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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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In Defense of the Social Science Majors

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the worth of anthropology in the education system and job market. First, let me just say that it is distressing that universities, once the sites of higher learning, have turned so swiftly into job mills that politicians fuss over the market value of majors. Gov. Rick Scott suggests the technical demands of the STEM fields should be subsidized by the less marketable non-STEM majors—leaving humanities and social sciences students with more debt when, as Scott notes, there’s less demand for them. In other words, they can sit in more student debt for longer, just so universities can encourage students into the already-saturated STEM fields. Besides, that strategy may not even work:

In a working paper, Xueli Wang, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has studied data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 to find that exposure and success to math at an early age is far more predictive of STEM enrollment than financial motivations. This makes sense: Waving money in front of a high school senior’s face does little if that student doesn’t feel that he or she has the skill set to succeed.   from Pitt News

Moreover, Scott has railed against anthropology, noting that Florida does not need more anthropologists. Besides a total lack of imagination for what anthropologists can actually do, Scott, as well as FL Senator Don Gaetz, are demeaning social sciences by ideologically linking academic study with job preparation. While the two can certainly dovetail, they need not be the same. I recall hearing the opinion generally expressed that trade or vocational school was for those who weren’t smart or motivated enough to attend university. But from the mouths of politicians came criticisms of the universities for being “out of touch,” “anti-American,” or even offensive. Somehow the political rhetoric has shifted from universities’ attacks on academic freedom to their capacity to get people jobs. Universities aren’t just for liberal geeks anymore; they’re for job-oriented real Americans! And where does that leave the vocational schools?

It makes sense to make universities as well-rounded as possible. Elective courses in the arts, dance, sports, computer skills, and other non-academic pursuits can flesh out an undergraduate’s experience. And for the accumulation of resources and networking opportunities, why shouldn’t folks interested in business, engineering, and other technical degrees be able to enjoy a university environment? However, the same extends to folks interested in the social sciences and humanities. And if we’re concerned about the applicability of these degrees, isn’t it better for an art major to attend a university where she can take education courses as well? Or for a poli sci major to be able to take computer courses, in an age when prominence in social media predicted the election results? Rather than dismissing the “soft” majors as useless, let’s foster a sense of interdisciplinarity. After all, when that lab coat wearing, superbly trained science major goes in for job interviews, there’s a couple of presentational techniques taught in introductory theatre courses that will be very helpful.

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‘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).

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Inherited Discrimination

Recently I Facebooked this post from Bunnika discussing the relative vs. actual progress for women’s rights, and the rhetorical strategies of men’s rights advocates. She demonstrates how men’s rights rebuttals often depend upon the vary ideologies and stereotypes that enforce gender inequality. Almost immediately, I got a comment from a gentleman calling out the “poison” and “inequality” of the post. If you read Bunnika’s blog, you’ll know this is hardly the most “fightin’ words” of her repertoire. The commentator argued that society is full of institutions like feminism, and because feminism is now so ingrained, it’s difficult for men to fight it when their rights are being infringed upon. He urged me to consider both sides rather than hiding from discussions like most feminists he’s encountered. Well, I have, and even talked with him, and he’s the one who didn’t respond. The truth is, movements like feminism and MRA are both in response to perceived inequality. Our learned definition of our gender identities inform every sex-based argument we have.

That said, there is clear sex discrimination against women in the workforce, in the legislatures, and in culture. I’m not going to post statistics because as my commentator pointed out, fighting statistic against statistic is time-consuming and ultimately pointless. As a theatre techie, a gamer, a writer, a (former) retail worker, a student, a political activist, and a sexual partner, I have in every one of those vocations been demeaned, ignored, ridiculed, or undermined based on my sex. Do I perceive myself to be underprivileged? Yes, in the sense that I must remain aware of the challenges, of the odds against me. I learned that I could rarely grab a screw gun or pick up a large package without some man rushing up to me with concern. This “helpfulness” is based upon an assumption that women should not be strained, physically or otherwise. Every election season we have politicians expressing concern over whether or not a female politician can balance her career with her family. And when even sex symbol Beyonce calls out the gender pay gap, we realize that even women in power can feel relatively lesser. MRA may argue that men are increasingly diminished in American society, but are they reacting to ideological shifts in gender perceptions or to practical shifts in, say, Congressional seats? As an anthropologist, I cannot declare which side is “right,” but I can ask how both movements are impacted by their culturally-learned assumptions, and how the hegemonic ideologies inherited by both inform the agency of social actors.

It’s not just sexism and sex-related movements that are driven by these psychosocial processes.  Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) recently

criticized the grant money that will soon be coming to eastern North Carolina for one reason: it will be used to buy books about Muslim culture. […] Jones protested that the money was unfairly benefiting Muslims and harming Christians, as he explained in a local TV interview. […] Jones told WITN he wrote a letter in response to the grant to a local Christian organization, asking for them to provide an equal number of Judeo-Christian items to offset the new Muslim culture books in the library’s collection.

This equation of inclusion with promotion is a part of white Western ethos that seriously impacts institutional equality. By the same token, feminists’ ideology of inclusion has led many men to criticize feminism for its promotion of women. As I once tried in vain to explain to a conservative ex-boyfriend, if the scales are uneven, one must add a little more weight to the lesser side, and that was the goal of political feminism. Unfortunately, no amount of logic can sway some men who grew up with a historically learned idea of male superiority.

In a similar case, a documentary I just watched about the battle in Tucson, AZ over Raza classes in Tucson High showed that the program’s opponents were horrified that students were engaged in “non-white” learning. The Hispanic students and teachers in the program were accused of communism, sedition, racism, and anarchism, among other things. The program, which had increased the graduation rate of Hispanic students, was ultimately dismanted by Gov. Jan Brewer, under recommending of the state school board’s findings that the classes “indoctrinated” Hispanic students into “non-American” ways. The teachers’ lesson plans? Mexican history and culture, the Spanish language, and discussion of Hispanic culture in the United States. That a non-white approach was included in the public schools was a cause for outrage among conservative white Arizonans.

As was the case with the civil rights movement, and as we see with continued work for gender, racial, LGBT, and ethnic equality, social movements are ultimately won by the force of the actors’ argument and their manipulation of prevailing ideologies to their benefit. As a certain dialectic must occur for change to do so, we can hardly condemn any movement for their explicit intent, but only their methods.

See also:

Male Jurors More Likely to Find Fat Female Defendents Guilty