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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

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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.

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The Art of Immersion: Found Footage and Classical Film

The “found footage” genre (style?) of filmmaking was wildly popularized for the horror genre beginning with the (in)famous Sundance entrant “The Blair Witch Project,” and judging by the apparently exhaustive list here, horror has become its home; one might even describe such films as “Paranormal Activity,” “V/H/S,” “The Last Exorcism,” as part of a subgenre of horror. All the films present themselves as a recording of horrific events—some “intentionally” done as a documentary, some as a loose narrative involving some supernatural terror. Most revolve around young people who mirror the films’ demographic: the share-all, tech-obsessed Generation Me.

Beyond this style’s obvious reflection in the rise of YouTube artists, confessional “reality” TV programming, and emphasis on social media as a means of establishing relationships, the “found footage” style marks a new type of filmmaking, one that eschews special f/x and big names of modern cinema, but also the grand art and epic tales of classic cinema.

In fact, reading recently about French New Wave cinema and Francois Truffaut’s skewering of the literary, artificial cinematic tradition in “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” I couldn’t help but think that a similar paradigm shift is taking place now in the United States. Of course, the range of U.S. films includes the emotional indies, the riveting biopics, the sweeping historical pieces, the wide range of comedy, the disturbing drama, the provocative speculative fiction pieces, and the grandiose adventure tales. Even in the  next few months, we have “2 Days in New York,” “Lincoln,” “Argo,” “Bachelorette,” “Compliance,” “Looper,” and “The Hobbit.” None of these are in the “found footage” format.

However, to compare the construction of certain classic films with these new styles reveals several interesting similarities. To begin with, I will discuss two exceptional found-footage sci-fi movies. The first, “Cloverfield,” was released in 2008, directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Drew Goddard, one of his “Lost” writers and one of “Buffy’s” and “Angel’s” latter-season writers. The film is presented as a tape found at the aftermath of an attack on New York City, and uses the “film-within-a-film” device to contrast the lives of its subjects before the attack, with the horror they experience. (The beginning of the tape, which is preserved before one of the characters accidentally records over it with footage of a party, followed by full documentation of their attempted escape, provides a rather clever means of exposition.) This approach allows for a very natural exploration of character and a very relaxed method of storytelling: pure causality, in that the characters are shoved into one situation or another according to primarily external factors, but with the overriding impulse of the central character to save his girlfriend. By using a handheld that was partly operated by one of the actors, the wonderfully blunt and sometimes inappropriately funny T.J. Miller, we are given a greater sense of realism than we do with the self-elected documentary style. Rather than filming what’s “important,” and thus destroying the illusion of the film (which is a problem that I had with “The Blair Witch Project”), the camera is simply always on, with only some necessary cuts made when Miller’s character is forced to turn off the camera. This film has no mark of being a “film” in name, but by its fast-paced, unforgiving, accidental documentation of the monster and its associated terrors, of the trauma experienced by the characters, and the general horrific atmosphere, is so convincingly “found” that we lose ourselves in it. We become immersed…and scared.

More recently, “Chronicle” (2012), directed and written by “The Kill Point” creator Josh Trank and co-written by horror TV scribe Max Landis, appears to be in the found-footage style but takes it to the next level: rather than limit to one camera and present itself as a found recording, it is told entirely through cameras that we are made aware exist. While one would expect that this would produce a distracting barrier, it accomplishes the opposite.

Firstly, since it can be told through multiple cameras, the story may be told through different points of view. This may sound obvious, but consider the tremendous bias given by true “found footage” movies. When the actors are the cameramen (or when the cameramen adopt only the POVs of the actors), it limits the audience’s involvement. The viewer enjoys being in a privileged place of knowing more than the actors do; it’s actually surprising that this style is popular with horror movies since the viewer loses the privilege of shouting “Look out!” Imagine the classic horror films in found-footage style: there would be no sense of dread as the shadow of Norman Bates appears beyond the shower curtain, no sense of doom as the Alien unfolds behind Brett, no sense of panic when the shark edges up to the skinny-dipper’s legs. What is more frightening than something unseen?*

Yet “Chronicle” manages to frighten by going in the opposite direction: freed from the documentarian bias and couched in the entirely realistic exploits of three teenagers who happily videotape themselves engaging in various mischief courtesy of their newfound telekinesis, it oversaturates us with endless videos of their (sometimes harmful) pranks, then at the climax, when the powers are (of course) all-consuming, turns the requisite “movie media” into unwitting storytellers (as they are…). The plethora of cameraphones, security feeds, news cameras, and personal camcorders all capture this tremendous event from a dizzying number of perspectives, edited together so randomly, with unheard-of perspectives as the equipment falls and flies, and completely sucks in the viewer. We are so aware that we are watching it through cameras, but it is so overstimulating that the illusion is reverse-engineered: we cannot help but believe what we are seeing.

In a completely different genre and decade, we notice a similarly collective approach. In fact, this same philosophy applies to many films whose common denominator is their use of multiple perspectives and ambient emotion. Quentin Tarantino’s and Wes Anderson’s films are a prime example. Recently for a class, I watched Otis Preminger’s “Bonjour Tristesse” and was fascinated by the use of subtle nonverbal acting, the construction of the main story within an uneventful night in the central character’s life, and the extensive use of wide perspective and long takes. Moreover, much happens in the film that is not directly related to the central plot, which details a teenage girl’s initial support for her father to take up with a woman she has admired, and its turn into a plot to expel her supposedly wicked new stepmother from her life. The minor stories surrounding this main plotline have no impact on those events, nor do they all concern the central characters. However, they express themes or reveal character such that we have a strong sense of who the central characters, who they are not, who they are pretending to be, and in addition what we’re supposed to be considering while we watch the drama unfold. Preminger’s style is very detached, very deliberate, and very skeptical, yet immerses us in a world in which we can watch (and criticize) characters’ choice.

Despite the complete difference in genre and topic, the same thing is accomplished in Tarantino’s and Anderson’s films, among others, and in “Chronicle.” This phenomenon certainly points to humans’ complicit construction in viewing a story, and may have implications for research into story therapy—perhaps the new immersion therapy?

*As Stephen King wrote in Entertainment Weekly #1001 (2008):

“Horror is an intimate experience, something that occurs mostly within oneself…the event films that pack the plexes in the summer…blast our emotions and imaginations, instead of caressing them with a knife edge. […] Horror is not spectacle, and never will be.”