Monday, January 27, 2020

Hidden Histories: The Story of Women Film Editors

I've written an essay for Criterion on women film editors. It was inspired by Su Friedrich's website, Edited By, a wonderful, invaluable labor of love devoted to them. Here is an excerpt from the essay.

In his book Women Film Editors: Unseen Artists of the American Cinema, David Meuel points out that film editing work in the silent era was not only tedious (given the need to sift through large quantities of filmed footage), it was also low-paying. Because “cutting” was considered menial and monotonous work similar to knitting and sewing, it became common for young women with little or no professional training to be hired as cutters. When male figures such as D. W. Griffith began to emphasize the editing function of cinema through devices like cross-cutting, the perception of editing underwent a transformation. No longer simply a cutter: the “editor” was born.

At the same time as editing acquired prestige in the 1920s, studios expanded in size and movies became big business. With men universally installed at the helm of big studios, women were “systemically purged” (in Meuel’s words) from producing, directing, and editing positions in Hollywood. Despite this calamitous turn of events, editing proved slightly more hospitable for women than producing or directing, and a modest core of women editors survived this transition [...]

Still, editors have been under-researched by film historians, primarily because of the mighty influence of auteurism, which has profoundly shaped the study of Hollywood in the last half-century. By centering directors, film history has tended to marginalize other creative artists in Hollywood, including editors. The scholar J. E. Smyth, who has produced an indispensable body of work on women in Hollywood over the last decade, singles out a male editor, Walter Murch, as the exception, given an “auteur glow” thanks to praise from directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. An instructive contrast might be made with a woman editor such as Schoonmaker, who has been held up as a model collaborator (rather than as an auteur figure) by Scorsese, or Sally Menke, who edited all of Quentin Tarantino’s films from Reservoir Dogs (1992) up to Inglourious Basterds (2009). Menke was hired by Tarantino to edit Reservoir Dogs because (as he once explained in an interview) he wanted a woman who would “nurture” both him and his movie, rather than “shove their agenda or win their battles with me.” It is a telling statement that underscores both the gender-normative views that continue to prevail in Hollywood and the competitive masculinism that underpins the mythology of the auteur.

pic: Anne Bauchens, who had a four-decade working partnership with Cecil B. De Mille, and was the first woman editor to win an Oscar.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

TIFF 2019: "One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk"

At a time in film culture when auteurism continues to be dominant, and work by Indigenous filmmakers continues to be marginalized (not a single Indigenous film from anywhere in the world on the Sight & Sound Top 50 films of 2019 list), we desperately need alternative ways of watching, writing, and discussing this cinema in order to draw out its richness, complexity and difference.

One of the clear highlights of my film year has been the Canadian drama One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, from arts and media collective Isuma. Directed by Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, it was co-written by him with Norman Cohn. Kunuk and Cohn were two of the co-founders of Isuma, Canada's first Inuit independent production company, in 1990. Isuma’s mission, from the start, was to produce independent community-based work—first films and TV, and then Internet media. Although the general impulse of reviews so far has been to approach this new film through an auteurist lens—Kunuk having directed a small but distinguished body of feature film work including the widely celebrated Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner, 2001)—it might be even more productive, in my view, to examine it in the context of Isuma’s mission and prior productions.

The film tells the story of one bright spring day in 1961 that begins with Noah (Apayata Kotierk) rising in his igloo, sipping a mug of hot tea, and setting out with his band and their dog team on a hunting trip. Along the way, they make a stop for rest, and encounter a white man named “Boss”—the Inuit call him Isumataq, meaning “he who thinks for us”—who is accompanied by a Inuk youth who will serve as translator between Noah and Boss. During their conversation, the Boss (played by Kim Bodnia, the Danish actor best known for his role as Konstantin in the TV series Killing Eve) tries to persuade Noah to relocate his family from their ancestral homeland in Kapuivik, Baffin Island, Canada’s northernmost territory. Boss wants them to move into a settlement where they will be provided with a house, a school for their children, and a family allowance. Noah refuses, repeatedly. The audience, by the end, feels a mixture of warmth—for Noah’s resolve—and sadness—because we all know how settler-colonial history turned out.

At the heart of the film lies the extended conversation between the two men, mediated by the young translator. As we watch and listen, a strange and wonderful dynamic appears: the words of both men are not rendered to each other smoothly and faithfully, but instead are frequently mistranslated, peppered with pauses, made bumpy by awkwardness. Boss’ words are often direct, unrelenting, repetitive: he only cares about one thing: moving Noah and his family. But the translator bends and softens the white man’s words, likely not wanting to offend and insult the elder Noah. The sequence is both funny and poignant.

There exists one other explanation for the mistranslations: that the translator is a young man, and does not have the same facility with the Inuktitut language as his elders do. This point speaks to intergenerational loss. As time has passed, and Indigenous people such as the Inuit have been dispossessed, displaced, and disenfranchised, their cultural heritage and legacy, which includes their languages, have suffered seriously from lack of preservation. Younger generations have acutely felt this severing of links to cultural practices of previous generations.

This is a theme that strikes at the core of Isuma’s mission, which has for three decades been explicitly one of cultural preservation and transmission. The collective has its own Internet broadcasting channel, and an online library of nearly 8000 media works, in 80 languages. While the new film, I’m sure, is capable of supporting a fruitful auteurist reading with Zacharias Kunuk at its center, what interests me more is the prospect of imagining a map of Isuma’s productions—and identifying the place(s) that One Day in the Life might occupy withing the vastness of that map.

