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.
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!
Monday, November 9, 2009
More on Film Theory in Mexico
As several commentators both on this blog (thanks, Ruby, for reminding us about the importance and urgency of conversations beyond borders )and in private emails have pointed out, the discipline of cinema studies in the US could be enriched and truly internationalized through exchanges and dialogues with scholars in the rest of the world--especially Mexico and Latin America.
To continue the conversation, this blog features Part II of my interview with Dr. Lauro Zavala, where he further explains some of the issues in cinema studies in Mexico.
Meet Dr. Lauro Zavala
Dr. Zavala is on the faculty at Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) at Mexico City,where, since 1984, he has worked on intertextual semiotics. He is the author of the only textbook on film analysis in Latin America, Elementos del discurso cinematográfico, which won the Textbook Award at UAM, and has been reprinted several times. Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) is the second most important university in Mexico, after the National University. Incredibly prolific, Dr. Zavala has written a dozen books on narratology in film and literature. He’s also written a dozen books on other subjects such as semiotics, scholarly publishing, museum theory. And, he has served as editor of a dozen literary anthologies, published in different universities. These are significant achievements since scholarly publishing in Mexico is extremely difficult. Dr. Zavala’s research interests focus on producing models of analysis in narrative theory, aesthetics of film and related fields.
The Interview: Part II
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?
Lauro:In Mexico and the rest of Latin America, cinema studies have been a small field that belongs in communication studies, which in its turn belong in the social sciences. That is why cinema studies have been oriented here only towards the study of film as a cultural industry and as a tool for History, Anthropology or Psychoanalysis. Therefore, there is not a strong tradition in the humanistic approach to cinema studies, that is, in studying film from the perspective of semiotics, aesthetics, or philosophy.
Sepancine is creating the first graduate program in Latin America that will be devoted to film theory and analysis. It will be held at Metropolitan University (UAM), Xochimilco campus, and we hope it will start in a year or two. By the way, it will be the first academic program in Humanities in our campus.
I think what is at stake in cinema studies, both locally in Mexico and globally, is establishing its relevance to humanities, considering the place of audiovisual language in traditional and digital media. In Sepancine we are focused on Formal Analysis (that is, the analysis of film as film, as V. F. Perkins would say), but we are well aware of the relevance of Instrumental Analysis (that is, the use of cinema for pursuing any personal, disciplinary or professional ends). We believe both kinds of analysis should not necessarily be opposed to each other, but they might have a productive dialogue, as it is the case in the historical approach to cinema studies in France and the US.
Also, in Sepancine we are aware that 85% of all humanities freshmen have the intention to study film during their career, but practically none is able to do so, simply because there are not enough researchers in their campus (if any). We hope that in the near future film theory and analysis become as important in the main universities in Latin American cities as they are now in Paris, Madrid, London, San Francisco, or New York. We hope our specialized libraries on cinema become as complete and actualized as those at NYU, Stanford, the BFI, Cinématéque Francaise, or Filmoteca Española.
Patricia: How is film theory and analysis in Mexico distinct from film theory and analysis as it has developed in Europe and the United States over the last four decades? What are the major theoretical models? What films and topics have emerged as important areas of inquiry? (please specify so our readers can learn more about these ideas and specific works)
Lauro: Film theory and analysis in Mexico is a very young field of study. In the past four decades there has been a prevailing interest in film history. In this period there have been published near 500 books on film, of which only 5 titles are related to film theory and analysis (all of them published in the past 5 years). Therefore, we do not have any pre-established agenda about studying specific theories. We give absolute priority to films themselves, and to our questions towards them.
Also, we are still in awe when we discover this or that theoretical debate, most especially when we are able to study some canonical films that have never been screened and studied here before. Being newcomers is also a guarantee of having a new look at things, and I hope in the long run this becomes also a fresh look at film theory, and the production of new models of film analysis.
Traditionally, the international community has identified film scholarship in Mexico only as the field of film historians, and historians who use films to illustrate Mexican history. Therefore, whenever there is a museum exhibit of pre-Columbian art, foreign institutions invite a Mexican historian to give a series of talks about the presence of Pyramids in Mexican cinema. But Mexican scholarship about film is not reduced to what historians do. As we are entering the international community of scholars, we want to emphasize our interest in fields other than history and social sciences in general. This is why Sepancine is oriented to the humanities.
Another very important difference with European or US film scholars is that all of us (film scholars in Mexico) are not only working on cinema studies. Considering our personal background, and also the institutional absence of Cinema Studies in our universities, all of us are also working on literary theory, philosophical theory, media theory, translation theory, or image theory. Film theory, to us, is a field of synthesis, dialogue, translation and encounter with many other theories.
