film&theatre resumé 2020

Cultural Exchange through the Movies (LINK)

Americans may feel privileged to have such access to films and television. Indeed, we’ve reached (perhaps even surpassed) a saturation point in entertainment media. What we forget is that audiovisual media is a major cultural conduit—or rather a network of connective fibers that generate and shape our social consciousness—and its immersive qualities are well suited to cultural exchange. A few months ago, I attended a screening on campus of a film about HIV, filmed and produced by the Datoga in partnership with anthropologists. The film is particularly ethnographic in a grassroots sort of way, in that its target audience elected its own informants, those the community deemed trustworthy, and used prevailing cultural symbols and expressions to communicate the often Western-centric rhetoric of HIV/AIDS awareness. (The film is here.) The idea of a shared cultural consciousness permeating its works was a hallmark of Straussian structuralist anthropology, but in a post-postmodernist age, the understanding of the lattice effect of structure, ritual, symbol, and ethos has proved particularly fruitful in applied visual anthropology. While the Datoga project was an example of applied visual ethnography, with an explicit educational purpose, a recent NYTimes article discussed the approach from a different standpoint: culturally applied filmmaking.

What [the Iraqi filmmakers] definitely don’t have at home is a film industry, something being addressed, at least to a degree, by the nonprofit International Film Exchange. The exchange brought the students over from Baghdad where, several weeks before, the filmmaker Bill Megalos of Los Angeles had conducted a 10-day workshop on storytelling and editing. The exchange is devoted primarily to cultural give and take and international understanding. But in the case of the Iraqis, it may help create a base of knowledgeable filmmakers, a “crew” as the young men themselves called it. Since the economic sanctions imposed after the first gulf war, making films in Iraq has become all but impossible.

“It was my family business,” said the bearish Salam S. Mazeel, 35, whose mother was a sound designer, and who wants to be a cinematographer like his father. “But in the ’90s, everything stopped. We go to the hard times. No money, no hope.”

After his father died, his mother quit the business to raise her children; there was no cinema anyway. “That’s how it was,” Mr. Mazeel said. “Now, maybe something is different and we come to America and there are a few things in our minds. Like how to apply American rules to Iraqi movies.”

The article goes on to discuss how Iraqi films could take a cue from Hollywood movies and move away from the previous emphasis on style that European cinema demonstrates:

Years ago, Iraqi filmmakers would regularly attend VGIK, the Moscow film school; Iraqi film was influenced far more by European than American cinema. In Los Angeles, the Iraqi visitors were being advised by almost everyone to make their stories clear, to emphasize narrative over style.

That’s an interesting thing, considering the woefully incomplete or slapdash plots seen in much Hollywood fare. But truth be told, the expressionistic, avant-garde philosophy, seen in Soviet cinema and developed in later German and French films, has been relegated to the indie circuit in the U.S., the fortress of solitude for disillusioned American film buffs. The interest in plot in the United States derives partly from the well-made tradition that was popular in Britain and the U.S. around the same time the film industry was developing, and partly, I believe, from a capitalist ethos. But that’s a topic for another blog.

What’s intriguing about Megalos’ workshop for Iraqi filmmakers is its prescriptive purpose. It is a shade of the cultural imperialism the U.S. holds around the world. Are our films successful overseas because of their effective narratives, as the article suggests? Or because of the corollary economic influence? And films are products, as we know. Moreover, after congratulating ourselves on bringing democracy and peace to Iraq (at least for a moment or two), it seems an echo to claim artistic benefits to them as well.

However, the infusion of the Iraqi filmmakers’ films with their distinctive ethos, under the auspices of Hollywood economic,  political, and aesthetic structures, is not only the product, but the method, of cultural exchange. It is a new kind of ethnographic filmmaking, in which the individuals’ culture is writ large through collaborative works, nestled within a historical portrait of fluctuating, overlapping sociocultural conditions. It is why films are of interest to anthropologists, and why anthropologists continue to use films to communicate ideas. It is probably clear to the International Film Exchange; thanks to the U.S.’s economic power, Hollywood has the tools of the trade to empower all filmmaking cultures, with the end goal being understanding of humanity, not imperialism.

