Zoom Out: The Melancholic Screens of 2020

B. Ruby Rich

From Film Quarterly, Winter 2020, Volume 74, Number 2

Over the first months of the pandemic, the internet filled with streaming playlists, Zoom masterpieces, and classic revivals. The litany of canceled or virtual film festivals had become the new normal, with everything from SXSW to Cannes to Telluride called off or moved entirely online, and then evolving into hybrids or customized drive-ins.

Then, as September loomed, along came Venice. With funds poured into the event to make it work, Italy, that early hot spot, set out to redeem its reputation by staging an actual physical festival. Reports from Venice were exhilarating, both for the number of people willing to go and the exuberance with which they embraced the occasion. Here was Christine Vachon, renowned indie producer, posting on Facebook from the festival:

It is hard to describe how moving the opening ceremony at the Venice Film Festival was. Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton— speaking about cinema and how essential it is—and everyone (all masked, two empty seats between everyone) just bawled. THEN eight festival directors all got on stage together (Venice, Cannes, Locarno, San Sebastián, Berlin, London, Karlovy Vary, Rotterdam), unheard of. More crying. Then we saw the opening night film—and the intensity of FINALLY seeing a movie on a big screen, altogether, in the dark…I can’t even describe it.

Others echoed those sentiments, one after the other, words tumbling onto Twitter and Facebook, blogs and festival reports, even industry websites, all with a gasp of relief. Ben Croll, reporting for Variety, marveled at “the infectious enthusiasm of an industry happy to gather anew.”1 MPM Film founder and producer Marie-Pierre Macia wrote me that it felt “strange and joyful at the same time” to be there. In Sight & Sound, Jessica Kiang wrote that Venice might “well have been the first film festival held since the 1879 invention of the zoopraxiscope” for how exceptional it felt.2 Most hilariously, she reported that not one of the notoriously churlish film critics in attendance even complained. Cinema, writ large, was back!

In part, these words surely marked the sound of relief at an industry still somehow intact, where livelihoods might yet be earned. But more than that, they were the deep inhalation of a tribe deprived of its oxygen for six long months, the bone-deep pleasure of gathering that film festivals promise and sometimes pay out on. Sure, the deals are part of it, the making and unmaking of reputations and paychecks, the rise and fall of stars, but there is also something elemental: in the dark, in the halls, assembled together, at least sometimes, there is an assertion of value and values, a belief in the best of humanity, a vote for survival not of the fittest but of the finest. However unequal their playing fields, however class based and race delimited the big festivals may actually be, the myth persists and lures the world into its maze: come and be transformed by cinema. Soon, San Sebastián was announcing that it, too, would unfold in person. (To be honest, though, as a certified catastrophizer, I was still holding my breath while writing these words, waiting for two weeks to pass without any reported COVID transmissions.)

Far from Italy and Spain, Adi Robertson in The Verge identified “a new genre of film” unfolding in real time, independent of festivals and commerce. Characterizing the media and audiences that emerged over the months of pandemic time and the actions that followed the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, she wrote: “During a year of isolation, protests and the resulting footage has created its own kind of communal—and inescapable—cinema.” Extending the early claims made for media documenting murder by police on Facebook Live (a subgenre unto itself that chills even in a cursory Google search of titles), Robertson argues that “people filming protests are redefining film in real time.”3

Considering the implications of this shift from boarded-up multiplexes to the live citizen media-streaming into phones and laptops, she quotes The Baffler critic A. S. Hamrah on the confusing state of the film critic in pandemic time: “Cinema does not currently exist, or if it does exist, it’s in the form of videos from the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality…which viewers can watch from anywhere.”4

Jury president Cate Blanchett at the Venice Film Festival.

Reinaldo Green, whose Monsters and Men (2018) today looks even more eerily prescient than it did at its Sundance premiere in dealing with police corruption, racism, and violence, also talks with Robertson. He points out that “citizen videos” like these have their own kind of objectivity, as they are not shaped by any narrative drive yet manage to have an outsize impact that exceeds that of the network news, Hollywood movies, even documentaries like his own. Robertson concludes her ruminations by deciding that watching these uploaded videos constitutes a “unique kind of cinematic experience.”5

In today’s brutal nonstop news cycle of massive disinformation, the shaping of feeling and the grounding of fact and history are more important than ever. So I was thrilled recently to discover the Instagram account of Cauleen Smith, one of the finest filmmakers working today at the boundary between film and art, performance and introspection.6 Whether curating her own short works, writing a series of COVID manifestos on yellow legal paper, or arranging cotton branches in an unspoken ritual of memory and mourning, she is addressing today’s unspeakable moment with grace. Check it out.

