A Deer in the Headlights

B. Ruby Rich

From Film Quarterly, Fall 2018, Volume 72, Number 1

First things first: this issue marks the arrival of Rebecca Prime as Associate Editor of Film Quarterly. Rebecca first published a book review in FQ back in 2006 and also had one in the last issue, with articles in other journals in the interim. Rebecca is a film historian, editor of Cinematic Homecomings: Exile and Return in Transnational Cinema (Bloomsbury, 2014), and author of Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2014). Rebecca has taught at Georgetown University and at Hood College. Raised in England, she promises nonetheless to uphold FQ‘s prescribed adherence to Merriam-Webster spelling. Rebecca holds degrees from Columbia and New York University and maintains FQ‘s fealty to UC with her PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles. She also had a Fulbright fellowship in France. Rebecca is based in Washington, DC.

Also new this volume is the online arrival of cinephile extraordinaire and Canisius College (Buffalo) professor Girish Shambu as the new Quorum Editor, coming to breathe new life into the online column and to keep FQ current with breaking news and ideas as only the author of The New Cinephilia (caboose, 2014) can do. Finally, new in this volume is the promotion of Marc Francis (now based in Los Angeles, with a new UC Santa Cruz PhD in hand) to Assistant Editor. As for the Editorial Board and Contributing Editors, huge thanks both to those who have come aboard and to those who have served and rotated off.

This issue marks the passing of five years since I first became Editor of Film Quarterly. Thanks to the UC Press staff for all their support through good times and bad in this period. And special thanks to the Ford Foundation JustFilms leadership for their belief in the mission and promise of this journal. I am happy to say that FQ seems to be as brilliant and respected as ever and that it continues to attract exceptional scholars and thinkers who believe in the mission of bringing film studies into the present, softening the borderlines between academia and the broader film culture, and cross-pollinating with adjacent fields to renew the energy of the discipline. Its motto for publication remains: Why This? Why Now?

Film Quarterly has a commitment to seeking out underrepresented works, filmmakers and media-makers, and critics/scholars, while also bringing underrepresented perspectives to bear on media across genres and platforms, popular or arcane. In recent years, FQ has also been able to expand its presence off the page through special events, thanks to the continued support of the Ford Foundation. Last year, FQ events were held at the Visible Evidence conference in Buenos Aires and at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. Early this fall, look for the FQ panel at the International Documentary Association’s Getting Real conference in Los Angeles.

Springtime: Flights, Festivals, and a Fete

As many academics headed toward semester’s end with dreams of summer research in their mind’s eye, I headed to an annual round of festivals and fetes to catch up with work and reconnect with both issues and people.

In Toronto, I served on the international jury of Hot Docs, celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary in style with a rich slate of offerings that helped me to see the world through the haze of current events in the United States. And yes, it helped to be doing the viewing in Canada. Opening night featured The Heat: A Kitchen Revolution (2018) by Canadian favorite Maya Gallus. Her timely documentary offered a view of women chefs and their place in the industry, while her dress insisted on a comparison to a famed documentarian across the Atlantic. Three of my favorite documentaries at Hot Docs were Italy’s Vento di Soave (Wind of Swabia, Corrado Punzi, 2017), an epic screed against environmental degradation; Whispering Truth to Power (Shameela Seedat, 2018), which follows South Africa’s first female Public Protector through the final days of her office and Jacob Zuma’s presidency; and We Could Be Heroes (Hind Bensari, 2018), an uncompromising view of disability and sports in Morocco, which was given the Best International Feature Documentary Award by my jury. At a time of toxic American foreign policy, it was refreshing and downright sanity-inducing to see work made from entirely different perspectives outside U.S. borders.


Maya Gallus at Toronto’s Hot Docs, matching the cardboard Agnès Varda with Kusama dots.

It’s easy to fly between Toronto and New York now that Porter Air has an airport so far downtown that passengers can walk through a pedestrian tunnel from the Toronto city streets into the terminal. How, then, could I resist an invitation from the Cultural Services Department of the French Embassy to fly down to New York to attend a chevalier ceremony for two of my favorite film guys: the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Dennis Lim and that man from Baltimore who needs no introduction, John Waters. Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur presided over the event, awarding each with the insignia of the Order of Arts and Letters, a suitably glamorous enameled and ribboned badge that they can proudly wear to upstage everyone else at special occasions forevermore. She gave two lovely speeches, they reciprocated by speaking lovingly of French cinema, and everyone clapped.1

Back in San Francisco, the Frameline LGBTQ film festival maintains its long tradition of panels and special events, something that’s always been part of the LGBTQ festival legacy of inquiry and contextualization. One panel surveyed lesbian documentary, inspired by the screening of Caroline Berler’s Dykes, Cameras, Action! (2018), her affectionate take on lesbian filmmaking. I was on the panel (and in the film), alongside Yvonne Welbon and Kimberly Reed—two titans of documentary who had a lot to say about this moment for the field as well as their own experiences as black or trans filmmakers.

