RECLAIMING BLACK FILM AND MEDIA STUDIES
Racquel J. Gates and Michael Boyce Gillespie
A QUEER(‘S) CINEMA
HUTUKARA (“THE PART OF THE SKY FROM WHICH THE EARTH WAS BORN,” IN YANOMAMI)
Karim Aïnouz, with Viviane Letayf
ELEVEN THESES FOR BREAKING AWAY
FOR A NEW CINEPHILIA
Reclaiming Black Film and Media Studies
Racquel J. Gates and Michael Boyce Gillespie
Historically, the study of the idea of black film has been a fraught, insightful, and generative enterprise—be it a matter of industrial capital and its delimitation of film practice in terms of profit, or the tendency to insist that the “black” of black film be only a biological determinant and never a formal proposition. In many ways, the black film as an object of study mirrors the history of America, the history of an idea of race. While the field continues to shift and change, and the study of black film becomes more common, it is often still tokenized by the industry. Discussion about black film and media is booming in academic programs (e.g., American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, English) and in Film and Media Studies, but it is doing so even more in nonacademic spaces, with blogs, podcasts, and think pieces proliferating at a rapid pace. We offer our manifesto, recognizing that film manifestos never whisper. Their messages envision political, aesthetic, and cultural possibilities. They demand and plot. They question and insist. What follows are expectations bundled as concerns for not only the renderings of black film to come but, as well, the thinking on blackness and cinema that we hope will thrive and inspire future discussions. We are devising new terms of engagement with current developments in mind.
We must remember that traditionally the field of film studies was designed around the centering of heterosexual white men. This forms the bedrock of the film industry and of film studies.
This means that the study of black film, however one defines black film, has as a practice and a product often been treated as additional or derivative rather than integral (e.g., the infamous “race week” in any Intro to Film/Media course). We must learn, acknowledge, and teach that blackness has been central to the history of film since the birth of the medium, not just starting with The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915). We must teach Oscar Micheaux, but also the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, and the long histories of early and nonextant black film that scholars like Jacqueline Stewart, Pearl Bowser, Allyson Nadia Field, and others have endeavored to bring to light. Furthermore, greater focus on the work of black women and queer filmmakers will further the necessary decentering of film studies’ perspectival tendencies and ultimately dispute the narrow categorical meanings attributed to black film. The study of black film must always be a rebel act.
We must stop referring to every significant black film or media text as “first,” thus erasing the labor and intellectual contributions of all who came before.
The excitement around films such as Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018), and, most recently, Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018) tends to produce a discourse of exceptionalism, of “firsts” (“first film to do X”). Critical discussion around the films tends to tacitly frame them in terms of a white film landscape, suggesting that their worth rests in their ability to look and sound like standard (i.e., white) films, severing their ties to black film history and distancing them from “unexceptional” black films in the present. As a final note, the vibrant and insightful work of the New Negress Film Society, a collective of black women filmmakers (Frances Bodomo, Dyani Douze, Ja’Tovia Gary, Chanelle Aponte Pearson, and Stefani Saintonge), thrives in ways counter to the tacitly industry-minded insistence on black cinema exceptionalism.1
We must be critical and suspicious of academic essays, panels, and other activities about black film that do not substantially engage with or cite film and media studies scholarship.
How is it possible to discuss black film without regard to the debates and inquiries that continue to provide the critical momentum that is black film and media discourse? The universal experience of watching film gives the false impression that we are all equally knowledgeable about film’s histories, theories, and contexts. Moreover, this practice renders invisible the existence of cinema studies, turning film into something that anyone can “do.” Having an opinion about a film does not constitute film and media training.
We must insist on being attentive to issues of film form as opposed to focusing on content alone.
Focusing on the conventions of Disney/Marvel cinema might help us appreciate how Black Panther revises and perpetuates comic superhero cinema. Thinking through the modalities of black speculative fiction and Afrofuturism in Sorry to Bother You helps to ground the film’s trenchant and absurdist critique of capital, race, and class. What does it mean to understand BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018) as Blaxploitation fantasy and visual historiography of American cinema? The thinking to come on Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) as a film adaptation that visually renders James Baldwin’s text must also consider how this rendering occurs with a consequential sonic component. It’s important to think about the formal principles across experimental/avant-garde work (e.g., Kevin Jerome Everson, Cauleen Smith, Christopher Harris, Ephraim Asili) to appreciate the range of aesthetic capacities evinced by the idea of black film. Terence Nance’s Random Acts of Flyness (2018) models an alternative sense of anthology-television seriality, a production that flourishes on formal experimentation and collectivity. It restages the late-night variety television conceit with an absurdist cycling across formats and modalities. The inventiveness of Yance Ford’s Strong Island (2017) requires appreciating how the film redefines documentary form with its exquisite building of an archive and Ford’s direct address. Moreover, the film remains immune to humanist or sentimental recuperation in its consideration of familial grief, injustice, and the antiblack ways that whiteness always operates as the arbiter of truth.2
We must go to film festivals. We must follow film programmers.
Black film thrives in arenas other than the standard cineplex. What might it mean to give as much attention to this context as to the industrial/commercial buzz? This is especially the case for 2018, with the Flaherty Seminar programming of Greg De Cuir and Kevin Jerome Everson; Maori Karmael Holmes’s continued brilliance directing the seventh edition of the BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia; the continued circulation of the “Black Radical Imagination” touring program of experimental/avant-garde shorts cofounded by Erin Christovale and Amir George and currently programed by Darol Olu Kae and Jheanelle Brown; the Smithsonian’s African American Film Festival; Ashley Clark’s film programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.3 In particular, Clark’s programs this year have been generative and collaborative opportunities to expansively appreciate cinema. The “Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film” series framed the then-impending release of Black Panther, the BAMcinématek and the Racial Imaginary Institute’s “On Whiteness” series was tied to the Whiteness Symposium at the Kitchen, and the “Say It Loud: Cinema in the Age of Black Power (1966–1981)” series was tied to the “Soul of a Nation” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
We must stop championing representation as a marker of racial progressiveness, and instead begin concentrating on the themes and ideas with which those representations engage.
For far too long, both the academic and popular study of black film and media studies has focused too narrowly on the mere presence of black bodies both in front of and behind the camera. Black bodies do not equal blackness. Blackness does not necessarily equal black liberation or recuperation. A study of black film and media that merely equates the inclusion of black makers and characters with revolutionary cinematic practice will never truly effect change, but rather, will simply instantiate a history of black bodies labored by and laboring for whiteness on ideological and formal levels (e.g., blackface, social-problem cinema). Black film historiography does not have to be a progressive fantasy. Perhaps, ambivalence might be a good place to start.
If the representation debate revival must occur, then at least reread Stuart Hall.
1. For more information on the New Negress Film Society, see https://newnegressfilmsociety.com/.
2. Inspired by Yance Ford’s postscreening comments at the Museum of Modern Art, New Directors/New Films Series, March 19, 2017.
3. For more on Black Radical Imagination, see http://blackradicalimagination.com; and Tiffany Barber and Jerome Dent, “Urban Video Project: Interview with Curators of Black Radical Imagination,” LightWork, March 20, 2015, http://www.lightwork.org/tag/black-radical-imagination/.
A Queer(‘s) Cinema
“We are children of straight society. We still think straight: that is part of our oppression.”1
Queer cinema, no matter how rebellious, is the child of straight cinema—its bastard child, perhaps, but its progeny no less. Queer cinema must push against decades of tradition to create itself anew. Borrowed genres and hand-me-down narratives have served their purpose. If the (curated though not novel) propositions and (recent though not unique) examples that follow point anywhere, it is to a still-to-be-imagined future where queer cinema can continue to expand while never ceding its right to be “niche” in order to serve those it portrays.
“I hate straight people who think stories about themselves are ‘universal’ but stories about us are only about homosexuality.”2
Queer cinema is not universal. Nevertheless, the question of how to reconcile the specificity of queer storytelling with the universalizing effect that cinema can perform is at the heart of its project. But to aspire to universality is to risk losing the particular. There is no single queer narrative, except that of oppression—and even that is so frustratingly varied, changing from country to country, gender to gender, body to body, person to person. There is no “one-fits-all” narrative to queer life.
“We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women’s lives as are the politics of class and race. We also often find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously.”3
Queer cinema is intersectional.4 Its politics force audiences to see how oppression operates in competing and complementary ways. If white, cisgender characters have long held the monopoly on on-screen queer representation, a recent wave of films by and about the queer experience have finally begun righting that myopic purview. In the past decade alone, audiences have met a black Brooklyn teenager searching for her sense of self in Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011), a pair of trans sex workers wreaking havoc on Christmas in the L.A.-set Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2017), and even a pansexual at risk of losing her memories in Janelle Monáe’s dystopian “emotion picture,” Dirty Computer (Andrew Donoho, Chuck Lightning, 2018).
“WAKE UP! We can’t let straight society appropriate our language, artistry, physicality, bodies, and culture to profit and buttress their own communities.”5
Queer cinema is fabulous. Its bold style is rooted in joyous possibility. To reduce queerness to a sexual orientation is to miss the aesthetic sensibility that runs through queer life. It’s the glint of glitter at the balls, the feel of leather at the bars, the flutter of lashes on the queens, the sound of catchy activist chants on the streets, the look of smeared lipstick on a plaid shirt. Blown up on the big screen, this sense of style is outsized.
Think of the new crop of stylish examples: the slow-motion dance sequences in the French AIDS epic 120 battements par minute (BPM (Beats per Minute), Robin Campillo, 2017); the vibrant neon colors of the Kenyan drama Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018); the starkly oppressive landscapes that play backdrop to the Icelandic mystery thriller Rökkur (Rift, Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen, 2017); the Busby Berkeley–inspired disco musical sequence in Una mujer fantástica (A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio, 2017). They pulsate with energy precisely because their aesthetic defies categorization, borrowing and reworking references as if they were thrift-shop finds.
“We choose, instead, not to choose the Child, as disciplinary image of the Imaginary past or as site of a projective identification with an always impossible future.”6
Queer cinema is not just for adults. Rather, I suggest that one of the imagined futures of queer cinema rests on its embrace of the child. Not the orphan Annie or the orphaned Harry Potter (or many of the other orphaned children that so demand our sympathy and on whose shoulders new visions of old traditions are re-created) but on the queer child.
If the suggestion that the queer child is now less of a paradoxical provocation than it may have once seemed, it is because popular culture has finally disavowed itself of the concept that childhood and sexuality are somehow mutually exclusive categories. Films like XXY (Lucía Puenzo, 2007), Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, 2011), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), and We the Animals (Jeremiah Zagar, 2018) have pushed back against this needless dichotomy. Moreover, their careful attention to the radical possibility of queerness divorced from adulthood has opened up questions about how a new generation of children is playing with fluid ideas of gender and sexuality that go well beyond Peter Pan.
“Enjoy your gay movie celebrations. America gives you itself reflected in your own image: good little queers, feeding the culture which would exterminate you.”7
Queer cinema is global cinema. One need only look at the fearless work coming out of Brazil this year alone to see a new crop of radical filmmakers represented. Bixa Travesty (Kiko Goifman, Claudia Priscilla, 2018) is a documentary on self-described “gender terrorist” Linn da Quebrada that asks viewers to follow her “tranny fag” aesthetic/political doctrine and break gender norms wherever possible. Tinta bruta (Hard Paint, Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon, 2018) is a drama about a young man’s life as a sex cam model that explores the limits and perils of online intimacy. The lesbian horror movie As boias maneras (Good Manners, Juliana Rojas, Marco Dutra, 2017) reimagines the werewolf metaphor as a modern fable about a ruthless capitalist system. All are grounded in specific historic and cultural conditions, and all speak to and nurture their respective communities. To look beyond mainstream American fare, which so depends still on well-intended if ill-conceived notions of assimilationist tenets, is to witness queer filmmaking at its boldest—even unencumbered, at times, by the whims of capital.
“Our tactics are as varied as our genders, our activism as hot as our sex and our resistance as untethered as our desires.”8
Queer cinema is unapologetic. The word—contested as it remains, rooted both in judgment and in shame, lifted up in defiance and resilience—signals a community that refuses to be boxed in. Queer cinema embraces unruly desires, the kind that threaten established normative institutions. And finally, after decades of censorship (both systemic and self-imposed) when it comes to portraying same-sex desire on the big screen, audiences are being treated to unabashed examples of a lustful attraction that skirt the line of propriety in the name of authenticity. The long takes at a Parisian sex club in Théo et Hugo dans le même bateau (Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau, 2016); the provocative scenes of male sex workers in the Hong Kong drama Thirty Years of Adonis (Scud, 2017); the demure if suggestive motel room encounters in Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015): all point to a cinema that’s unafraid of the queer body. Or of the hungry queer gaze, which is all but indifferent to tired ideas of “normal” sexual practices.
