In Search of Optimism

B. Ruby Rich

From Film Quarterly, Winter 2018, Volume 72, Number 2

After too many editorials penned in the shadow of the 2016 election, all suffused with a mix of nostalgia and dread, perhaps it’s time to change the lens. As a grumpy daughter, I used to complain that my anxious mother could always find the cloud around any silver lining. Consider this editorial, then, an attempt to break with such attitudes and appreciate the silver wherever it may be found. And since dire times can inspire great writing, Film Quarterly should have ample cause for celebration in future issues, too, as the news out of Washington DC shows no sign of turning any less dire—and, in fact, worsened with the Senate hearings in the fall and the confirmation of a certain Supreme Court justice (no, I will not include his name) in defiance of women’s testimonies and an unjust process grounded in brutalism and misogyny. The state of the country, the state of government, the state of cinema: these are not unrelated entities.

Mexico City: The Cineteca and Optimism

In late summer, I traveled to the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City—or, as the metropolis is called today, Ciudad de México, or colloquially, CDMX. The occasion was the annual independent festival focused on films with an emphasis on gender or sexuality, the MICGénero (Muestra Internacional de Cine con Perspectiva de Género) festival, which also stages a Sundance-style lab for emerging filmmakers. Unexpectedly, I found myself in cinema utopia. The excitement of the young directors and producers at the lab was perhaps predictable—there was even a spirited demonstration for the Argentine vote (later sadly lost) to legalize abortion—but what took me most by surprise was the Cineteca itself.


MICGénero lab participants show their support for Argentina’s new abortion law with its campaign’s green bandanas (just before its defeat).

The Cineteca was completely reconceived, rebuilt, and expanded in 2012.1 Now it occupies a vast inviting urban campus where archives and multiple cinemas with cut-rate ticket prices are situated alongside cafés, restaurants, bookstores, shops, parks—and free high-speed Wi-Fi. The result of these amenities is a hugely popular movie center that breathes with life, flourishing in the way that film exhibitions did, once upon a time, in the United States as well. Urbanites of multiple generations mingled at the Cineteca, singles checked their phones, children played on the grass, hipster couples bought DVD box sets, grandparents sunned themselves, and the movie theaters were full. No metal detectors, minimal security presence. A subway next door, a bustling street in front. I was dazzled. Was I seeing the past or the future? Surely there is a lesson there for U.S. cinemas, too.


The inviting campus of the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City.

Mexico City today feels like a beacon of hope in many ways since its summer election put long-time leftist campaigner “AMLO” (Andres Manuel López Obrador) into the presidency and installed, as mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, the first woman and the first Jew elected to the post. Folks everywhere seemed to be celebrating the impending end of the corrupt PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) years. López Obrador is a labor-union veteran who promises to make the economy more equitable; Pardo, a PhD scientist who inspires hope that her training can help her fix the city’s endemic problems. The restaurant scene is booming, too. I was taken to the Máximo Bistrot, a high-end restaurant opened in 2012 by Eduardo García and his wife, Gabriela, after he, a Mexican national, was deported from the United States and decided this time to bring his high-end training home to stay. It was some of the best food I’ve had anywhere and solidified my sense of what is possible when the tide is lifting a population instead of crushing it. I was so buoyed by the mood that I am tempted to inaugurate a new stage of life: a tourism of esperanza (hope), undertaking a grand tour to locales with a glimmer of political optimism.

Question Authority

Those words were a popular slogan on buttons and shirts in the 1960s–1970s, but I mean something different from the alienation of the old counterculture. In the film world, authority is the conviction of “correct” knowledge and taste, the certainty of the rightness of one’s own opinion, of a sort demonstrated routinely by the overwhelmingly male (and white, and mostly heterosexual) hierarchy of film-festival programming teams. Recent shake-ups in the European scene have shuffled the men around a bit, but not changed the shape of privilege. Nowhere were the toxic results of this culture clearer than in the 2018 Venice lineup, where only one film by a woman was included in the competition. Worse than the numbers, though, was the arrogant retort of festival director Alberto Barbera, who railed against quotas and argued against such expectations: “It’s not up to us to change the situation.”2

Ariston Anderson and Scott Roxborough, who covered Venice for the Hollywood Reporter, went beyond shaming to include a chart with the representation of women directors at Europe’s “big three” international festivals: Venice, Cannes, and Berlin. What a dismal picture. In addition to the number of films by women being shown at those festivals, consider the number of women who have actually won top awards: one at Cannes, four at Venice, six at Berlin. Jane Campion was the first and only woman to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (in 1993, and “shared,” by the way, with Chen Kaige); Márta Mészáros was the first to win the Golden Bear at Berlin (in 1975) and Margarethe von Trotta the first to win the Golden Lion at Venice (in 1981), both during the heyday of the women’s movement.