TIFF 2019: "The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open"

I've seen no better new film this year than the Canadian drama The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn. Set and shot in the neighborhood of East Vancouver, it follows in near real time a chance encounter between two women on a rainy afternoon. Rosie (Violet Nelson), barefoot and bruised, is fleeing an abusive boyfriend when she is noticed on the street by Áila (co-director Tailfeathers), who offers her refuge. Once in Áila's apartment, they wait for Rosie's clothes to dry; Áila then accompanies her to a safe house. The film's ending (which I will not spoil) is poignant and powerful.

The deep immersiveness of The Body Remembers is partly a result of the manner in which it was shot and edited. After an initial sequence that introduces the two protagonists, the film unfolds as a continuous series of 16 mm takes that were "stitched together." This feat of camerawork notwithstanding, the film's style never feels spectacularized or showy. Instead, this formal choice adds to the pressure and weight of everyday reality which the audience cannot shrink from or disavow.

We well know how the history of cinema has time and again subordinated and short-changed women's experiences at the expense of men's stories. This is an injustice that is only multiplied in the case of Indigenous women. Even on that score alone, The Body Remembers is an invaluable work because its protagonists (and players) are both First Nations women. (Nelson is a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, while Tailfeathers is of Blackfoot and Sami descent.) The film's deeper impact, however, derives from the ways in which it traces the differences between the two women. Rosie, in her late teens, is poor, dark-skinned, and until recently was part of the foster care system. Áila, by contrast, is in her thirties, economically comfortable, and light-skinned. The film observes and analyzes, with patience and subtlety throughout, the enduring tension between their social positions, and the way this disparity structures the lives, actions, and choices of the two women.

While The Body Remembers is easily available on streaming (at least here in North America, at Netflix), it's deeply disappointing to note that it makes no appearance on the Sight & Sound Top 50 films of 2019. I'm hoping that it will gather word of mouth in 2020, and receive the widespread attention and admiration that it deserves. Let me recommend, on a closing note, So Mayer's brilliant essay on the film, "Just a Little Green," at Literal Magazine.

Monday, September 16, 2019

TIFF 2019: The Round-Up


Collective (Alexander Nanau, Romania)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, France)
One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (Zacharias Kunuk, Canada)
The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão (Karim Aïnouz, Brazil)

Small, Lovely, Bittersweet Works:

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
Three Summers (Sandra Kogut, Brazil)
The Perfect Candidate (Haifaa al-Mansoor, Saudi Arabia)

I'm Here for All This Health-Care Crisis Cinema:

Collective (Alexander Nanau, Romania)
Jordan River Anderson (Alanis Obomsawin, Canada)
The Cave (Feras Fayyad, Syria)

Cinema=Bodily Presence:

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)
One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (Zacharias Kunuk, Canada)
The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão (Karim Aïnouz, Brazil)
Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)
Atlantics (Mati Diop, Senegal)

Men Ruin Everything:

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão (Karim Aïnouz, Brazil)
The Perfect Candidate (Haifaa al-Mansoor, Saudi Arabia)
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)
The Cave (Feras Fayyad, Syria)
Three Summers (Sandra Kogut, Brazil)
Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, Italy)

Cannot Deal with Hermetic, Formalist Works At This Moment:

I Was Home, But ... (Angela Schanelec, Germany)
The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)

Others Liked These Films A Little Bit More than I Did:

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, Italy)

Favorite Q&As:

The cast and crew of Zacharias Kunuk's One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk
Alanis Obomsawin
Pedro Costa

Favorite TIFF Coverage on Twitter:

This thread of short takes by the critic Alex Heeney in which she is attentive to both the aesthetics and the politics of the films she saw at the festival. A model that is rarer than it should be...

Movies I Most Regret Missing:

Heimat is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise, Germany)
Anne at 13,000 Feet (Kazik Radwanski, Canada)
Saint Maud (Rose Glass, UK)

pic: Collective (Alexander Nanau, Romania)

Monday, June 24, 2019

Conservative Pushback in Film Culture

The new issue of Cineaste opens with a hot mess of an editorial titled “Cancellation Culture.” (Here is the PDF link.)

Last month, following a protest by the Black Students Union, Bowling Green State University in Ohio voted to rename its campus theater originally named for Lillian and Dorothy Gish. The students had objected to the name because of Lillian Gish’s starring role in D.W. Griffith’s famously racist film The Birth of a Nation (1915), and because of the heightened racist forces at work across the country at this moment.

The editorial narrates this incident, following it up with a discussion of Amazon’s decision to pull the plug on its distribution deal with Woody Allen. Lamenting these events, the editors make the claim that “cancellation culture” is causing people and artworks to be “vanished”; that film culture is “discarding what came before,” “wiping away the past,” and “erasing history.”

Let me first say that I have some sympathy for those defending Gish: she did not write or direct The Birth of a Nation, and there is no evidence that she was in any way responsible for the abhorrent racial beliefs advanced by the film. [EDIT: I take that back. See here and here.] Nevertheless, there are at least two crucial flaws in the Cineaste editors’ argument.

First, the totality of effects produced by a film—upon viewers and the culture at large—cannot be ascribed solely to a single individual, the director. Even traditional auteurism knows and acknowledges this. Gish, as the visible, charismatic and narratively important star of the film, has helped in no small degree its ascent to the canon.

But the much more significant problem with the argument is this: No one has called for any kind of boycott on watching or writing about Lillian Gish movies. Many of Gish’s films, especially the ones she made with Griffith, have been and continue to be available on DVD. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the hundreds if not thousands of extant copies of these DVDs—as well the scores of articles and books that study or reference Gish’s films—will “vanish.”