Despite my pleasure in cruising the internet for reports and artist contributions, I was dispirited at the prospect of “attending” film festivals in isolation. There were Toronto, New York, and DOK Leipzig, all waiting in my laptop, but something was wrong. I have been going to film festivals since the age of twenty-five. I love the friction of physical bodies and contradictory opinions, and I never think more clearly or write more quickly about what I see than in the confines of a hotel room after a day of screenings. For me, film viewing is enhanced by translocation, where its effects can have my full attention. In the confines of my apartment amid the distractions of the street, the news cycle, and my email, I cannot escape the world at large in quite the same way. Worse, I’m alone with my experience. Not yet tied into a Google Meet clique or Share Your Screen confidante, deprived of the receptions and press rooms of yore, I feel as if I am shouting into the canyon with nothing but my own voice echoing back. And yet shout I must. Films and their festivals aside, survival is the horizon line of so many people’s lives in 2020, in the United States and around the world—a shared quotidian struggle enacted in the face of growing fascism. This is a time of criminal impunity. Yet it is vital to refuse to be sickened, or to feel doomed or dejected or afraid. There must instead be cause for feeling enlivened and inspired, if only fleetingly—to have hope and to be energized enough to move forward and combat the daily aggressions on the body and bodies of democracy. This issue of Film Quarterly is engineered for exactly that—to provide ample cause for celebration and multiple avenues to explore for future work.

Chadwick Boseman congratulates Agnès Varda at the 2018 Academy Awards. Courtesy of Matt Severson.


News of the death of Chadwick Boseman (November 29, 1976–August 28, 2020) came as a shock to a public that felt an uncommon connection to the actor. Made famous by playing the Black Panther in the Marvel series, Boseman was also noted for taking on roles as Jackie Robinson in 42 (Brian Helgeland, 2013) and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall (Reginald Hudlin, 2017). As King T’Challa of Wakanda in Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018), he became an icon for all time, especially for Black viewers. Like a latter-day “race man” in his commitment to positive portrayals for his community, Boseman stood for integrity. The uncanny connection between Black Panther and its publics was clear from the beginning: Racquel Gates and Kristen J. Warner discussed the phenomenon for Film Quarterly. 7 With Boseman, it went to another level. As news of his death from colon cancer (which he’d kept secret) spread, photos began to be uploaded showing Black children staging solemn funerals with their T’Challa dolls in homemade caskets.

A posthumously posted photograph showed a different side to the actor, who as a Howard University alum had once wanted to direct and might well have gone on to do so. Matt Severson, Director of the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, captured the moment of Boseman greeting Agnès Varda on the red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre in 2018 when her film Visages villages (Faces Places, codirected with JR, 2017) was nominated as Best Documentary.8

Severson had met Varda a year earlier when the Academy presented her with an honorary Oscar. Now he was escorting her, JR, and their group to the Oscars ceremony. A fan asked for a photograph, then others, too, so he took out his cell phone to oblige. And lo and behold: “Chadwick Boseman came bounding up to our group…and wanted to congratulate Agnès and wish her well. It was completely unexpected, and if I wasn’t already standing there taking photos, I doubt there would have been any documentation of that lovely moment.”9 It was a remarkable meeting, across genres and generations, captured for posterity. And made even more chilling by the realization that Varda and Boseman were both quietly fighting cancer and undergoing chemotherapy: their days were numbered; their talent and imagination, infinite.

In This Issue

The dossier on Brazilian cinema that commands the major share of this issue is the result of João Luiz Vieira’s advocacy, input from FQ’s Editorial Board, and my own enthusiasms and concerns. In its introduction, Vieira and I offer a sum of recent Brazilian political history and a context for this remarkable collection of films and scholars. Compelled by the crackdown on Brazilian cinema since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro in late 2018, this dossier was set in motion during the dark days (in both countries) of 2019–20 as cultural funding was cut and daily life became increasingly perilous.

The intent of this dossier is to direct attention outside the custo core of Rio / São Paulo cinema production toward the other areas of Brazil where thoroughly exciting and invigorating films are being made—and where groundbreaking scholarship is equally under way. With a mix of Brazilian contributors, both at home and diasporic, this dossier offers a path forward for anyone who wants to engage with the latest thinking on how filmic representation can be repositioned for a new age. It also demonstrates how utterly inaccurate and insufficient the term “diversity” remains, for the massive repositioning of Brazil’s cinematic resources produced new locations, new production models and modules, and really, new ways of seeing and hearing that are fresh to the screen and long overdue. The dossier also includes a special section on the breakout film of 2019, Bacurau, by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, unpacking its invention and lineage.