There was evidently widespread shock at this attitude from Venice in an era of #MeToo. The Hollywood Reporter story ends with a quotation from Laura Kaehr, copresident of the Swiss Women’s Audiovisual Network: “The industry is pushing for changes … and for Venice to not have an open ear and an open eye to changes is a real problem.”

FQ‘s own Quorum editor, Girish Shambu, went further: he detected the rot at the center of this system of discrimination and gave it a name: auteurism.3 The entire hierarchical structure of the sound-era, postwar film world—production, exhibition, criticism—has been constructed on such an inherently flawed and indefensible platform that it needs to be junked. Let’s see how that goes! In the meantime, his column serves as a marker and challenge.

Issues of representation are so bound up with status and taste that they remain exceedingly difficult to disentangle. Anthony Kaufman, writing for Filmmaker, published his take on questions of taste in film programming, noting that the refusal of difference in the ranks of curatorial staffs could be impacting the work chosen for their screens.4 Lived experience counts, as a U.S. Supreme Court justice once told her interlocutors. Kaufman offers a great entry point for analysis—and, who knows, change.

He considers the data on film reviewing, too, using the crucial statistics compiled every year by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen at San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. (By the way, can anyone explain why the media and industry constantly cite Dr. Stacy L. Smith’s important work at USC’s Annenberg Center without citing the two decades of work on the same subject in San Diego? Evidently, two women cannot be granted recognition in the same arena.) The stats are grim. Some 80 percent of reviewers are white, and nearly 70 percent are men. Lauzen breaks down the judgment calls on film releases through critical responses, confirming that: yes, it’s as bad as you think. In an earlier report, Lauzen looked at festivals and gender issues: “Women and Film Festivals: Promises Are Easy, Change Is Hard.”5

FQ columnist Bilal Qureshi puts the spotlight on the dismal facts facing critics of color, whose absence at the major film festivals points not only to a discriminatory playing field but to a further enlargement of bias down the road in terms of how these films will be received.6 Kureshi met with TIFF’s new head, Cameron Bailey, to discuss the Toronto festival’s new initiative to subsidize critics of color to attend this year’s edition, significantly expanding the makeup of the credentialed critics’ ranks. Interestingly, Annapurna Pictures (home base for one Barry Jenkins) was one of the underwriters of the new initiative.

Qureshi is an optimist. His closing statement: “The reckoning that is reshaping Hollywood is finally moving to the critic’s perch.” Here’s hoping. And yes, I notice that these major interventions of Autumn 2018 were all made by male critics. Enlightened allies are another cause for optimism, especially when too many women have battle fatigue from too many decades of being discounted. In the pages of FQ, happily, women’s voices continue to count and be heard.

Narrative Plenitude—and Scarcity

Viet Thanh Nguyen (author of Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, The Sympathizer, and The Refugees, among others) found himself in the spotlight in the way that such things tend to happen these days: quoted by a celebrity. In his case, it was Constance Wu, star of the summer’s breakaway hit,Crazy Rich Asians (John M. Chu, 2018), who quoted him in support of his notion of “narrative plenitude.”7 He used the phrase to explain that the majority public enjoys a surplus of stories about themselves and their own histories, with so many stories about them that bad ones carry little risk. However, minority communities “live in an economy of narrative scarcity,” deprived of images, having to fight to tell their own stories—an economy in which any individual failure becomes a community setback.

Importantly, Nguyen understands that “a single breakthrough work cannot, by itself, create an economy of narrative plenitude.” If Crazy Rich Asians is a hit, he argues, “it will be due not only to this one movie being … profitable, but also to the long, slow work done for decades in Hollywood by hundreds of Asian-American actors, writers, directors, producers, agents and more.” He thus acknowledges the link between collective struggle and individual achievement, a link too often obscured by the relentless emphasis on individualism in the cultural sphere. So thanks, Constance Wu, for bringing “narrative plenitude” to the masses.

R.I.P. Marceline Loridan-Ivens


Marceline Loridan-Ivens earlier this year at the age of 89.

“It’s up to today’s audience to do their work.” Such were the words of Marceline Loridan-Ivens, filmmaker, documentary subject, memoirist, when she spoke fifteen years ago to FQ contributing editor Joan Dupont in a prescient interview.8 On Erev Yom Kippur word came that Loridan-Ivens had died at the age of ninety; the news was relayed by Jean Veil, son of her best friend, Simone Veil.9 The two were teenage girls—Loridan-Ivens (then Rosenberg) at fifteen and Veil sixteen—when they were captured by the Gestapo. They met inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp under the reign of the notorious Dr. Joseph Mengele, sustaining each other through its horrors and onward through their entire lives.

