B. Ruby Rich
Dateline: Los Angeles
The International Documentary Association (IDA) presents a big conference here every other year, convening the documentary community, helping the field to think about its challenges. Not remotely an academic conference, nor a market with pitch sessions, “Getting Real” is a hybrid event that offers a good snapshot of current issues from a largely U.S. perspective, despite the organization’s aspirational name. (For a detailed report, see Joshua Glick’s article in this issue.)
Film Quarterly collaborated with the IDA to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary in Los Angeles with a special panel highlighting the importance of documentary criticism and scholarship. The audience was a dream come true, with everyone from filmmaker Vicky Funari to producer Joslyn Barnes to Sundance’s Tabitha Jackson in attendance. University of California Press honchos Tim Sullivan and Steve Jenkins even came down from their Oakland offices to host a party in FQ‘s honor—a great gathering of editorial board members, friends, and allies past, present, and future.
It was in Paris that I was invited to a screening of the sublime If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018), with Jenkins in person. Beale Street is a heartfelt period piece, smoky passion laced with hurt, a smoldering look deep into black daily life and strategies of resilience in the Harlem and West Village of the 1970s, and at the racist violence funneled into cycles of abuse. It’s a rueful love letter to New York City, even with all its abuses and hurts.1
After the screening, Jenkins spoke onstage with none other than Raoul Peck. Peck, when he is not making the most brilliant of documentaries (I Am Not Your Negro, 2016) or serving as culture minister of Haiti (1996–97), lives in Paris and serves as the president of its renowned film school, La Fémis. It was a sublime conversation, about the film itself and so much more. By now it’s becoming clear that Jenkins, so acclaimed—and rightly so—for Moonlight (2016), has actually embarked on his long game: reclaiming and rescuing black emotion from the flattened-out cartoon drawn by centuries of racism, reanimating it into a fully fleshed and imagined portrait-scape wrought by an artist in love with his subject. His films’ tenderness, profundity, and subtlety repay the viewer’s attention with the deepest understanding, free of compromise and condescension.
Still in Paris, my heart still wide open and eyes refreshed, I was invited to another event.2 It was a screening of Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018), which I’d decided to see a second time. Cuarón was there in person to chat with a star-studded group that included Agnès Varda, her daughter Rosalie, Isabelle Adjani, Mélanie Laurent, and Euzhan Palcy. The rapt Roma fans (myself among them) peppered him with questions, and he was generous with his answers, boyishly intense, engrossed in a moment he was clearly savoring.3 The film deserves all the attention it’s been getting—for its autobiographical story, its historical significance, and the way its quotidian intimacy coexists with its shimmering black-and-white wide-screen luxury. But there is something odd about opening such a film “theatrically” via private screenings around the world. Cuarón may be enough of a global citizen to justify the reach, but Netflix needs to think seriously about what its “theatrical window” should be.
The glorious Fondation Cartier presented a one-night event with the great Paraguayan filmmaker and installation artist Paz Encina (the focus of Film Quarterly 70, no. 4 [Summer 2017]). There on a blustery winter night, Encina presented a set of immersive sound pieces that filled the galleries with the disappearing life of the eami (forest) from which the Ayoreo, an ancestral Indigenous community, have been systematically deported and exterminated.
Encina spoke after the screening of a short but very emotional trailer for her new project. She was there with Tagüide Picanerai, a chieftain’s son and regional leader from the community of Chaidi Alto Paraguay, and with Nicolas Richard, anthropologist and researcher at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), who has long worked in the region.4 Their reports were chilling. As one text reads: “The forest is growing dark because the Ayoreo no longer live there.” The full horror of that injustice was palpable at a sonic level. Judging from her earlier extraordinary work, Encina’s final installation, Memorias de Eami, will be even more powerful.