In fact, even in Woody Allen’s case, where there has been a much more widespread call to not support the work, let us note that his enormous filmography continues to be easily accessible on DVD or streaming—as is the large volume of writing on his films both in print and online. What’s more, no less a mainstream outlet than HBO recently added a retrospective series of Woody Allen films to its streaming lineup. Sorry: I don’t see a whole lot of erasure happening here!

What is disturbing about such claims of erasure is not only that they are overblown. They are in fact insidious, because they represent a powerful pushback against any attempt by marginalized voices to call the film canon—installed overwhelmingly by white cismale critics and scholars over the last century—to account.

The Cineaste piece reserves its worst offense for its closing, when the editors complain: “It’s no coincidence that these movements [#MeToo and Black Lives Matter] coalesced in the age of Trump, a President who languishes in the eternal present…” This breathtaking equivalence of women’s and Black people’s protests with Trump’s actions is not only profoundly insulting, it’s also ignorant. It is precisely the acute historical consciousness of oppression that drives the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, not the Trumpian whims of an “eternal present.”

What could possibly account for this wrong-headed, out-of-touch editorial? A glance at the masthead offers a clue. Of the 9 people listed as “editors” (not including assistant editors), there is just one woman, and only one person of color. White men dominate the magazine: the current issue is 86% white men (31 out of 36 pieces). The average over the last year and over the last three-year period are both close to 80%.

Let me end by saying: I have been a Cineaste subscriber for years. I value the magazine, and I admire many of its writers. As a loyal reader, I want to issue a public call to the magazine to diversify its editorial collective—significantly!—and do the same for its ensemble of writers.

Each issue of Cineaste has, emblazoned upon its cover, the following words: “America’s leading magazine on the art and politics of the cinema.” It is simply not possible to run a credible film magazine today—let alone one that is self-avowedly political—without putting gender and racial equity front and center. A commitment to politics rings hollow without an accompanying commitment to representational equity and justice.

For stimulating conversations, I want to thank my friends Erika Balsom, Elena Gorfinkel, and Tanya Loughead.

A word on the stats: In counting up the pieces published in the magazine, and computing the average % written by white men, I included all writing except editorials, staff recommendations of films, and symposia.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

FLEFF 2019

I have recently returned from Ithaca, New York, where I spent a few rewarding days at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF). FLEFF is run by Patricia Zimmermann and Tom Shevory, both faculty at Ithaca College, the major sponsor of the festival.

FLEFF is unlike other film festivals I've attended because it consciously gathers an unusual diversity of people in a single space: cinephiles, film/media makers, critics, scholars, curators, journalists, and students. Further, the conference is designed as much around opportunities for discussion and discourse as it is around watching films. For instance, I spent an entire day in a series of seminar-style, round-table sessions called FLEFF Lab, with about 20 participants from a variety of backgrounds. The discussions revolved around this year's festival theme of "Disruptions"--defined broadly and imaginatively here, and roaming far beyond the term's conventional, pro-capitalist use in the area of tech-enabled innovation.

FLEFF self-identifies as an "environmental" film festival, but its use of the word is expansive. Since the forces that are causing our ecological crisis are fundamentally capitalist, and since those forces ravage both the natural environment and all non-human and human life on the planet, the purview of the festival turns out to be all-encompassing. The scope of work is correspondingly broad: not only films, but also concerts, installations, theatrical events, and new media works are featured on the program.

FLEFF was founded in 1997 at Cornell University, and then moved to Ithaca College under the leadership of Zimmermann and Shevory 15 years ago. Patty and Tom both wear multiple hats: they are scholars, teachers, film/media lovers and programmers. Patty, one of the most prolific and well-reputed scholars in film/media studies, also runs a blog (well worth digging into) called Flaherty Stories, which gathers a wide range of personal accounts of experiences at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminars. (She is the author, with Scott Macdonald, of the 2017 book The Flaherty: Sixty Years in the Cause of Independent Film.) Tom, who has written several books on issues related to law and public policy, is also an avid cyclist whose last book The Great Lakes at Ten Miles an Hour, is an "account of his travels and explorations of the geological, environmental, historical, and cultural riches harbored by these great inland seas." Together, they are the soul of the festival: in seminar rooms, theaters, or at Red's, the local bar where festival attendees ritually converge for parties each night.

One of the highlights of this year's festival was a pair of silent films with live musical accompaniment. First, a 1923 version of Oscar Wilde's Salome, starring the now mostly forgotten Russian-born star Alla Nazimova, who at one time commanded a bigger Hollywood salary than Mary Pickford. Openly bisexual, Nazimova (according to Ryan Smillie) hired the costume designer, art director and production designer Natacha Rambova (purported to be her lover) to create the look of this film, which is a striking blend of bold, graphic minimalism and Art Nouveau. Smillie calls it "America's first art film."

One of only seven surviving Argentine silent films, El Ultimo Malon (1917; sometimes translated as The Last Indian Attack) dramatizes the last Indigenous rebellion in Argentina, by the Mocovi. The cast, composed almost entirely of non-professional actors, reputedly numbered many who were part of the original 1904 uprising. The director, Alcides Greca, even appears briefly as himself in the film, which is a work of fiction with intriguing elements of ethnographic documentary. Something I'd never seen before: Both silent performances were preceded by special, one-time theatrical performances (co-written by Patty Zimmermann) that creatively surrounded what we were about to see with a rich production and socio-cultural context.