For many cinephiles and film students of any age, however, Loridan-Ivens is forever known as the “star” of Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch, 1961), where she gives an early indication of her future life by roaming the streets of Paris with a microphone to ask passersby “Are you happy?” and pacing the Place de la Concorde, alone, speaking intimately, with camera far away, as she recalls the roundup of Jews in that very spot during the Vichy years. She is a magnetic figure in Chronique, chatting animatedly and displaying the number tattooed on her arm. Evidently, she was lovers at the time with both Edgar Morin and a good friend of his. On-screen, her presence is larger than life.


Are you happy? Loridan-Ivens with her microphone in Chronique d’un été.

Soon after, she met Joris Ivens, the Dutch radical filmmaker who would be the great love of her life, and she dedicated herself to making documentaries with him—in Vietnam, in China—until he died, some twenty-five years later. Only then did she return to her own past, directing a fiction film about her camp experience, La petite prairie aux bouleaux (The Little Meadow of Birch Trees, 2003), and casting Anouk Aimée as “Myriam,” her own given name. In recent years, she’d published two memoirs: Et tu n’es pas revenu (But You Did Not Come Back), a letter to her long-dead father about trauma and the Holocaust; and L’amour après (Love After), about resurrecting sexual and romantic feeling after the death camps.

She had once attended the Flaherty Film Seminar in upstate New York with Ivens. Filmmaker Sarah Elder remembers skipping a session (a Flaherty taboo) to take her to see the nearby Finger Lakes: “[H]er sheer strength (and joy) soon won over all of us as we took off in too small a car talking intensely about documentary and its capacity to be a major player in the human archive.”10

Joan Dupont recalled vividly her original interview “in her amazing sun-lit apartment on the rue des Saints-Pères” and remembers the many dinners that followed, where “Marceline shone, ever feisty, ever funny. She found ways of sharing her story, her dramatic beginnings, her post-camp political years. … A small woman—perhaps she did not grow much after deportation—she seduced and dazzled with her head of red hair, fabulous folk jewelry, high boots. Marceline was fun and funny, loved life and a glass of Sauvignon, but she never forgot. And we will not forget her.”

Marceline Loridan-Ivens was a final link to that great generation of documentarians and writers, indefatigably energetic public figures who believed in the power of their work to testify, to arouse indignation, and to shape the course of history. May her story outlive her body.

Rue Chantal

Meanwhile, wonderful news arrived from Belgium at press time. Brussels had invited its residents to vote on names for new streets being built in a new district of the city—an effort to improve on the stiff naming practices of the past. As with Great Britain’s infamous “Boaty Boatface” caper, many were silly. But enough were serious: as a result of winning the public vote, one street will be named for Chantal Akerman, the great filmmaker who died in 2015. (See the special dossier on Akerman’s films edited by Ivone Margulies and myself in FQ 70, no. 1.) It may well be worth a trip to Brussels just to take a stroll down the new “rue Chantal Akerman.”

In This Issue

FQ‘s attention to television continues in this issue with Catherine Zimmer’s account of the evolution of surveillance in episodic television, analyzing the disturbing contours of an apocalyptic preoccupation driven by an artificial intelligence that has begun to function as narrative device as well as character. Returning to post-9/11 discourses, she links shows such asPerson of Interest (CBS, 2011–2016) and Westworld (HBO, 2016–) to the genre’s beginnings in the groundbreaking24 (FOX, 2001–2010), parsing their structures to argue for their affective resonance.

Donna Ong, diving into the past, resurrects the life and work of Liu Na’ou and the central role he played in importing ideas of modernity and cinema from the West to Shanghai to try to influence the direction of the Chinese film industry. An early participant in a globalism that excited the early evolution of cinema, he crossed borders (Taiwan, Japan), published widely, and even made a Vertov-influenced amateur film before he was executed as a traitor.

Looking at new developments in the Chinese film industry, Chris Berry brings news of the phenomenon of Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), the blockbuster hit that has emerged as a standard-bearer for Chinese masculinity at a time of increased international engagement. With a plot that hinges on its star and director Wu Jing’s ultimate heroism in saving Africans from an evil American mercenary, the film is, not surprisingly, sparking a resurgence in masculinity studies in the Chinese context.

A set of interviews by FQ contributing editors in this issue provides a backstory to two very different women’s filmmaking careers and trajectories.

Terri Francis looks at the work of Cheryl Dunye at the moment of Dunye’s entrance into the charmed circle of episodic television, rereading her early work back through the lens of today’s film and television landscape. Dunye shares her early life and her self-invention as a black filmmaker and performer in a world where models did not (yet) exist. Francis delves into the process of creation and tracks Dunye’s evolution.

Joan Dupont, meeting with Agnès Varda in the moments between accolades and the travels they occasion, chats with her about her career and life. Dupont gains access to the treasure chest in Varda’s photo studio and is able to discuss her formation, her family, and her brilliant career. Vagabond (1985) and Le bonheur (1965) loom large, as do Varda’s themes of unpredictable relationships, unreliable men, and women who go their own way.