Playing at both Frameline and the Provincetown Film Festival was Madeline Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily (2018), a rollicking comedy about the secret life of Emily Dickinson. Olnek has updated the beloved poet’s legend by accessing new research regarding her little-known romance with her sister-in-law and another woman—scandalous truths that have been suppressed by the family for eons. Happily, she conscripted into the role of Emily her old NYU theater buddy Molly Shannon, who shines as the newly liberated poet.


Writer and curator Dennis Lim and director John Waters receiving their insignia of the Order of Arts and Letters at the French Embassy, New York.

I got to chat with Shannon onstage for her Excellence in Acting Award as she reviewed her career from her early years on Saturday Night Live to Emily and enthralled the audience with true stories of her youthful escapades—plus an introduction to her teenage daughter, Stella Shannon Chesnut, who plays her niece in Emily. John Waters, Provincetown’s favorite impresario, interviewed Sean Baker, who was presented with the Filmmaker on the Edge Award at the festival for a body of work that includes Tangerine (2015) and The Florida Project (2017). When queried about working with “first-time” actors, he explained that he often mined social media to find his cast. Sundance’s John Cooper interviewed actress Chloë Grace Moretz, recipient of the Next Wave Award, who proved to be wise beyond her years.

The Provincetown festival was celebrating its twentieth anniversary with many special events and an exhibition of photographs of those years by the great Henny Garfunkel. Every year, too, John Waters introduces a rescued gem that fits his own sensibility for an audience (it’s always sold out, no matter the weather) that comes to cheer just that. This spring, it was Já, Olga Hepnarová (I, Olga Hepnarová, Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, 2016), a mesmerizing black-and-white character study based on the true story of a Czech lesbian misfit who massacred a sidewalk full of locals by driving a van into them in Prague in 1973. I’d never heard of it before, but leave it to Mr. Waters to find such a gem: scandalous, disturbing, impossible not to watch.

A particularly timely event was its Fifth Annual Evan Lawson Filmmakers’ Brunch with its guest speaker, journalist Kim Masters, who recalled for a rapt audience her confrontation, twenty years ago, with Harvey Weinstein. Masters, now editor-at-large at the Hollywood Reporter and a presence on KCRW, recalled what happened when she told him: “I hear you rape women.” Back then, she was unable to get women to go on the record. Then, last fall, she broke the story of producer Isa Hackett’s accusations against Ray Price. Days after it ran, he stepped down from his post at Amazon.2 Masters has great stories, and she loves telling them. She related that THR has a tip line, with anonymity promised, and she gives simple advice to those who want to deliver information: be assured that the Reporter will protect its sources; and, if questioned, remember her parting words: “Don’t blink.”

On other fronts, film and television and streaming media continue to be upstaged on a daily basis by the news coming out of Washington, DC, and it’s even harder to keep up. Meanwhile, the national news outlets continue to disgrace themselves by covering press conferences and tweets on the front page. Instead, they ought to be relegating them to small print in a back section, perhaps next to yesterday’s crossword-puzzle answers, and using the prime real estate for investigating the backroom goings-on or tracking the money driving the seemingly insane policies. Beating my drum, as always, allow me to repeat myself: never have documentaries been more important. It’s time to demand that they focus on consequential matters over the frivolous celebrity profiles and episodic crime stories that have become much too prevalent. Kimberly Reed had two missions in San Francisco in June: she was at Frameline to discuss trans and lesbian issues, and across town to open her equally important new documentary, Dark Money (2018). Have a look at what it takes to stave off outside influence—in this case, in her home state of Montana. Meticulously documented, it’s absolutely chilling in its implications for the next round of elections.


Backstage! Photographer Henny Garfunkel sets up a shot of Molly Shannon.

Summertime: In the Heat, the Past Became Present

Two events over the summer marked reconsiderations of established histories. Both began in June, but I suspect that neither story is over yet.

