15 December 2011

Cinema and Social Change in Latin America

There are number of important book length studies in Latin American Cinema: one thinks of Carlos Mora's Mexican Cinema (University of California Press, 1982), Michael Chanan's Twenty-Five Years of the New Latin American Cinema (British Film Institute, 1983) and The Cuban Image (BFI/Indiana University Press, 1985), Randal Johnson's Cinema Novo X 5 (University of Texas Press, 1984) and The Film Industry in Brazil (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987), Gaizka de Usabel's The High Noon of Latin American Films in Latin America (UMI Research Press, 1982), and Randal Johnson and Robert Stam's Brazilian Cinema (Associated University Press, 1995). Julianne Burton's Cinema and Social Change in Latin America (1986) is another important addition to this field. Consisting of 20 interviews with key directors, actors, critics, and media activists from Latin America, the book indirectly offers a historical overview of three decades of socially-conscious filmmaking as practiced in a wide diversity of countries.

06 December 2011

African Aesthetics in the Films of Ousmane Sembene

In the 1960s, several African directors of the francophone region launched their filmmaking careers. Their films mark the pioneering of genre films that portray Africa through African lenses. The most well-known director among them is Ousmane Sembene, who achieved fame through the prominence of his films, 'Borom Sarret' (1963) and 'La Noire de...' (AKA 'Black Girl,' 1967). As we assess Sembene's film practice, it becomes clear that he is a gifted griot, an artist who has developed a unique cinematic method of 'Africanizing knowledge' - to paraphrase V. Y. Mudimbe. Africanization of knowledge hereby implies the creation of indigenous aesthetics, and this aesthetic orientation can be traced to two different traditions: the tradition originating from the conventions of dominant film practices, and that of traditional narrative style indebted to the African oral tradition.

21 November 2011

Reflections on Ethnic Music

This is a brief meditation on ethnicity as a source of all powerful musical styles, as a kind of curse in the contemporary world of nation states, and as an ever more complex puzzle for every student of popular music to solve. Browsing through the Wilfrid Mellers classic, one can browse a long time before finding much on ethnicity  or class as foundations for musicking. Music in a New Found Land simply extends the high culture worldview used in writing about Bach or Beethoven or Orpheus to generously include the best of popular music in a civilization that is ever broader but always universal. Mellers writes from on high, a heavenly perspective, in which sympathetic judgments of everything musical under the sun are dispensed with gusto and St. Peter is encouraged to let all kinds of quality pass the gates, or perhaps we should describe it as an Olympian-situated knowledge that savors the foibles and idiosyncrasies of all the music makers below because the gods and mortals share so many  passions. I know I have enjoyed this recent browsing greatly because I share in almost all the judgments: the appreciation of Thelonius Monk’s fingerings, the disgust with Stan Kenton’s mechanization, the appraisal of Menotti’s emptiness, the disappointments of so many ‘third stream’ syntheses. Mellers gets it right in phrase after phrase, page after page, but almost always by listening intelligently from the top down.

25 September 2011

Films on Schooling and Education

Schooling has become more or less universal in the contemporary world, with schools found in virtually every corner of the globe. The pervasiveness of modern schooling is remarkable in that it was for the most part introduced globally within the past century. Visitors to schools the world over would be struck by their similarities, the focus on rigid schedules marked off by bells, their age segregation, the arrangement of desks facing the teacher at the front of the room, behind whom is a blackboard and above which is a clock and the national flag. While everyone attends school, few analyze its origins and impacts, with most concerned with getting ahead in the system. One way to wedge open a discussion on schooling is compare and contrast it with education. Although used interchangeably, schooling can be thought of as the institutionalized side of education, which then points to questions of the impact of this institution on cultures and communities and the alternative views on education.