Columnist Bilal Qureshi, continuing his explorations of “elsewhere” from his perch back in Washington, DC, detects the shape of a new genre. He takes up the cause of Raazi (Meghna Gulzar, 2018), a new espionage romance centered on the performance of Alia Bhatt as an espionage agent deployed during the 1971 India–Pakistan war; he is more interested in seeing it as a nuanced exploration of a fraught history.

Columnist Paul Julian Smith is nothing if not a completist, and in this column he returns to Mexico’s new channels and streaming platforms to assess an extraordinary new show, Run Coyote Run (Fox Networks Group Latin America, 2017–), that is combining the art film and the B movie to retool Mexican TV for the era of Trump. He has fun unpacking its references, only discretely exposing the relevant histories.

Columnist Caetlin Benson-Allott unearths a new direction in the horror/thriller arena, one in which the threat comes not from outside but from that most sacred of interior spaces: the family. In her examination of these recent horror films (Hereditary [Ari Aster, 2018], The Gift [Joel Edgerton, 2015],The Witch [Robert Eggers, 2015],A Quiet Place [John Krasinski, 2018]), she sees the genre holding old gender binaries in place, whatever the threat.

Columnist Amelie Hastie, reaping the rewards of a moviegoing summer, finds that the 1970s loom large over the season as politics past and present increasingly converge. Singling out BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018) and Shaft (Gordon Parks, 1971), along with Peppermint Soda (Diane Kurys, 1977) and Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970), she discerns a radical impulse inherent not only in the films but in the act, today, of going to see them.

Moritz Pfeifer reports on the Karlovy Vary film festival’s tribute to the hundredth anniversary of Czechoslovakia—a commemoration that turns out to be awkward, given the ongoing adjustments to national histories in eastern Europe. His report looks at the town and its provenance as well as the films on offer. On this continent, I report on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), looking for trends in the midst of the event’s usual overload of options.

Nicholas Baer talks to Damon R. Young about his debut book, Making Sex Public, and Other Cinematic Fantasies, and initiates a thoughtful “Page Views” conversation about what has changed, and what hasn’t, since the last round of culture wars and sexual panic. Revisiting Eve Sedgwick and early queer theory, Young finds time to talk about Word Is Out (Mariposa Film Group, 1977), too.

Carrie Rickey takes up Christina N. Baker’s new study, Contemporary Black Women Filmmakers and the Art of Resistance, and applauds her attention to the stereotype-busting work by black women directors, even as she wants her to do more, go further, to set the record straight.

Other book reviews examine new monographs by Bill Niven, Baryon Tensor Posada, Jane Gaines, Susan Murray, Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff, and a new anthology coedited by Irene González-Lopez and Michael Smith. And watch this space in the next issue, when a changing of the guard will be revealed.


1. See the details by Rojkind Arquitectos (Michel Rojkind and Gerardo Salinas) at http://rojkindarquitectos.com/work/cineteca-nacional/.
2. Ariston Anderson and Scott Roxborough, “How the Venice Film Festival Lineup Reflects Italy’s Culture of Toxic Masculinity,” Hollywood Reporter, August 24, 2018, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/venice-film-festival-lineup-reflects-italys-culture-toxic-masculinity-1136331.
3. See Girish Shambu, “Time’s Up for the Male Canon,” Quorum, FQ, September 21, 2018, https://filmquarterly.org/2018/09/21/times-up-for-the-male-canon/.
4. Anthony Kaufman, “Checkpoints: Independent Film’s Gatekeeper Problem,” Filmmaker Magazine, Fall 2018, https://film makermagazine.com/105808-checkpoints/#.W6tX42zEo2x.
5. Martha Lauzen, “Women and Film Festivals: Promises Are Easy, Change Is Hard,” WMC News and Features, May 17, 2018, http://www.womensmediacenter.com/news-features/women-and-film-festivals-promises-are-easy-change-is-hard.
6. Bilal Qureshi, “Widening the Lens: Integrating the Toronto International Film Festival,” WBAA, September 18, 2018, http://www.wbaa.org/post/widening-lens-integrating-toronto-inter national-film-festival#stream/.
7. Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Asian-Americans Need More Movies, Even Mediocre Ones,” New York Times, August 21, 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/opinion/crazy-rich-asians-movie.html.
8. Joan Dupont, “The Secret Life behind a Harsh Journey, New York Times, November 26, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/26/style/IHT-the-secret-life-behind-a-harsh-journey.html.
9. Simone Veil was a figure of great renown in France—its former health minister and a leading crusader for women’s rights. She died at the age of eighty-nine in 2017 and was interred in the Pantheon. The two were lifelong best friends—“almost family,” as Veil’s son said, bound by shared horrors.
10. Posted to the Visible Evidence listserv.

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