One instance involved the Flaherty Seminar, where disagreements over representation and legacy have been a constant throughout its history. This time, however, an action has been taken regarding the seminar’s own identity and the decision to reconsider its own logo. On Wednesday June 20, 2018, the Flaherty board, executive director, and program manager made the following announcement (during its annual seminar). The text, as reprinted here, is taken from its statement on the Flaherty Facebook page, edited slightly for space:

The Flaherty Board, Executive Director, and Program Manager would like to acknowledge our decision to remove the posters that were until this afternoon installed behind these couches as well as in other locations on the Colgate campus. The image depicted on these posters has been used since 2000—and is currently used—as the logo for the Flaherty. The image is based on a still from Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North and it depicts Flaherty’s protagonist, who was an Inuit named Allakariallak, holding a harpoon even though the Inuit portrayed in the film were using guns at the time. In his 1971 book Give or Take a Century the writer Joseph E. Senungetuk, an Inupiat from Northwest Alaska, has summarized this stereotype as part of a long tradition of depicting indigenous people as “a people without technology, without a culture, lacking intelligence, living in igloos, and at best, a sort of simplistic ‘native boy’ type of subhuman arctic being.”

We are removing this image from this space to acknowledge that it belongs in a long tradition of violences, representational and material, that deny the contemporary existence of indigenous people. In doing so, we are recognizing the inextricability of the history of the Flaherty and the ongoing histories and legacies of settler colonialism. In removing the images prominently displayed during the Seminar, we are taking a step in a necessary process of reckoning with this legacy that will also necessarily be an ongoing one. … Today, we are articulating our commitment to … rethinking the symbols that we use to represent the work of the Flaherty, and the destructive work that symbols can do. We will be taking the next steps of this process under thoughtful and urgent consideration.

I find it significant that this organization, one of the senior institutions in the field, is actually interrogating its own history to this extent. It certainly makes sense, at a time when Confederate statues are coming down and #MeToo campaigns continue to gain momentum, that cultural institutions, too, should examine their own symbols and the consequences of their adoption and continued use. Bravo to the Flaherty leadership for interrogating the place of its Great White Father, seeking to revise its inheritance, and initiating this process. A logo, after all, is a sign that signifies, and in this case its referent may well be ready for revision.

Revising other histories long taken for granted, in June a story appeared in the New York Review of Books that sought to shed light on the youthful wartime years of Jonas Mekas—filmmaker, impresario, founder of Anthology Film Archives, and writer. Now ninety-five years old and more beloved with each passing year, he is, to borrow from the title of a recent film, “a happy man.” Mekas has always presented himself as a fervent Lithuanian nationalist and has spoken often of his anti-Soviet animus regarding the Soviet Union’s subjugation of his home country. He has talked and written about his wartime experiences in Lithuania, too. Now, historian Michael Casper has investigated those claims, found multiple inconsistencies, and cast doubt upon Mekas’s version of his own past.3 The wagons started circling immediately to protect a sacred figure of the avant-garde. Critic J. Hoberman has responded with a defense of Mekas that is ambivalent and discomfort-inducing, explaining why he can’t review a new book, but professing, “I don’t judge Jonas.”4

Well, I do. I am especially interested in this story: my maternal grandparents came from Vilna (Vilnius), and all the relatives who stayed behind were extinguished in the Nazi massacres of World War II, including my great-grandparents. According to Casper’s research, 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered during World War II, mostly by Lithuanians themselves, with some twenty-four hundred killed in a single day in the town where the high school Mekas attended was located.5 Casper discovered, through his research, that Mekas shifted dates in his own chronology: he fled Lithuania not to escape the Nazis, who were already gone, but to escape the Soviets, who arrived in Vilna the day after he and his brother left the country. His rancor was directed at the Red Army, not the Nazis. His testimonies about surviving “the camps” are tricky, since the places to which he refers were in fact “displaced persons” camps, not concentration camps.

Wartime is no easy matter; lines cannot be easily drawn or retroactively imposed, to be sure. But this is 2018. With fascism insurgent around the world and in the United States, it is not acceptable to ignore history or excuse lies of omission or misrepresentation. Because Jonas Mekas, the subject of Casper’s inquiry, is a revered (by some) figure in the field, it is more important—not less—to know and understand his history and his imbrication in one of the most fraught eras of the last century. If Mekas was a nationalist who hated the Soviets more than the Nazis and who dedicated himself to writing and literature while Jews were killed all around him, then those are facts that should be known. They are neither prosecutable nor inconsequential. After all, to quote Hannah Gadsby in Nanette (Netflix, 2018–): “We only care about a man’s reputation. What about his humanity? Fuck reputation. Hindsight is a gift.”

In 2018, immigrants are being deported and jailed, families separated, children caged, regulations altered. This is a time to assess individual responsibility and to question whether films and television, news media and online media, are meeting the demands of their time. There has always been a romantic, über-individualist slant to the kind of cinema that Mekas has made and championed. His background is relevant. I still read Ezra Pound despite his fascism, but I read with that knowledge. Audiences for Mekas today deserve no less.


