18 July 2015

Six Films About Religion and Belief

When religion is examined as a social institution and belief as a set of cultural values, films sharing common religious themes come in handy for their isolated contexts and full-length storyline with clear focal points. This essay sets out to compare and discuss three arguably well-circulated themes throughout all religions and beliefs by looking at three pairs of films: We’re No Angels (USA 1989) with Marmoulak (aka The Lizard, Iran 2004); Devi (aka The Goddess, India 1960) with Bagh-e Sangi (aka Garden of Stones, Iran, 1976); and The Shoes of the Fisherman (USA/UK 1968) with Zir-e Nur-Mah (aka Under the Moonlight, Iran 2001).

10 June 2015

Cinema Criticism and Social Class

Art films, middle cinema and commercial films in India all depend on the middle classes for legitimacy and critical acclaim. Even those producers and performers who stridently proclaim the supremacy of popular taste, or denounce the elitism of the art-film critics, are on the defensive when there is a sharp criticism of their wares in the media. Indeed, the way the producers of each of these kinds of movies try to win friends and influence middle-class opinion give the lie to their declared dependence on only the opinions of the 'common Indian.' The common Indian is rarely influenced by what Kumar Shahani says of Manmohan Desai. But Desai was distressed when Shahani took him on while Shahani in turn resents that his films do not get the patronage or support of those for whom his radical ear bleeds, whereas Desai mobilizes such support with casual ease. Nevertheless, there are clear differences in the cultural thrusts of the three; to gauge the appeal or lack of appeal of any of these forms, one must first identify the thrusts.

09 April 2015

Third Cinema in the Third World

With the first screenings of films like The Hour of the Furnaces by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (1968), Black Girl by Ousmane Sembene (1966), or Memories of Underdevelopment by Tomas Gutierrez Alea (1968), moviegoers were confronted with a new spectrum of ideas, emotions, and images. A new cinema emerged from countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin American that directly assaulted the colonial past. The forebearers of Third World Cinema proclaimed both the necessity and the capability of defining the terms of their cultural expression. In his book Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation (UMI Research Press, 1982), Teshome H. Gabriel not only analyzes some of these films, but examines interrelationships that determine Third World cinema: not simply films produced within the Third World, but an alternative cinema, '...a cinema of decolonization and for liberation... a Third Cinema.'

17 January 2015

The Politics of Music Piracy in Bolivia

The government of indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales, which was inaugurated in January 2006 and has huge popular support (gaining over 64% of the vote when re-elected in December 2009), has made no significant attempt to confront music, software or book piracy to date. However, the rise of piracy and collapse of the large-scale music industry date from well before Morales' tenure and need to be viewed in broader historical context. In particular, the various phases of neo-liberal policies since the mid-1980s have been seen to have exacerbated inequality, favoured foreign interests, reduced state legitimacy, and ultimately ignited the social movements that swept Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) Government to Power. Thus, the growth of piracy may, in part, be seen to reflect social conditions that denied majority access to knowledge and cultural resources and a political climate in which many Bolivians came to feel that laws were unjust and favoured the rich.

12 December 2014

Television, Culture and Consumerism

Television encourages viewers to consume images that most people would otherwise not have access to in the course of a typical life. While this might sound like a benefit, television is not simply about seeing new and different things. It is also about selling. Television programming evolved hand-in-hand with consumerism, at first in its birthplace in America during the mid-20th century, but increasingly everywhere else in the world as well. In a way, television has spread the ethos of consumerism around the globe. It has also spread voyeurism, a more insidious form of consumerism, in the way it reveals what used to be private aspects of human life to public view. Television has normalized consumerism and voyeurism, and in turn these cultural preferences, encouraged by television, exert an influence over the medium, so that there is a reciprocity between television and society. The TV industries monitor the flow of this give-and-take relationship by sophisticated marketing surveys to tailor programs to what they perceive as the interests of their consumer-viewers. Many viewers are unaware that their habits are carefully monitored and that the television industries have created various market segments, or what they call "audiences," to buy and sell in the global marketplace, just like any other commodity. Although viewers think that they are sitting at home watching the tube, the tube is also watching them, and their viewing habits are traded in a marketplace that is still primarily driven by advertising.