The other high point of the festival for me was a screening of short works by the experimental filmmaker Kelly Gallagher titled "Feminist Animations." Gallagher described herself as being motivated by the twin forces of love and rage. This self-characterization was spot-on; the films in the program were divided between the deeply personal and the viscerally political. Her aesthetic, which makes playful and powerful use of cut-out animation collage, is accessible and affecting. Gallagher is a former union organizer, and her commitment to collectivist radical politics comes blazing through both in her films and beyond them: for example, she has made all her work available to watch for free at Vimeo. Let me recommend three short films as a starter: "More Dangerous than a Thousand Rioters," an experimental documentary on the life of revolutionary Lucy Parsons; "From Ally to Accomplice," which is about figures such as John Brown and Marilyn Buck, who went beyond being simply "allies" to placing themselves at significant risk for their passionately-held beliefs; and "The Herstory of the Female Filmmaker". This interview with her is a wonderful read.

I regret that, as a cinephile, film festival habitué, and three-decade resident of New York state, it's taken me this long to discover FLEFF and make my first film trip to Ithaca.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Manifesto for a New Cinephilia

I've written a manifesto titled "For a New Cinephilia" for the new issue of Film Quarterly. It's part of a special section of manifestos assembled and edited by B. Ruby Rich. All eleven manifestos can be downloaded on PDF.

Here is an excerpt:

The pleasures at the heart of the old cinephilia are predominantly aesthetic. The new cinephilia has a broader definition of pleasure: it values the aesthetic experience of cinema, but it demands more. It finds pleasure, additionally, in a deep curiosity about the world and a critical engagement with it. Cinema teaches us about the human and nonhuman world in new and powerful ways. Traditional cinephilic pleasure is private, personal, inward; it is also what Laura Mulvey, in her landmark manifesto, wished to destroy. The new cinephilia radiates outward, powered by a spirit of inquiry and a will to social and planetary change. It is no coincidence that so many filmmakers valued by the new cinephilia—women, queer, Indigenous, people of color—have an interest in activism, and view cinema itself as part of a larger cultural-activist project. It is equally no coincidence that relatively few straight, white male filmmakers share this trait [...]

You shall know the old cinephilia by the sounds of its worrying: film culture these days is “too PC,” too “morality-driven,” and “all about identity politics.” Supposedly fragmented and atomized along identity lines, it is no longer unified the way it once was. For the new cinephilia, however, this unity of film culture is a figment of nostalgic fantasy: a fiction propagated and sustained by the imposition of a false universalism. By privileging certain identities (white, male, heterosexual) over others, Euro-Western film culture has historically constructed an illusion of wholeness and coherence. What is truly being mourned by the old cinephilia is the (tiny) loss of cultural authority and influence for its dominant identity groups [...]

“Life organized around films”: this is one widely accepted definition of traditional cinephilia. But at this moment, when the world is in turmoil and the planet on the edge of catastrophe, such a conception of cine-love seems narcissistic. What we need now is a cinephilia that is fully in contact with its present, global moment—that accompanies it, that moves and travels with it. No matter how ardent and passionate our love for this medium, the world is bigger and vastly more important than cinema."

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Recent Reads: Alisa Lebow, So Mayer, Leo Goldsmith, etc.

-- This is absolutely invaluable: "The Radical Copyeditor's Style Guide for Writing about Transgender People" by Alex Kapitan.

-- Margaret Tait's Blue Black Permanent (1992) is one of the best films I've seen in recent months (thank you, MUBI). Here is So Mayer's introduction to a London screening of the film.

-- Leo Goldsmith's must-read essay "Theories of the Earth: Surface and Extraction in the Landscape Film" in the loaded new issue of the documentary journal World Records.

-- Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: "An A-Z of Women's Horror Filmmaking".

-- Allison de Fren's video essay "Mad Science/Mad Love and the Female Body in Pieces" -- part of "Videographic Frankenstein: A Special Exhibition of Creative and Scholarly Video," curated by Shane Denson.

-- Alisa Lebow writes about her meta-documentary Filming Revolution (and also includes a link to it): "The choice to create an interactive meta-documentary, rather than to either write a book or make a linear documentary about filming in Egypt since the revolution, was a very conscious one. For a film scholar such as myself, the temptation is to write a book, not only because that is my training, but because that is what is expected of me. Yet to position myself as the author of a book about filmmaking in Egypt since the revolution is to put myself in the position of mastery over my subject, a position I was at the outset and also now unwilling to take. I did not experience the events of the revolution, nor am I an expert in Egyptian film. I do not speak Arabic and rely on translation and subtitles for my access to many of the films discussed. Rather than playing the expert, I preferred the position of interlocutor..."

-- "Toward Creating a Trans Literary Canon" (in the Paris Review).

-- On the 2019 Berlinale: In addition to a competition lineup that was over 40% women, "Berlin also became the first of the big European fests to publish a detailed gender evaluation study breaking down the gender gap between male and female filmmakers across its entire selection. Of the 400 films that screened in Berlin this year, 98, or 37 percent, were made exclusively by female directors; 146 (55.1 percent) exclusively or predominantly by male directors; and nine (3.4 percent) by directorial teams with equal gender ratios."

-- Brett Story's short film "CamperForce," about how Amazon targets retirees without savings (and living in RVs) for seasonal labor in their warehouses, where they perform demanding physical work for low wages. (Being released soon: Brett Story's book Prison Land: Mapping Carceral Power Across Neoliberal America.)