“I want a dyke for president.”9
Queer cinema is about possibility. Audiences will continue to yearn for and need coming-out stories and AIDS narratives (especially as they finally begin to hear the versions told by those who are often forgotten in mainstream ideas of the LGBTQ community), but the queer imagination can surely move beyond what’s been done.
These recent films point forward, not to one prescriptive idea of the future but to a plural sense of its possibilities. Yet they are firmly rooted in the radical language that’s been running through queer discourse for decades. Rather than applauding toothless studio movies made for suburban American audiences or cheering on straight actors bravely taking on (and away) queer roles in indie darling films, critics should heed the call that today’s vibrant queer cinema is amplifying. It’s a call to remember that criticism is a form of activism, a form of demanding more from what you consume.
I want stories about love and about shame. About jealousy and about friendship. About monogamy and about open relationships. About aging and about youth. About activism and AIDS and sex and death and marriage and divorce and abuse and tenderness and motherhood and childhood and yearning and loss and fantasy and reality and joy and pain and first dates and last rites and hot sex and cold feet and ancient history and imagined futurity. I want queer stories on film to be as expansive as the lives they seek to represent.
1. Carl Wittman, The Gay Manifesto (New York: Red Butterfly, 1970), http://paganpressbooks.com/jpl/TRB-WITT.PDF.
2. “Queers Read This: Published Anonymously by Queers” (New York: ACT UP NY, 1990), http://www.actupny.org/documents/QueersReadThis.pdf.
3. Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 267.
4. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” in The Public Nature of Private Violence: The Discovery of Domestic Abuse, ed. Martha Albertson Fineman and Roxanne Mykitiuk (New York: Routledge, 1994): 93–118.
5. SPIT! (Sodomites, Perverts, Inverts Together!), “The Anti-Assimilationist Manifesto,” in The Spit! Manifesto Reader: A Selection of Historical and Contemporary Queer Manifestos (New York: Frieze Projects, 2017), 4, https://carlosmotta.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/SPITReader_Final.pdf.
6. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 31.
7. Jerry Tartaglia, “A Statement of Outrage against American Assimilationists Who Practice Appeasement of Hetero Terror in the Wake of A.I.D.S. Genocide in the United States,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian & Gay Studies 19, no. 4 (2013): 559–60.
8. Homotopia, directed by Chris Vargas and Eric A. Stanley (2007).
9. Zoe Leonard, “I want a president … ” (1992), https://iwantapresident.wordpress.com/i-want-a-president-zoe-leonard-1992/.
Renew the Encounter
A lung submits to anxiety and smog, a heart to love and cholesterol. All sense of truth passes through the body. People are the real documents of civilization. And one’s eyes are made for the field of events. Things come in as this and are processed into that; while most melt aimlessly in one’s memory, others cling to totems in their sky. In this personal storm of consciousness, the act of looking makes a mirror of meaning. Instinct is infused with culture, a reflex by which nothing can be understood until it is adjusted.
Throw in a camera and the fiction’s entombed.
Alas, the big bang of photography and film burst forth in a Eurocentric imaginary. Monies to be made, othering to behold. Point and shoot and capture. Repeat after me: the God of the camera is a colonizer. Hey, look here. The rest is history. The receiver of this gaze dies a certain death, a peculiar death of the imaginable.1 In the American matrix, I’ve been framed black. In your case, maybe something else. These varying degrees of death are often presented as varying degrees of life. Cameras should come with a caution label embossed on the lens cap:
I am not concerned with verisimilitude,
I help you believe.
The chops of American culture have always licked especially for black folks. A people ready-made. A billion limbs. Fluids of field souls and house hands alike, dripping their weather in soups and crop beds across the nation, built up the immunity to my total consumption. Chomp. A photograph of easy reading. Sip. A film without reflexivity. Gulp. A look over yesteryear’s horizon reveals photography and film as the technology of racism.2 The material form of racial representation, a visualization of the concept in question, is necessary for its initial engagement. But a cul-de-sac history of exploitation is held in black skin. How do you attend to a problem that is the visualization of itself?
Read “Non-Cartesian Sums.”3
Reset your relationship to Western knowledge formation.4
Resist most logic.
Only your experience has irreducible singularity. Most logic is functional and conditioned. Welcome the dream.
Develop a photographic sensibility.
Make the camera an organ. Take it into your body. Shoot toward a personal poetics.
Consider the visual story of blackness.
Phrenology to Blackface to Kodak to Blaxploitation. Iconicity to noniconicity.5
Unsuitcase black images.
Remove them from the luggage of the traveling salesman.
Fail at representing blackness.
The act of representing is the act of reproducing. The less black the more black.
Reading skin is a game, a skin game.
It is the recursive interplay between what is observed, remembered, desired, feared, imagined, misunderstood, reconsidered, recalled, observed, remembered, desired, feared, imagined, misunderstood, reconsidered, recalled, observed. …
Blackness is content.
It is a skin game.
Break the social contract with mainstream blackness.
Locate and avoid the stock use of blackness.
Disautomate the consumption of blackness.
Embrace the ambiguous, complex, decontextualized, recontextualized, fragmented, black image. Employ recumbency, eye contact, obstruction, concealment, and iterations of time.
Embrace contradiction. Dismiss contradiction.
The seduction of blackness is not the mystery of the engagement, the range of possible new knowledge encountered, but its proximity to its icons. Point otherwise. Be elsewhere.
Find the circadian rhythm of blackness.
Start with the quotidian.
Produce new icons of blackness.
Use strategic formalism.6
Question all indexical iterations of race.
Is there a visual vaccine against racism?
Can the fractured, astray black image act as a probiotic to racist pathology?
Aim for a black involution.
Blackness is unstable and evolves alongside our participation in its acknowledgment. Collapse it to expand it.
Create the Black Dictionary (that’s me).
Representational death owes human ingenuity a dramatic intervention, as the lens-based portrait can relay humanity and reinforce inferiority to the desire of the viewer. Images have no heart, they are candy for the mind. In film, the tamed, stringy image employment in narrativizing makes even more clear the issue at hand: the reality-textured, reproduced moment carries an encyclopedia of content, the background existing as the foreground for some, the maintenance of much with the alleviation of little.
For the over-relied-upon sake of genre and theme, industrial cinema requires the spaying and neutering of images within the body-film. This is a cannibalistic act. The complexities of a race-based reality have outgrown these traditional structures of story and narrative that gnaw them into palatability.
Their genealogy subtractive.
Their comfort with more death.
Unable to reconcile the necessity for a responsive, formal embodiment of the content with antique structure, story, and character arc demands, this cinema entertainingly dissuades critical thought while producing status quo belief encounters and in turn, belief systems. If form is content and blackness is content then blackness is form. Blackness must not be separated from its form. If blackness/form is unstable and evolving then the ideas of structure and narrative must evolve correspondingly to accommodate. The site of the image in a time-based chain of interpretation must remain fertile.
Shelve the Victorian model of narrative arc and structure.
Or let it respond transformatively to the content.
Consider the indecisive moment.7
Free the reproduced event from the essentialization of narratives and story.
Find the epic-banal.
Bring elation to the experience of blackness. Acknowledge the magnificence of the universe’s encasement in the social, awaiting other forms.
Lean toward experience creation.
Most logic and blackness are in constant debate. Create the personal-poetic experience of blackness, renew the encounter.
Use music as mentor.
What music does, the universe is. Embody this musicality, its being, forms, its liquid organization, its escape from reason and the need to justify itself. Or be dance.
Incomplete the work.
Default to resignifying. Require joint meaning making.
Viewer + work = an instance of finished work.
Reach the mainstream with nonindustrial image production.
Work outside of industrial time and factory processes (and beyond the arthritics of the old avant-garde).
Time becomes the new medium, a clock measuring the long macro drawl of a racial gesture left out, its meaning in respite for a pacemaker’s life span or two. Weather and sculpture. Iterations of time in the phenomenon called blackness. In-America suspension. A mountain to its knees. A movement toward the present. An acquired taste for images and films. Of their own volition.
1. It is the Black Quantum Zeno Effect, following up on Carlo Raveli, The Order of Time (London: Allen Lane, 2018).
2. They are today what the steam engine and electricity were to the Industrial Revolution.
3. Charles W. Mills, “Non-Cartesian Sums: Philosophy and the African-American Experience,” in Mills, Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 1–20.
4. Can one explore the image/moving image within a decolonialized, polytheistic imaginary?
5. Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
6. To rise above black representational space. See Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
7. This is opposed to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, which referred to capturing an event that is ephemeral and spontaneous, where the image represents the essence of the event itself. See Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment/Images à la Sauvette (New York: Simon and Schuster; Paris: Editions Verve, 1952).
Watching White Supremacy on Digital Video Platforms: “Screw Your Optics, I’m Going In”
HIAS likes to bring invaders in who kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.
—@onedingo (Robert Bowers)
Here, now, are three exhortations about where film and media studies need to move in order for us to understand how digital platforms support fatally racist media, how they ought to be regulated, and how this media exploits and remediates earlier forms—all things that film and media scholars already know how to do.1 It’s not enough to say that the world has changed and media studies must change with it. Instead, we must ask ourselves what we’re going to do about it. How do our skills matter in this ghastly moment in U.S. history? What are the best practices and methods for understanding right-wing white supremacist media?
The Case for White Digital Media Studies
It is too easy to simply blame the “Internet”—specifically, YouTube, video games, and social media—for the militant far right’s renaissance. One of the first tenets of any introduction to a media technology class is that it is impossible to understand how platforms for distribution, production, and exhibition relate to social and cultural effects without studying other key factors.
Digital media studies need to critique white digital media culture to understand how the Internet has enabled far-right-wing organizing, media distribution, and production. The very same interactivity that allowed for more gender-balanced participatory media cultures like fan and slash fiction also enabled right-wing meme culture and Pepe the Frog. Though U.S. racial histories show with crystal-clear accuracy the existence of white privilege, digital media studies need to go further than an exclusive focus on oppression.
First, we need to study white-identity media on all its platforms, especially when it is sickeningly horrible and racist. Film scholars with the stomach to screen The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915) in introductory film courses should follow that line to its conclusion and include online content as part of a long history of mediated racial violence. For unlike The Birth of a Nation, this content is live and influencing thousands of viewers in a single day; they may not always see the through lines, but media scholars do.
We must center whiteness as a racial identity when we study race and media. Anthologies and university syllabi on “race and film” or “race and television” rarely contain any readings about whiteness, assuming that “race” means African, Asian, or Latinx media. The field of “whiteness studies” was pioneered by scholars such as David Roediger, Richard Jensen, Richard Dyer, and others, and there has never been a better time to learn from this body of work. In particular, we really need to study white femininity; hence my focus in this short piece on reading race and gender in pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic social media posts.
This is a very difficult job, given that the majority of media scholars are white and positioned at elite institutions, as are their students and colleagues. White people often feel blamed when their identities are discussed, and want to disavow any common ground with white-supremacy movements. But, as Tara McPherson has written, the alternative is worse.2 McPherson employs a multifaceted, lenticular logic to analyze this understudied and fraught identity, and her research on whiteness and white supremacy on digital platforms spans the period from the late 1990s to the present. White nationalists use digital media platforms to cloak and conceal a reactionary vision of whiteness within an assertion of “heritage” preservation, and also to hide behind the Internet’s pseudonymity.
McPherson’s groundbreaking essay on the late-1990s website Dixie net, an online forum and gathering space for protoconfederates, not only was one of the first published pieces of scholarship on the topic, but also foreshadowed some of the techniques so prominent today in right-wing social media and gaming culture.3 As she has discovered in her current research on contemporary digital white supremacy or, as she calls it, “intersectional racism,” this movement’s media strategies have evolved from covert expression to bold identification with Nazi media.4 “Emboldened” is the word I hear most commonly used to describe white-supremacy movements today. We must be bolder.
Robert Bowers’s Gab post announcing his intention to “go in” to the Tree of Life temple (and “shoot as many Jews as possible,” as he told the police who extracted him from the building) featured a photograph of a device with a digital readout with the number “1488.” This number is code for “Heil Hitler,” according to the Anti-Defamation League’s hate symbols database. As distasteful as it is, media scholars need to become familiar with this culture’s iconographies, its visual preoccupations, its citational practices.