 

Related: Activist Filmmaking

film&theatre resumé 2020

The Impossible: How Important Is Ethnicity in “True Story” Films? (LINK)

The Oscar-nominated The Impossible has received a lot of flak for casting white British actors in the story of a Spanish family who experienced the 2004 tsunami while on vacation in Thailand. Accusations of racism, disinterest, and simply lack of trying have been hurled at the (Spanish) production team. According to this article on HuffPost,

Though perhaps seemingly a bit harsh, the real answer might not be that far off. When asked by the Spanish daily El Mundo about the reason why he didn’t cast Spanish actors for his film, Bayona admits it all came down to one factor: money.

“I would have loved to tell this story with Spanish actors. We tried, but it proved impossible to raise funding without international actors. The first version of the screenplay was written in Spanish and then we realized that 80% of the dialogue was also in English. So it was natural that we chose European actors who speak English. But, without revealing the nationality of the protagonists. This is not a film of nationality, race or social class. All that was swept by the wave,” the director said.

Once again we see the conflict between marketing needs and cultural realism. Is the film dishonest or harmful for using white actors, in particular British actors, considering that the tsunami affected areas formerly part of the British Empire? How different would the film have been if Spanish actors had been cast? Is it possibly to successfully promote a film in an international market using unknown (read:non-white) actors? I would note that The Life of Pi did not turn its main character white.

film&theatre resumé 2020

‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (LINK)

Fascinating example of the interaction of social biases, art, and politics.

When the Art Guys married their sapling, “the whole thing was an environmentalist gesture,” The Believer expressed in their profile of the duo. Yet critics of the work refused to see how the act could exist separate from the heated climate of the gay marriage debate, even though both artists were already married to women. Many accused the work of belittling gay marriage and encouraging homophobic logic, namely former Houston Chronicle art critic Douglas Britt. In his review, Britt, who himself is gay, argued the work “reinforces the ‘slippery slope’ argument that if we let gays wed, next we’ll allow people to marry animals, and so on.”

Britt was so offended by the work he created a performance piece of his own to show, in his words, “what really marrying for art, not pretending to, could look like.” For his piece, “The Art Gay Marries a Woman,” Britt found a straight woman he had never met via Twitter, married her at a gay strip club, and changed his last name to Britt-Darby.

via ‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (PHOTO).

via ‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (PHOTO).

film&theatre resumé 2020

The Role of Competition in American Movies (LINK)

This short essay on Sociological Images discusses a trope in American film. As a capitalistic society, one would expect themes of competition and conquest to dominate our culture. Interesting, isn’t it, how the predestined fate of the tragic hero has been supplanted by the possibility for absolution, based upon social conquest?

 In British films of the sixties – “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or “This Sporting Life” for example – athletic contests bring a heightened consciousness of the class system.  But in American movies, regardless of the setting – the boxing ring, the pool hall, the poker game, the karate dojo, the dance floor, etc. – competition works its magic and allows the heroes to overcome all personal and interpersonal problems.

via The Role of Competition in American Movies » Sociological Images.

film&theatre resumé 2020

Intellectual Discussion, Smart Entertainment…Dead and Gone?

Check out this stirring article on the death of theatregoing culture and the rise of new media. A couple of excerpts.

Film culture, at least in the sense people once used that phrase, is dead or dying. Back in what we might call the Susan Sontag era, discussion and debate about movies was often perceived as the icy-cool cutting edge of American intellectual life. Today it’s a moribund and desiccated leftover that’s been cut off from ordinary life, from the mainstream of pop culture and even from what remains of highbrow or intellectual culture.

One could argue that, in our era of consumer capitalism, films have been revealed as manufactured commodities rather than works of art, and people root for certain film franchises or producers or studios in the same way they root for Apple over Samsung, GM over Ford, or the Red Sox over the Yankees.