09 September 2011

Music and the Media Industrial Complex

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was engaged in a collaborative research project headed by Charles Keil on the question of 'participatory discrepancies' in music. Keil contended that the engaging elements of music were in the subliminal, subsyntactical, micro-timed details, that these minor variations or, as he put it, discrepancies, are evident over the course of a performance in the interactions between players. This offered a new way to think about music that was not tethered to the conventions of Western musicological scholarship and I was thrilled to be involved in a project that was questioning the status quo in academic research on music. Keil asked if I could demonstrate that these 'PDs' existed by using then current analog to digital converter technology to visually observe musical performances on the micro-timed level. The resulting research was published in 1995 in a special issue of the journal 'Ethnomusicology,' for which the editors solicited responses from a number of noted ethnomusicologists and rejoinders from Keil and I to those responses. What follows is my rejoinder, which begins by referring to the responses but then veers in another direction.

28 August 2011

Women and Allegory in Sembene's 'Xala'

Allegory places a significant role in the films of Ousmane Sembene. Its presence may in part be accounted for by the allegorical nature of African oral and written literature as well as by Sembene's emphasis on the importance of the link between history, politics and culture. When 'Xala' opens, images of a drummer and a dancer are enlarged into a company of musicians and dancers celebrating the independence of Senegal from its French colonial rulers. White statues are ejected from the Chambrede Commerce, and black men take over, but the reality of post-colonial politics is not far behind.The white men reclaim the statues and depart, only to return instantaneously to deliver brief cases filled with cash to the new black government ministers. Thus, the allegorical treatment is introduced early in the film. And particularly with the obvious equation between the council president and the Senegalese president, Leopold Senghor (whose picture we see), the audience is alerted to read subsequent events in the film in allegorical fashion.

28 July 2011

Notes on Decolonising Universities (Part Two)

On 27-29 June 2011, Multiversity held its fourth international conference in Penang, Malaysia, on the topic of 'Decolonising Our Universities.' Hosted by Citizens International and Universiti Sains Malaysia, the conference brought together academics, activists, journalists and students from throughout the Global South to address the problem of Eurocentrism in university curricula and governance. Going beyond criticism of colonialism, many participants shared experiences in decolonising higher education, reporting on local initiatives from Asia, Africa and the Mideast. Sessions and excerpts are being aired throughout July and August on TV Multiversity, and a book of the proceedings is forthcoming later this year. In this second of a two part conference report, we bring our readers highlights from Days Two and Three of this landmark event.

14 July 2011

Notes on Decolonising Universities (Part One)

On 27-29 June 2011, Multiversity held its fourth international conference in Penang, Malaysia, on the topic of 'Decolonising Our Universities.' Hosted by Citizens International and Universiti Sains Malaysia, the conference brought together academics, activists, journalists and students from the Global South to address the problem of Eurocentrism in university curricula and to develop alternatives and pathways of resistance. The conference went beyond critique with many participants sharing their experiences in decolonizing higher education by reporting on local initiatives from throughout Asia, Africa and the Mideast. The event was live streamed and also recorded. Complete sessions and excerpts are available on the TV Multiversity internet television channels and a book of the proceedings will be forthcoming later this year. This first of a two part report offers highlights from Day One.

18 June 2011

Buddhist Stories in Korean Cinema

Films with specific Buddhist content do not make up a significant percentage of Korean cinema, and among them not many can be confirmed as the products of self-conscious Buddhist religious practice. Rather than relying on the self-understanding of the filmmakers, however, I read the 'Buddhist film' within the historical lineage of a specific cultural tradition of popular oral performances, as well as its derivative tradition of popular narratives. Seen in this light, the thin trickle of films joins forces with a well-established and traditional deployment of art as religious practice. Hence, rather than isolating the films withing their modern temporal framework, I instead view them as the contemporary evolution of a process that began as far back as the eighth century.

03 June 2011

Images of Nutrition in a Korean TV Drama

Since its production in 2003, 'Dae Jang Geum' or 'Jewel in the Palace,' the 54 episode Korean TV drama, gained popularity around the world. Part of the 'Korean Wave' of TV dramas, it has been dubbed into several languages and has aired on TV in Japan and China, among other places. In 2007, millions of people in Iran watched a Farsi dubbed version on national TV. Unofficial  'fansubbing' has provided access to the series in countless languages, from Arabic to Tagalog. On the surface, the series tells the story of the first female physician who earned the special title of 'the Great' in the kingdom of Korea in the first half of the 16th century, dramatizing an era of Korean history in a way that makes it appealing to people who live in different parts of the world today. Although it focuses on how society and religious authorities were against the presence of a woman in high ranking positions, and includes the requisite love story for productions of this sort, an important aspect of the series is its emphasis on a traditional system of nutrition and medicine.