The American right wing is profoundly interested in media history. They are voracious viewers of archival video. Digital video citation is ubiquitous: it is a built-in feature on most social media platforms, and users automatically look for the Share button when viewing any online video. Consider the case of Empress_Wife (@empres_wife). Her profile description reads: “Smash Cultural Marxism & Feminism (purple cross emoji), Proud Housewife and Mom, heart emoji, I love U.S.A. and Europa, Femininity (star emoji), 25 Years Old, Pro-White, #TradLife, #TradLife, #WhiteUnity.” This summer, she posted a video clip on Twitter that stopped me dead in my tracks.
I have studied misogyny, racism, and discrimination on digital media since 1996, and I thought that I could no longer be shocked by anything on the Internet, but my jaw literally dropped when watching this. Embedded in a tweet was a grainy black-and-white video of an angry Nazi giving a speech. I did not have the sound on, but the subtitles told me that he was espousing the Final Solution in front of a large audience. The man shook his fist and wagged his finger at his audience. It was Josef Goebbels, saying that Germans had thought that Jews could not be replaced in German culture because of their key contributions to German cultural institutions such as film, art, and music, but that they had indeed been replaced, and could thus be exterminated. Many commenters responded positively to the post, asserting that Jews were not white and needed to be eliminated.
I reported this video to Twitter as hate speech, “designed to harm a specific group,” but when I checked back a week or two later, this post and account were still there. I was not surprised. Content moderators are very poorly paid and overworked, and certainly not chosen for their knowledge of the history of World War II in Europe; given that many of them are working from sites like the Philippines, where labor is much cheaper than it is in the United States, they may have different cultural referents and may not have realized who Goebbels was or why this was hate speech. However, the comments on the post made it clear that many who saw it knew exactly what it was, and “liked” it for that reason.
Right-wing “pro-white” Twitter is full of sentimental historical images of Nazis: one account claims to tell the story of World War II from the “German point of view,” with photos of German officers holding adorable blond children, kissing wives, and looking wholesome. It is important to note that this is an American right-wing site, not a German one. Other accounts feature vintage photos and advertising pictures of traditional American families from the 1950s, and contemporary stock photographs of beautiful women in traditional European dress (braids and dirndls being particularly popular). These citational practices of nostalgic whiteness visually reclaim an idealized white past as a model for American’s future.
Film scholars have vast experience studying genocidal propaganda. We know how to study racist propaganda films, their role in the rise of “populist” movements, their means of production and distribution, their audiences, and forms of resistance and activism against them. As social media platforms invite users to upload video with the goal of monetizing and capturing users and their data, they have much to tell us about new citational practices. For example, how do the Maltese crosses so common on user profiles, or images of American and German families, echo these earlier forms?
American neo-Nazis have written themselves into a highly visible digital presence just most other Internet users do: by appropriating media images from YouTube and other online sources. Their social media represents an archival showcase of video and photographs of white supremacists. Media scholars are uniquely equipped to analyze what these images mean, how they are deployed, and how they invoke new forms of digital whiteness defined by a right-wing past.
Defining White Supremacy: The Case for an Integrated Model of Digital-Media Scholarship
Here is my second proposition. Media scholar Julie D’Acci’s work modeled a multimethod approach to analyzing television because the field needed it.5 Two decades ago, her book Defining Women researched the industry, employed textual close reading, provided a cultural history of the medium and the program, and delved into the gender and race politics of the time through a virtuoso reading of Cagney & Lacey (CBS, 1981–88), convincingly demonstrating that if we want to do a good job as media scholars we need to study them all together.
Never have we have needed these skills more than we do now, when platforms are so much more fluid, ephemeral, and unaccountable than analog broadcasting ever was. Empress_Wife was finally suspended from Twitter sometime early in the fall. I can no longer find these posts on Twitter because she was permabanned from that platform. I couldn’t find them on Gab for a few days, either, because Gab was dropped or “deplatformed” by its service providers such as its ISP, Joyent; by online payment sites Paypal and Stripe; and by domain name server GoDaddy after the Pittsburg shooting. But her content remained viewable on archive sites, demonstrating the futility of digital regulation.6 While the site was down, Google preserved and indexed her posts on Twitter even though they led to dead links; each search included the first line or two of every one. They weren’t gone, but their original context was, so scholars must move to create their own visual archives of this material—a job that we have been trained to do.
Gab.com CEO Andrew Torba claimed that the platform was a victim of censorship when the services that they needed in order to do business refused to serve them after the Pittsburgh shooting. Without the capacity to collect revenue from users or to broadcast their site, they were basically invisible, except as archived posts or truncated search results on Google. Yet gab.com simultaneously boasted that it could not be killed, and indeed it quickly found new providers and was back in business.
Digital platforms need regulation, and media scholars need to be part of this process. The New York Times and others are quick to blame platforms rather than users for the Pittsburgh killing and the rise of white supremacy; though Bowers shot the Jewish worshippers in their temple, Gab.com was targeted for providing the means and motive. Platforms have gone from invisible to hypervisible incredibly quickly; we have come a long way from the “If you don’t like it, don’t use it” days of digital media. Though digital platforms have never been less popular or trusted than they are now, they are the means by which key professional media producers reach audiences—and that is not likely to change anytime soon. Just this spring, professional Fortnite player Tyler “Ninja” Blevins made $350,000 a month from Twitch subscriptions. This puts him in a very powerful position, for Twitch has little incentive to ban or regulate a player who brings in so much revenue.
However, as researchers at the Data and Society Research group and at Georgia Tech have shown, “deplatforming works.”7 When overtly racist subreddits were banned by Reddit in 2015, “more accounts than expected discontinued using the site; those that stayed dramatically decreased their hate speech usage: by at least 80%.”8 This is just one example of how platforms are starting to regulate themselves, albeit in an extremely haphazard, uncoordinated, inconsistent way. Here is where our skills as digital media scholars, infrastructure and industry experts, and visual culture scholars should be activated. Digital media scholars know how to analyze digital practices, platforms, technological histories, and cultural contexts. Media policy scholars in particular have invaluable perspectives to contribute to digital-platform regulation. The world has never needed them more.
1. The epigraph is from gab.com, October 27, 2018.
2. Tara McPherson, “I’ll Take My Stand in Dixie-net: White Guys, the South, and Cyberspace,” in Race in Cyberspace, ed. Beth Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gil Rodman (New York: Routledge, 2000), 118–31.
3. McPherson, “I’ll Take My Stand.”
4. Tara McPherson, “Digital Platforms and Hate Speech,” paper presented at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, Toronto, 2018.
5. Julie D’Acci, Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
6. Adam Rosenberg, “Gab, a Racist-Friendly Alternative to Twitter, Has Been Banned by PayPal and Others,” Mashable, October 28, 2018, https://mashable.com/article/gab-paypal-stripe-joyent-synagogue-shooting/#A9lZ_MVSqPq3.
7. Jason Koebler, “Deplatforming Works,” Motherboard, August 10, 2018, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/bjbp9d/do-social-media-bans-work.
8. Eshwar Chandrasekharan, Umashanthi Pavalanathan, Anirudh Srinivasan, Adam Glynn, Jacob Eisenstein, and Eric Gilbert, “You Can’t Stay Here: The Efficacy Of Reddit’s 2015 Ban Examined through Hate Speech,” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 1, no. 2, article 31 (November 2017), http://comp.social.gatech.edu/papers/cscw18-chand-hate.pdf.
Hutukara (“The Part of the Sky from Which the Earth Was Born,” in Yanomami)
Karim Aïnouz, with Viviane Letayf
Act 1: Context and Provocations
The Brazilian general elections, a process that was concluded on October 28, 2018, offer a possible scenario for understanding what is going astray with the world at large. Throughout this process, what Brazilians witnessed was a spectacle that never strayed far from the script of catastrophe and that most surely promises to continue doing so. Following a sequence of events that would make any spectator gasp in horror, in Brazil today one sleeps fitfully, in anxious anticipation of waking up to the next calamity about to explode in the morning headlines.
The crowd of electoral spectators witnessed a heterodox script during this period, which promised to fulfill all aesthetic tastes while reality was melting into an online menu of entertainment film content: crime, horror, science fiction, high melodrama, thriller, suspense, porn comedies, and fantasies—to cite just a few.
For those who prefer the crime genre, it went in the direction of documentary in Brazil last fall, presenting endless live-action killings and violent attacks. It was like watching The Purge (James DeMonaco, 2013), Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997), Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Pierce, 1999), or a trashy snuff movie.
For those who prefer the political thriller, there was a riveting yet soul-destroying plot unfolding against one of the country’s biggest political leaders (and former president), Lula, perpetrated by an unjust justice system that shamelessly removed its blindfold and pandered to those blinded by hate. House of Cards (Netflix, 2013–18) would seem like a naive equivalent.
For those who prefer historical drama, one could watch, live on-screen, the National Museum and its centuries of humanity collapse in flames, while anonymous heroes fought to recover that which had not yet turned to ashes.
For those with a preference for sci-fi, there was the creation, and incursion into Brazil, of a fearsome, networked informational underworld—an enormous industry that could perform in a matter of a few seconds the massive and instantaneous transmutation of lies into “truths.” Think of a B version of 1984 (Michael Radford, 1984).
Finally, if narrative structure is your jam, all of this was accompanied throughout the summer and fall of 2018 by a series of flashbacks: first, the national reality was rewound vertiginously from 2018 back to the era of the military coup of 1964; then the flashbacks within flashbacks ensued, with elements dating back to Brazil’s colonial slave era of the nineteenth century.
All this drama—or shall we call it by its real name, madness—was supported by slippery narratives that permeated both newspaper columns and people’s minds. Authorities, meanwhile, in an attempt to impose the absurd over the trivial, repeatedly affirmed that everything was under control and that there was nothing to be worried about. The result of the elections was no less tragic than everything that had happened up until that point. More than fifty million votes were cast in support of an antidemocratic government—a triumph of fascism not unlike that which took place in Weimar Germany, once again allegedly elected by popular vote.
In this, Brazil can claim no difference from the rest of the world: in all corners, we are witnessing the political landscape manifested as a spectacle of its own decay. Humanity keeps avidly watching its own destruction, hooked on the spectacle in such a way that it can’t even feel the water rising around its neck. And then, further.
By observing our current scenario, it is possible to go on to say that in today’s world, the border between fiction and reality has shattered beyond anything Jean Baudrillard proposed: we live immersed in an endless ocean of fictional narratives of an uncertain present and future, a dystopian prospect in which the notions of “true” and “false” are in constant flux, subject to endless negotiation. In the realm of human beings, what is even more disturbing is that words and images roam without meaning.
Today, not only is democracy as a praxis being questioned, but the very concept of democracy itself is under scrutiny (and under attack, given the rise of explicitly antidemocratic governments). Not only is peace now imperiled as an objective outcome, but the very concept of peace is jeopardized when war is made in its name.
The same can be said about film: not only is film studies called into question; film itself has become medium and metaphor of an increasingly thin reality. What is happening in the world is much more tragic, sinister, absurd, and funny than any film or television program that we could ever imagine or direct or write or critique. Faced with such a scenario, questions arise: How and why to make films, given that reality is so overwhelmingly outrageous? How and why to think on film, when our standpoint is that of absurdity? And in a more concise way: How to admit that film operates as a form of hyperbole of the real? The situation is at once desperate and stimulating. New forms of storytelling; immersive narrative-sensorial experiences; the revisiting, implosion, and mixing of film genres—all need to be turned upside down, inside out. One of the tasks for filmmakers is to incite the viewers as protagonists of utopian narratives. Ultimately the task becomes to reinvent reality, to reimagine it, to create diverse, utopian landscapes that can provide the countershot of what is unfolding in the real.
Act 2: Film as a Battle for the Real
All that freely circulates today is data. Film as theory and practice cannot run the risk of merely mirroring that reality, of being just another data stream. Such a strategy would turn out to be not only the end of filmmaking, but also the end of a civilization project.
Film should circulate more widely and more effectively than data! It has to seduce those who today have become just consumers of multiplied data, those who went to the polls and democratically elected the end of democracy. Catastrophe cannot go further! Film has to be powerful, vertiginous, and infinitely more attractive than the risible misery of the real! It is urgent to re-enchant language and to clear a path to new utopias. It is necessary to multiply the senses, not diminish them; synesthesia, then, has become more necessary than metaphor.
Sharpen the senses! There is a poetic ravishment happening now, as the real incorporates the chaos, and someone is sorely needed to tell this story. Film is an act of framing the absurd, an act of making the absurd speak and exist beyond itself.
Film as theory and practice must perform this suture of being and flesh, word and mouth, idea and lust. It must be an exercise of imagination, of narrative as technique to reinvest in the senses. A decrease in distance between film studies and filmmaking is urgently needed to move toward a genuine resistance against the impoverishment of the ability to imagine.
