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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 7:29PM   |  25 comments
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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. 

The Interview

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.



It's very heartening to hear about the interest in film and the expansion of film departments in Mexico. Here in London (and in my experience), interest in film studies, especially in film theory, is waning. Student numbers have been falling in academic film programmes.

The question of "what job can I get at the end of my studies" means that young people interested in film and media are increasingly opting for production and vocational courses, effectively changing the work of film departments and somewhat undermining critical and intellectual work.

I also suspect that film theory's twenty year love affair with psychoanalytic theory has left many disillusioned about its capacity to help us appreciate film. Arguably, the uptake of Deleuzean philosophy has helped rectify that somewhat, but I sense that the limitations of film theory leaves many (politically) dissatisfied.

I wonder what thoughts James and Lauro have about this.


It seems to me that these thrilling developments in the Academy potentially put Mexican film scholars in a strong position. Poised to survey the achievements and limitations of theoretical construct (with greater or lesser staying-power), they may historicize and compare them, and construct models that account for these while accommodating fresh, new thinking. It's probably inevitable that camps, cliques and even cul-de-sacs may form over time, but there is so much information available now, and so relatively little turf staked out, one may range freely and gather some momentum in her or his exploration. It's a great time to encourage debate, emphasize the limits of theories (as well as their unique strengths), point out the challenges presented by emerging and evolving media forms, distribution and exhibition models, and the formal and political interventions of minority and Third cinemas, and to interrogate the role of film studies in relation to other disciplines, discourses and struggles.

My concern about cinema studies (and for that matter, also higher education in film production) has long been the self-satisfaction of the field after it reached a certain age and established a toehold within the Academy (so that film departments were no longer justifying themselves or playing the part of a younger cousin to other disciplines.) Though important by way of establishing intellectual autonomy, this development has sometimes, it seems to me, set up cinema as so distinct from social and political life, students often aspire to cimema (or filmmaking) with shockingly little context -- which (arguably), cinema can afford even less than other disciplines, given the omnipresence of moving images in everyday life, the explosion of cell-phone imaging, of dvd piracy, of jumbo-tron billboard advertising, etc. Mexico is not immune to preciousness or myopia; its institutional support of the arts through federal offices and grants often (not always) takes pains to canonize unquestionably venerable works, artists, movements, etc., and this posture can easily insinuate itself into the Academy. But bearing some consciousness of this tendency, and some vision of a more inquisitive discursive possibility, the establishment of cinema studies in Mexico, with its history of conquest, its ongoing struggles over race, its turbulent economic history and its compromised position in gobal trade conventions, its agricultural and ecological and even geological precariousness (affecting corn and petroleum, to name two crucial examples), narco-trafficking and related violence -- not to discount Mexico's exquisite, syncretic art history and literary, poetic and cinematic tradtions -- all have the potential to send a salutory shock wave through cinema studies in general, and to inform the Mexican national cinema in a genuine and useful way. Such questions as "what is the public?" "How are moving images deployed publicly?" "To whom do images belong?" "How important is the idea of a national cinema in our global reality?" are all crucial questions to the field, but of immediate urgency in Mexico, one of the great cinematic petrie dishes of modern times.

Shazzer and Shannon: You both raised really salient points about the changing climate in which film theory operates internationally. Shazzer, your point about the increasingly vocationalism of film programs around the globe is a good one, and one of great concern. In my time as an film academic, I've seen programs across the US explode--there are simply more programs in film studies everywhere, in every sort of department imaginable. Partly, this is fueled by the fact that film courses in any discipline can spur enrollment in classes--in this way, it's a market driven model rather than in intellectual model.

In my time at Ithaca College, I've seen a similiar descrease in theoretical courses and an increase in vocational and arts-making courses. When I arrived at IC in 1981, the cinema department was evenly divided between practitioners and PHDs/theorists. Now, in 2009, out of more than 12 faculty, I'm the only PHD and we basically offer only three courses. Some of the degrees only require two courses in film studies, that is, the systematic, disciplinary based film studies we are all trained in.

And Shannon, your points about the social/political/historical context of film studies is a very significant point. In my mind, part of the legitimation of film studies in the academy and its subsequent migration through many disciplines (a veyr exciting interdisciplinary development) has almost contributed to its increasing etherealization and disconnect from the social/political/historical. Legitimation comes with neutralizing cinema thorugh abstractions. You might be right, the psyhcoanalytic turn contributed to this. At the same time, the most exciting parts of film studies now seem to be in the new film history and in post colonial studies, both intellectual schools of thought insisting on the political/social/economic. In addition, I have found the resurgence of political economy, public policy, transnational studies, and creative economies to be areas that are bringing new life and relevance to film studies.

But....all of these new developments which insist on cinema in the world are in many ways isolated in elite institutions, conferences, and the few schools that still, in the US teach a full range of film studies from an international (read NOT US centric perspective). In programs that have increased vocationalism and art production, these new ideas do not enter into undegraduate classrooms. I find this really disheartening, if truth be told. It seems to me that higher education in cinema is building a class system de facto, where those students who will learn languages, study theory and history, and engage in abstract thinking will be high level contributors and participants in film culture, even in the commercial industries (now some of the largest industries in the world) and the rest, from the vocational and arts production programs, will be outsourced freelancers.

The disconnect from social/political/economic/theoretical/conceptual issues is of deep concern to me. But it is exciting, I must say, to hear about the "petrie dish" of Mexican cinema and film theory in Mexico.

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