17 May 2011

Three Films by Ousmane Sembene

Popular narratives, world war, Marxism and Modernism, Khrushchev’s Moscow, African working-class life: a rich education for any artist. Over four decades of film-making, Ousmane Sembene has deployed this formation to extraordinary effect. If he has focused consistently on the social relations of Africa’s distorted development, the sheer breadth of his aesthetic— the disorientating combination of African ritual and modes of speech with expressionist set-pieces, domestic naturalism, epic choreography, social satire, sexual comedy or farce - projects his work on to a broader, more universal canvas. The complexity of his films eschews surface slickness: narrative realism can be undercut by jarring moments of melodrama, flashbacks, non-professional acting; which yet contribute, as in Brecht, to an epic sense. There is no dogmatic closure in Sembene’s work: elements of didacticism are undermined by the revelation of fresh complexities, endings are characteristically freeze frame, the final outcome still unsure. Contested relationships remain open - as in the trickster tales: Brer Rabbit's forerunner Leuk the Hare may get away this time, but that doesn't mean he's safe.

04 May 2011

'La colonia penal,' a Film by Raoul Ruiz

A journalist arrives on the Latin American island of Captiva, where a dictatorial President rules capriciously over a society that seems to consist mainly of males in military uniform, speaking a polyglot language. We learn from a voice-over that the island was first turned into a penal colony by Ecuador in the late nineteenth century, then occupied by the United States from 1899-1920, until it achieved independence and once again became a penal colony. In 1954, the United Nations assumed responsibility for it as an experimental society and it has been independent since 1972. The President is evasive and apparently anxious about the report that the journalist will deliver. At her hotel, she is importuned by a poet, who is exposed as a pickpocket by the ever-present troops. The President's behaviour becomes even more eccentric, and he vehemently denies that there is any torture on the island. A party of troops serenades the journalist before she is unceremoniously bundled off to the prison to witness scenes of punishment. A native woman recites a bizarre fable about a man who is bewitched, drowned and reborn in Europe as a little girl, only to have 'her' husband murder her daughter, at which point the whole continent sinks into the sea.

11 April 2011

Musical Instruments, Culture and Classification

An important aspect of Western music research over the last century has been the creation of classification systems for musical instruments. These systems have been useful for the purposes of cataloguing, especially for information retrieval systems and museum archives. They have also been seen as a means for gaining a conceptual handle on the great variety of musical instruments the world over. However, and just as importantly, instrument classification systems independent of Western scholarship have existed in most of the world's cultures for as long as there have been instruments to classify. By examining systems of classification and their justification, we can therefore learn something about the cultures that produce those systems.

26 March 2011

Lawrence of South Dakota

Well, here we go again. The ol' silver screen is alight once more with images of Indians swirling through the murky mists of time, replete with all the paint, ponies and feathers demanded by the box office. True, we are not confronted in this instance with the likes of Chuck Conners playing Geronimo, Victor Mature standing in as Chief Crazy Horse, or Jeff Chandler cast in the role of Broken Arrow's Cochise. Nor are we beset by the sort of wanton anti-Indianism which runs so rampant in John Ford's 'Stagecoach,' 'Fort Apache,' 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon' and 'Sergeant Rutledge.' Even the sort of 'rebel without a cause' trivialization of Indian anger offered by Robert Blake in 'Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here' - or Lou Diamond Philips in 'Young Guns' and 'Young Guns II' - is not at hand. Yet, in some ways the 1990 'Indian movie,' a cinematic extravaganza packaged under the title 'Dances With Wolves,' is just as bad.