Resistance today is an exercise of radically imagining tomorrow. Resistance today is necessary to enable thought, practice, and imagination to converge in this common challenge of making life possible. Imagining today is an exercise to prevent the cancellation of tomorrow.
Part of our task is to seduce, embrace, address, provoke, and enthrall those fifty million citizens who voted for fascism in Brazil—and the hundreds of millions who have chosen and are choosing fascism and intolerance outside Brazil, worldwide.
Act 3: An Act of Language, a Manifesto for the Poetry of Tropical Chaos, Laughing Out Loud
Today is a day of kindness.
Today is the day to occupy the streets against fascism.
It is a day to explode the traditional family: LGBT people walking hand in hand, kissing each other inside the church with the blessing of a communist pope.
Today is the day to implant socialism, to arrest the capitalists, to create the São Paulo Foro, to organize the URSAL, ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE, liberté, egalité, Beyoncé.1
It is the day to legalize ganja, to smoke a joint with the whole family.
Grandpa asking loudly who’s the puffer and Grandma getting the giggles until she is out of breath.
Grandson rolling one more and his little sis preparing her six-liter bong.
It’s the day to be trans, to be intersex, to be bi, to be tri, to be four, to be whatever you wanna be.
Everybody making out, kissing, fingering, rimming each other.
Straights no longer being straights, a queer intervention and fucking.
Today is the day to tag the hell out of Riachuelo.2
Imagine you and me wearing a black block mask,
Smashing shop windows at the mall,
Looting Habib’s to kill the munchies.3
It is the day to change the name of the Americanas stores to Tupiniquim.4
Gas bombs, rubber-bullet shots, repression,
and we will be making out.
Today is the day to shout:
Stop the coup in Brazil!
Machos will not pass!
It’s not only for the 20 cents!
Aécio Neves in jail!6
Down with the coup!
Down with the Supreme Court, down with everything!
Not him, never him, never ever him, under no circumstances!
No fucking way, no chance!
Not even if Lula says it’s him,
but Lula is not out of his mind to say such bullshit.
Not him, not him, not him!7
Act 4: A Scene
BLAST.8 AND: A CONDENSED, FLUORESCENT IMAGE/SOUND PARTICLE.
RED, VELVET, BANG, SMELL OF POWDER, JAGUAR, IRIS, COCK, SUNBURN, SKIN, QUINOA, GLITTER, ASSHOLE, BLAST, SPEED, SHINY, TITS, LEATHER PANTS, HAIRY CHEST, DISCO BALL, TRANCE, GLOW, HIGHWAY, BLAST, TANGA, DEEP FOREST, WATERFALL, NOSEBLEED, ROBERTO CARLOS, SCORPIO, VIOLET, BOMB, ARMPIT, HEARBEATS, FISHNET STOCKINGS, DEEP THROAT, DIAMONDS, TUXEDO, FORMULA 1, SWEAT DROPS, FIREWORKS, SPEEDOS, SALT, VICTORIA AMAZONICA, BLACK LIGHT, URINE, STARFRUIT, SPUNK, ALIGATOR, SHARP KNIFE, BLAST, SAND, DUST, TAMANDUA, TONGUE, THICK FAT LIPS, PALM TREES, PORN STARS, BLAST. SHOOT THAT. LICK THAT. GOLD CHAIN. PISS THAT. LOVE THAT.
A manifesto for the present can exist only in ALL CAPS now that Brazil is in the grip of that man whose name I will not write here. I am hopeful for an act 5.
1. The São Paulo Foro comprises over one hundred Latin American and Caribbean leftist parties and organizations. It was founded by Fidel Castro and Lula (former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) in 1990 to shape a strategy for Latin America in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. URSAL stands for the Union of Socialist Republics of Latin America. It is a joke or a meme or a conspiracy theory.
2. Riachuelo is a Brazilian magazine that has supported fascism.
3. Habib’s is a food chain that also supported fascism before the election.
4. Lojas Americanas is the name of a country-wide retailer that has also supported fascism. Tupiniquim is a term for “Brazilian” that carries a meaning of local/native.
5. Michel Temer is the powerful politician who helped to impeach Dilma for his own political gain, but who in so doing opened the door to fascism.
6. Aécio Neves lost the presidential election to Dilma in 2014. He is known for many corruption charges and for his involvement in the “Operation Car Wash” bribery scandal.
7. The text of act 3 is taken verbatim from an anonymous WhatsApp audio message that went viral: said to be the rantings of a drug dealer, it circulated and was shared during the 2018 presidential election campaign season. We have not asked permission to translate and publish it here, but assume that, given its mode of original “publication,” such consent may be assumed.
8. BLAST was a British literary journal founded by Wyndham Lewis in 1914 just prior to World War I as a “Vorticist” publication. It had the tone of a manifesto and lasted for only two issues.
Where Have You Gone, Stephen Dwoskin? On Disability Film
Born and raised in New York, avant-garde film director Stephen Dwoskin died of heart failure in 2012 at the age of seventy-three in London, his adopted home. He’d contracted polio during the 1948 epidemic at age nine. Dwoskin, who used crutches and later a wheelchair, never hid the effects or the ever-changing reality of living with polio in his films. In fact, he seemed to revel in it. His life and work were challenging, transgressive, and unpredictable. National Film Theatre curator Allan T. Sutherland once wrote of Dwoskin’s Behindert (Hindered, 1974) that the film’s “honesty, accuracy of observation and freedom from oppressive stereotypes of disability demonstrate amply the importance of speaking for ourselves.”1
Sutherland’s assessment could have been written today. Sadly, not much progress has been made in the four decades since Dwoskin broke the mold. Too often, movies with disabled characters or disability themes remain predictably sappy, safe, or sentimental at best. And they are almost never directed, written by, or produced, nor do they often even feature, actual disabled people.
Like Dwoskin’s films, any manifesto on cinema and disability requires a deep dive into the prejudices, taboos, and unexamined assumptions that have influenced how concepts about disability have been perceived, and depicted, on film.
Whenever possible, embrace these notions.
When necessary, destroy them.
Our intentions are as simple as they are profound: blaze a bold, new, more accurate, interesting, accessible, and inclusive way forward.
Once upon a time, disability was just a diagnosis. That’s all you got. Something to be fixed, cured, cut out, or gotten rid of. Through time, the definition has evolved to mean much more. Nearly three decades after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ask anyone with a disability who politically, culturally, or artistically embraces the rebellious act of being disabled what the word means to her or him, and you’ll most likely hear back words like “community,” “constituency,” and “identity.” No handkerchief necessary. No heroism required. By any definition, that’s progress. But if we are to expand deeper meaning beyond the flock, these changes must be reflected in the movies we make, the films we watch, how we watch those movies, and perhaps most importantly, who gets to make them.
With that in mind, then, we submit these initial guiding principles.
Good Intentions Aren’t Enough
Borrowed from African AIDS activists, who likely got some version of it from the Poles, who adopted a similar concept in the 1500s, “Nothing about us without us” is a phrase disability rights advocates have literally rallied around since the 1990s. We did this, in part, to push back against the inclination of parents, social workers, medical professionals, and pretty much everyone else to patronize and infantilize us by making decisions about our lives without our input or consent.
This largely unexamined habit exploded on-screen and in society when Ben Stiller’s satire Tropic Thunder was released in 2008. Unlike the war-veterans filmmakers dutifully consulted (who rejected the original concept of actors getting PTSD while on a film shoot), or the African-American actors who served to call out Robert Downey Jr.’s satirical, ridiculous turn as a white actor who goes to extremes to become a black character during the same shoot on-screen as part of the plot, no one connected with Thunder thought to ask a single disabled person, advocacy group, or audience about its depiction of the intellectually disabled Simple Jack character—until after the film was released. Predictably, real-life disabled people rebelled, flexing our political power in protest over the movie’s “satirization without representation” approach to disability. Let this be a lesson. Talk to us before filming. And not just the disabled person you know, please. Rather, ask someone versed in cinema and history, ideally both, and in the stakes and consequences of getting it wrong. The bottom line? “About us without us” is old hat. Ignore this at your peril.
Do Disability Differently
Take a fucking chance. While feel-good flicks like Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994) safely get the lion’s share of mainstream attention, dare to dive into the back catalog of disability cinema and you’ll find a sassy, often subversive cinematic underground more likely to transcend the too-often treacly, cookie-cutter, paint-by-numbers tragic/heroic binary that made Forrest run. From the dawn of cinema, movies like The Invalid’s Adventure (1907), The Thieving Hand (J. Stuart Blackton, 1908), and The Electrified Humpback (Lux, 1909) delighted in their differences. Decades later, in 1977, amputee Jeanne Silver and director Alex deRenzy carried on this tradition in the classic skin flick Long Jeanne Silver.
Sadly, perhaps predictably, a quest for respectability and an impulse toward earnestness have dampened the fun ever since. Obscure, irreverent flicks like Mr. No Legs (Ricou Browning, 1978), Tian can di que (The Crippled Masters, Chi Lo/Joe Law, 1979), Deafula (Peter Wolf/Peter Wechsberg, 1975)—even a Weng Weng retrospective or Álex de la Iglesia’s gleefully subversive Acción mutante (Mutant Action, 1993)—are a lot more interesting (and fun) than subjecting yourself to Andrew Garfield in Breathe (Andy Serkis, 2017). From grind house to art house, it is a celluloid sin that there has been only one film where the sympathetic protagonist is willing to commit justifiable homicide to get his or her very own wheelchair in order to hang with the cool disabled kids: Marco Ferreri’s dark comedy El cochecito (The Little Coach, 1960). Expand your horizons. Go deeper. Demand more. The only thing you have to lose is the same story we’ve seen a hundred times before.
No More Poseurs
Any nondisabled people who pretend to be us—especially during awards season—should be swiftly, painfully initiated into the actual fold. In the spirit of “Nothing about us without us,” real, live disabled people, accomplices, and coconspirators can do our part by taking matters into our own hands. As Philippe Petit skillfully exploited in his celebrated stroll between New York City’s Twin Towers in 1974, as brought to life for moviegoers in Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008), or in narrative films like The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995), nobody suspects a cripple. What with the Trump administration doing everything it can to dismantle Medicaid, 60 Minutes’ downside-up reporting on the Americans with Disabilities Act, and heavyweights like Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin duking it out for the honors in the “best caricature of disability on film” awards, this may not be true forever. While we can, let’s use it to our advantage.
Stop Killing Us
By my count, since 1915, approximately thirty-five films have featured disabled characters practically begging nondisabled people to kill them or let them die. Contrary to most movie marketing, reinforcing existing stereotypes about disabled lives not being worth living isn’t romantic, heroic, or compassionate. After seven decades, that oft-traveled terrain is the definition of hackneyed. Worse yet, it’s lazy. And historically speaking, more than a little dangerous. Decades of movie history have—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not—dehumanized disabled people, most notably in the Nazi era. Doesn’t much matter. The effect is the same. The deliberate, explicit goal of the propaganda film Ich Klage An (I Accuse, Wolfgang Liebeneiner, 1941) was to make the killing of disabled people more palpable to the German public. (Spoiler alert: it worked.)
Sadly, seventy years later, with movies like Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004) and Me Before You (Thea Sharrock, 2016), Hollywood is doing the same thing for profit. Pity isn’t progress. Want to break new ground? Introduce movie audiences to the story of the fed-up disabled protesters who occupied FDR’s (himself a wheelchair user because of polio) Work Progress Administration in 1935, during the Great Depression, to fight job discrimination, or the bad asses who in 1977 masterminded the longest occupation of a federal building in the history of the United States.
As protests in the U.S. Congress over proposed cuts to lifesaving supports and services in recent years have shown, real-life examples of heroines both in history and in the present day abound. Most disabled people aren’t trying to make it easier for people to kill us off; there’s quite enough of that going on already, thanks. Most of us are fighting to live. Do something truly original. Tell those stories instead.
And While You’re at It, Stop Trying to Cure Us
When cinema can’t kill us, it would just as likely seek to cure us, because people demanding wheelchair ramps, braille menus, and sign-language interpreters are largely considered an inconvenience by people who don’t yet need those things. Disabled people also serve as reminders that we all, someday, might have to pester, sue, and protest to get those things for ourselves, too. And that’s scary: disability turns normal, average, everyday, garden-variety, able-bodied folks into second-class citizens.
Both mainstream Hollywood and art-house cinema have leaned heavily on the cure narrative, whether it is because most nondisabled people lack the imagination to conceive of anything else or because in terms of storyline disabled people usually don’t exist on our own terms; rather, we tend to serve as props in stories designed to make nondisabled people feel better about themselves. But beware, dear viewer: inspiration is more than a warm, fuzzy feeling. In order for it to mean something, in order to matter, inspiration compels a person to change something, to roll up one’s sleeves and make an actual difference. No one wants to be inspirational by default—including if not, especially—disabled people.
