina so far, and we think it will continue to grow (those groups, Mexican or international, interested in joining us should email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Friday, November 27, 2009
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College
James Ramey and Morelia
I first met James Ramey when I was invited to attend the Morelia International Film Festival in 2005. It was an absolutely heady experience: explosive filmmaking talent in fiction and nonfiction, an entire conference within the festival with Mexican indigenous filmmakers, and international players from the film industry.
When I returned this year with NAMAC codirector and documentary director Helen De Michiel to present at the Sepancine Conference, connected to the Morelia International Film Festival, that same eye-opening, attitude-changing intensity pulsated throughout. In both Mexican cinema and Mexican intellectual life, the stakes are high and the terrain is new and somewhat rocky. Ideas and people seem to connect in ways that makes new insights burst through the high desert like cactus flowers in spring.
Film scholar, festival organizer, colleague
Bilingual and living in Mexico, James Ramey was one of the Americans I met who helped to mount the festival. Gracious and collegial, Ramey is one of those people who you feel you have known forever. He always seems to be asking questions about research, about films, about filmmaking around the world, about creative economy best practices, about film theory.
James Ramey holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Film Studies from UC Berkeley, and is a visiting professor in the Humanities Department at the Metropolitan Autonomous University at Cuajimalpa in Mexico City. Among his publications are the anthology Mexico imaginado: Nuevos enfoques sobre el cine (trans)nacional (CONACULTA-UAM, 2010) and journal essays in Comparative Literature Studies, James Joyce Quarterly, and Comparative Literature. His current book project is entitled Micro-Modernism: The Pleasures of Parasitism in Joyce, Borges, Nabokov and Buñuel. He has been Academic Adviser to the Morelia International Film Festival since its inception in 2003.
Let me add one little footnote here to James' impressive credentials. I've taught Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou probably 100 times; each shot is tatooed on my brain. I didn't think it was possible for anyone to read that film in any new way. That is, until I heard James' conference presentation where he literally dissected the film, demonstrating irrefutably its links, allusions and inscriptions to insects.
Patricia: Can you describe and explain Sepancine? Why was it formed? What purpose does it serve in the development of Mexican film theory and analysis? What are its goals?
James: Lauro Zavala and several colleagues started "Sepancine/Mexican Association of Film Theory and Analysis" in May 2005 as part of an admirable effort to solidify an academic field of film studies in Mexico and open a space for dialogue between Mexican film scholars and people working on film in other parts of the world.
It has organized five annual conferences, published several collections of articles, and has helped to create a network of national and international working groups on film studies. Main goals for the future are to start a scholarly journal of film studies and convince academic institutions in Mexico to open Film Studies departments.
Patricia: What is the role of film theory and analysis in Mexican universities? How is it developing? How is film education in film theory and analysis organized for graduate students and undergraduates in Mexico? Why is film theory and analysis necessary and urgent in Mexico?How does film theory relate to preparing the next generation of Mexican filmmakers, and the next iteration of the Mexican film industry?
James: Film scholarship has existed in a limited form for many decades in Mexico, focused chiefly on film history and historiography. Indeed, Mexican academia has produced some excellent film scholars, such as Aurelio de los Reyes, Jorge Ayala Blanco, and Lauro Zavala, who is the leading practitioner of film theory per se in Mexico.
But Mexican university administrators still tend to view the study of film as a minor subdivision of other disciplines, like communication, art history or literature. Film is also studied in an academic way (including some theory and analysis) at major Mexican film schools such as the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfico and the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos. But while those are very good film schools, they do not offer their graduates the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree (licenciatura), which means they cannot generally go on to study an M.A. at a major international film school, which is an important step in the careers of many filmmakers at that age (apparently the CUEC is seeking to grant a licenciatura, but it hasn’t happened yet).
It is my understanding that until this year there were no undergraduate or graduate programs in Film Studies per se, though students and faculty at many universities have skirted this problem by allowing students in related fields to focus on film in their thesis or dissertation projects.
My understanding (and I would be happy to be corrected) is that the first undergraduate program in film studies was opened October 2, 2009, in Morelia, during the Sepancine conference, at the new Instituto Mexicano de Investigaciones Cinematográficos y Humanísticos (IMICH). This government-authorized institution, headed up by the talented Dr. Alba Estrada, offers the equivalent of a U.S. liberal arts degree with a major in Film Studies and Audiovisual Production, and has a very good, ecumenical course program (disclaimer: I helped design it). It also offers a master’s degree in Film Studies and Audiovisual Production.
At Sepancine, a group of professors from the University of Guadalajara announced that they are starting a similar degree program, and I know Lauro Zavala is proposing to create an M.A. in Film Theory and Analysis at the UAM-Xochimilco in Mexico City. It is our hope that this new trend will catch on, since that would enable the academic "supply" in Mexico to meet the strong demand.