-- Nate Jones: "How Beale Street Got Those Eye-Popping Colors".

-- Two useful end-of-year lists: Top 10 Hindi-language films; and Top 15 Indian, non-Hindi films.

-- Moira Weigel and Ben Tarnoff in New Replublic: "The Stark Political Divide Between Tech CEOs and Their Employees".

-- Teju Cole in the NYT on the camera as a weapon of imperialism: "But in looking at these images — images of war, of starvation, of capsized boats and exhausted caravans — we must go beyond the usual frames of pity and abjection. Every picture of suffering should elicit a question stronger than “Why is this happening?” The question should be “Why have I allowed this to happen?” This is what the scholar Ariella Azoulay calls the “citizenship” of photography, its ability, when practiced thoughtfully, to remind us of our mutual responsibilities."

-- R.O. Kwon in the Paris Review: "On Being a Woman in America While Trying to Avoid Being Assaulted".

-- A recent study ranks India the most dangerous place to be for a woman. (The USA is in the top 10.)

-- Robin James in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the political philosophy of the TV show The Good Place.

-- Janus films will tour of retrospective of Abbas Kiarostami's films (including rare shorts and documentaries) in the USA this summer.

-- Steven Salaita has a new website, and its opening post is a sharp and moving essay about changing careers from college professor to school bus driver.

pic: Blue Black Permanent (Margaret Tait, 1992)

Saturday, January 05, 2019

TIFF 2018: The Afrobubblegum of Wanuri Kahiu's "Rafiki"

The Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu broke into film culture in 2010 with a wonderful science-fiction short titled Pumzi. The 21-minute film, which is available to stream for free at Vimeo, is in English; its title translates from Swahili as "breath".

8 years later, she has returned with her first feature film, Rafiki (which means "friend"), a story of teenage lesbian love. While the narrative beats of the movie are admittedly familiar, it looks and sounds stunning. What a gloriously celebratory mise-en-scène we find here. Bright colors and rich textures explode in the visual field: costumes and fabrics, jewelry and makeup, props and decor. What's more, there is a visionary purpose behind these choices. Kahiu calls the aesthetic "Afrobubblegum":

When I present my work somewhere, someone will always ask, "What's so important about it? How does it deal with real African issues like war, poverty, devastation or AIDS?" And it doesn't.

My work is about Nairobi pop bands that want to go to space or about seven-foot-tall robots that fall in love. It's nothing incredibly important. It's just fun, fierce and frivolous, as frivolous as bubble gum -- "AfroBubbleGum."

[Overtly political art about problem issues is] vital and important art, but it cannot be the only art that comes out of the continent. We have to tell more stories that are vibrant. [Otherwise we fall victim to] the danger of the single story ...

Fun is political. If we had images of Africans who were vibrant and loving and thriving and living a beautiful, vibrant life. What would we think of ourselves then? Would we think that maybe we're worthy of more happiness?

The story of this film's coming into the world also has a dark side. Rafiki has been banned in Kenya for "promoting lesbianism," since homosexuality is a criminal offense there. Ironically, the film was "unbanned" temporarily for a week by the state to render it eligible for the Oscars. Let us hope that its high visibility--including its status as the first Kenyan film to screen at Cannes--helps pave the way for challenging and overturning these laws.

TIFF 2018: Astra Taylor's "What is Democracy?"

Astra Taylor’s documentary What is Democracy?, which opens on January 16 at the IFC Center in New York City, promises to be among the year's most important films.

When critics speak of “ambitious” movies, they usually have in mind narrative or formal reach. But Taylor’s ambitions here are neither; instead, they are political and activist. She has designed this film to spark conversation and discussion on a broad scale, to make an intervention in culture, to help contribute to the project of social change.

Because the word “democracy” is embraced by an unnervingly wide range of people on the political spectrum—and thus frequently co-opted and abused—Taylor wants to put it under scrutiny, to interrogate and analyze it. She recently confessed in an interview: “words like ‘justice,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘equality,’ ‘socialism,’ and ‘revolution’ spoke to me … but not ‘democracy.’” It is her personal ambivalence about the word—and the uneasy mixture of ideas swirling behind it—that motivate this film.

Living as we are in a “golden age” of documentary, my biggest fear with What is Democracy? is that it will be lumped into the large and baggy category of “issue docs”—and disappear into the VOD void. This would be a terrible mistake. Let me outline three reasons why.

First, most issue docs plunge into a problem subject of the moment, and seek to interest and educate the public about it. The notion of democracy is of burning importance in our world today, but Taylor’s film wants to consciously take a step back and adopt a long view. Rather than being sucked into the rough-and-tumble of the present global moment, Taylor’s aim—while being completely in touch with the pulse of the now—is to move the film into a philosophical register.

What is Democracy? uses a method similar to the one in Taylor’s pedagogically valuable previous film, the documentary Examined Life (2008), which took “philosophy to the streets.” In it she interviewed a number of philosophers, for about ten minutes each, while they were on the move: Cornel West in a taxicab, Peter Singer on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, Judith Butler and Astra’s sister Sunaura Taylor on the sidewalks of San Francisco. This had the effect of removing ideas from the abstract realm, and having them emerge, in concrete and embodied fashion, in public space. Literally, it brought philosophy “down to earth.”