Claude Lanzmann in 1985.


Claude Lanzmann (1925–2018) often seemed to be immortal. How else could he have done so much, been involved in so many legendary lives, or participated in such historic times? First, Lanzmann was a celebrated member of the Resistance, fighting the Nazi occupation of France. Then he became the paramour of Simone de Beauvoir, living with her during the 1950s in a key period in French intellectual history, talking and traveling with her and Jean-Paul Sartre. Then Lanzmann became a filmmaker and spent twelve years making Shoah (1985), his cinematic monument that redefined the world’s understanding of the Holocaust and the nature of complicity; yet he did so without using either of the two building blocks now enshrined as essential to documentary: reenactments and archival footage (though his Shoah outtakes have kept the archives busy). And he went on to make so many more documentaries, retracing his material and tilting it this way and that, like a jeweler with a precious gem.

I read the news in Paris in June, where every major newspaper dedicated special sections of many pages to him.6 Every television station revived its many interviews and clips. Favorite scenes from Shoah played online; perhaps soon it will have its own YouTube channel.

What a strange coincidence to have Mekas and Lanzmann land in the same column! If only Claude were still around to interview Jonas. But Lanzmann has exited just in time to avoid an encounter with the #MeToo movement; he was a notorious philanderer who, as he aged, became a predator, bottle in hand, hitting on any woman charged with working with his films or appearances, famously opening the door to his hotel room stark naked, entirely at ease with his own bad-boy behavior. Rest in peace, M. Lanzmann.

In This Issue

FQ has long sought to expand coverage of television and online media, and I’m happy to say that this issue includes two features dealing with episodic television that could not be coming into print at a more opportune moment. Heather Hendershot considers Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale in relation to both the past of Margaret Atwood’s original novel and the present of the current administration running the U.S. government, while James Williams analyzes Guerrilla, John Ridley’s series on Sky TV/Showtime, in relation to both the past of Horace Ové’s Pressure and the present of the Windrush scandal in British government.

For Hendershot, Handmaid qualifies to be seen not only as science fiction but equally as allegory, tracing the mythical near-future through the contours of the past and present—to chilling effect. Her past research into the Christian Right makes Hendershot uniquely attuned to the meanings embedded in Handmaid, while her attention to today’s politics underlines the chilling effect on viewers of seeing this series come increasingly to life “in real time.” Hendershot found it excruciating to watch the series’ second season evolve as she was completing this essay, alongside the escalation in U.S. political repression of 2018, but points to Handmaid’s modeling of collective resistance as a source of hope.

James Williams, too, brings past and present into focus through a shifting prism of political engagement. In “Generation/Revolution,” he calls attention to a black British film that merits renewed attention: Horace Ové’s Pressure, made in 1974, considerably ahead of the celebrated wave of black British filmmaking that followed in the 1980s. Williams points to Ové’s continued importance and compares the film with what John Ridley is up to in Guerrilla, the contemporary series about the British Black Panthers that is set in Pressure‘s era but shaped by today’s U.S. race politics. His attunement to influences from James Baldwin to the Windrush scandal makes Williams an able guide to political and aesthetic complexities.

As FQ seeks to reinscribe its commitment to documentary at a time when such work is critically important, Faye Ginsburg presents new thinking on divergent trends in documentary, contrasting the immersive approach of the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) to a range of works both U.S. and international that insist on a level of collaboration with subjects as a key requirement for documentary praxis. She characterizes the new documentaries as pointing toward an “aesthetics of accountability” that builds on the early work of Jean Rouch and can help chart a new route toward the decolonizing of documentary.

Scott MacDonald returns to FQ with an interview with Brett Story that tracks her documentary approach and artistic sensibility back to her childhood in the West Bank, adolescence in rural Ontario, and early adulthood in Toronto and post-punk Montreal. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is framed as a meditative approach to incarceration and its history. Besides looking closely, Story is a good listener, interested in “the art of positive thinking as a specifically American coping mechanism” in hard times.

João Luiz Vieira, writing from Rio de Janeiro, remembers the great Nelson Pereira dos Santos and the impact of his life on Brazil and on world cinema. From his invention almost single-handedly of Cinema Novo to his mentorship of so many other filmmakers and his participation in successive waves of Brazilian filmmaking, “Nelson” was always central to ensuring cinema’s responsibility to both its society and its own vernacular.

