The Seen and The Unseen

B. Ruby Rich 

from Film Quarterly Fall 2017, Volume 71, Number 1

“If peace, let us fight for it. And fight for it especially with cinema. By refusing to see films that are merely propaganda for any unjust system.”1

It is not often that I steal lines from one of the issue’s authors to open my editorial, but with apologies to Amelie Hastie, I have indeed done just that. The lines were written by Bryher, who with the poet H.D. and their partner Kenneth Macpherson founded and edited the legendary film journal Close Up. The idea that a struggle can be waged via cinema is an appealing one today, as so many other battlefields seem already lost. For me, there is always hope lurking in film and television and, increasingly, online media. Political obstacles may seem insurmountable, but as I am fond of declaring: nobody has to elect a film. You can buy your ticket or download the new season or share the latest upload or streaming evidence and—at press time, at least—no one can stop you. For these troubled and, truly, exciting and invigorating times, this issue of Film Quarterly is up to the task.

Across the Atlantic

Cinema is global. Yes, you know that, of course you do. And yet, traveling offscreen to locales outside this journal’s California base is always a salutary activity. One of the few providential effects of the new horrific U.S. presidential regime and the corresponding horror of the UK’s Brexit vote—both outcomes of massive information-manipulation which, by the way, the media fields thus far appear either incapable of combating or complicit in perpetuating—has been the near-instantaneous strengthening of the European Union as an entity. However grumpily many French may have greeted their Emmanuel Macron morning-after results, his quick succession of election victories, taken together with the recent Dutch election, have buoyed hopes that fascism is not necessarily poised to overtake the continent. And in London, the blow dealt to Theresa May in her snap election gave Britons hope that the Tories might yet be deposed, a wish attached to the refrain of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” wafting down from June’s biennial Glastonbury Festival. All in all, then, an auspicious time for this editor’s visits to London and Paris.


B. Ruby Rich and Laura Mulvey at Birkbeck, University of London
during the “Being Ruby Rich: Film Curation as Advocacy and Activism” symposium.

Who can complain about a Barbican series in one’s own honor? Not I. The remarkable “Being Ruby Rich” season at the Barbican Centre (June 22–25) comprised five screening slots, including the London premiere of Yance Ford’s Strong Island (2017), which already figures as the year’s outstanding debut, along with revivals of a great many features and shorts. The Barbican series was preceded by what the organizers termed a “study day” at Birkbeck, University of London, with participants including the likes of Laura Mulvey, Isaac Julien, Michele Aaron, Campbell X, Dagmar Brunow, Janet McCabe, Elhum Shakerifar, Andrea Luka Zimmermann, Catherine Grant, so many that I’d blush to name them all. And I am still alive—luckily, as I learned so very much from the panelists and from the younger generations of scholars and students assembled in the Birkbeck screening room, steaming on one of the hottest days in history, that I’d like the chance to put it to use.

The climate in the Barbican was cooler, but the screenings and discussions continued to be hot and involving. Yance Ford decided to show up in person (instead of the planned Skype chat), flying overnight from New York to discuss his debut documentary feature, Strong Island. It was there that a surprise announced herself in the lobby: at the final screening of the series, Lucrecia Martel’s La niña santa (The Holy Girl, 2004), the film’s lead actress María Alché, in town to complete post-production on her debut feature, La familia sumergida [The Submerged Family], decided to drop in on the screening—to the delight of the London audience. I was thrilled to discover an emergent U.S. talent on display: Alli Logout’s spectacularly fresh chronicle, Lucid Noon, Sunset Blush (2015), a queer day-in-the-life of a South Texas town that starts in a basement dubbed The Palace and reveals itself across long walks, outrageous stories, and the back of a pickup truck that (almost) never moves.


Yance Ford, B. Ruby Rich (front), Alex Thiele, Selina Robertson, Claire Yeung Kurylowski, Gali Gold, and Sophie Mayer at the Barbican Centre after the screening of Yance Ford’s Strong Island.

My own keynote, accompanied by a screening of the roundly applauded Cuban film, De cierta manera (One Way or Another, Sara Gomez, 1974/77), was focused on the sobering news of the month in London. I dedicated my speech to the memory of Khadija Saye, the astonishingly accomplished artist who died at the age of 24 in the massive Grenfell Tower fire of June 14, 2017. Titling my call to arms “Beyond Recognition, Beyond Opposition: A Cinema of Urgency for Rapacious Times,” I addressed the need for a new cinematic practice that can craft modes of address and rhetorics of persuasion for the new political moment. I called for a new cinema of conjuring, of bringing something new into existence. To be continued.

