25 December 2012

Television and Commercial Culture

Citizens of many modern industrial societies, and in American society particularly, seldom think twice about referring to themselves as ‘consumers,’ accepting the terminology from the world of media and advertising constructed for them by large corporations. Yet in the lives of their grandparents, ‘consumption’ referred to a debilitating disease, and nineteenth century dictionaries equated it with destruction and pillage. Only during the last century did advertising succeed in normalizing what was once an aberration. This is not to say that people are unaware of this process. Many are beginning to wake up to how their lives are packaged and processed; how they are ‘branded’ as children with product loyalties; how their behavior is manipulated by slick advertising campaigns; and how their public spaces have become commodified by the messages of advertising to buy, buy more, and buy again. The problem is that few people know what to do with this realization, or how to respond. Although one would never know it from watching corporate television, there is a global anti-consumption movement afoot. In street demonstrations, classrooms and other public and private gatherings, as well as by way of alternative media and non-corporate sources of information, the movement is growing. In recent years a number of books have begun to question consumer culture, ranging from psychological analysis of advertising to evaluations of the environmental impact of the all-consuming lifestyle.

11 December 2012

'The Choice' in Egyptian Cinema

Any discussion on the adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz's body of work to cinema needs to mention the film that represents the cooperation of two giants of the international and Arabic art scenes: Mahfouz and Youssef Chahine. The film in question is 'The Choice,' respectively written and directed by the two, and is a riposte to the defeat of the Egyptian army and the Arab states in the face of the Israeli military onslaught of 1967. But 'The Choice' stands alone in Mahfouz’s cinematic contributions in that it is not an adaptation of any text or novel. Rather, it is clearly a text written with the intention of being shot as a film, a collaborative effort between Mahfouz and Chahine, which took place during the war. Like many intellectuals, at the end of the war both tried to rationalize the reasons behind the Arab defeat and were we to take the message in 'The Choice' at face value we will find that the Egyptian intellectual and his schizophrenia is the main (though perhaps hidden) cause of the defeat.

22 November 2012

Indian Cinema between Calcutta and Bombay

During the nineteenth century, writers, social reformers and intellectuals in India fought the impact of colonialism by turning aggressively to their own cultural traditions, even if in some cases it meant the unconscious absorption, and the duplication, of attitudes introduced and perpetuated by the colonizers themselves. An analogous situation developed in the persistence of certain 'high-cultural' attitudes to the cinema in the early years after independence. Parag Amladi has called it the 'All India/Regional film paradigm' in which the cinema of a particular region, Bengal in this instance, and the films of Satyajit Ray in particular, was seen as the genuine thing and culturally rooted, while the Bombay film came to be regarded as un-Indian, escapist and extravagant. Indian film criticism seems to provide a cracked mirror-image of the 'nationalist' debates and conflicts of definition.

21 October 2012

Satyajit Ray on the 'Calcutta Trilogy'

Satyajit Ray began his career with the poetic 'Apu Trilogy,' made between 1955 and 1959 as the study of a young man's attempt to find himself and come to terms with the eternal conditions of life and its two opposite poles: love and death. Three of Ray's films made between 1970 and 1971 in effect form another trilogy, the main characters being seen this time in relation to their work. It is a political trilogy, about how we are being shaped, and perhaps misshapen, by our working conditions. 'Days and Nights in the Forest,' the least direct of the three, shows a group of city executives on a country weekend, away from the suffocating atmosphere of Calcutta. 'The Adversary' returns to Calcutta, where a young man revolts against the inhuman conditions attached to his search for a job. And the third film, 'Company Limited,' once more takes the audience round the other side of the desk to show the manipulations and status-seeking at the top of a big firm. In the following 1972 interview with Christian Braad Thomsen, Satyajit Ray discusses the 'Calcutta Trilogy' and other aspects of his work.

