Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Saturday, February 15, 2014
Post written by Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of screen studies and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Since the first film made in 1966, Guinea has produced 14 films.
To put this astonishing number in context, that’s the same number of films fourth year undergraduates produced in the advanced Cinema Workshop at Ithaca College last Spring.
These comparisons between heavily resourced and technologically rich film schools of the Global North and under-resourced media movements of the global south crack open a divide worth considering more deeply.
The staggering but often unconscious privilege of American film schools contrasts with the enormous capacity building and infrastructure challenges for Guinean independent media. In Guinea, media makers operate in one of the poorest countries of the world, where electrical outages ignite demonstrations and where five-star international hotels advertize their generators.
I write this sitting in Kennedy airport in the food court by Wok and Roll, gray skies creeping over the skylights in Terminal I. I have an 11 hour wait for my flight to Paris and then to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, a port on the Atlantic coast.
Due to my worries about upstate New York weather, I flew down to JFK yesterday from Syracuse. I spent the night watching the Olympics, with men’s figure skating and giant slalom.
I thought, no Africans skate those rinks or slalom those slopes. But I also spent the night reading about the history of Guinea, a country rich in bauxite, iron ore, and diamonds but with few roads to aid in export. The significance of mining--or extractive industries, as historians and the World Bank call them-- is suggested by the organization of some of the Guinean news websites: along with politics, culture, economics, opinion, many sites feature a separate category called mining. Companies from Isreal, China, and Brazil converge in Guinea in five star hotels, complaining about the maid service on Yelp sties while they spend months dealing with mineral mining.
I am traveling to Guinea as a film envoy for the US State Department’s American Film Showcase. My iPhone weather app says its 90 degrees in Conakry.
As the flight boards show delays, my anxiety about connecting to Air France to Guinea in Paris with only a 60 minute turnaround lessen a bit knowing I will be traveling with Kate Amend. Kate is the well-known , award-winning documentary film editor of the compelling and moving First Position, which chronicles young, focused ballet dancers competing for spots with the world’s top ballet companies.
The documentary will be screened in Guinea to various arts and media groups. Kate will explain how she conceives and organizes the editing process of these complex, beautiful works.I have been asked to do some presentations on the ways in which new media has moved documentary into more participatory, accessible terrains.
Kate and I represent some contrasts as well. She works as a highly respected, legendary editor of feature length documentaries. My experience is less glamorous: I am a screen studies historian and theorist who researches the intersections between new technologies, participatory practices, and documentary. Together, perhaps we show the wide ecology of documentary practices in the United States ranging from features to more modest new media projects.
The differences between gray and sun, between New York City and Conakry, between English and French (Guinea is a francophone country) do not seem as extreme as these differences in capacity, access, infrastructure, voices.
As scholar Roy Armes points out in African Filmmaking: North and South of the Sahara (Indiana, 2006), of these 14 films produced, 7 were first films. Dansogho Mohamed Camara and Cheik Doukoure (who lived in France for most of his life) are two key names in Guinean film history.
In comparison, Senegal, to the North, whose filmmakers often receive French government funding, has produced 47 films since 1964. Since 1971, Burkina Faso, the country that hosts the famous Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), has produced 40 films since 1971.
In a chart itemizing film production in the Maghreb and Subsaharan Africa since independence, Armes reveals a staggering fact: only 588 films have been produced across almost five decades.
One of the first countries in West Africa to assert its independence from France, in 1958, Guinea, a largely Muslim country also known as Guinea Conakry, was ruled by Sekou Toure, a nationalist, dictator, and a Marxist, until 1984. As film scholar Manthia Diawara, a Guinean of Malian descent, contends in his compelling critical memoir In Search of Africa, Sekou Toure brought change to Guinea, one of the poorest in the world. He prioritized education. He nationalized the arts, forming the famous Les Ballets Africains. He also incarcerated and tortured opponents in the notorious Camp Boiro in Conakry.
Toure also instituted iconoclasm, an assault against traditional icons. In Unmasking the State: Making Guinea Modern (Chicago, 2013), anthropologist Mike McGovern details the impact of the banning and burning of masks and dances on life in the forestierre region of southeastern Guinea. He points out that while Toure destroyed masks , banned dances, and prevented rite of passage rituals, his minions saved outstanding masks for display in the national museum.
The vast, almost incomprehensible differences between access to financing, production, distribution, and exhibition across the globe--whether comparing Ithaca College to Guinea, or France to Guinea, or mega-million transnational special effects Hollywood to Guinea--remind me of the absolutely urgent necessity of thinking seriously and in concrete ways about capacity building, infrastructure, exhibition, and the role of media in community. These differences also remind me to never think of where I am as the center of the world, but to think of where I work as a place connected to other places across the globe.
These sobering differences also push me to think beyond the resource-rich privileges of my own position as screen studies professor, where we faculty often complain that we do not have the latest Blu Ray,high end head sets for lectures, or best digital cameras.
About ten summers ago, a visiting delegation of Cameroonian filmmakers and journalists toured the Park School. I bumped into them picking up my mail.
I asked one of them how they were finding their trip to Ithaca. One filmmaker shared that he was completely stunned. The Park School, he claimed, had more cameras and studios and facilities than all of francophone Africa combined.