I think this approach to film theory and analysis (that is, this inter, multi, and transdisciplinary approach) is the main profile of Mexican film scholarship. This is its distinctive voice.
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?
Lauro: None. In Mexico, universities and industry have been completely away from each other. Film production and cinema studies are two professional fields that have never had any connection between them. University research on film has always existed with no relation to any institution (or person) in film production or film schools. For example, the members of Sepancine belong in the Departments of Philosophy, Literature or Communication, and basically we relate to our colleagues in these Departments, here and abroad.
Patricia: As a film scholar, can you share with us historical movements or works in Mexican cinema we should know more about to expand our knowledge of Mexican cinema? What new and emerging works in documentary, narrative and experimental film interest you at the moment as works that are provoking new questions in Mexican film theory/analysis?
Lauro: Most observers of contemporary Latin American cinema are aware of a sort of tendency to produce a very modern film language during the past ten years or so. When studying these films (either documentary, narrative or experimental), we find in them a radical distance from what Rudolf Arnheim would call the power of the centre, that is, a transparent, classic, and stable story.
This new cinema belongs in what Paul Julian Smith, in Cambridge, ironically calls Mexican Festival Films. These films are provoking questions about the formal stakes of this kind of postmodern aesthetics, where narration seems to be at once didactic and dissolved (that is, at once direct and disguised). It is an Aesthetics of Paradox, well worth noticing (not only in feature films, but also in short and short short films).
Patricia: Why was Sepancine connected to the Morelia International Film Festival? What were the advantages of connecting the conference to the festival? (this is highly unusual in the world, and for me, quite wonderful and eye opening)
Lauro: The Morelia Film Festival is now one of the most important film festivals in Latin America. We are proud that last year they (the Festival organizers) approached us (Sepancine) to have this collaboration. The obvious advantage of this connection is the amazing national and international resonance that a prestigious festival has, which is something no scholarly conference will ever have, no matter what field it belongs to.
Nevertheless, all the educational and cultural institutions that would otherwise collaborate with us for free, as soon as they learned that we were connected to the Festival, immediately tried to take a financial advantage that we, as a scholarly association, were absolutely unable to satisfy. I think this explains why there is no film festival connected to any film conference in the world. In our case, this experience has been unique in metaphorical and literal terms.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Rerouting Our Vectors
The Sepancine Film Theory and Analysis Conference at the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico underscored for me in very bold and startling ways just how euro-centric and global north-located so much of what we consider film theory has become, despite its embrace of interrogations of :
While sitting in the Palacio Clavijero lecture hall with the elegant, sweeping, baroque fountain sprouting water outside the door, I heard brilliant analyses about films I didn’t know about. I listened to debates that never migrate el norte. I met passionate scholars mining the theoretical complexities of Mexican and Latin American cinemas beyond the confines of national identity formation. It was exhilarating. I loved being thrown into a place where I didn't have any of the usual coordinates.
Larger Conversations beyond El Norte
Sitting there drinking endless limonadas (a mix of freshly squeezed lemon, seltzer, salt and some sugar—organic , non-corporate Gatorade!) to fortify myself against the high altitude and dry desert climate, I realized how vitally important it is to reroute our vectors as intellectuals, programmers and cultural activists to enter into larger conversation.
This strategy is especially urgent when we as film theorists and historians are located deep in the intestines of the most powerful transnational film industry the globe has ever seen. It rules the world through the soft occupations of this mega-industry called:
In the open air café where strolling guitarists played at my table while I furiously typed notes and ideas on my blue Asus netbook, I thought about how urgent it is at the current moment of panic and fear to open our own spaces to debates and ideas beyond our own training and comfort zones.
Meet Dr. Lauro Zavala, Universidad Metropolitana (UAM), Mexico City and Sepancine
And I wondered, who is behind this gathering bringing together film scholars from Mexico with scholars from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa? Someone had the vision to pull this off.
I searched. The answer: Lauro Zavala.
So I contacted Dr. Zavala in the hopes he would share his ideas about Mexican film theory with a North American audience, so that those vectors could bend, shift, and maybe point in another direction. And open up space for some transnational dialogue between scholars, film programmers, and students.
Dr. Zavala is on the faculty at Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) at Mexico City,where, since 1984, he has worked on intertextual semiotics. He is the autor of the only textbook on film analysis in Latin America, Elementos del discurso cinematográfico, which won the Textbook Award at UAM, and has been reprinted several times. Of Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) is the second most important university in Mexico, after the National University. He holds a Ph.D. in literary theory from El Colegio de México. He serves as editor of El Cuento en Red, a refeered scholarly journal focused on short story theory, created 10 years ago. http://cuentoenred.xoc.uam.mx
Incredibly prolific, Dr. Zavala has written a dozen books on narratology in film and literature. He’s also written a dozen books on other subjects such as semiotics, scholarly publishing, museum theory. And, he has served as editor of a dozen literary anthologies, published in different universities. These are significant achievements since scholarly publishing in Mexico is extremely difficult.