If that film was firmly based in the interview form, What is Democracy? is a little different, positioned somewhere between interview and dialogue. While according ample respect and time to the people she interviews, Taylor herself has a greater presence in this new film. She is an active interlocutor, and her exchanges with her interview subjects add to the dynamism of ideas staged here. Taylor’s Socratic approach does have antecedents in cinema—she is, for instance, greatly inspired by films such as Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer (1959)—but the broad historical and philosophical curiosity of her approach feels truly original and valuable.

Throughout, the film demonstrates a radical equality. While its interview subjects range from philosophers and theorists to emergency room surgeons, refugees, and (memorably) a barber who is a former convict, these people are all identified only by name, never by title. They are all equal—and equally part of the demos. Rather than placing “experts” on an implicitly authoritative plane, Taylor has said that her intention was simply to “ask questions together.” Some of the most thought-provoking ideas emerge from people with no official or cultural authority, like the aforementioned barber, whose testimony and reflections are unforgettable. For Taylor, it is perverse that “political theory” is a specialized discipline; each one of us has a crucial stake in thinking, in theorizing, about politics—especially all those people who have been historically marginalized. “Excluded people know the most about democracy,” she argues, “They see the structures from below, they see the hierarchies that are still there. They see the hypocrisies.”

A second reason that sets What is Democracy? apart from most issue documentaries is how deeply ambivalent it is about its subject. From the start, rather than focusing on democracy alone, the film chooses instead to trace the twinned histories of democracy and capitalism. We begin in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, with a group of scholars who discuss not only its origins but also its pitfalls, including its risk of co-optation by wealthy demagogues. In another set of sequences threaded through the film, Taylor and feminist/Marxist philosopher Silvia Federici stand in front of a historic fresco in Siena, Italy—Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government,” painted in the 1330s—and analyze the way it depicts the beginnings of financial capitalism.

In some of the film’s most thought-provoking scenes, Taylor and political theorist Wendy Brown discuss the concept of “global democracy.” This emerges as a problematic, contradictory notion for Brown because, even though the idea of global democracy sounds like something to aspire to, it often obscures the fact that democracy needs to be tied to a place and a specific community. Taylor explains:

This idea of a global democracy … sounds good, but it's conceptually incoherent. The challenge of our time is figuring out how we set up boundaries, set up the lines to demarcate a community in a way that's not awful, that's not racist, that's not misogynist, that's not xenophobic or exploitative, because people should have a say over the decisions that affect their lives. Should I be telling a teacher in Italy how to run their school? No, I'm not part of that community. I should be excluded from it. I don't live there. I don't know what they're going through. I don't know the history.

Right now we have very powerful people who aren't part of communities dictating social policy for people they don't know, and they don't care about, and they'll never meet. So we need to grapple with this question of who the "we" is — who is making these decisions, and where …

Taylor’s ambivalence about democracy and the claims made too easily in its name were also the impetus behind her 2014 book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. In the book, she argues that even though the Internet has been hailed as a democratizing force, such a techno-utopian vision obscures the ways in which the Internet (in her words) “reflects and amplifies real-world inequities at least as much as it ameliorates them. Online, just as off-line, attention and influence largely accrue to those who already have plenty of both.” In a way, the film extends this critique of democracy and its rhetoric from the Internet to the world at large.

Third, and finally, the film consciously eschews conventions that issue docs commonly lean upon. Despite the presence of a range of interesting interview subjects, the emphasis is not on individual “stories” here—there is no big and overt appeal to empathy tied to individual predicaments, and (importantly) no final cathartic release leading to a hopeful ending. Taylor explains:

I wanted to make a film where, instead of ending with this big, rousing protest, and epic music, and this idea that we can hold hands and march into a new world, we addressed the spirit of the day after — the day after the big march, the moment after the euphoria, when the challenge is "what do you do?" That energy is dissipated, but the problem is still there.

Astra Taylor, for me, represents a certain kind of boundary-crossing figure in culture who is invaluable but rare. In addition to being a filmmaker, she is a writer and a musician (and member of the acclaimed band Neutral Milk Hotel). She is also an activist who, as part of the Occupy movement, co-edited the broadsheet Occupy! An OWS-Inspired Gazette, whose issues later grew into a book about the movement.

Despite the fact that Taylor spent years working on What is Democracy?, film for her is only one form of cultural work—part of a network of forms held together by an encompassing commitment, that of activism. She does not romanticize the role of art: “A film is not organizing,” she has said, “A film is not activism. A film is a film. Be humble about what its role is.” However, taken as a whole, Taylor’s practice gives us an anti-specialist model that shows us the interconnectedness of artistic, cultural and political activities—and this is a useful example that is all the worthier for being uncommon.

pic: Taylor with Silvia Federici.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

2018: 10 Great Writers

This Happy New Year post is a way of thanking ten writers who gave me much reading pleasure and taught me many new things last year.

In alphabetical order:

ELENA GORFINKEL: Can I just say how great it is to be able to read the work of this brilliant film scholar on a regular basis now in the pages of Sight & Sound magazine?

-- On Valeska Grisebach's Western.
-- On Barbara Loden's Wanda (1970). [pdf]

CATHERINE GRANT: Nothing less than an Internet film-cultural institution.

-- Catherine's prolific Vimeo page, with over a hundred video essays.
-- Four posts at Film Studies for Free from 2018 that contain links to an embarrassment of riches.

AMELIE HASTIE: Pioneering feminist film scholar (for many years part of the Camera Obscura editorial collective) whose invaluable column, "The Vulnerable Spectator," has run in Film Quarterly for the last five years.

-- The archive of the column is available to read online at the journal. [subscribers only]
-- A moving account of her personal relationship to Debra Granik's Winter's Bone (2008).