10 March 2011

An Interview with Ousmane Sembene

A slight but sturdy Senegalese, Ousmane Sembene is a charming and provocative conversationalist, a committed revolutionary. He is also a Third World film-maker of major force and accomplishment, whose international reputation as Africa's most important director is based remarkably on a total output of five films by the early 1970s, though he was previously well known as a novelist. As a leading spokesman of sub-Sahara's black artistry, Sembene travelled the world personally, projecting his films and spreading his basic message of pride and confidence in the heritage and culture of Africa's native peoples. On such occasions in America and on the Continent, the films of Sembene have been heralded. In Africa, however, these volatile works are often banned, typically through pressure brought by the French government, which maintains a vigilant watch over its former colonies. By the mid 1970s, only Sembene's first full-length feature, 'Mandabi,' had been widely distributed outside of Senegal.

21 February 2011

Review of Satyajit Ray's 'Charulata'

'Charulata' is a 1964 Bengali film by Satyajit Ray based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore. The story takes place in the nineteenth-century during the period of what is called 'The Bengal Renaissance.' Western thoughts of freedom and individuality are ruffling the age-old calm of a feudal society. Charulata's husband, suited, bearded, pince-nez-wearing Bhupati is inspired by the gospels of Mill and Bentham, by ideas of freedom and equality. He spends his feudal wealth and all his waking hours on the propagation of these through 'The Sentinel,' an enterprise which is destined to flounder by the very fact of the single-minded idealism of its editor. But the winds of change are not only stirring him; unknown to herself, his good Hindu wife, conveniently childless, is no longer capable of treading the beaten path of the ideal woman who wants nothing of life but her husband's happiness.

08 February 2011

A Film on Music in the Trobriand Islands

The Trobriand Islands are usually assumed to be well known, thanks to the research of Bronislaw Malinowski and numerous subsequent anthropologists. But in spite of the abundant documentation of other cultural components, the music of the area had been little studied and is almost inaccessible aurally to listeners outside of Papua New Guinea. Therefore, the film 'Kama Wosi' ('Our Songs' in Kilivila language), shot in 1975 by Les McLaren and released in 1979, was a very welcome addition to knowledge of this area. What immediately strikes the viewer familiar with Malinowski's photographs of Trobriand life from 1915-1918 is that few things seem to have changed in 65 years. Even traditional music had not been supplanted by string bands, as the opening credits reveal: 'Although some music was performed expressly for the film, it still functions integrally to Trobriand society.'

09 January 2011

Old-Time Cuban Music on Film

A friend of mine, a Cuban film director, wrote to me about visiting the Salzburg Festival. After enjoying operas by Berlioz and Mozart, he said, the big surprise was the Festival’s closing event, a concert by the Cuban old-timers La Vieja Trova Santiaguera, chosen by the Festival’s special guest of the year, the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger. ‘It was tremendous. Austrians in elegant dresses and tuxedos cutting a caper and going crazy with the rhythm of one of the most traditional of our musical styles. Everyone danced and enjoyed themselves till the early hours. I can only tell you,’ my friend added, ‘that wherever I go I find this incredible popularity of Cuban music.’ The international popularity of Cuban music is not, by any means, a new phenomenon. One need only think of the Latin jazz of the 1940s, when the Cuban drummer Chano Pozo was Dizzy Gillespie’s drummer and George Russell wrote ‘Cubana Be Cubana Bop’ for Gillespie and Charlie Parker; or the rise to fame in the 1970s throughout Latin America of the singers of the Nueva Trova like Silvio Rodrìguez and Pablo Milanès; then of Afro-Cuban jazz groups such as Los Irakere in the 1980s, followed by the salsa boom of the 1990s. But, in the mid to late 1990s a new twist emerged.

02 January 2011

Ways of Looking at Ethnographic Film

In 1970, at the American Anthropological Association meetings in San Diego, Robert Gardner screened 'The Nuer' to a large anthropological audience for the first time. Probably everyone in the audience knew the Nuer from Evans-Pritchard's ethnographies. When it was over and the lights came up, we sat stunned. People said, 'Evans-Pritchard had never told us that the Nuer were like this!' A picture is worth a thousand words. What can that mean? Can one second of a movie (at 24 frames per second) be worth 24,000 words? No. But one could easily use 1,000 words to describe and analyze what is happening in a picture. The notion of 'seeing anthropology' is important, for both still photographs and moving images can complement the words anthropologists use to describe how culture works. Just as the words need to be studied, so the images must be thought about carefully.