Finally, at the Galerie Colbert, a five-part retrospective celebrated the career of French documentary filmmaker Michelle Porte.5 The films, largely made for French television, were augmented by talks, receptions, and even licorice for the audience. Her two-part documentary, Les Lieux de Marguerite Duras (1976), was a revelation: a portrait of Duras at ease, smoking, leaning back against the cushions, chatting about her work as if with an old friend, presenting Duras as a charismatic, seductive presence absolutely sure of her own brilliance and importance.
Dateline: Saint Petersburg
Russia is endlessly invoked in the United States right now, yet little known and rarely visited by most Americans. A remarkable invitation brought me to Saint Petersburg: Bok o Bok (Side by Side), Russia’s LGBTQ film festival, asked me to be their guest for the eleventh annual event.6
Arriving in the middle of the festival, I missed the opening-night melee: one of Russia’s most virulently homophobic right-wing politicians showed up with a team of thugs, blocked the entrance, and insulted attendees.7 After the police cleared them out and let the gala screening of Una mujer fantástica (A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio, 2017) begin, authorities received an emergency call bizarrely alleging a hostage crisis at the movie theater. Antiterrorism measures (for a nonexistent situation) emptied the theater, which proceeded to kick the festival out entirely—forcing organizers to race to find a new location by the following night.
Astonishingly, they did. The stalwart festival curators and their squadron of volunteers were starting to show the stress, though. Nonetheless, with the festival moved to a fabulous multiuse location, a shabby-chic palace with screens and projectors, chandeliers, and huge crowds of fans, they pulled off an event like I’d never seen. The city’s hundreds of queer cinephiles and allies turned out every night, motivated, eager to connect with queer culture through film, delighted to be part of a community. Their enthusiasm was contagious, their passion inspiring.
The 2018 festival was also marking twenty-five years since the repeal of Article 121 of Russia’s criminal code, which had criminalized homosexuality. Alexander Kondakov, a Saint Petersburg sociologist now based in Helsinki, presented a detailed lecture on the history of sexual freedom and repression in post-Soviet Russia. Happily, there was no disruption that night, as a large and surprisingly young audience turned up to be educated. However, a bomb threat interrupted the screening of Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018), a lovely Kenyan lesbian film that had to be stopped before its happy ending could reward the audience. Waiting out in the cold of the Saint Petersburg night, hundreds milled around, smoking, hoping it would resume. It did not, but organizers added a slot to show Rafiki‘s second half on an added closing-night slot, and a big crowd turned up for it, just ahead of the gala screening of The Happy Prince (2018) with writer/director/star Rupert Everett there in person.
The audience—mixed, though overwhelmingly comprised of young women—was starved for representation, desperate to see their community’s images and narratives depicted on-screen, to be challenged and succored. There were no further disruptions. Trepidation was still palpable, at least for the festival team, but spirits were high. In the end, Bok o Bok regained its equilibrium and so did its audience. I left transformed by the experience of witnessing the power of cinema in a place where so much of it is prohibited. The day after the festival ended, a new ordinance was imposed that aims to use licensing rules to effectively ban foreign films, independent films, and the festivals showing them.8 Russian civic society took another hit.
In Oslo, I encountered a thriving culture of cinema clubs, a wonderfully old-fashioned format that no longer exists in many places. The film-club network is credited with binding Norway, and Norwegians, together. Ingrid Rommetveit, the editor in chief of Z Film Quarterly and an adviser to the Norwegian Federation of Film Societies, coordinated a weekend symposium on queer film and media where FQ editorial board member Chris Berry and I gave talks and presented screenings. The enthusiasm was remarkable: their isolation and dispersed locations made people downright joyous (in a restrained Norwegian style) at encountering one another and discovering films together. It was a warm and welcoming environment. Perhaps it’s time to revive cine-clubs in the United States, too, where such convenings are all too rare outside university settings.