PAMELA HUTCHINSON: An indefatigable freelance critic, silent film historian, and erudite and elegant writer.

-- Pamela's personal website helpfully contains links to all her online work.
-- Let me specifically point to her online archives at The Guardian, and at the British Film Institute.

SO MAYER: One of film culture's most gloriously centrifugal thinkers and writers.

-- Because so much of their work--poetry, essays, pamphlets--was in print form (see this tweet for details), let me link here to two (of many) online pieces: on "women who wander" in the films of Campion, Varda, and other filmmakers; and an obituary for Armenian fimmaker Maria Saakyan.

B. RUBY RICH: A titan of film culture--whom I've been reading for decades. (Full disclosure: I feel fortunate to be working alongside her at Film Quarterly on the journal's online column, Quorum.)

-- All of Ruby's editorials for Film Quarterly are available to read for free online.

ANNA BACKMAN ROGERS and DANIELLA SHREIR: Two visible and important figures in film culture today, whom I group together because of their invaluable work as editors (of MAI Feminism and Another Gaze, respectively), in addition to their own writings: Rogers' recently released book on Sofia Coppola (Berghahn Books), and Shreir's award-winning translation of Chantal Akerman's My Mother Laughs (Silver Press).

-- MAI Feminism
-- Another Gaze

MOIRA WEIGEL: Freelance writer/editor with an extraordinary range, including but traveling well beyond film.

-- You can read her film criticism: at Criterion and at n+1.
-- "Why Silicon Valley Can't Fix Itself" at the Guardian.
-- Moira also edits the superb technology magazine Logic (with Ben Tarnoff). See her important piece, "The Internet of Women".

ALISON WILLMORE: Few critics working today are as good at surrounding films with rich context (about representation, cultural politics, industry, genre) in their reviews. Here are just two of many excellent pieces at Buzzfeed (where she is film critic):

-- "Orientalism is Alive and Well in American Cinema"
-- "Why I've Had Trouble Buying Hollywood's Version of Girl Power"


If you're curious: last year's year-end post also highlighted (and linked to) the work of several excellent writers.

Happy New Year!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Time's Up for the Male Canon

I have a piece at Film Quarterly, in the online column, Quorum. Here is an excerpt:

What will it take to break the stranglehold of male domination in filmmaking? Despite the ever-increasing outcry, amplified by social media over the last few years, the work of women filmmakers continues to be overlooked, marginalized, erased. Of the many underlying causes, I would like to focus here on one: the enduring hold, on film culture, of auteurism. [...]

[One systemic force that has marginalized women's filmmaking] can be seen playing out in the widely embraced auteurist credo, most famously articulated by François Truffaut, that the worst film by an auteur is more interesting than the best film by a non-auteur. When translated into viewing and writing practices, this principle ended up having two important effects. First, it drastically narrowed the domain of work that merited serious writing and conversation, since the title of “auteur” was awarded stingily to only a few filmmakers—usually, men. Second, it trained the focus of criticism on an auteur’s entire oeuvre, returning to it time and again, tunneling ever deeper to explore the stylistic signature and themes of the films, no matter how “good” (or not) these films were deemed to be. Auteurism thus became an ingenious mechanism for ceaselessly multiplying discourse on a limited number of directors: a manspreading machine.

pic: BFI’s “Woman with a Movie Camera” summit, June 2018, with programmer Anna Bogutskaya. Photo credit: Hannah Leigh Prior.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

TIFF 2018: The Round-Up


What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (Roberto Minervini, USA)
What is Democracy? (Astra Taylor, USA)
Out of Blue (Carol Morley, UK)
High Life (Claire Denis, France)
Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany)

Really Enjoyed These Too:

The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack, USA)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, USA)
Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, Kenya)
Mouthpiece (Patricia Rozema, Canada)

This Film Can Help Us Start Conversations in Every Home and Classroom:

What is Democracy? (Astra Taylor, USA)

Female Collective Authorship is the Future:

Mouthpiece (Patricia Rozema, Canada). Wrote a few words about it at Cinema Scope.

A Revelatory Moment When I Realized:

That I’m way more interested in hearing about Arab history and cinema from the voices of Arab people than I am from the 30-minute barrage of images and sounds devoted to the subject in Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book.

A Good Movie Marred by the “Woman as Savior” Trope:

Ash is the Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke, China)

Building Entire New Worlds:

Out of Blue (Carol Morley, UK)
High Life (Claire Denis, France)

Dying to Rewatch:

Out of Blue (Carol Morley, UK)
High Life (Claire Denis, France)
Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany)

I Read More Un-illuminating, Unsympathetic Reviews of This Movie Than Any Other:

Out of Blue (Carol Morley, UK)

I am a Fan, and Will Follow Wherever She Leads:

Marielle Heller: Will You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) and Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

Heavenly, Eye-Melting Colors, Costumes, and Jewelry:

Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, Kenya)

Best Use of Songs:

“I’ll be Seeing You” (Brenda Lee, in Carol Morley’s Out of Blue)
“Under the Milky Way Tonight” (The Church, in Carol Morley’s Out of Blue)
“Road to Nowhere” (Talking Heads, in Christian Petzold’s Transit)

Best Q&A’s:

Astra Taylor, What is Democracy?
Jodie Mack, The Grand Bizarre

Movies I Most Regret Missing:

Reason (Anand Patwardhan, India)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, USA)

pic: What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (Roberto Minervini, USA)

Friday, August 31, 2018

Recent Reads: FSFF Turns 10; Teaching Media Against the Global Right, etc.