It is a wondrous experience to have one’s work appreciated and engaged with to this extent, and I confess to a lasting humility and transient stupefaction in the wake of it all. The tireless Sophie Mayer and Selina Robertson and their partners at Club des Femmes, along with the Barbican’s own Gali Gold, pulled off this extreme stunt in style. I couldn’t be more grateful for their remarkable accomplishment. In larger terms, moreover, the Barbican-Birkbeck week stands as a reminder of the power of criticism and scholarship when launched into the world, a practice that FQ plans to continue to advance, as far as possible, into the future.

It was in London that I first learned of trouble brewing across the channel, where in February 2017 the Cinémathèque française had put the full extent of its misogyny on public display. Partnering with the Festival de Films de Femmes de Créteil, the Cinémathèque presented a retrospective of the Hollywood director Dorothy Arzner in a rare acknowledgment of women’s filmmaking. Since moving into sparkling new quarters in 2005, the Cinémathèque has managed to present, until now, only five retrospectives of women directors: Michèle Rosier, Annett Wolf, Caroline Champetier, Naomi Kawase, and Catherine Breillat.2

This long history of ignoring women was not the issue, however. Rather, it was the manner in which it decided to “honor” Arzner that set off a storm of protests. The Cinémathèque hosted the retrospective organized by the San Sebastián film festival, but created its own catalogue and texts. And that is where the trouble began! As Anne-Laure Pineau wrote in Liberation, the event reeked with “the scent of retro-macho.”3 To everyone’s astonishment, the commissioned essay was by a male critic (not to be granted the glory of his byline here) who attacked Arzner in the essay allegedly in her honor. The text on the website insulted her further, demeaning her work and slandering her reputation and her fans. Manon Enghien, writing online, analyzed the male responses in a piece entitled “Dorothy Arzner through the Eye of Sexism.”4

For more on the Arzner scandal, read Judith Mayne’s essay in Quorum. Mayne, whose book on Arzner is the defining text, was invited to the San Sebastián film festival for its retrospective, but not to the Cinémathèque.5

The paradox of such masculinist, woman-hating policies persisting in a country with the most women filmmakers—Agnes Varda, Claire Denis, Nelly Kaplan, Celine Sciamma, and dozens and dozens more—is staggering. The Cannes Film Festival, meanwhile, remains bizarrely obsessed with policing women on the steps of the Palais, making headlines every spring: no high heels, no entrance; no pass for the infant, no entrance; and on and on. And year after year, it keeps Jane Campion in her category of one (even Campion has taken to complaining about her solitary status) as a woman awarded the Palme d’Or, with Sofia Coppola a close second. Only time will tell if the Macron presidency, with its 50 percent female cabinet composition, will make any difference to le cinéma français.

Cinema Revivalism

In June, a headline proclaimed astonishing news in the world of music: Sony would start pressing vinyl records again for the first time since the 1970s. In Europe, news about the evolving culture of cinema-going and movie-theater exhibition has been almost as good. A recent blog post by Ellen Reay for ICO (the Independent Cinema Office) reports on a new study by Agnès Salson and Mikael Arnal on the state of film exhibition which found that cinemas all over Europe are being revived by local communities and exploring new modes of exhibition and stewardship.6

Salson and Arnal visited twenty countries and more than two hundred cinemas to compile their optimistic report.7 It is definitely recommended reading. How grand to learn about the cinema on the island of Mallorca, the Cineciutat, which closed down but was then taken over by local citizens who now run it. Or the cinemas in Amsterdam, sustained by the monies from their bars, cafes, and restaurants. Or Copenhagen’s Gloria theater, where the Copenhagen Radio Cinema (Københavns Radiobiograf) organizes monthly radio listening sessions with recordings of radio shows curated worldwide. And in Poland, the Kino za Rogiem (“Cinema at the corner of the street”) supports the creation of micro-cinemas in libraries, cultural centers, fire stations, and the like in an effort to develop a network of small cinema rooms, with reduced costs but high quality, to meet new cultural needs.