12 October 2012

Inuit Community-Based Filmmaking

While residing in one of the most challenging environments on Earth, with a total population of only about 2,500, the Inuit of the village of Igloolik have produced three feature films, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, and Before Tomorrow. This community's ways of working may prove inspirational to other Indigenous communities seeking to make feature films while using their own traditional cultural practices. Zacharias Kunuk, the Inuit director of both Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, first became interested in making videos out of a desire to record his father's hunting stories. He began moving away from his successful work as a soapstone carver to become an employee and eventually a manager of the Canadian-government-operated Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) station in his home village of Igloolik.

22 September 2012

Triumph of the Image in the Persian Gulf Oil War

While the 2003 American invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq, initiated by then president George W. Bush, raised a global protest movement against the growing imperial aspirations of the USA, to many observers the previous 1990-91 Persian Gulf Oil War, waged by George Bush Sr., inaugurated the so-called ‘New World Order,’ in which the US with its interests and allies would attempt to reign supreme and remain unchallenged. One of the key features of implementing such imperial aspirations was control of media and information sources, and in this way it would 'not be another Vietnam,' as Bush the Father was often quoted to say. As such, the 1990-91 Iraq war remains an important turning point for how tight control of information sources can be pressed into service to create the illusion of multilateral support for a supposedly ‘clean’ unilateral action.

11 September 2012

Thinking Critically about Terrorism in the Media

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa once said, 'We have wondered why it was that Dr. Savimbi's Unita in Angola and the Contras in Nicaragua were "freedom fighters," lionized especially by President Reagan's White House and the conservative right wing of the United States of America, whereas our liberation movements such as the Pan-African Congress were invariably castigated as terrorist movements.' Dr. Savimbi is a freedom fighter and Nelson Mandela is a terrorist. Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Movement (PLO) is a terrorist movement, but the Shah of Iran is a statesman. Mandela is a statesman, but so is Saddam Hussein. Hezbollah is a terrorist movement, and Iran supports terrorism, but Arafat is a statesman. The Contras are freedom fighters, and Syria is on the list of states supporting terrorism. Osama Bin Laden is a freedom fighter and Arafat is a terrorist, again. General Musharraf is a statesman, but Saddam now supports terrorist movements. The Irish Republican Army is a terrorist movement, the Taliban are statesmen, but Bin Laden is now a terrorist. Arafat is a statesman, again, but the Taliban are terrorists. Ariel Sharon and the king of Saudi Arabia are statesmen, while Hezbollah is still a terrorist movement. For those of us who get our news from the mainstream media like CNN and the BBC, it is difficult enough to keep track of the shifting and often contradictory images and sound bites used to describe complex political events, so how, in such a climate, can we ever learn to think critically about terrorism?

23 August 2012

The Sovereign Cinema of Alanis Obomsawin

What are the attributes of a cinema of sovereignty that can be teased out of Alanis Obomsawin's long career for the benefit of other indigenous media producers? What qualities have allowed her to connect with audiences both in small Native communities and at elite film festivals? The first is that her work is the product of a sovereign gaze, one that is imbued with the self-respect and unique ambitions of a self-defined sovereign people, even if this sovereignty carries with it a complex and contested legal status. Rejecting the encroachment of external media nationalisms, her cinematic vision reflects an indigenous sovereign gaze, a practice of looking that comes out of Native experience and shapes the nature of the film itself. The gaze is sovereign, I argue, when it is rooted in the particular ways of knowing and being that inform distinct nationhoods. It is sovereign when cultural insiders are the controlling intelligence behind the filmmaking process, no matter how much non-Natives might help in various capacities. It is sovereign when Native people have, as Atsenhaienton puts it, the ability to use 'our terminology to express our self-determination—how we will exist, how we relate to each other and to other people.' And it is sovereign when it works against what one scholar has dubbed the '"whiting out' of the Indigene—the projection of white concepts and anxieties about the primitive on to the Aboriginal Other—effected by the white camera eye' in Hollywood and Canadian feature films, mainstream documentaries, and traditional ethnographic cinema. By focusing attention on that which has been overlooked, concealed, or distorted in the mainstream media, Obomsawin’s cinema of sovereignty provides an ideological rebuke to dominant practices of looking at Nativeness and, in this sense, troubles the visual impulses of white settler cultures in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