FQ‘s columnists are back for a new volume. Amelie Hastie begins a yearlong dive into the 1970s with an examination of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore inspired by this year’s release of Jennifer Fox’s The Tale. Continuing his prowl through Spanish-language film and media, Paul Julian Smith reports from Peru on a new wave of pop culture, from variety shows to melodramas, popping up on television, and discovers the new work of art-house auteur and local professor Rossana Díaz Costa. Bilal Qureshi continues to look “elsewhere,” here musing on the contrast in stereotypes and complexities between a marquee movie, Tony Gilroy’s Beirut, and an art-house work, Tamer Said’s In the Last Days of the City.

Festival reports remain vital to FQ’s mission, even if they reach the reader after the fact. With the volume of releases exponentially increasing, festival travel is crucial to keeping up. In this issue, Liz Czach reports from the Orphans festival, founded by Dan Streible and still under his stewardship, where she encountered such gems as the Super 8mm home movies of the helicopter-obsessed Robert Patton, the first African-American officer in the Illinois State Police. Clarence Tsui reports from the Paris documentary festival Cinéma du Réel, where leadership has been juggled once again with the new arrival—and abrupt departure, after this edition—of Toronto’s Andrea Picard. The festival’s “What Is Real? 40 Years of Thinking” section surveyed its founding 1968 moment and considers what has happened in the intervening years. Interestingly, Tsui follows Ginsburg in noting the importance of Jean Rouch and his indelible example.

This volume continues FQ‘s signal invention, “Page Views,” where readers get to know an important new book and author through Nicholas Baer’s expert interviews, then access a free chapter on the FQ website. In this issue, Baer introduces readers to Nadia Yaqub and her important new history of Palestinian revolutionary cinema of the 1970s. “Page Views” is archived at filmquarterly.org, where past chapters and interviews continue to be available to the public.

Critic Carrie Rickey continues her recent spell of historical reviews with a discussion of J. E. Smyth’s Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood, a book that she finds “eye-opening” for its excavation of and detailed information on the surprising participation of women, hiding in plain sight, in the U.S. film industry of 1930–50. New books from Nathan Abrams, Rebecca J. DeRoo, Maggie Hennefeld, James Naremore, and Kristen Anderson Wagner are reviewed by a capable team of reviewers deployed to the task by FQ‘s book review editor, Noah Isenberg.

In Conclusion: Personal Updates

On June 14, 2018, I headed to the airport at dawn to catch a flight to the Provincetown Film Festival. I was on Pacific Highway 1 at its dazzling best, with the fog lifting and the sun just up, when a panicked deer hit my door, spraying the interior with thousands of pieces of safety glass and destroying the left side of the car. Thanks to Baby Driver’s on-screen lessons, I managed to avoid hitting the brakes, accelerate without crashing, and get to the airport. By midnight I was picking glass out of my hair, happy to be alive.

A little over a week later, an invitation arrived in my e-mail inbox. “Congratulations, beautiful,” it read, alongside a photo of Barbra Streisand. I was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the Documentary Branch. I accepted, of course, and look forward to learning a lot; I wonder what it will be like to get a peek behind the curtain and beyond the red carpet.

The best of times, the worst of times. With that set of disclosures, consider this issue of Film Quarterly a wrap.


1. For the text of her two speeches, see: http://frenchculture.org/awards/8088-france-honors-dennis-lim-and-john-waters.
2. Kim Masters and Lesley Goldberg, “Amazon Studios’ Roy Price: Inside the Fall of a Top Executive (and What’s Next),” Hollywood Reporter, October 18, 2017, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/amazon-studios-roy-price-inside-fall-a-top-executive-whats-next-1049859.
3. Michael Casper, “I Was There,” New York Review of Books 65, no. 10 (June 7, 2018). Note that Casper was previously a Fulbright fellow in Lithuania.
4. J. Hoberman, “Why I Cannot Review Jonas Mekas’s Conversations with Film-Makers,” June 30, 2018, http://j-hoberman.com/2018/06/why-i-cannot-review-jonas-mekass-conversations-with-film-makers/.
5. Casper recalls: “That summer [1941], in the small city of Biržai, where he [Mekas] attended high school, 2,400 Jews, including some nine hundred children, were massacred in a single day.” Casper, “I Was There.”
6. See, e.g., Josyane Savigneau, “Claude Lanzmann, un cinéaste qui a fait de sa vie un roman,” and Franck Nouchi, “Claude Lanzmann, un séducteur insatiable passionnément vivant,” Le Monde, July 5, 2018, https://www.lemonde.fr/mort-de-claude-lanzmann/. See also the tribute section in Libération, which includes its original reviews of Shoah. http://next.liberation.fr/culture/2018/07/05/de-shoah-au-dernier-des-injustes-claude-lanzmann-vu-par-libe_1664314.

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