Thanks to the scholars, curators, and filmmakers in these pages, such key historical and contemporary figures as Zózimo Bulbul and Grace Passô (whose image graces this issue’s cover) should become far better known and acknowledged. At the same time, their readings of the new work and claims for Brazil’s radical reinventions of cinema at the micro and macro levels should prompt a reexamination of a national cinema that has broken with its own traditions to chart new territories.

Contributors to the dossier include Fábio Andrade, André Brasil, Natalia Brizuela, Jocimar Dias Jr., Kênia Freitas, Juliano Gomes, Bruno Guaraná, Karla Holanda, Marcelo Ikeda, Ivone Margulies, Tatiana Monassa, and Janaína Oliveira, and interviews with filmmakers Julia Katharine, Filipe Matzembacher, André Novais Oliveira, Marcio Reolon, and Patrícia Ferreira Pará Yxapy.

As always, Film Quarterly continues its commitments to the field across interests and boundaries. This issue’s feature interview is Eileen G’Sell’s profile of filmmaker Dawn Hudson, exploring her formation in documentary and, in particular, the importance of her work on the civil rights movement. With two new documentaries out this year, Hudson discusses both John Lewis: Good Trouble, her profile of this warrior for justice, completed shortly before his death; and The Way I See It, her docu-portrait of former chief official White House photographer Peter Souza.

Caetlin Benson-Allott, in her column, dissects the television series of the moment, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, examining how it dissects rape narratives and changes them forever, not only in terms of race and sexual violence but equally in terms of power and agency. In his column, Manuel Betancourt takes up the relationship between melodrama and the telenovela, considering their reinvention in terms of today’s Latin American woman’s picture: Karim Aïnouz’s A vida invisível (The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, 2019), Natalia Beristáin’s Los adioses (The Eternal Feminine, 2017), Pablo Trapero’s La quietud (The Quietude, 2018), and Matías Meyer’s Amores modernos (Modern Loves, 2020).

For FQ’s Page Views section, Bruno Guaraná focuses on Jaimie Baron’s Reuse, Misuse, Abuse: The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era. Tracing Baron’s interest in questions of appropriation, he considers the implications of the practice and questions Baron on how ethical concerns have evolved over time, along with her own thinking. She parses films from Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955) to Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005), tracing issues and implications. As always with “Page Views” selections, a chapter is available free online.

The Book Reviews section of this issue is particularly rich. Carrie Rickey dives into Virginia Wright Wexman’s new book on the Directors Guild of America; Patricia White considers the occasion of a new book of writings by Laura Mulvey; Fan Yang examines the Joshua Neves study of “underglobalization” and the Beijing media scene; Giovanni Vimercati looks at the collection of writings on contemporary Arab cinema from Terri Ginsberg and Chris Lippard; and as an accompaniment to the Brazilian cinema dossier, Lívia Perez introduces three new collections (in Portuguese) on Brazilian women filmmakers edited by Karla Holanda and Marina Cavalcanti Tedesco, by Luiza Lusvarghi and Camila Vieira da Silva, and by Holanda herself.


1. Ben Croll, “Renaissance in Venice: Film Professionals Smiling as Festival Wraps,” Variety, September 12, 2020, https://variety.com/2020/film/global/venice-film-festival-wrap-1234767790/. 2. Jessica Kiang, “Venice Film Festival 2020: The Best of Times amid the Worst of Times,” Sight & Sound, September 15, 2020, http://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/news/festivals/venice-2020-post-lockdown-physical-festival-joy. 3. Adi Robertson, “Videos of This Summer’s Police Brutality Protests Are a New Genre of Film,” The Verge, August 31, 2020, http://www.theverge.com/21396126/police-brutality-protests-blm-video-film-new-genre-social-media. 4. A. S. Hamrah, “Zero Hour Contracts: Look for a Room with Soundproof Walls,” The Baffler, no. 52 (July 2020), https://thebaffler.com/salvos/zero-hour-contracts-hamrah. 5. Robertson, “Videos of This Summer’s Police Brutality Protests.” 6. Jillian Steinhauser, “Five Art Accounts to Follow on Instagram Now,” New York Times, June 11, 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/11/arts/design/art-accounts-to-follow-on-instagram.html. See the #shutinfilmfestival and Instagram feed (@cauleen_smith) for more inspiration. 7. See Racquel Gates and Kristen J. Warner, “Wakanda Forever: The Pleasures, the Politics, and the Problems,” Quorum column, Film Quarterly, March 9, 2018, https://filmquarterly.org/2018/03/09/wakanda-forever-the-pleasures-the-politics-and-the-problems/. 8. For more on Varda, see Joan Dupont, “The House That Agnès Built,” Film Quarterly 72, no. 2 (Winter 2018): 55–66. 9. Matt Severson, personal communication with FQ’s Marc Francis, September 2020. Thanks also to Severson for his generosity in allowing the photograph to be published here.

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