27 July 2012

Israeli Cinema and the Politics of Representation

Israeli cinema, while achieving a certain measure of success and accomplishment, is often overshadowed by the other giants of the Middle Eastern film industry. The remarkable thing about Ella Shohat's Israeli Cinema (University of Texas Press, 1989) is that it manages to not only sustain but even pique our interest in films we might not necessarily want or even have the opportunity to see. She accomplishes this by using the films as raw material for the subtext (and subtitle) of her book: 'East/West and the Politics of Representation.' By doing this, Shohat has produced an impressively 'representative' work, one whose ostensible subject--Israeli film itself--by no means limits its significance. With its combination of condensed plot analysis deftly exposing the ideological significance of recurring images, and its skillful weaving of social, cultural, and political history, the book serves as a model for the intelligible presentation of any national cinema.

11 July 2012

Michael Moore's Look at American Healthcare

With his 2009 film 'Capitalism: A Love Affair,' Michael Moore once again demonstrated a knack for locating and highlighting the plight of the nameless, faceless ordinary Americans who are virtually ignored by the mass media and most politicians, and who have few if any opportunities to tell their stories. He honed this skill in several previous films and it has become more or less formulaic. This review takes a look at Moore's previous film, 'Sicko' (2007), in which he examines the contentious issue of health care in America. Although nearly 50 million Americans have no health insurance and thousands will die every year because they are uninsured, ‘Sicko’ is also about the 250 million American citizens who do have health insurance, but for whom the system is tragically dysfunctional, and point often lost on the interminable election year debates about healthcare.

22 June 2012

Indonesian Workers Expose Globalization

The 2002 documentary video 'The Globalization Tapes' originated as an unusual collaboration of the Indonesian Independent Workers' Union of Sumatra Plantation Workers (Perbbuni); the International Union of Food, Agriculture, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers' Association (IUF); and the London-based Vision Machine Film Project. For the most part, the professionals turned the filmmaking over to the plantation workers themselves. They traveled to various work sites and villages to listen to their fellow workers detail harsh working conditions and also to offer their analysis of the principal causes for much of this distress.

12 June 2012

The Multiversity Higher Education Project

The Multiversity Higher Education Project was launched in 2004 in Penang with a workshop on the redesign of social science curricula in Third World universities. A number of academics, activists, and teachers from Africa, Asia, and the Americas contributed papers and lectures reporting on the state of social sciences in their respective locales and how to move beyond the Eurocentric models of the social sciences prevalent in the formerly colonized world. Since then, there have been several conferences on related themes, such as Decolonizing Universities, Resisting Hegemony, and Academic imperialism. TV Multiversity runs in parallel with and is informed by many of the ideas presented in these conferences and workshops, clips from which are available on the TV Multiversity channels on YouTube, Vimeo, and TVU Networks (see the links provided below), and readers can learn more about the Multiversity Higher Education project through Multiworld India.

21 May 2012

National Cinema in a Transnational Mediascape

One of the fascinations of the Century of Cinema series produced by the British Film Institute is its global ambition to represent the diversity of cinema. As a result it's easy enough to gripe about all of the omissions and exclusions and 'problematic' representations in the series. As series producer Colin McCabe, faced with the massive task he had set for himself, put it: 'The solution came with the decision to abandon the quest for a total history, to opt instead for individual essays... and trust that from an incredible variety of approaches something of the complexity of the century of cinema would emerge.' An interesting wager - but what strikes me about many of the resulting sixteen films of the Century of Cinema series is how often they present simplistic reactions to, rather than complex responses to, globalization. What I think we can see in the Century of Cinema are some clear examples of how economic and political pressures on media production support certain ways of negotiating a marketable identity but compromise critical reflection on the meaning of the nation and the role of media in our lives.