Nothing in the report gives clues to gender representation in these new cinematic spaces, but I can’t help but wonder. Their research was commissioned by France’s CNC (Le Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée) and luckily, the Cinémathèque appears not to have been involved. The European cinemas could do worse than to look to the model of the Barbican Centre and the spunky Club des Femmes for tips on how to mobilize an astonishingly enthusiastic audience.

In This Issue

In this issue, Deirdre Boyle offers an analysis and appreciation of Rithy Panh’s latest works, comprised of a film (2016) and an installation piece (2017) that share the same title: Exil (Exile). Best known for his key works, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003) and The Missing Picture (2013), which was nominated for an Academy Award, Panh here addresses more directly than ever before the emotional cost of exile and his own diasporic position as eternal refugee. Boyle argues that Exil, Panh’s most experimental and demanding film, is a form of “meta-cinema” that builds a language, a maison poétique, for the trauma of abandonment and exile, while the installation piece, with its two hundred projected photographs and symbolic objects (clotheslines, a raft), is remarkably simple and childlike in its accessibility.

In “Emergency Cinema and the Dignified Image,” Chad Elias analyzes the unprecedented documentaries that have emerged from Syria, considering the aesthetic choices of these self-made documentaries as well as their ethical concerns. Surveying works that include Rabih Mroué’s The Pixelated Revolution (2012), Ossama Mohammed’s Silvered Water (2014), and the works of the Syrian filmmaking collective Abounaddara (2010–), Elias considers the chaotic camera work of the early days as a visual register of the “physical re-education of a new citizen in the making” and argues for the use of the cell phone as a tool of witnessing.

Ling Zhang examines the work of Japanese American filmmaker Emiko Omori, shown in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City this spring, seeing in this working filmmaker and cinematographer of almost fifty years standing an exemplar of personalized cinematography in which the handheld camera enables “a journey of rediscovery and breathe[s] with the traces of history.”

Marc Francis and Linnéa Hussein’s analysis of Kitty Green’s controversial Casting JonBenet (2017) tracks the impact of pop culture, limning the ways in which individuals personalize its shape-shifting images into subjectivities of their own devising. Francis and Hussein probe the nature of performativity in Kelly’s deconstructed documentary, as they contrast the glib vocabularies of sensationalism and gossip with the very real effects of shared trauma on a community.

Reviewing the Janus/Criterion release of a restored and digitally enhanced version of the long-unavailable classic Multiple Maniacs (1970), Chris Holmlund claims it as John Waters’s “most blasphemous film.” Drawing on her own interviews with Waters and the “Dreamlanders,” she brings an expert eye to her scatalogical subject and explains why this restoration is not only a real discovery but a Must Buy.

This issue’s columnists contribute their typically incisive thoughts on a range of works that caught their attention and are deserving of yours.

For Bilal Qureshi, The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984) merits a revival, especially given this year’s anniversary of Partition. He notes that its fourteen weeks on PBS in 1984–85 brought Americans “drama, adventure, wealth, and endless gin fizz” and proposes the end of the Raj as the “original Brexit.” Once the essence of “appointment television,” today the series shows how deeply a conventional series can engage profound political and historical questions.

For Amelie Hastie, Their Finest (Lone Scherfig, 2016) offers an opportunity to reflect upon the ways in which women were or were not represented in media and allows Hastie to claim Scherfig’s film as “a case of historical imagination” that is much needed at a moment of incipient media erasures.

Paul Julian Smith discovers a documentary renaissance well underway in Mexico and presents two that have appeared with serendipitous timing in 2016, both by women directors, both illuminating the lives of women who live in the shadows of respectability: the aged sex workers of the Plaza de la Soledad (Solitude Square, Maya Goded) and the aged showgirls of Bellas de noche (Beauties of the Night, María José Cuevas).

Ah, film. The engine driving the image industry continues its inexorable forward push into ever-newer technologies. In recent years, VR (Virtual Reality) has its own seat at the table, occupying real estate at film festivals internationally ever since debuting at Sundance’s New Frontier section. In 2017, Cannes invited VR into the festival (at a separate location), choosing cinematic royalty for its debut performance: Alejandro González Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and producer Mary Parent with Carne y Arena ([Flesh and Sand], 2017) wowed the crowd. Venice followed suit, adding a Virtual Reality award to its slate of film festival prizes.

