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 email@example.com).
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Lauro Zavala on Mexican Narrative Films
To continue our exploration and conversation about Mexican cinema, Lauro Zavala, cinema studies and literary scholar and the head of Sepancine in Mexico, has provided a list of ten must-see Mexican films produced in the past 20 years.
"I should point out that I made this list having non-festival Mexican films in mind. By that I mean to say that these are some of the films that any viewer (anywhere) would surely be able to relate (intensely and personally) to," explains Zavala. " So I didn't include in this list any avant-garde or experimental film. Actually, some critics would think that the New Mexican Cinema is precisely this batch of movies that have attracted Mexican middle class viewers to movie theaters during the past 20 years, after a gloomy period of terrible bad taste, freezing violence, and weird characters."
Mexican Films and Genre
According to Lauro, this list features well-crafted film, with strong stories and commentary about current daily life in Mexico. Some are historical (La ley de Herodes or Arráncame la vida). Some play with humor or irony (Sólo con tu pareja, Entre Villa y una mujer desnuda, La ley de Herodes, or Sexo, pudor y lágrimas). Some are metafictional (Danzón, or Romelia), while others are poetic (such as Esmeralda, Arráncame la vida, Danzón, or Amar te duele). Many of them are opera prima (first movie made), and opened new routes for Latin American films.
For US based readers of this blog, all of these titles are available on DVD with English subtitles. Some of these films are actually produced and distributed in the US, so they are, ironically, exported from there to Mexico.
“More than half of these films (6 out of 10) are comedies or satires, because we Mexicans are very good at laughing at ourselves, “ Zavala points out. “All of them are feature films, and have had a wide distribution and audience. Some of them are metafictional. All in all there seems to have a mixture of politics, comedy, and some romance. But all characters and situations are unmistakably Mexican.”
Look for future postings with Lauro’s suggested titles of experimental and documentary works, as well as an interview with James Ramey, who not only works on the Morelia International Film Festival, but is also a cinema studies scholar currently a visiting professor in the Humanities Department at the Metropolitan Autonomous University at Cuajimalpa in Mexico City
The Top Ten Must-See Mexican Narrative Films
Complex comedy about aids with a sort-of happy ending
A political allegory about the roots of recent changes in Mexican society
A somewhat romantic film with experimental POV and traditional music
Comedy about an intellectual and his feminist wife
Metafictional romance about a woman with five loving husbands
Nontraditional Romeo and Juliet through grafitti, comics, and urban violence
A documentary filmmaker travels worldwide in search for the lost reels of Villa
Political satire about the Mexican way to make politics
Sexual comedy about three young yuppie couples
(Brazil made a local version of this movie the following year)
Spectacular recreation of Mexico City in the 40s (politics, marriage, and music)
And...if you have other must-see Mexican films, please join the conversation in the comment section of this blog and add titles or links to film sources!