For its fortieth anniversary, the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano (Havana Film Festival) organized a symposium for Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, to whose memory and legacy it was dedicated in what would have been his ninetieth year. For two days, critics and scholars convened by the wonderful Teresa Toledo, who was on loan from Madrid’s Casa de las Americas, spoke about the beloved Titón (his nickname) and his legacy. Panels featured Ana M. López, Michael Chanan, Nancy Berthier, Jerry Carlson, Juan Antonio García Borrero, and myself in an intensely personal series of appreciations. Adding to the celebration was a presentation by Criterion Classics staffers Kate Elmore and Valeria Rotella of their new Blu-ray restoration of Titón’s Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968).
Seated in the audience was a pantheon of Cuban cinema’s greats, including Titón’s widow and lead actress, Mirtha Ibarra; Cuba’s other leading lady, Daisy Granados; Lola Calvino, the widow of Julio Garcia Espinosa and the inaugural force behind the national film school; Senal Paz, the writer whose book and screenplay formed the basis of Titón’s Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1992); renowned Mexican producer Bertha Navarro, whom the festival honored for her work; and Ivan Giroud, festival president. An emotional event, the symposium culminated in a hard-hat trip to the construction site where a ruined building in Havana Vieja is being transformed into the future Tomás Gutiérrez Alea cultural center, where films will be shown and youth from the working-class neighborhood get training in film.
The festival itself played day and night throughout Havana in theaters ranging from the old Rampa and Riviera to the Karl Marx Cinema. Opening night featured Emil Kusturica’s El Pepe, una vida suprema (El Pepe, a Supreme Life, 2018), his contagiously endearing portrait of Pepe Mujica, ex–Tupamaro, political prisoner, and president of Uruguay (2010–15), along with his wife of some forty years, Lucia Topolansky, a former militant and political prisoner who is currently serving as Uruguay’s vice president. A humble pair of leftists, they live simply and speak honestly, providing a tonic of hope to festivalgoers whose countries are turning to fascism.
Hope was somewhat dashed, though, by a Mexican documentary, Ayotzinapa, el paso de la tortuga ([Ayotzinapa, the Path of the Turtle], Enrique García Meza, 2018), which details the events of September 26, 2014, the night when forty-three Mexican students were disappeared and presumed massacred, and the government cover-up that ensued. Calm and clear-eyed, its force detonates into the audience. Other festival prizes went to Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s Pájaros de verano (Birds of Passage, 2018) for Best Picture and to Carlos Reygadas for Best Director for Nuestro tiempo (Our Time, 2018).
Two events framed the festival, though they occurred outside its walls and out of its control. Before the festival opened, a number of Cuban artists were arrested (and quickly released) for protesting against Decree 349, a new law aimed at policing the limits of Cuban culture by empowering ordinary citizens to impose aesthetic and political standards. The day after I arrived, a different law went into effect: beginning on December 6, 2018, Cubans could finally access the Internet on their mobile phones—provided they had enough money for the monthly contract and access to a fast network. “This is a historic day for Cuba,” one college student excitedly told me.
In This Issue
The manifesto is a fabled writing form: its mere invocation bestows a modicum of gravitas. Five years ago, FQ inaugurated its “Page Views” feature with a debut offering of Scott MacKenzie’s Film Manifestos and Global Cinema Cultures: A Critical Anthology. To introduce the volume to FQ readers, Bill Nichols wrote:
How to make manifest the spirit and intentions of a movement that has yet to triumph over an oppressive but dominant adversary? Issue a manifesto. Stand up and speak out. Rally and mobilize. Goad, galvanize, and transform. Be bold, be ruthless, be uncompromising in the vision that will guide the transformation. Bring into being what has thus far not found a place at the table. The ambiguities of formal complexity, the nuances of aesthetic choices, the vagaries of audience reception melt away in the white heat of a singular call for a radically new vision of how to engage with the world.9
In that spirit, then, Film Quarterly offers a dossier of eleven manifestos for an age of manifs (demonstrations)—a pun that I am powerless to avoid while writing in Paris on one of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) days that took over France at the start of winter.