In 1998, Dr. Zavala initated the International Conference on Short Short Fiction (Minificción). This compelling conference is held every other year in European and Latin American universities. Minifiction is the most recent genre in literary history, and its extraordinary growth in Latin America (in the writings of Borges, Cortázar, Arreola, etc.) has produced the first literary theory in the Spanish language. As an extension of this theorizing, he is also working on a semiotics of audiovisual minifiction (trailers, spots, credits, videoclips, etc.).
Dr. Zavala’s research interests focus on producing models of analysis in narrative theory, aesthetics of film and related fields. Some of his books are devoted to the theory and analysis of irony, metafiction, short fiction, post-modern narrative (from a formalist perspective), and intersemiotic translation. As measure of his influence, he has supervised over 200 dissertations on film and literary analysis.
The Interview, Part I
PRZ: Can you describe and explain Sepancine? Why was it formed? What purpose does it serve in the development of Mexican film theory and? What are its goals?
LZ: Sepancine is the Mexican Society for Film Theory and Analysis. Its name means Seminario Permanente de Análisis Cinematográfico. It was created last year (2008) with the purpose of promoting the construction of a strong humanistic scholarly tradition on film theory and analysis in Mexican universities. Whereas the prevailing approach in cinema studies in Latin America is focused on social sciences, Sepancine holds a humanistic approach, focused on the viewer and his/her aesthetic experience.
The main goal of Sepancine is contributing to the creation of film theory and analysis in the region. This means the creation of graduate programs, scholarly journals, international conferences, collective books, public film archives, digital video discs with simultaneous comments from experts, and other similar projects.
Sepancine holds a permanent seminar for the discussion of film theory, which meets every month since 4 years ago. So far we have produced three journal issues, four collective books, and five scholarly conferences. Also, we have been participating in institutional projects, such as the creation of the National Museum of Film (Museo Nacional de Cine en México, to be opened in 2010), and the creation of a national and international net of research groups, especially with our colleagues in Argentina (ASAECA), Brazil (SOCINE), Spain (AEHC), and France (AFECCAV).
During the Morelia conference (held in October 2009), we presented the translation into Spanish of the most recent book by Robert Stam, The Theory and Practice of Adaptation (a coedition between Mexico National University and Sepancine). Now we are translating the most recent book by Michel Marie, about cinema studies in France. Last year we had Warren Buckland as our conference keynote speaker, and we produced a subtitled DVD with his lecture and film clips.
PRZ:What has been your role in the organization of Sepancine?
LZ: I am the founder of Sepancine, and have been the president since its creation. Of course, there is also a directive committee, and we have an assembly every year. I usually make the calendar of activities for the following year, and I organize the working sessions at the international conference. At this moment there are over 50 active members of Sepancine, most of them holding a Ph.D., or preparing a dissertation on cinema studies.
In 1996 I organized a national conference on film teaching and research, as a celebration for the first 100 years since film arrived in Mexico. Ten years later I created a national conference on film theory and analysis, which has been held every year since then. Last year (2008) the conference became international. In 2009 we had papers from a dozen countries.
PRZ: 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?
The main debates in film theory and analysis in Latin America are related to the overall project of having cinema studies acknowledged as a relevant field worth being taught from elementary to grad school. I understand this is not necessarily so in the US or in Europe, or even in some Asian universities. We are involved in what we call an audiovisual alphabetization process, which enables every citizen of a democracy to be able to read critically the products of audiovisual media. And this involves not only the perspective of social sciences, but the semiotic, philosophical and aesthetic dimensions of watching a movie. This is the main debate.
Another important difference with film research in Europe and the US are our working conditions. There is no Mexican university holding a Department of Cinema Studies. There is no Mexican (or Latin American) Institute of Film Analysis, or even a scholarly journal devoted to cinema studies. In contrast with this, every university in Latin America holds a Department of Literature, and there are magnificent centers for literary research. Many of us hold a Ph.D. on Literature (or on any other field), because there are no graduate programs on Cinema Studies in any Latin American university.
Finally, film research is based on film archives. Here we have an important difference too. There is an urgent need to promote the creation of public film archives available in every city in Latin America, and a need to have access to films that are being produced. We do not have access to films produced in the rest of Latin America at all. Over 90% of all Mexican screens are showing US movies. This was stated by Sepancine during the recent Iberoamerican Cultural Summit, held in Mexico in October 2008.
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, 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.