08 May 2012

Kurosawa's Economic Growth Ethical Deathtrap

Akira Kurosawa's reputation as a world-class director is based first of all on his samurai films in general and two films in particular that many rate in the top echelon of film classics: 'Rashomon' (1950) and 'The Seven Samurai' (1954), both historical dramas of medieval Japan and fascinating studies of human behavior using the conventions (and pretensions) of the warrior genre. Perhaps less well-known are his social realist films, including 'High and Low' (AKA 'Tengoku to jigoku,' or 'Heaven and Hell'), which provides a commentary on the history of globalization and reflects changes in the workplace. On the surface 'High and Low' is a kidnapping film, but transcends its police procedural genre because of its economic and cultural weight.

21 April 2012

Haile Gerima on Independent Filmmaking

Haile Gerima was born in the town of Gondar, Ethiopia. His father, a playwright and storyteller, authored dramas about cultural or historical figures and topics, and traveled throughout Ethiopia with a theatre troupe that presented his work. The younger Gerima came to the United States in 1967 to study at Chicago's Goodman School of Drama. He received his M.F.A. in film from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1976, and has been a professor of film at Howard University in Washington DC since 1975. He established an independent distribution company, which has released several of his films, including 'Sankofa' (1993), 'Adwa' (1999) and 'Teza' (2008). In the following interview with Rob Edelman, Gerima speaks about his early films, establishing the distribution company, teaching film at Howard University, and his outlook on independent filmmaking. Rob Edelman also provided the introductory biographical material (slightly updated for this article).

21 March 2012

Re-examining Amartya Sen

It has been reported that after Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998, parents in West Bengal began to name their baby boys after him. Among contemporary Indian intellectuals, he has a wider readership in the Anglophone world than any of his peers; and though at least one other Indian economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, has often been mentioned as a possible Nobel Laureate in economics, among Indian economists Sen has a reach that is without comparison. One cannot think of many contemporary eminent economists who write on politics, literature, and cinema with apparent ease, and one of his former students, Harvard history professor Sugata Bose, assures the viewers of Suman Ghosh’s documentary film, 'Amartya Sen: A Life Re-examined,' that Sen has also made invaluable contributions to the study of Indian history. Those economists, such as the late John Kenneth Galbraith, who were viewed as departing from the extraordinarily rigid protocols of the discipline, which has been singular both in its insistence that it is an exact and complete 'science' and in its contemptuous repudiation of theoretical trajectories -- among them, poststructuralism, postcolonial theory, postmodernism, and feminism -- that have in some measure informed other social science disciplines, soon found themselves ostracized by their fellow economists. In this respect, at least, Amartya Sen may have the unique distinction of having retained a following in his own discipline while continuing to gain adherents among other intellectual and educated circles.

09 March 2012

Some Recent Indian Political Documentaries

Though "Bollywood" has become synonymous with Indian cinema to the uninitiated, there are an ample number of other traditions of filmmaking in India, not least of which is a tradition of political documentaries. The Indian independence movement, led in the 1920s and 1930s by Mohandas Gandhi, was the subject of the first concentrated phase of documentary filmmaking. The bulk of these films, however, never received any public screening. The Cinematograph Act of 1918 introduced censorship in India, and the Indian Cinematograph Committee of 1928, while urging the censors to curb their enthusiasm for bringing films before the cutting board, unequivocally reaffirmed the moral necessity of censorship, especially in a country among whose natives, as many Britishers believed, passions reigned supreme. The various regional censor boards did not only certify Indian films for exhibition, but also regulated the entry of foreign films into India and their public screenings. Indeed, "cheap American films," which were viewed (in the words of one English clergyman) as engaging in outright sensationalism, proliferating in "daring murders, crimes and divorces," and, more pointedly, as degrading white women in the eyes of Indians, were especially targeted for censorship. By the mid-1930s, Gandhi had become a figure of worldwide veneration; moreover, the Government of India Act of 1935, which allowed some measure of autonomy to Indians, implicitly recognized that the Indian objective of full independence was no longer a mere utopian dream. Consequently, numerous documentaries that had been banned were now made available for public screenings, among them Mahatma Gandhi's March for Freedom (Sharda Film Co.), Mahatma Gandhi's March, March 12 (Krishna Film Co.), and Mahatma Gandhi Returns from the Pilgrimage of Peace (Saraswati).