But first, an editor’s note: for this dossier only, FQ has suspended its ban on the royal “we.” The ban was born of necessity to discourage the authorial practice of claiming a community that exists only in the author’s mind, if there. In this collection of manifestos, no such rules apply. Manifestos are meant to seek the impossible, fantasize its existence, conjure it into being: yes, another cinema, another television, another platform, are possible. Here, then, are writers worth your attention. They are helping to chart new directions.
Racquel Gates and Michael Gillespie redefine black film and media studies by devising new terms of engagement, insisting that “the study of black film must always be a rebel act.” Manuel Betancourt is thinking about queers and desire, going back to the barricades in his search for a queer cinema “rooted in joyous possibility.” RaMell Ross, fresh off the success of Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018), writes to evade the traps of narrative and representation in a “default to resignifying.”
Lisa Nakamura sounds an alarm bell, urging an attention to social media where white supremacism is hiding in plain sight while scholarly perspectives on digital-platform regulation are urgently needed. Karim Aïnouz, pausing between film projects, reeling from the Brazilian elections, calls on film to “provide the countershot of what is unfolding in the real” and to offer “a genuine resistance against the impoverishment of the ability to imagine.”
Lawrence Carter-Long offers a set of guiding principles for disability media, opening with special mention of the late great Stephen Dwoskin and credits Kenny Fries with devising a Bechdel test for disability in the media. Natalia Brizuela expounds eleven theses for radicalizing media, including a surrender of possessive individual authorship and a move out of “silos and fields” to join together in collaborations. Girish Shambu calls for a “new cinephilia” that will break with the outmoded norms of auteurism, turn away from male pathology, and construct a new cinephilia of inclusiveness.
Nikita Smirnov and Vasiliy Stepanov, editors of the Russian film journal Séance, point to the films and manifesto of the late Aleksandr Rastorguev as a filmmaker and visionary who did not live to reach his own promised land. Dale Hudson and Patricia Zimmermann issue challenges to those making environmental cinema to detoxify the landscape and take on globalized extractive capitalism by any means necessary. Jesse Wente, on the front lines in Canada, calls for “narrative sovereignty” and an Indigenous media free of colonial practices.
No longer must cinephiles and media scholars be content to parse histories, prioritize genres, quarrel over theoretical approaches, or buy into out-of-date battles over “story” or “authenticity” at a time when we urgently need realness, stories, investigations, and their like to combat the counterfeit narratives, fake news, corruption, and cover-ups of this era. It is high time that media theory, criticism, historiography, archiveology, and imaginative practices leave the cloister and the pasture and enter the fray, where meaning is being tested and rhetoric dismantled.
This issue contains timely and highly informed thinking about the field throughout. Markus Nornes visited China for several festivals, then repaired to his keyboard to think through the implications in a China that is in the midst of evolving its cultural forums. Barbara Zecchi, who hosts an annual Catalan film conference in Amherst, Massachusetts, traveled to MoMA in New York to check out its retrospective of the historic period of 1968–78. And Joshua Glick attended the “Getting Real” documentary conference in Los Angeles to take the temperature of the field gathered there.
This issue’s interview is by Nilo Couret, who met with Brazilian documentary filmmaker Maria Augusta Ramos to discuss her newest work, O Processo (The Trial, 2018), and consider her career. The new film traces the trial of Dilma Rousseff, who over the course of Ramos’s filming went from being president of Brazil to standing trial to being deposed. Exposing Brazilian politics in the midst of a “power grab,” Couret unpacks both film and subject.
Jerry White compares Paweł Pawlikowski’s new film Zimna wojna (Cold War, 2018) to Karpo Godina’s classic Slovenian film Rdeči boogie ali Kaj ti je deklica (Red Boogie, 1982), analyzing plot and themes. But he was also reminded of Pawlikowski’s prior incarnation as a British documentary filmmaker named Paul. Here, he traces both of those histories to examine the filmmaker’s evolution.