24 August 2014

Cinema and Representation in China

The distance between Hong Kong and China can perhaps be measured by what is considered representable in each culture. Hong Kong is permeated by advertising, like a Western city. It is dominated by writing: signs of all descriptions festoon city buildings and stretch across the street. The Chinese cities we visited in 1981 (including 'sophisticated' Shanghai) treated sign writing functionally, to indicate a locale or slogan that needed indicating; advertising had begun to appear, but tentatively. In cinema, too, the same contrast appears. Hong Kong cinema has developed a strong tradition of depictions of violence, involving its own system of performances and special effects, its own codes and conventions. The Chinese film-makers we met in Shanghai were assessing their first foray into the explicit depiction of familial violence: a scene in Family Festivities (1980) in which a husband slaps his wife who has been intriguing to break up the extended family group into a series of independent nuclear households. Such a level of aggression is new in Chinese cinema, and the scene was shot so as not to emphasise the physicality of the moment of husband striking wife. However, it is dangerous to treat such comparisons as emblematic of general features of a society. All that we can do is to record certain impressions.

09 August 2014

Social Amnesia and the American Culture of Carnage

On 20 April 1999, armed to the teeth with bombs and automatic weapons, two teenaged students named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stormed into their suburban high school in Littleton, Colorado, and carried out a horrific display of murder and mayhem before committing suicide. When the smoke cleared, 12 students and 1 teacher lay dead, with many more wounded, and Americans were left to sort out another seemingly senseless act of what has come to be called 'teen violence.' Law enforcement and the media soon swarmed the site as investigators looked for clues and reporters sought answers. National news outlets entirely pre-empted normal programming for several hours afterwards, in a bizarre spectacle of suffering, anguish, and confusion. Over the next few days, as the events in Littleton had receded somewhat into the usual corporate media stew of consumerism and the latest war, speculation about the incident ran rampant.

27 July 2014

Redefining Black Independent Cinema

In August 1984, the Los Angeles Times first-string film critic, Charles Champlin, devoted his column to the subject 'A Black Film Bonanza Hollywood Ignored.' He--and the Los Angeles filmgoing audience--were discovering for the first time the wealth of Black cinema that had been produced in recent years. Beneath the facade of Hollywood'd glitter and Southern California's 'me' culture, Los Angeles is becoming a city of color. The largest ethnic group in its public schools is Latino, and it has one of the largest Asian populations in the US. It is a city with a long history of organizing for affirmative action in the workplace and schools. Los Angeles has been the source of some of the most pioneering and important independent works in recent years, much of which has been produced in these Third World communities.

09 July 2014

Microbroadcasting vs. the Media Monopoly

People around the world are becoming disgusted with the state of the airwaves. Despite threats of fines and violence, pirate radio activists are turning out and turning on their own stations in defiance of government broadcast regulators. Thousands of Taiwanese police blitzed 14 unauthorized radio outlets, many of which returned to the air following the raid. Twelve people were killed in a raid on a pro-democratic pirate station in Haiti, but the soldiers failed to seize the transmitter. A pirate station broadcasting from a traffic island in Mexico City was also shut down by a phalanx of police. Microbroadcasters in Canada and the U.S. haven't yet been subject to such brutality, but the battle to exercise their claimed right to the public airwaves is no less fierce. The movement's North American epicenter is the San Francisco Bay area where unlicensed FM stations offer a non-commercial alternative. It is also home to the movement's unofficial spokesperson, Stephen Dunifer.

25 June 2014

Politics and Femininity in 'The Chess Players'

Like most great Indian myth-makers of the last two hundred years, Satyajit Ray is at his most creative when dealing with problems of women and femininity. There can be no better way of acknowledging his 'presence' in the contemporary Indian consciousness than by recognising the social criticisms his construction of womanhood offers. I shall try to give some flavour of this presence by partly re-reviewing a film of his which is apparently concerned only with men and with a 'manly' pursuit, politics. This film, 'Shatranj Ke Khilari' ('The Chess Players'), is based on a famous short story by Munshi Premchand and is Ray's only full-length Hindi film, directed at what may be called a pan-Indian audience. That it failed to reach its intended audience is of course well known. We do no know how far the failure was due to the film itself and how far to the structure of the Indian film industry, but that is not a specially relevant question in this context. For my concern in this re-review is to show that there is not only a politics of statecraft but also a politics of culture, and that all great artists have to deal with the second kind of politics, even when overtly refusing to challenge its basic axioms.