At such a moment of technological convergence, Homay King rises to the occasion with her inquiry into Virtual Reality conventions and possibilities via a conversation conducted with Shari Frilot, director of the long-standing New Frontiers section at Sundance. Initiated earlier as a transcription, the interview has been expanded and restaged as a conversation on stage at the University of California, Santa Cruz (home of Film Quarterly) through a collaboration with the Film and Digital Media Department. (Video of this event will be available soon on this site).

King and Frilot discuss the origins of Virtual Reality and the platform’s development in the intervening years. While King considers the first appearance of the term “virtual” in English in 1398 and her realization that notions of mastery and the male gaze are upended by the move to VR, Frilot refuses to accept that “a technology is bad or good on its own.” In the end, the conversation’s most startling moment may well be Frilot’s disclosure that traditional films are already being referred to as “flatties.”

Filed from the frontline of film festivals (where the flatties still reign supreme) and conferences, three reports detail the highlights of recent gatherings. Lauren DuGraf focuses on the much-admired True/False Film Fest, surveying this year’s crop of discoveries from Whose Streets? (Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, 2017) to new films from China, Mexico, France, and other areas of the United States. Bernie Cook reports on the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s twentieth-anniversary edition, paying special attention to its retrospective offerings and the rich history of film exhibition in Durham, North Carolina. Finally, Brian Meacham weighs in on the Orphan Film Symposium’s first French gathering, the aptly titled Les orphelins de Paris, which convened at the Cinémathèque française. Dubbed the “mothership” by organizers—though “fathership” might be more suitable in light of the Arzner controversy—the annual itinerant event hosted screenings of rare newsreels, medical films, and a veritable cabinet, or screen, of early-cinema curiosities.

And then there is The Flaherty, the legend-making film symposium/retreat that is the focus of this issue’s Page Views. Genevieve Yue interviews Scott MacDonald and Patricia Zimmermann on The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema, their meticulously researched historical view of the retreat-seminar-festival event founded by Francis Flaherty, film pioneer Robert Flaherty’s widow, in 1955. MacDonald reflects on the annual gathering as a “dialectic space” and Zimmermann points to the “heterogeneity” at the core of its proceedings as they discuss their approach and insights. (As always with Page Views, the publisher has made a chapter available for free download).

On a very different subject, FQ‘s lead book reviewer Carrie Rickey considers Leo Braudy’s Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds and dubs Braudy a Virgil of the monstrous world, “accompanying you through an inferno of the monstrous from Frankenstein to the ‘Final Girl.’” Other book reviews cover recent historical and contemporary research and thinking in books by Jennifer Malkowski, Kevin Brianton, Matt Bell, Simone Natale, Charles Musser, Brian Winston, Gail Vanstone, and Wang Chi, and—in translation—Michel Chion.

1. Bryher, “What Shall You Do in the War?” Close Up 1927–1933: Cinema and Modernism, ed. James Donald, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 309.
2. Marie Kirschen, “En 11 ans, il n’y a eu que 6 rétrospectives de réalisatrices à la Cinémathèque,” Buzz Feed News, February 20, 2017, at http://www.buzzfeed.com/mariekirschen/en-11-ans-il-ny-a-eu-que-6-retrospectives-de-realisatrices-a?utm_term=.vbyAk0Ek4#.lan9ojgoA
3. Anne-Laure Pineau, “Cinémathèque française: Une rétrospective Dorothy Arzner au parfum rétro-macho,” Liberation, February 24, 2017, at http://www.liberation.fr/direct/element/cinematheque-francaise-une-retrospective-dorothy-arzner-au-parfum-retro-macho_58666/
4. Manon Enghien, “Cinémathèque: Dorothy Arzner dans l’œil du sexisme,” le genre & l’écran pour une critique féministe des fictions audio-visuelles, February 15, 2017, at http://www.genre-ecran.net/?Cinematheque-Dorothy-Arzner-dans-l-oeil-du-sexisme
5. See Judith Mayne, Directed by Dorothy Arzner (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).
6. Thanks to Dagmar Brunow for calling this study to my attention. See Ellen Reay, “Five New Ideas That Are Changing Cinemas across Europe,” Independent Cinema Office Blog, June 22, 2017, at http://www.independentcinemaoffice.org.uk/blog/changesineuropeancinemas?
7. Originally completed in 2016, their report has just been made available for download in English. See http://tourdescinemas.com/wp-content/uploads/The-emerging-practices-of-cinema-exhibition-in-Europe-v2.pdf

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Header Image: from the Club des Femmes ad for “Being Ruby Rich”.