Film Quarterly‘s columnists pursue their interests with aplomb. Amelie Hastie continues her return to the cinema of the 1970s with a look at Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971) through the lens of feminist criticism, peering especially at Jane Fonda’s hands (yes, hands). Bilal Qureshi is captivated by the new documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (Steve Loveridge, 2018), which repositions her from difficult pop star to radical refugee and unapologetic woman of color. Paul Julian Smith meanwhile is entranced with a different set of renovations, examining La casa de las flores (The House of Flowers, Netflix, 2018) as a hip reinvention of the telenovela (soap opera) with a big debt to an earlier telenovela, Mirada de mujer (A Woman’s Look, Azteca, 1997–98).
And there are books to read, as always. Carrie Rickey takes up Peter Biskind’s The Sky Is Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism and finds it by turns valuable and frustrating, as it alternately delights her and disappoints her expectations. Other books that are reviewed here include new volumes by D.N. Rodowick, Sheri Chinen Biesen, Morgan Adamson, Nora Alter, José Duarte, Timothy Corrigan, and Joshua Glick.
Finally, an announcement: with this issue, FQ‘s longtime book-review editor Noah Isenberg has stepped down, as he leaves New York to take up his new position as the George Christian Centennial Professor and Chair of the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas, Austin. Thanks for a superb job, Prof. Isenberg.
Please now welcome Carla Marcantonio, Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies at Loyola Marymount University, FQ‘s new book-review editor. A scholar of transnational/global cinema, she is the author of Global Melodrama: Nation, Body, and History in Contemporary Film (Palgrave Macmillan US, 2015) and a keen observer of the field. It’s wonderful to have Prof. Marcantonio’s discerning eye and broad range to benefit FQ.
Congratulations to Lisa Parks, Film Quarterly‘s longtime Editorial Board member and MIT Professor of Comparative Media Studies, who was awarded a 2018 MacArthur Fellowship (the “Genius” award) for her work exploring the “cultural, political, and humanitarian implications” of media infrastructures and information technologies. Watch for her new essay in the next issue of FQ. Major congratulations are due as well to filmmaker RaMell Ross, who participated in FQ’s panel at the “Getting Real” conference last autumn and contributed a manifesto to this issue’s dossier. He won an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary for his debut feature, Hale Country This Morning, This Evening (2018), which also won the Cinema Eye award for outstanding nonfiction feature.
1. See Manohla Dargis’s perceptive review: “Critic’s Pick: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Review: Trusting Love in a World Ruled by Hate,” The New York Times, December 12, 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/12/movies/if-beale-street-could-talk-review.html.
2. Thanks for both these invitations to publicist Béatrice Thomas-Wachsberger.
3. See Marcela Valdes’s terrific profile of Cuarón: “The Revisionary,” The New York Times Magazine, December 16, 2018.
4. For more information, see http://www.abc.com.py/espectaculos/cine-y-tv/paz-encina-en-la-fundacion-cartier-1767415.html.
5. Huge thanks to FQ‘s contributing editor Joan Dupont, the very best guide to cinema in Paris.
6. The festival website is at http://www.bok-o-bok.ru.
7. See Vladimir Kozlov, “Russian Legislator Disrupts Opening Ceremony of LGBTQ Film Festival,” Hollywood Reporter, October 25, 2018, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/russian-legislator-disrupts-opening-ceremony-lgbtq-film-fest-1155143.
8. See two informative articles: Evgeny Shtorn, “The Future of Russia’s One and Only LGBT Film Festival,” oDR: Russia and Beyond, September 13, 2018, http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/evgenij-shtorn/the-future-of-russias-one-and-only-lgbt-film-festival; and Martin Blaney, “Industry Outcry over New Law That Could Jeopardise Many Russian Film Festivals,” Screen Daily, August 3, 2018, http://www.screendaily.com/news/industry-outcry-over-new-law-that-could-jeopardise-many-russian-film-festivals/5131438.article.
9. Bill Nichols, “Manifestos: A Forgotten History,” Film Quarterly 67, no. 4 (Summer 2014), https://filmquarterly.org/2014/09/11/manifestos-a-forgotten-history-2/.
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