From this point forward, anyone who waxes poetic about feeling inspired by disabled people must be willing to perspire. That means put in some actual work to improve on the status quo. No more free passes, folks. Inspiration must accompany a commitment to confronting the in-real-life stigma born from antiquated, reprehensible depictions of disability. And inspiration to do things differently. New rule: Before blithely tossing around words like “inspiration,” make sure you’re up for what its use requires.
Not inclined to reinvent the wheel? Nicola Griffith offers a genre-busting template filmmakers can adopt in her recent article “Rewriting the Old Disability Script” by evoking the test for disability in fiction put forth by activist and writer Kenny Fries.2 Based on the Bechdel test (which asks whether a work of fiction or drama features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man), the Fries test asks: “Does a work have more than one disabled character? Do the disabled characters have their own narrative purpose other than the education and profit of a nondisabled character? Is the character’s disability not eradicated either by curing or killing?” Proactively counterbalancing lazy disability tropes and stereotypes is needed just as much in film.
Authenticity (Or Something Like It)
Unlike in real life, when it comes to cinema, nearly all people with disabilities are somehow independently wealthy. Kristen Lopez, film critic and producer of the feminist film podcast Citizen Dame, takes issue with this pernicious, persistent celluloid fantasy: “Whether it’s Me Before You or The Upside, a forthcoming Hollywood remake of the French film Intouchables [The Intouchables, Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, 2011]”—and unlike real life—“the issue disabled characters have to face in these films isn’t monetary. We don’t see them struggle with how they’re going to pay for health care or medications. In Me Before You the man lives in a castle and his only problem is he can’t ride a boat anymore.”3 How about using a few of those millions to bankroll equal access, pal!
Many people with disabilities live on severely restricted incomes. … They can’t marry, have children, work, or buy a car without risking their already meager earnings or benefits being reduced or canceled entirely. Full disclosure: I live on nine hundred dollars a month. Guess my castle and unlimited travel budget got traded in for my wheelchair. Story lines like these perpetuate the belief that people with disabilities are unnecessarily bitter or don’t have “real” problems. Lastly, most disability narratives are about white dudes. Audiences expect white men to have a lot of money—not women, or minorities. Underlies a double or triple prejudice that also explains why we don’t see an abundance of disabled narratives (stereotypical or otherwise) about women or people of color. Fair warning: the next time you ask me where my millions are because you saw it in a movie about some guy who uses a wheelchair, prepare to get punched.4
As a white dude—I enthusiastically, unapologetically concur.
Make Access a Priority, Like Color Correction, or Catering
Cheryl Green, MFA, MS, disabled filmmaker, audio producer, member/owner at New Day Films, and exterminator of inaccessible content whose audio-recorded blog posts, transcribed podcasts, captioned and (often) audio-described films, rants, and raves at WhoAmIToStopIt.com, has stressed that no manifesto about disability in film would be complete without manifesting equal access. She starts with a history lesson:
Rebroadcasts of Julia Child’s The French Chef introduced closed captioning to U.S. audiences in 1972. ABC News quickly followed suit. Neither of these programs is known for creating disability-centered or deaf content. As we inch into 2019, unless you are a major streaming site that has been sued by viewers for inaccessibility (we’re pointing at you, Netflix!), or a social media outlet that just discovered that hearing audiences watch your videos longer when you provide captions, I’ve been hard-pressed to find content creators who want to caption their films. Creators say, “It is too expensive!” Sound sweetening and color correction are expensive also. Do you skip them as a rule? Do you really hate to exclude people, or do you despise spending money on an audience you don’t value? “Deaf people wouldn’t care about my movie!” All types of caption users (it’s not just deaf people) are likely to be interested, and they will be acutely aware you did not consider their needs when releasing your film to only part of your target audience. My manifesto considers accessibility a path toward justice, equity, and expanding a film’s audience. Made a great movie? … Add a line item to your budget for high-quality captions the same way you would for gorgeous cinematography, pristine audio, and postproduction—well, everything. … And before getting defensive about the cost, remember that captions are only one type of access that serves some audiences. But we’d be deeply grateful if you’d start there.5
Note: Audio description for blind viewers is also needed and available. What is that? Most of you don’t even know what visual description is, do you? Learn from Netflix’s colossal screw-up on Marvel’s Daredevil. Look it up. Then provide it. A new standard already exists. Some have been providing it routinely for decades. Ensuring access more broadly—and reaching increased audiences—begins with you.
While We’re on Access, Remember
Wheelchair seating is not enough. “Better representation of people with disabilities in the film industry begins with more disabled people in the writers’ room, producing, editing, and acting,” reminded James L. LeBrecht, Academy member and legendary documentary sound mixer. LeBrecht codirected the feature length doc Crip Camp (forthcoming, 2019) with Nicole Newnham, and provides further details:
Ask yourself, how did I build a career in film? One of the most important things a beginner can do is to find community and participate. Film festivals and organizations that support and cultivate filmmakers need to up their game big time when it comes to including disabled people. Having ADA seating for your audience is not enough. Look at all aspects of your organization. If you’re not making sure that people with disabilities are embedded across platforms, teams, and all aspects of production—just as we’re doing with other marginalized communities—you’re failing. Making sure someone who uses a wheelchair can attend a screening is a low bar, and shouldn’t be the standard—though that would be a good start. Instead, consider people who want a career in our field. Don’t assume disabled people just want to passively watch your films. Today, disabled people not only watch movies, we make them, too. And we damn sure need to be making more of them.6
A Final Word about the Word
The Americans with Disabilities Act became law nearly three decades ago. If disabled people are not a vital part of your diversity agenda, it is time to expand your definition of diversity. Think of it this way: disability quite literally puts the “D” in diversity, right at the beginning of the nine-letter-word. There’s a lot of room for inclusion and collaboration in a word like that. Simply spell it out.
The sexual, racial, and ethnic identities of transgender intersex elderly vegan yuppies are in there, too, as they should be (well, maybe not the yuppies). Disability has earned its evolution and deserves to be recognized, even celebrated, accordingly. To put it simply: A need isn’t special if almost everybody else gets to take the same things (an opportunity, a job, an education, a sex life) for granted. That’s not special, it’s standard. Except some people were left out.
Thankfully, silly euphemisms like “special needs” are also on their way out. Rapidly becoming passé. This manifesto forward proclaims disability loudly and proudly. Front and center. Disabled people have been absent from opportunities—afterthoughts who have had to force our way in, inaccurately depicted and, to paraphrase Sutherland, oppressively stereotyped in film (and in life) for long enough.
1. “Interview: Allan Sutherland Talks to Film-maker Stephen Dwoskin about His Career,” Disability Arts Online, July 22, 2009, http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/stephen-dwoskin.
2. Nicola Griffith, “Rewriting the Old Disability Script,” The New York Times, November 14, 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/14/opinion/telling-new-disability-stories.html.
3. Kristen Lopez, personal communication, November 4, 2018.
4. Lopez, personal communication, November 4, 2018.
5. Cheryl Green, personal communication, November 4, 2018.
6. James L. LeBrecht, personal communication, November 3, 2018.
Eleven Theses for Breaking Away
1- Let’s lose our “I”s and become “we”s. Becoming plural is a way of opening up identity—perhaps, for some, of losing it—or at the very least of recognizing that everyone is already an assemblage, spreading and undoing any stable notion of the “I” that the modern, Western history of the individual generated. The “we” opens up to the world of collectivity and collaboration. Let the praxis and theory of film be collective and collaborative.
2- Let’s lose our possessive individual authorship. Film is always already a collaborative practice, coauthored by multiple makers of sound, light, images, script, performance, and so forth. Yet the single directorial figure has garnered the spotlight and recognition. Let’s make the collaborative an explicit collective form of film authorship. Collectivity acknowledges that no thing emerges out of nothing—that every being, every thought, every image, every word carries within it an invisible archaeology and is the result of wide-ranging encounters. Collectivity acknowledges that thought and creativity are always already plural, making of that truth an explicit form of being and making. Collectivity undoes the thrust toward self-management and progress into which neoliberal reason forces us. But collectivity is not consensus. Collectivity intensifies antagonism, it is unruly and motley, and it is precisely this diversity and heterogeneity of the collective that potentiates creative dreaming. The collective creative force will lose the precious possessions of order and rationality that constitute the core of the neoliberal individual. Dispossessed of individual ownership, “dispossessed of the sovereign self,”1 we will be free.
3- Let’s lose our entrepreneurial professionalism. The way we live our daily lives, relate to the work that affords us our material means of sustenance, even pursue our passions in these extreme neoliberal and debt-driven times is increasingly bound to entrepreneurial models of professionalism. As filmmakers and theorists, we are cornered into becoming entrepreneurs modeled by and as businesses—administrating, executing, promoting, speculating, investing—if we want to survive. As entrepreneurial professionals, we are obliged to be accomplished, polished, skilled, rated, and, above all, competitive experts, leading a life ever more secluded, isolated, and alienated. This, of course, is not specific to the world of film and media. It is a marker of our present, increasingly so since the 1970s. Let’s instead be amateurs, creating forms of amateurism that afford all a dignified material life, dissociating amateurism from the realm of the unpaid hobby. Let’s instead associate amateurism with the unleashing of the potentially wild nature of the collective that is bound together by a shared desire, passion, and love. Collective and wild, we will not just survive, but live the lives we dream.
4- Let’s lose our silos and fields. As true collective amateurs, our praxis and theory of films—and of life—will be moved by the passion of love, not by the demands of the markets, nor will they be commanded through the skill sets of the certified professional, academic, and critical subfields of specialization. This collective amateurism will push film practitioners and film theorists to collaborate more, as each loses their distinct, safe, and walled-off ground. We must open a transversality that allows and builds paths for our proximity, to potentiate approaches for engaging the existing worlds and imagining others. Let’s all be practitioners and let’s all be theorists.
5- Let’s lose our idea of the thinking subject that has reigned over, and destroyed, much of the planet since it placed itself—some very few versions of that self—as sovereign in command and control. Let’s instead acknowledge and embrace that thinking happens in numerous sites, bodies, and matter. Film is a machine that thinks—as are, of course, other artistic forms and objects. Scholars and critics tend to think films need them for thought to emerge from the moving image, as though films were the raw material for the production of their ideas, concepts, and paradigms because they, the critics and theorists, as knowing subjects, are the ones who are capable of giving meaning to images, delivering them to knowledge. But the truth is that images do not need us to make thoughts.2 It is, instead, we humans who have needed them to be able to think. Images are appearances, and as such, are imagination. It is as appearing and disappearing manifestations of imagination’s potency, unstable and flickering, that images invent, create, and reconfigure the world. Images appear and disappear, they inevitably pass. But they always return, and it is that movement and fragility that endows them with the power to give form and radiance—in light and darkness—to the planet’s immanence. Let’s acknowledge their unsettling and creative power, their capacity to craft and shape what is yet to come—that which we call future. Let’s embrace an imagination that decenters the subject.
6- Let’s lose our academic stiffness. In this moment of the undoing of the public mission of education at all levels, it is the task of the academic scholar to deinstitutionalize and de-academicize their writing. Scholarly pursuit has become, for many, an increasingly precarious and dangerous activity. Instead of fighting expectations with metrics and data science, scholars should allow their writing to become precarious, lose its disciplinary grounding, and become explorative, experimental, creative, collective, collaborative. This will allow the scholar to recognize the intellectual and critical practices being exercised daily by a myriad of beings with differing approaches, outside academia. If the result of the evolution and progress of academia is truly that all critical intervention is now to be measured by scientific, quantifiable, and rationalist criteria, then the time has come to regress.
7- Let’s lose our compass. Let’s create new, much-needed forms of collectivity and collaboration, of image making and thought making that can be enacted only by displacing the sites of dominant visibility—created by the historical process of accumulation via dispossession, extraction, and exploitation—and placing the peripheral sites in the so-called South at the center of a new ecosystem. Possessive individualism is one of the consequences of the history of colonialism, slavery, modernity, and progress. It is that history that organized the world into visible and invisible sites and bodies, that geographically and symbolically organized the planet into so-called Souths. Once dispossessed of our possessive individualism and engaged in interdependent forms of social and environmental life, we will be able to achieve truly “relational modes of existence.”3 Rejecting it through our collective, dispossessed critical approach to the making of images and thoughts must necessarily occur through the collaboration of a shared worldly vulnerability, led by the social, spiritual, and aesthetic practices of the so-called South.