21 February 2012

Mardi Gras Made in China

In 1978 two seemingly unrelated but momentous events occurred: Deng Xiaoping put an end to Maoism by endorsing the 'capitalist road' for China (although only old-line Marxists called it that) but said, 'It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice' and women in New Orleans began flashing their breasts during Mardi Gras parades to score more beads from passing floats. David Redmon's film 'Mardi Gras Made in China' is the clear and damning story of how Chinese capitalism and globalization have created the Tai Kuen Bead Factory in a tax-free Special Economic Zone in Fuzhou. Hundreds of teenagers, mostly girls, work up to sixteen hours a day for ten cents an hour to make the millions of beads that Mardi Gras revelers need for the bodacious New Orleans parade scene. The girls also make assorted other souvenirs, including little porcelain figures with exaggerated sexual organs.

02 February 2012

A Selection of Videos from PRATEC

The Project on Andean Peasant Technologies (PRATEC) is a Peruvian NGO that works with rural communities on various projects related to education and cultural affirmation. Active for over 20 years, PRATEC has evolved a way of working with the indigenous peoples of the Andean highlands that is based on the spirit of walking together with, rather than leading or guiding, the local communities. Independent filmmaker Maja Tillmann Salas collaborated with PRATEC from 2003 until 2007 to produce a number of videos documenting their projects and activities, ranging from deschooling and educational reform to the ritual nurturance of cultivated fields. Many of her films have been screened at international festivals. PRATEC has more recently worked with Sachavideos based in Lamas, Peru. Collectively, these videos offer a unique view of Andean peasant communities and their cosmovision that sees life in a reciprocal relationship with nature, where human beings are nurtured by nature, and in return nature is nurtured by human beings.

25 January 2012

Review of 'The Battle of Chile'

Great films rarely arrive as unheralded as "The Battle of Chile" did in 1975, a two-part, three-hour-and-ten-minute documentary about the events leading to the fall of Chilean President Salvador Allende. This film doesn't even present itself with fanfare, and it takes a while to get going. It opens in March of 1973 with inquiring reporters asking people how they're going to vote in the coming congressional election, which amounts to a plebiscite on the Allende government. The election is taking place after Allende has been in office for over two years and has been trying to reorganize the society and move it toward Socialism within the framework of democratic government. His Popular Unity coalition was put into office with only a third of the popular vote, so he has been on shaky ground. His efforts to nationalize certain industries have brought on a squeeze from the banking and industrial community and from foreign interests (especially the United States), and Chile is suffering economic deprivations.

15 January 2012

The American Documentary Phenomenon

An extraordinary efflorescence of political documentaries is taking place around the world, not least in the United States. Though particular cultural artifacts -- manga, anime, chutney, and 'world music,' among many others -- have taken on transnational forms and flourished in recent years, and though mass and pop culture in their numerous manifestations have come under increased scholarly scrutiny, the emergence of political documentaries as an aspect of world culture is a phenomenon which so far has received little attention. Documentary filmmakers are far from being celebrities, but documentary retrospectives at major festival festivals are nonetheless now common. The most recent edition of the Sundance Film Festival, now one of the most well-known avenues for showcasing independent and avant-garde cinema, especially in the United States, commenced with a screening of the documentary, Chicago 10, director Brett Morgen's attempt to bring to life the turbulence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the trials of anti-war protesters that came in its wake. To invoke what we might call the contemporary documentary phenomenon is not to suggest that the political documentary has no previous history, nor even that contemporary documentaries are necessarily distinguished by their breadth of vision, cinematic qualities, or more than the ordinary form of political awareness. Nonetheless, it is palpably clear that in countries as diverse as the United States, India, Brazil, and Korea, the political documentary is undergoing a renaissance, and that the sheer proliferation and visibility of such documentaries marks a new stage in the history of both this art form and political activism in an age saturated by the image and visual icons.