-- Here's wishing Catherine Grant's pioneering, iconic blog Film Studies for Free a Happy 10-year Anniversary! Catherine has put up an epic post to mark the occasion.

-- Brian D. Johnson: "Cinema is changing. Can TIFF adapt?" (Via B. Ruby Rich.)

-- A great slide-essay by So Mayer on the intersections between Věra Chytilová's Daisies (1966) and feminist art.

-- Jenn Fang at Teen Vogue: "Yellowface, Whitewashing and the History of White People Playing Asian Characters."

-- An open-access Cinema Journal dossier on "Teaching Media Against the Global Right", edited by Priya Jaikumar and Kay Dickinson.

-- In the Sydney Morning Herald: On the rise of Indigenous filmmaking in Australia.

-- Leo Goldsmith reports from "Cinema Camp, an annual gathering of filmmakers, artists, curators, critics, theorists and cinephiles ... This year, the theme was ‘Imperfect Cinema’."

-- Darren Hughes interviews filmmaker Valerie Massadian, whose new film Milla is among the very best of the year.

-- Laurie Penny on the new Queer Eye: "There is a reason straight women love this show. It’s the pornography of emotional labor."

-- Katy Waldman in The New Yorker on Robin DiAngelo's excellent new book, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

-- In the Los Angeles Times: "14 Film Critics on Making Media More Inclusive."

-- A new discovery for me: the UK critic Sophie Brown's writings on documentary: at her Tinyletter page and at the BFI site.

-- This is a moving and essential read: Daniel Heath Justice's "Letter to an Emerging Indigenous Writer."

-- Let me end by recommending three strong films I saw this month:
1. Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer (2008).
2. Jennifer Phang's Advantageous (2015).
3. Bing Liu's documentary Minding the Gap (2018).

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Recent Reads: Woman with a Movie Camera, etc.

I'm starting a new monthly feature here for recent, particularly interesting reads about cinema, feminism, and politics.

Here we go:

-- A twitter thread by So Mayer on how film criticism needs to change; it is a response to a recent, poorly argued piece that asked, "Who needs film critics?"

-- Pamela Hutchinson reports on the historic "Woman with a Movie Camera" summit at the BFI in London. Also see Anna Coatman's report about the event.

-- Moira Donegan on the divide within feminism between #MeToo and those who form the backlash to it, and how this divide is not necessarily generational, but one of competing visions of feminism, social vs. individualist.

-- Lynsey Grosfield on freelance writing and the situation of women in it.

-- J. Hoberman on his website, "Why I cannot review Jonas Mekas's Conversations with Filmmakers"; an epilogue to Michael Casper's piece on Jonas Mekas in the New York Review of Books.

-- A group of Latinx critics zero in on aspects of representation in Sicario: Day of the Soldado that have been missed by most other critics.

-- A round-table on Hannah Gadsby's Nanette at the feminist, queer website Autostraddle. (If you haven't seen Nanette, best to go in cold, without reading anything about it.)

-- Eric Allen Hatch on being hopeful for the future of arthouse programming.

-- Rebecca Solnit on the "politics of disconnection" in the world today.

-- On Europe's #MeToo debate and "the threat of change."

-- Sady Doyle on the pop culture roots of the Incel movement.

-- The program notes for this intriguing film series at BAM (in Brooklyn) open with a Sara Ahmed quote (“If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed, then what does it mean to notice whiteness?”). What a great idea: framing these mostly (over-)familiar movies (like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, Gran Torino, etc) through the lens of whiteness. Also see: Craig D. Lindsey's article on the series in the Village Voice.

-- A great interview with Alberto Toscano on the enduring importance of Marxism and reading Marx today.

-- Shelley Stamp, who is curating Kino-Lorber's "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" DVD/Blu-ray set:

"One of the most important messages I hope to convey is that so many of the debates we’re having today were actually settled 100 years ago. Can women direct action pictures? Yes. Can female leads carry pictures at the box office? Yes. Can “women’s issues” (like reproductive politics, sexuality, family life) appeal to a wide audience? Yes. Ignoring this history and continuing to debate issues that were settled so long ago makes today’s generation of female filmmakers think they have to reinvent the wheel..."

-- Essential reading: Ben Tarnoff on big data and the need to democratize it:

"Big data is extractive. It involves extracting data from various “mines”—Facebook, say, or a connected piece of industrial equipment. This raw material must then be “refined” into potentially valuable knowledge by combining it with other data and analyzing it.

Extractive industries need to be closely regulated because they generate all sorts of externalities—costs that aren’t borne by the company, but are instead passed on to society as a whole. There are certain kinds of resources that we shouldn’t be extracting at all, because those costs are far too high, like fossil fuels. There are others that we should only be extracting under very specific conditions, with adequate protections for workers, the environment, and the broader public. And democratic participation is crucial: you shouldn’t build a mine in a community that doesn’t want it.

These principles offer a framework for governing big data. There are certain kinds of data we shouldn’t be extracting. There are certain places where we shouldn’t build data mines. And the incredibly complex and opaque process whereby raw data is refined into knowledge needs to be cracked wide open, so we can figure out what further rules are required.

Like any extractive endeavor, big data produces externalities. The extractors reap profits, while the rest of us are left with the personal, social, and environmental consequences. These range from the annihilation of privacy to algorithmic racism to a rapidly warming climate—the world’s data centers, for instance, put about as much carbon into the atmosphere as air travel.

Society, not industry, should decide how and where resources are extracted and refined. Big data is no different."