8- Let’s lose time. Entrepreneurial neoliberalism tells us that we need to produce time where and when there is no time, in order to be more efficient and productive subjects. Let’s collectively produce and experience a different sense of time. Let’s recover a sensuous and material—not metric or abstract—dimension of time. Let’s create the material conditions to slow down, to brush time against its historical and economic grain. Let’s deregulate the universal time of Western modernity as orchestrated through its technologies. Even in its new digital present, film continues to be intimately tied to the regulated, sequenced, discrete, cumulative, forward-moving notion of time. The infamous twenty-four frames per second have now been replaced by a 24/7, episodic experience of the moving image equally embedded in the universal time of Western modernity. The digital era has, in fact, only accelerated the cementing of abstract time. Let’s imagine forms of temporality where collective, collaborative imagining can occur. Experiencing, imagining, creating, and inventing new forms of temporality will allow us to explore other forms of knowledge and life.
9- Let’s lose the primacy of the scopic regime. Cinema has been exploring ways of undoing its work as part of a scopic regime and has sought to explore other senses as a way of acknowledging the long history that ties power to the optic field, trying to untangle the cinematic experience from the scientific and objective characteristics that configured its conception. Let’s make and think new images through “sense work.”4
10- Let’s lose genres. Socially created categories that become conventions over time function to codify our critical and creative imagination. Other forms of knowledge, acquired and presented through a more complex spectrum of sensorial possibilities, will almost necessarily appear as messy and wild if seen from both the vantage point of our professional, entrepreneurial, and possessive individualities and the rational subject. “Unmanageable, undomesticated and politically unruly,”5 let’s strive for film theory as film praxis and film praxis as film theory. Thus will we be able to produce opacity, retaining the intimate and perplexing character of what remains unprofessional and indefinable.
11- The political, societal, and planetary crisis of our present calls for a new form of creative-critical approach: collective, amateur, unprofessional, exploratory, imaginative, untimely, wild, and multisensorial. Our creative-critical approach is summoned by an urgency, by the resulting need for an immediate response, and by an attention to the multiple forms of life that have the right to live. The emergent creative-critical approach insists on the singular and the seemingly minute, paying attention at a microscopic level to those multiple life-forms, multiple worldviews, and multiple imaginations. Such a myopic approach is many times rushed and speedy, driven by the imminent and constant threats of our present, pushed to be reactive. We need a temporal framework that is expansive, macro, and multilayered—one that will emerge from a belief in the deep geological time that is our only truth and our only means for livable lives.
1. Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, e-book (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). In the closing sentence of the book’s preface, Butler and Athanasiou write: “And so we take up the question of how to become dispossessed of the sovereign self and enter into forms of collectivity that oppose forms of dispossession that systematically jettison populations from modes of collective belonging and justice.”
2. See particularly chap. 5, “Destructions?” in Georges Didi-Huberman, Survivance des lucioles (Paris: Minuit, 2009). Didi-Huberman in turn is elaborating these thoughts on the “passing intermittences” of the image from his close reading of Walter Benjamin’s work on the dialectical image.
3. See Butler and Athanasiou, Dispossession, chap. 1, “Aporetic Dispossession, or the Trouble with Dispossession,” last paragraph.
4. The term comes from Francine R. Masiello, The Senses of Democracy: Perception, Politics, and Culture in Latin America (Austin: Texas University Press, 2018).
5. Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o, “Introduction: Theory in the Wild,” in “Wildness,” special issue, South Atlantic Quarterly 117, no. 3 (July 2018): 453. Their introduction has been fundamental to the development of these theses.
For a New Cinephilia
The old cinephilia is the cinephilia that has dominated film culture for the last seventy-five years. Its origin story recounts its rise in post–World War II France, its auteur worship, and its cult of mise-en-scène. Over the years, this story has made a profound mark on Euro-Western film culture, and has come to be installed as the hegemonic narrative of movie love, period. A magic trick: the local has quietly become the universal.
The new cinephilia recognizes two things about this origin story: that it is simply one narrative of movie love among innumerable in the world; and that it has been authored mostly by one minority group: straight white men. In response, the new cinephilia wants to multiply a diversity of voices and subjectivities, and a plethora of narratives about cinephilic life and experience. The new cinephilia, which lives comfortably both as URL (on the internet) and IRL (“in real life”), is a self-conscious cinephilia, in that it foregrounds the social situatedness—the subject positionality—of the cinema lover. Therefore, I must add: I write these words as a straight male cinephile of South Asian origin who lives in the U.S.A.
The pleasures at the heart of the old cinephilia are predominantly aesthetic. The new cinephilia has a broader definition of pleasure: it values the aesthetic experience of cinema, but it demands more. It finds pleasure, additionally, in a deep curiosity about the world and a critical engagement with it. Cinema teaches us about the human and nonhuman world in new and powerful ways. Traditional cinephilic pleasure is private, personal, inward; it is also what Laura Mulvey, in her landmark manifesto, wished to destroy. The new cinephilia radiates outward, powered by a spirit of inquiry and a will to social and planetary change. It is no coincidence that so many filmmakers valued by the new cinephilia—women, queer, indigenous, people of color—have an interest in activism, and view cinema itself as part of a larger cultural-activist project. It is equally no coincidence that comparatively few straight white male filmmakers share this trait.
Central to the old cinephilia is the act of evaluation. List making, rank ordering, the creation of hierarchies and levels—these activities, widely acknowledged to be a male propensity, are important to the old cinephilia. (One of its sacred texts, Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, definitively illustrates this impulse.) In film culture, value flows from pleasure, and since the old cinephilia privileges aesthetic pleasure, it has long been the key criterion of value for films. For the new cinephilia, with its expansive notion of pleasure and value, films that center the lives, subjectivities, experiences, and worlds of marginalized people automatically become valuable.
Auteurism is a cornerstone of the old cinephilia. By holding the position (as François Truffaut did) that the worst film by an auteur is inherently more interesting than the best film by a non-auteur, auteurism became an ingenious mechanism for ceaselessly multiplying discourse on a limited number of filmmakers, mostly male. Auteurism, in other words, became a manspreading machine. The myth of scarcity that auteurism long cultivated and deployed regarding films made by nonmale directors is finally being exploded by the new cinephilia. The attitude of the new cinephilia toward auteurism is ambivalent: although it has heavily favored men directors until now, there is nothing necessarily male essentialist about auteurism. It can as easily be put to use as a fertile method for generating analysis, writing, and conversation about, especially, female and nonwhite male filmmakers.
The old cinephilia claims to be open and eclectic. Its adherents have long taken satisfaction in casting their net wide to encompass both commercial and art cinema, contemporary and older movies, domestic and international films, and a broad span of genres. Though this is an admirable impulse, in reality it has not delivered on its promises of inclusiveness. Traditional cinephilia privileges the form of the narrative fiction feature. Other valuable forms, such as serialized television, short films, web series and videos, experimental work, and even documentary films are not accorded the same pride of place. Filmmakers from marginalized groups—that is, nonwhite or nonheterosexual male—face significantly higher barriers in making fiction feature films and therefore gravitate to other sectors and platforms. This has meant that the nondominant moving-image forms in which these artists often work receive less attention.
The new cinephilia takes up So Mayer’s call for “representational justice,” aiming for a true inclusiveness, and embracing the broadest possible variety of moving-image forms and artists.1 This does not mean devoting equal attention to all filmmakers and all work, for that would be the kind of tepid, liberal gesture that allots an “equal voice to all sides.” Instead, because the old cinephilia has long privileged filmmakers belonging to certain dominant social groups, the new cinephilia throws its weight behind socially and politically marginalized artists, as well as the institutionally marginalized cinematic forms that are most hospitable to them. Each cinephilic act of speaking, writing, citing, and curating must also be an act that intervenes in an unequal world.
A certain tendency of the old cinephilia: it has a conservative, nostalgic streak. Cinephilic experiences (especially from childhood and young adulthood) are treasured, sacralized, held close throughout one’s lifetime. As Sarah Keller has argued, cinephiles often experience an anxiety, a defensiveness, when their investments are imperiled, their pleasures threatened.2 To take a well-known example: when feminists have issued calls to turn away from, to reduce critical and cinephile attention to, the work of figures such as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, they have encountered a powerful, reactionary resistance to any such suggestion that arises in the ranks of film (especially auteurist) culture.
The new cinephilia recognizes the inherent instability of value judgments about artists and their work. The worth of a film may rise and fall over time, depending not just on formal criteria, but also on ideological ones. We must forever be open to the possibility of reevaluating or even renouncing our objects of previous adoration in light of new knowledge, new consciousness, new imperatives. At this present moment, the entire corpus of cinema looks different to the eye of the new cinephile in a #MeToo world.
The old cinephilia is endlessly fascinated by representations of male bad behavior: obsessive, dominating, abusive, violent. Film criticism has aided and abetted this proclivity, putting at its service an admiring language to endorse, encourage, and enshrine it. “Dark,” “twisted,” “provocative,” “edgy” are words used much more frequently to characterize cinema made by (and about) men than women. The new cinephilia is both wary and weary of this overrepresentation, which it counters by proposing a cinephilia of refusal. The new cinephile feels no desire to continue subjecting herself to the cinema of male pathology.
You shall know the old cinephilia by the sounds of its worrying: film culture these days is “too PC,” too “morality driven,” and “all about identity politics.” Supposedly fragmented and atomized along identity lines, the community of cinema lovers is no longer unified the way it once (allegedly) was.
For the new cinephilia, however, this unity of film culture is a figment of nostalgic fantasy, a fiction propagated and sustained by the imposition of a false universalism. Only by privileging certain identities (white, male, heterosexual) over others has Euro-Western film culture historically been able to construct its illusion of wholeness and coherence. What is truly being mourned by the old cinephilia is the (tiny) loss of cultural authority and influence for its dominant identity groups.
The old cinephilia and the new cinephilia are not only practices; they are also ideologies. Each cinephilia has its values and beliefs—ways in which it views the world—from which flow its tastes and sensibilities. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the two cinephilias do not form a simple, either/or binary system. Instead, they both live, whether in degrees small or large, in every individual cinephile.
“Life organized around films” is one widely accepted definition of traditional cinephilia. But at this moment, when the world is in turmoil and the planet on the edge of catastrophe, such a conception of cine-love seems irresponsible, even narcissistic. What we need now is a cinephilia that is fully in contact with its present global moment—that accompanies it, that moves and travels with it. No matter how ardent and passionate our love for this medium, the world is bigger and vastly more important than cinema.
1. So Mayer, Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (London: I. B. Tauris, 2016).
2. Sarah Keller, “Cinephobia: To Wonder, to Worry,” LOLA, no. 5 (November 2014), http://www.lolajournal.com/5/cinephobia.html.
The Natural Cinema of Aleksandr Rastorguev
Nikita Smirnov, Vasiliy Stepanov, and the Séance editorial staff. Translated by Alice Jondorf.
Séance is one of the oldest Russian film journals, founded in 1989—in the passionate era of glasnost and perestroika. Housed in the historic Lenfilm studios in Saint Petersburg, Séance has an active publishing schedule encompassing the journal, books, and an online presence (https://seance.ru/eng) as well as screenings. Its connection to Aleksandr Rastorguev and to his own manifesto of a decade ago makes Séance essential to this dossier.
We met Aleksandr “Sasha” Rastorguev and his films at the beginning of 2007, when we were preparing a special issue of Séance dedicated to revolution in documentary cinema. At that time Russia, like the rest of the world, was being conquered by digital technology. The country was a giant unexplored space for new documentary author-researchers armed with portable digital technology.
But for Rastorguev, it wasn’t only a technology. He stood out in this generation of digital cinematographers who carefully trained their lenses on an unfamiliar reality in order to make fiction out of it. His movies were bigger than that. He was sharp, big—too big for the tools and for this time. It was clear even to the naked eye upon meeting him. He talked about war and peace, love and hate, pity and life itself, speaking to a country that had experienced so much and was preparing to experience even more.
You could call Rastorguev the ideal interpreter of the Putin era on the screen; fair enough. But now it is clear that he was bigger than that time. He expressed something characteristically, timelessly, stupidly Russian, the very essence of being Russian.
We immediately and unanimously approved him as one of the main heroes for our special issue with a bitter name: “Back in the USSR.” This issue of Séance tried to detect, feel, and describe Soviet flavors and shades in modern Russian life and culture. We commissioned several large articles about Rastorguev, and we showed his films to leading Russian directors and film critics. In fact, we introduced them to this phenomenon—this great filmmaker who was living among us, almost completely unknown. Then we asked Rastorguev himself to write a manifesto.
That’s how this text was born. Sasha wrote brilliantly; it was enough to receive only one letter from him to understand that. Today, several paragraphs of this manifesto seem like a document of their time, a document of Sasha’s hopes that cinema can change reality. He announces that his future huge documentary web project will be called “Reality.” Unfortunately, neither the cinema nor the reality will fulfill these hopes. A man who had a thick skin and a good dose of self-regard, Aleksandr Rastorguev will live on in his attempt to catch reality. Life would deceive him, though, by covering everything with a dense fog of post-truth, intolerable not just for a documentary but for the survival of a truly living person: Sasha died in July 2018 at the age of forty-seven, his life’s work forever incomplete. What follows are excerpts from that manifesto of a decade ago, written in a different Russia.
“Natural Cinema” A Manifesto by Aleksandr Rastorguev
a small boy
who has aged by ten minutes.
seduced by the authorship of two great guys from among those still thriving today:
Frank and Kossakovsky.1
They both live
in the domain of guilt
for their world. The huge, real grief of culpability.
Their reality originates from this almost divine sensation.
It has the moral imperative of belonging.
It engenders, through
their personal being.
Their standpoint in the aperture of being.
I think it’s not cramped in there.
Today’s documentary production is a waste-production facility
Documentary makers are cloned to order by TV channels. It is an ideological challenge to the entire film community in the form of public autofellatio.
The manufacture of directors with the scope and talents of a particular slot is the logical route for a self-gratifying system.
Somebody has to
maintain the traffic between the Kremlin, money, and a free lunch
digital freedom with its digi-communism.
Here it is, our time has come.
We can do more,
we can be more honest.
We can make it about today.
the kindest are running to little old ladies to shed a tear,
the craftiest to the Belye Stolby film archive to find Stalin,
the most talented are turning to formalism for the extraneous,
and all of them to the costumed mannequins of the glamour revolution.
But where is this bitch of a reality?
Got no family with anyone, the bitch?
Mistrust of oneself, mistrust of one’s hearing and voice.
None of them shout like Tarkovsky:
“I can talk!”2
My God, if He exists, is tormented. And He is the start of a new paragraph.
While you have everything in one line: to be, to shit, to love …
But I like it, because moo-moo is better than the silence of the lambs.
Monosyllabic and exuberant.
Has already enslaved itself with its own aesthetics.
“Real Cinema” tries to attach reality’s tail to simulacra of billboards. To change the vector. Not “real” and not “direct,”
Body of pain
“The Pathology of the Russian Mind” contains the phrase: “The body of pain is the center of universal objectification.”
The birth of the objective world occurs in the domain of the naive.
It occurs in the face of pain, is created by and from pain,
it is found (that is, it finds itself) around pain.
It is found
beyond the bounds of pain,
but has its center in pain.
It is found in the domain of nonreactive authenticity.
Beside the center, adjacent, just as Heidegger’s human being resides
adjacent to being, in the aperture of being.
In the same way, the objectification of placability in its entirety is to be found in the aperture of pain.
Pain that is itself the guarantee of this authenticity.
Concern about authenticity
Language is the home of being, the body of pain is the center of universal objectification.
Being and pain
The person who is contiguous with being and pain, but not aware of the proximity, is the shepherd of being.
The owner of preobjective physicality.
The bearer of pain. With pain, only with pain, is there entry to the home of being.
Pain is the means by which the truth of being is even slightly revealed to a person.
The “standpoint in the aperture of the truth of being” demands pain and is pain itself.
Pain is a person’s essential condition.
Is it possible for cinema to be a
useless or empty business?
Can it be just another substitute device for rhetoric and ideology?
Can this human domain make way for—
—that garrulous ideological posture,
—that humdrum bio-enlightenment,
—that socialized lust for adaptation within reach of mechanical power,
which have so sequentially and completely eclipsed the rare sparks
of poetry and truth in nonfiction cinema.
NATURAL CINEMA — is a screen novel.
Its artistic basis:
an experiment of pure aesthetics
and total anthropology.
The central methodology is “intrinsic action.”
That alone forms the dramatic fabric of the film.
Its pathos is
an experiment of pure aesthetics
peering into humanity’s face,
humanity peering into its own face.
domain of freedom
is the domain that catalogues anthropological
and ethical experience.
From a catalogue of pain to an aperture of truth.
requires balance and resolution in the fabric and geometry
of its own essence.
That is how a hero appears.
A true hero presents himself in the guise of a “superhero” from comics, fairy tales, and myths. The function of a superhero is the act that contains his event for the world—his heroic deed. The deed in the form of discoveries, adventures, crimes, learning—biography that has become destiny. The overarching meaning of the heroic deed is sacrifice. The energy of sacrifice is the energy of action.
The text of intrinsic action is always a technical explication.
The technical process of a miracle.
Nonfiction—i.e., Natural Cinema.
As with anything natural, its reason is in itself.
Unlike everything unnatural; that is, whatever defines itself
through something else.
Natural Cinema is like
talking made from authenticity,
in its nonreactive configurations and markings.
Natural Cinema is
(in the existential sense),
concretization of objectivity
through enhumanization of the human—
through the pain of the truth of being.
Culture, with its cult of the symbol,
is forbidden by the body of pain.
The symbol whose physicality lies beyond the bounds of authenticity and the reality it simulates. The symbol whose physicality resides in emptiness, in fundamental unfillability and in the illusion of any “what-ness.”
It is impossible to combine in one register the truth of humanity’s being
the acid reflux of culture.
Of culture that has shoved aside humanity on the way home.
About the mission of NATURAL CINEMA
it is important to speak in the spirit of Kant’s moral imperative, when any action must be directed toward a person as the end and not the means.
The icon and the cathedral were “‘killed’” by the book (Victor Hugo made that point already); the book was pushed aside by theater, and then by serious auteur cinema, live-action; it, in turn, was enslaved by technology and money.
And the sole answer to
the spiritual interrogation of the era
can only be Natural Cinema—
—cinema that does not dig around in historical film but becomes it;
—cinema whose interest has moved from munching zebras and dancing natives
extraction of new moral experience,
to the demolition of culture’s artificial horizon.
The only possible strategy of such a movement is the strategy of the obscene, the asocial.
Strategy of destruction.
Strategy of pain.
Art is war
—with the stability of self-optimizing social structures,
—with stultifying political correctness,
—with social serenity.
Art is fundamental
—with the existing mass media context,
—with any context
that is current
And the objectives of art are the opposite
of the objectives of power.
Because there is no cause for justice, equality, fraternity, and the like.
The “antihumanism” of being itself, its at-oneness for evil, for “nothing,” the egregiousness of its truth and the “standpoint in the aperture of the truth of being”
demands a rejection:
—of mundane ethics,
—of socialized pseudomorality,
—of society’s ideological paradigm.
Following Adorno, there is a need to add to the arsenal of strategies the “eradication from art of unconscious impulses of social mandates.”
There is a need to make art a source of unease and discomfort.
There is a need to make art an instrument of social war.
Of course, this is just a strategy.
After all, art, like beauty,
has no objective other than
Aleksandr Rastorguev (1971–2018) was a Russian filmmaker whose early documentaries include Mamochki (Mummies, 2001) and Chistyy chetverg (Clean Thursday, 2003). His movie Zhar nezhnykh: Dikiy, dikiy plyazh (Tender’s Heat: Wild Wild Beach, with Susanna Barandzhiyeva and Vitaliy Manskiy, 2005), an epic insight into the lives of everyday Russian people vacationing at the seashore, won the 2006 IDFA Special Jury award for feature-length documentary. It was often compared to classic Russian literature—for its ambition, but also for its scale: the director’s cut of the movie has a duration of 340 minutes.
At the end of the 2000s, Sasha wrote about the imperative to “give a camera to the hero himself” as the next step in developing a new language. And so he did in his next project, Ya tebya lyublyu (I Love You, with Pavel Kostomarov, 2010), an experimental film composed of videos by a few ordinary persons from his hometown who were handed the cameras. In 2012, he started to fixate on the lives of people who formed the opposition in Russia, through a number of short videos. This project, Srok (The Term, with codirectors Pavel Kostomarov and Aleksey Pivovarov), was later cut into a feature-length documentary. Rastorguev continued to work with different media outlets, teaching young filmmakers and creating short movies on different topics, such as the 2018 Armenian revolution or cadets in training.
Rastorguev was murdered in the Central African Republic on July 31, 2018, alongside cameraman Kirill Radchenko and reporter Orhan Dzhemal, while filming a new documentary about the activities of the Russian private military company Wagner.
1. Herz Frank (1927–2013) is a Soviet documentary filmmaker and the author of a short film, Par desmit minutem vecaks (10 Minutes Older, 1978). Viktor Kossakovsky is a Russian documentary filmmaker.
2. This line appears in the prologue to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo (The Mirror, 1975).
Insurgent Habitats: On Media and Environment
Dale Hudson and Patricia R. Zimmermann
We reject arbitrary divisions between the natural and built worlds, often associated with media and environmentalism. We jettison divisions between human and nonhuman life. We insist that analog and digital media must cohabitate.
We have experienced how environmentalist media in public and semipublic spaces can open debates suppressed in private and state news media or lost within polarizing or segregating social media.
If we are to survive, our media ecologies demand a politics of insurgency based on multiplying perspectives that recognize interdependence.
Think Environmentally through Media
Thinking environmentally is about more than noticing polar bears on melting icebergs. It requires understanding how intellectual property extends to copyrighted crop seeds, how fossil fuels contribute to microplastics in fish, how GMOs and Wi-Fi affect our collective futures. We therefore reject representations of the environment that are massively insufficient for the climate-change and catastrophe politics propelled by globalized extractive capitalism.
Environmentalist media is not simply a new form. It shifts relations between technologies, people, and places. It constantly probes mutating relationships. It rejects human-versus-nature binaries, so that humans understand their responsibility as part of—and as accountable to—nature. It also rejects physical-versus-virtual binaries.
Environmentalist media dispossesses us of fixed ideas because it aggressively and dynamically recalibrates our understanding of relationships with and within our environments. It invites us to recognize and live in radical interstitial zones.
Multimodal interdisciplinary approaches that can track relationships between nature, culture, and capital within our environments are mandatory. We insist on opening up routes for media to think through and work with environments, epistemologies, politics, collectivities, and actions that halt or reroute environmental destruction from the macro level of the planetary to the micro level of DNA.
We identify networks beyond the technological and financial infrastructures by considering the circulatory forms of media alongside migratory iterations of people and place in an effort to organize complexities and to pull problems into focus even where power seems invisible.
Acknowledge That Media and Environment Are Entwined
Environmentalist media overflows the confines of media environments. Theories and practices must be recalibrated for environmental conceptualizations of media and for mediating conceptualizations of environments.
They must be readied to include air conditioners, air filters, Alexa, algorithms, application programming interface (API), artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), biometrics, bits, Bixby, chips, coal, code, digital archiving, display screens, dust, electricity, gaming, Geiger counters, generative media, graphical user interface (GUI), grids, heating units, human–machine performances, image-recognition software, the internet of things, light, microwaves, minerals, mobile apps, mobile phones, oil, ovens, pipelines, projection mapping, resistors, rivers, roads, satellites, sensors, ships, Siri, social media, sonic technologies, surveillance systems, thermometers, toasters, transistors, undersea cables, virtual reality (VR), water, and wearables.
Detoxify Media Ecologies
When superheroes and entrepreneurs (rather than collective-action groups and politicians) offer our only prospects for hope, we need to accept that our media ecologies are toxic. Social media’s algorithms of polarization are driven by profit and fuel new combustions between virtual and embodied worlds. Likes and shares generate revenue as our digital profiles are bought and sold. They are vacuous imaginaries, amplifying and accelerating those generated by analog media ecologies of broadcast ratings or box-office receipts.
Far-right politicians make headlines and drive metrics for likes and shares, stoking nationalist violence. Authoritarianism surges in electoral victories in Brazil, Hungary, India, Israel, the Philippines, the United States, and elsewhere. Democracy is no longer synonymous with representational polity. Although it should live at the core of democracy, environmentalism is abandoned and forgotten.
Ecofeminism, critical animal studies, extraction studies, and environmental humanities provide tools to dismantle the racism, sexism, classism, species-ism, and anthropocentrism that toxify environments. They cut through social-media feeds that amplify phobias in support of coal, petroleum, factory farming, militarized drones, privatized education, and for-profit invasions.
Thinking environmentally through media involves a shift beyond segregations and stratifications. Environmentalist media deploy multiple strategies to infiltrate and not simply intervene. These practices have the potential to create convergences, openings, and rewirings that bring people, ideas, and technologies (usually not aligned) back together to challenge globalized extractive capitalism.
Ignite Radical Insurgencies
We must unlearn the safe strategies of aesthetes and auteurs and move toward radical insurgencies across legacy and emerging forms and platforms. Environmentalist media must expand beyond feature-length flat-on-a-wall analog films on conservation or preservation and move toward a multiplicity of forms and platforms that conjure different ways of being political.
Documentary needs to expand into complex ecologies comprising different strategies, sectors, and technologies. Such ecologies must include more than festival, broadcast, or stream-worthy feature films. Environmentalist media comprises a complex, heterogeneous series of microecologies that includes interactive and mobile forms accessed on browsers or apps.
We must liberate ourselves from limiting illusions of a universalized single screen into expanding, ever-multiplying, and different kinds of screens, technologies, and engagements. We don’t just sit in the dark to watch and listen. Wearable technologies mediate our environment. We inhabit embodied media ecologies.
To paraphrase a well-worn battle cry, we propose igniting insurgencies—by any media and technology necessary.
Plunge into Entanglements
Under globalized extractive capitalism, every existent theory and position is in need of destabilization and reconfiguration to fight against catastrophe politics, climate change, climate disruption, the sixth extinction, and slow violence. Instead of “representations of the real” and “forms of intervention,” we need to invent new ways for thinking and doing. Applying analog theories to digital practices is not useful, nor is making digital media according to analog specifications.
Environmentalist media operates as an interpretive interface between physical and virtual environments. It is especially urgent during the Anthropocene, since the effects of human destruction of air, land, and water, including those for so-called clean technology, are irreversible and lethal to thousands of species.
Environmentalist media is cartographic because it maps, unmaps, and remaps ways of seeing positions and relationships in space and time between species that we might not ordinarily consider or think possible. It educates us on the entanglements of toxic fumes from carbon-based fuels that have driven industrial progress and toxic masculinities of neoliberalism’s faith in the free market. It encourages reflection on entangled power relations.
Stop Privileging the Status Quo
Against surges in conservative cultural nationalist politics enabled by liberal free-market economics, we need media spaces that are both safe and vibrant. Conventional film festivals, criticism, and scholarship tend to protect the status quo. They can feel unsafe and predictable.
We reject modalities of auteurism and industrialism to demand that festivals, criticism, and scholarship explore all modalities and modes to constitute spaces where environmentalism can be reconsidered, recalibrated, and reenergized. Festivals, criticism, and scholarship need to transform themselves into laboratories of ideas for a new politics of polyphony.
More directly, we demand accountability by people of privilege (POP), who too often self-authorize themselves to interpret media made by others, especially by non-white-identified people of color (POC) in the United States and those minoritized elsewhere. POP strip away historical and cultural context with a destructiveness to our shared environment, as though mining for rare-earth minerals.
A delirium of rancid individualism invariably naturalizes classist, imperialist, nationalist, racist, and sexist power relations. It adds occasional flourishes of exoticism and cultural tourism for POP’s enjoyment or education. It uses selective concern for individuals as camouflage rather than analyzing systemic inequities and injustices.
We need to reject oppressive universalisms that insist all stories must be accessible or “relatable” to POP. Stories are particular. They thus hold the potential for a commons. Some, however, are not meant for POP: they operate within and for specific communities. We need to recalibrate thinking beyond Sundance and Oscar toward politically and environmentally responsible models of indigenous and postcolonial feminist media, in terms of consumption as well as production.
We need more collaborative action and collective empathy, not more individual expression and unique voices.
Stop Worshipping the Feature
We reject the single-issue feature film’s stranglehold on thinking. We need to retrain ourselves, our audiences, and our communities. We refuse to settle for the exclusivities of the feature. It is neither a global model nor an aspirational goal. Many short-form films packaged online and many interactive and mobile projects feel more artistically and politically alive than most feature films about the environment and politics.
We need to decolonize ourselves from the feature-length film in favor of a polyphony of forms, interfaces, and structures. We need to search out opportunities to sit with strangers to discuss and debate interconnections and intersections between perspectives on issues raised by media. The undervalued legacy value of theaters is that they offer us a vibrant space in which to sit together, rather than speaking from the isolation of our laptops, mobile phones, or tablets. Regardless of where they are screened, short- and medium-form films allow more time for discussion than features.
We demand shorter films and longer discussions. We demand immersive, long-term programming across platforms.
Stop Fetishizing Technology
Expository or observational documentaries on conservation and preservation once restricted environmentalism to the simplistic reductionism of a singular point of view. Today, whether commercial or artisanal, technical prowess in media often beguiles, overshadowing content and context.
Celebrations of RED cameras and VR interfaces betray an insidious technophilia that foregrounds formalism and decontextualizes historical, cultural, and environmental facts. We reject conservative applications of new technologies that conceal old politics in new forms.
Academic criticism that ignores content and context by focusing only on how technology works should be rejected. We should not be awed by something a computer-science student does as homework.
We must refuse technology as a solution. We need media that shakes and dismantles our thinking about the environment, not media that physically shakes our chair to make us feel we’ve been transported into a fourth dimension.
Environmentalist media projects contribute innovative conceptual strategies that address very real conflicts, contradictions, and entanglements in specific locations. They respond to an urgency to think beyond formalist terms and interventions.
Move from Deceptive Universals to Urgent Particulars
We reject the notion of story as too singular, reductive, and authoritarian. Instead, we demand stories. We want modularity and multiplicity, not linearity and uniformity; urgent particulars, not deceptive universals.
Environmentalist media foregrounds what different structures for many stories might look and feel like. We need to look for, program, and write about projects engaging a multiplicity of stories, perspectives, and modes of analyses.
At the same time, we need to reject the exceptional protagonists and native informants of the conventional and conservative media so that we can learn to recognize interdependence and thus collective accountability. We need to acknowledge responsibility toward the commons of clean air and water.
Reject Market Solutions
Investigations into the environment and its entanglements must form the core of our media practices. The political economies of media position it as a commodity operating beyond the environment. We need to decolonize our thinking to create insurgent spaces for collaborative and collective work on ugly and unpleasant issues that cannot be commodified on the free market.
Sanctioned corruption works in tandem with complicit ignorance. In the United States, reality television’s marketing logic infects political systems and undermines journalism’s role to contest and question. The market solution of aggregated news feeds in social media and the sensationalism of cable news shows proliferate problems rather than providing solutions.
CNN, Fox, and MSNBC pander to their bases by covering the most salacious intrigue on Capitol Hill rather than investigating environmental and human catastrophes detonated by imperialist regimes and extractive capitalism. Facebook and Twitter feeds foreclose possibilities for other perspectives.
We need to tune out, and share outside the algorithm.
What Is to Be Done?
Extractive capitalism must be regulated. Catastrophe politics must be deprivatized. Climate change must be acknowledged. The media’s underreporting of key issues enables gerrymandered election districts, rationalized voter suppression, deregulated campaign finance, and the privatizing of resources to proceed unimpeded.
Decades of struggle for civil rights, environmental justice, and human rights around the globe are being vaporized. For-profit media produces disaster porn, shot in places that have been eviscerated by colonialism, imperialism, servitude, and slavery, and in so doing it distances their reality from our own. We need to ask more questions.
We are connected, and therefore responsible to one another and our environment.
What tools do we need to imagine, embody, and enact a different way of thinking and a different environment? How can we decenter power and a range of privileges? How do we use digital media to embody empathy and to enact a radical heterogeneity?
To dismantle anthropocentric, classist, extractive, racist, and sexist capitalism, we need more imaginary zones. How do we produce, use, and program digital media to take apart what exists and to conjure possible futures?
Doing All Things Differently
A revolution is coming. Perhaps more than one, but in this context, it’s a revolution of the screen.
Our industry lies at the precipice of great change. This seems often to be true in our industry, though, where technological innovation is always shifting how artists work, and how their work is viewed by an audience.
This time, it is a storytelling revolution—one driven not by the how, but by the who.
Times of change present opportunity. It would be hard to argue that we aren’t in a moment of great change, whether within our industry or in the greater world. In moments like these, progress can be made even as things are at their most tumultuous.
The establishing of the Indigenous Screen Office in Canada a year ago is an example of progress, long overdue, arriving at a moment when our homegrown screen sector is undergoing significant change. The office was established after years of advocacy and frequent calls for better representation of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s screen sector, and it arrives at a moment when the relationship between First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples on the one hand, and the nation of Canada on the other, is an increasingly essential element of the multinational discourse.
November 2018 marked the beginning of my tenth month as the head of this newly created Canadian agency. I’ve had the opportunity to travel across Turtle Island, from Montreal to Winnipeg, from Vancouver to Iqaluit, to discuss the needs of the Indigenous screen sector as well as the future of Indigenous screen storytelling. Central to the mission of the Indigenous Screen Office is to provide narrative sovereignty and to help make resources become available to accomplish that goal. We need to normalize Indigenous peoples in Canada, in the rest of North America, and across the globe, to humanize us, so that we can be seen as the vital part that we are. Because without First Nations, there would be no Canada and no United States.
And we must be truthful with ourselves. If the current models of making Indigenous stories were truly effective, would reconciliation be this hard in Canada and elsewhere? Although there has been no shortage of films, documentaries, and TV shows made about Indigenous peoples, until the last few decades the vast majority were told by people outside our communities. The practice started at the same instant that moving images were born on Turtle Island, with Thomas Edison and William Dickson’s camera capturing it all for history. This has meant that the image and the understanding of Indigenous peoples have overwhelmingly been formed by someone else, often while we Indigenous peoples were barred from telling our own stories.
This has created not just false narratives and a false history, but also an industry used to appropriation, unaware of the harm it causes and dismissive of those it excludes. As part of a renewed relationship, then, a different approach to storytelling is also needed.
In Canada, where a new broadcast act is currently being discussed, the new act should afford the same opportunity for Indigenous peoples that it does for all other Canadians; the United States and CPB (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) should do the same. We need such an act, both to compel the creation and broadcast of content made by Indigenous peoples and to ensure that Indigenous peoples can gain sovereignty over their stories, just as the existing version of the act has already done for Canada’s French and English communities. Not only do Indigenous peoples need a vibrant screen sector, one that employs them, and allows for the telling of our own stories; such a sector is also deeply important for non-Indigenous peoples—so that they may hear our stories from us, so that we may learn together, so that we may build a better future for us all.
Canadians yearn for these stories; they want to know the truth and the history, to know the lives and histories of the people whose land they now share. I hope that all North Americans feel the same. The desire for authentic Indigenous screen content extends beyond our borders, too. We have watched with envy as our cousins in Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) have grown their industries into beacons of hope and progress. They have launched careers on the international stage; they make content that sells all over the world and is watched by millions.
Luckily, the Indigenous screen sector, here and globally, is poised for similar rapid growth. Just as we have seen Indigenous artists begin to populate awards for literature, visual art, and music, we will soon be a regular presence at the screen awards, both here and internationally. For this is not a community lacking in talent or stories to tell. We have lots of that. What we have lacked is opportunity.
Now is the moment for that opportunity. It is Indigenous peoples who should be telling our stories, and it should be Indigenous peoples deciding how that is done and by whom. Anything less ensures that media creation remains a colonial practice, one that extracts rather than reciprocates. Anything less means that reconciliation will remain a dream, rather than a reality, for all of our communities.
We need greater support for Indigenous-language content across the sector. Contained within our languages is our world-view, a world-view nearly extinguished, but one that is more vital now than ever, as the world struggles with issues of equality, populist nationalism, and ongoing environmental change. These languages are vitally important to our communities.
And we need to ensure that this new content is readily available to be seen by Indigenous peoples in their communities. That is why the universal access to high-speed Internet is vital, not just as a necessity for the Indigenous screen sector to be able to produce stories within our own communities, but also so that Indigenous peoples can in turn be equal consumers of and contributors to Canadian and U.S. content, and to the growing Indigenous media sector across the planet.
I realize that this text suggests a lot of change, and that this change may seem daunting and maybe even threatening. But it is high time for Canadians and Americans to realize that this is an Indigenous place, and that this is something to be immensely proud of—not something to be erased, or obscured, or ashamed of.
That is true for Canada and indeed all of the Americas, Africa, Sami Land, Australia, Oceania, and Aotearoa. Indigenous heritage is at a competitive advantage today in the world media market. Indigenous stories and languages are an offering unique to Turtle Island and all these other places, content that is poised for rapid growth and expansion globally.
Let me end with the words of Dr. Marie Wilson, one of the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and former regional director of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the CBC North region, a deeply wise woman who shared with me something I think vital to our moment in time. She said: “Reconciliation is not about doing new things. It is about doing all things differently.” In this moment, that is what the media sector in Canada needs to do.
© 2019 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
This manifesto is derived from a speech delivered on November 1, 2018, at the conference of the Canadian chapter of the International Institute of Communications (IIC), held in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory.