B. Ruby Rich
From Film Quarterly, Winter 2021, Volume 75, Number 2
The fall equinox (the time of this writing) seemed to mark the world in its terms: literally and metaphorically light and dark, day and night, good and evil, floods and droughts, a global order torn between the forces of positive and negative energies. Amid the mix of apprehension and celebration, the 2021–22 equinox ushered in reopenings of cities, including movie theatres and film festivals. Pandemic deaths became less frequent in some privileged locations and bodies, but “liveness” was still tentative, with ongoing horror (antimaskers targeting hospitals, governors banning vaccines) and fatigue (enough already!) muting the guarded revivals of school reopenings, productions, even the occasional dinner party.
As winter loomed, there was glee over the resumption of film festivals and the reopening of whatever theaters were left. The world looked ready for its close-up. Then came an email with the news of the “postponement” of a film festival in Southeast Asia. In Myanmar, the One Step Film Forum 2021, which was online in 2020, was canceled entirely. Its unusual announcement: “All of our festival members are on the run from [the] … military junta. Most of them are in the jungle and no access to internet.” 1 The bulletin ended with the hope that the festival would be staged in 2022.
At the same time, pandemic or not, other milestones and anniversaries augured other shifts in the worlds of film, media, and production. A lot of dust was kicked up by the decision to open the new James Bond movie, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die, in brick-and-mortar theaters. More interestingly, to me at least, was Neon’s announcement that it would open Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (starring Tilda Swinton) one theater at a time, moving from city to city like an old-fashioned Broadway opening, as independent films used to be released back in the seventies.2 That kind of news is classic “inside baseball” for the film world, generally reported and read only in the trades, but these are decisions that impact how you, the reader, will get to see work in the future; it therefore merits ongoing scrutiny.
In other sectors, this time the production/postproduction one, the underreported shuttering of fabled film and media lab DuArt, on the eve of its centennial, merits notice.3 Irwin Young, who ran it for decades, was a titan during independent film’s heyday in the New York City of the seventies and eighties. He was the godfather to a generation of filmmakers who couldn’t quite afford to pay their bills up front but often made good on his belief in them, while the paying customers kept DuArt in the black. No less important, given the professional standards of the day, was DuArt’s renowned Super-16mm-to-35mm transfers, which allowed independent filmmakers to become competitive with “the industry” while working on shoestring budgets.
In 1979, DuArt was presented with an Academy Award for Technical Achievement. In the eighties, Irwin Young received a medal from Governor Cuomo—Mario, the first one—for his support of the arts. And in 2000, he was awarded the Gordon E. Sawyer Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for technological contributions to the motion-picture industry.
Actually, though, Irwin came in the middle: DuArt was founded by his father. Al Young, in 1922, and by 2021 it had been run by his daughter Linda Young for over two decades. When DuArt stopped processing film in 2010—a move that made headlines—it compensated by becoming a successful video postproduction facility, DuArt Media Services. Now a new round of technological shifts has changed even that, and its historic midtown property has been converted into offices and suites and reborn as “The DuArt Building,” with plans to “offer temporary office space leases to media companies working on production projects” and to media-related outfits.4 Of course, there’s no guarantee of such an outcome in these days of tech-dominated leasing, but I sure do love the idea of DuArt reborn as a latter-day Brill Building, inspiring collaborations and inventions between filmmakers. Let it be so.
Another sign of massive upheaval in the film/video field came from the opposite coast, where, in Los Angeles, word spread of a possible IATSE strike. IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) is a union comprising all the folks who actually make filmmaking and video production possible: the crew.5 It’s a powerful union with well over a hundred thousand members; film, television, and theater make up some of the few industries that still have a powerful set of unions to which workers belong, pay dues, and pledge support, even with their bodies on a picket line (over 90 percent of its membership voted to consider a strike). A date for a possible strike was set: “[U]nless an agreement is reached, 60,000 union members will begin a nationwide strike against the major studios on Oct. 18 at 12:01 a.m. Such a work stoppage would be catastrophic, halting production across the U.S.”6
IATSE is no leftie union: its members have famously never gone out on strike, making October into a historic moment for a deunionized era. Forbes noted, “If the IATSE goes on strike, it will be the first time crewmembers in Hollywood have stopped work since World War II.”7 IATSE itself had not gone on strike in 128 years.8 Interestingly, Forbes identified the “studios” of the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) negotiating the new contract as including “Warner Bros, Netflix, Disney, and Amazon Prime.”9 (Apple TV+ will presumably be at the table soon.)
This is the new landscape. Now the moment had come to see how the new moguls would behave, for they have already cut rates, slashed benefits, and undermined the deals and protections in place since the postwar period. There’s a reason that unions stayed so strong in the film/media production sector: they delivered for their membership in real-world financial terms—just like the US post office used to do.
Make no mistake: this was a fight to prevent the Uberization of film/video production, as the entire industry faced its sea-change moment of streaming. The New York Times tried to frame it as a local story about the effect on the economy of California but surrendered before the end of the column, which closed with the union’s promo photo of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in matching “solidarity” T-shirts, fists raised in unity.10
In the end, the threat may have been sufficient: after the “studios” returned to the bargaining table with a new offer, the union canceled the strike. In a Variety story that reported many union members to be dissatisfied with the terms of the three-year contract (not yet revealed at this writing), IATSE member Heather Fink stated: “IATSE has never been so big and we’ve never had a profound social movement like this before. This is a once-in-a-lifetime historic breaking point.”11 Instead, the horrific killing of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust on October 21, 2021, radically changed the conversation about union protections, and prompted an outpouring of testimony, investigation, and exposes regarding production protocols.12
In fall 2021, as DuArt was turning one hundred and IATSE was mobilizing its membership as Hollywood mourned, the United States commemorated a rather more recent event that dominated its own history: the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. Two weeks after that event, I reflected in print on the likely aftermath of 9/11 and predicted a round of “diversion … revision … reinvention” accompanying the madness of US foreign policy and domestic surveillance.13 I tried to be optimistic, pointing to Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), Michel Brault’s Les ordres (1974), and Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) as useful examples.14 Clearly, I failed adequately to identify the onslaught of escapism and revisionism that would follow, engulfing both culture and politics. In retrospect, I fear that US media conglomerates, by not taking seriously a mission that could have been visionary in 2001, created fertile ground for the despotic regimes that followed.
If the past was haunting autumn 2021, though, there have also been new issues on which to focus, notably in the world of documentary, where questions of ethics and consent drew much-needed attention. A report from the Center for Media & Social Impact warned that “documentary was growing faster than its standards” as it became more mainstream through seriality and production contracts from streamers.15 Arguing that documentary now finds itself on the “informational frontier” and in danger of spreading misinformation, the report warned that “commercial productions borrow the mantle of authenticity from public trust in the documentary form” and merit closer scrutiny. Sadly, it found a lack of oversight from documentary criticism, described as “not enough, poorly informed, and too white.”
The report’s publication was coincidentally followed by public outcry over a lauded documentary, Sabaya (Hogir Hirori, 2021).16 Charges against the filmmaker include misrepresentation of what was being filmed (in a center for women rescued from ISIS) and falsification of consent agreements; at press time, details were still emerging as Hirori disputed the claims. In the photography world, a debate erupted over Deana Lawson’s photographs and the politics of cross-class representation, exploitation, and again, informed consent. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw’s essay in Hyperallergic drove home the issue, pointing out that issues of voyeurism could not be cured simply by a photographer’s being the same race as her subjects when class status and profit are in play.17
Power relations between documentary filmmakers and subjects have long been the subject of scrutiny, especially within the academy, where the intricacies of those relationships can and must be analyzed. But outside, where no agreed-upon (or transparent, or enforced) standards prevail, the field is becoming a minefield of miscommunication and potential malfeasance. In 2020, the International Documentary Association (IDA) biennial “Getting Real” conference included a presentation by the Documentary Accountability Working Group, and then, in October 2021, a panel, “Documenting Survivors of Trauma: Ethics and Consent. 18 It is time for sustained scrutiny and for a rededication to writing on these issues with ideas updated for a world of decentralized production and uncontrolled streaming access.
Once again, so many giants of cinema died that this space cannot do justice to their reputations and significance. This issue salutes two.
(February 24, 1944 – August 13, 2021)
Kaycee Moore, the actress whose presence on-screen propelled the “LA Rebellion” films to prominence, deserves to be remembered as the muse of those filmmakers who rose to fame out of their shared history at UCLA. She starred as a working-class woman with depth, magnetizing the screen in Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1978) and Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, 1984), then gave a tiny but indelible performance as Haagar Peazant in Julie Dash’s breakthrough Daughters of the Dust (1991).
Her gripping presence in these films opened a space on-screen for a new subjectivity. Samantha N. Sheppard interviewed Moore in 2018 and subsequently noted that “Moore’s presence, performance, characterization, technique, and representation … evince her acute sense of emotional intelligence as dramatic storytelling, a capacity to read, control, and express a subjective moment that pushes a critique about Black women’s collective experiences out into the social sphere.”19
Sheppard goes further by attesting that, in Bless Their Little Hearts, she, “through improvisation, functions as a co-creator of the film. Moore’s performance … magnifies the relationship between acting as a formal, studied cinematic-theatrical technique and the specific aesthetics and improvisational methods of Black acting…. Moore embodies the rich depth and complexity of the art of feeling Black and Black feelings on screen.” Sheppard describes her as an “emotional centrifuge” in the few films in which she appeared—roles that were rare, Sheppard discovered, because Moore hated auditioning and therefore appeared on camera only “when someone requested her to be in their film.”
Like Sheppard, distributors Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, the husband and wife cofounders of Milestone (who commissioned her essay), went on the record to recognize Moore while she was still alive. Doros told a Los Angeles Times reporter that “the incredible Kaycee Moore … has been terribly ignored by the industry. She should have been hired a hundred times over, and despite her limited work she should be celebrated as one of this country’s great actresses.”20 Perhaps the new Academy Museum, already lauded for elevating the unjustly ignored, will set the history right.
Melvin Van Peebles
(August 21, 1932 – September 1, 2021)
Melvin Van Peebles achieved great acclaim, success, and notoriety in his lifetime, culminating in a boxed set released in late 2021 by Criterion Classics. His son Mario Van Peebles made sure he retained his claim on film history by directing Baadasssss! (2004), in which he starred as the young Melvin, setting it at the time his dad was making the breakthrough, historic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971).
I would argue that Melvin Van Peebles is cheated out of his legacy every time an indie filmmaker credits John Cassavetes as the lodestone of US independent film—something that happened even more in the eighties. Not true! With Sweetback, Melvin Van Peebles created an alternative way of making personal cinema without Hollywood’s support or interference, and it’s his originality and rule-breaking model of brilliance-with-a-hustle that deserve to be credited with launching an alternative US writer-director tradition of independent cinema that has built steadily since that day.
In 1968, already living in Paris, he’d made The Story of a Three-Day Pass—and by the way, it revises the racial dynamic of the first Cassavetes film, Shadows (1958/59). While some might point out that Shadows predates Sweetback by a decade, Van Peebles actually started directing first: he made two short films in San Francisco—Sunlight (1957) and Three Pickup Men for Herrick (1957)—before moving to France.21 Cassavetes was in New York City, had powerful friends, and was credited with launching a new kind of filmmaking. When Van Peebles returned from France to take the United States by storm with his Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, he met appropriation instead, as Hollywood seized his model for the blaxploitation wave.
Racquel Gates, who was consulting producer and co-editor (and contributor as well) for the critical texts that form an essential part of the Criterion box set, wrote about Van Peebles early in her career for FQ.22 Now, noting that his “impact on the black image in film is already widely recognized,” she is hopeful that “reflections on his legacy bring to the forefront just how significant an artist he was in so many different ways and how he laid the groundwork for innovations in storytelling” still being manifested today.
Surveying his work, Gates identifies “the experiments with style, the playfulness with tone, the interplay between image and sound, so many elements that paint the picture of a master artist who created a new language of film style. Unencumbered by discourses of respectability or an overreliance on realism, Van Peebles was bold in his artistic practice, with a type of self-assuredness that comes through in all of his films. Yet at the same time, his innovations in aesthetics were never removed from an emphasis on black liberation.”
Finally, questioning “why there has been less appreciation of his stylistic approach than of his narrative and social/political emphasis,” Gates wonders whether race may still be in play after all these years: “It’s as if the idea that a filmmaker could be both formally innovative and socially provocative is a concept not readily attributed to Black filmmakers.”23
Finally, too late for a proper story here, news arrived of the death of Diane Weyermann, who probably did more to define mainstream documentary in the past three decades than anyone else. Her name may not be well known to the public, but in her roles running the Soros Documentary Fund, the Sundance Documentary Film Program, and the documentary (and eventually fiction) production wings of Participant Media as its “Chief Content Officer,” she shaped the social-change documentaries that would reach screens, win awards, and seek to mobilize change. Tributes mourned her early death from cancer at sixty-six. 24 Her passing is a great loss to filmmakers and audiences alike: RIP, Diane.
In This Issue
Michael Gillespie focuses attention on Barry Jenkins’s monumental series The Underground Railroad. First, Gillespie interviews Jenkins himself about the genesis of the project and his influences, focusing on what Gillespie terms “a crucial reimagining of the rendering of blackness” as Jenkins acknowledges that “there weren’t any models” for what he wanted to do. Gillespie then assembles a roundtable of scholars—Walton M. Muyumba, Samantha N. Sheppard, and Kristen J. Warner—to debate the issues raised by the series, including the limitations of representation and the need for what Muyumba terms “a practice of intentional viewing.”
Sophia McClennen examines more-recent histories in her assessment of the fate of satire and irony under the Trump presidency, particularly in regard to comedians Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Cooper, and, of course, Jon Stewart. She unpacks the progression of irony as the four-year term evolved, putting pressure on comedians to meet their target ever more creatively. McClennen presciently tracks the evolution of the comedian into the role of ironic newscaster.
Now for anniversaries. Instead of 9/11/2001, FQ gives pride of place in this issue to the dossier, “The Resilient Spring of Arab Cinema, Ten Years After,” which marks the passage of a full decade since the so-called Arab Spring. Originating with a proposal by contributing editor Rasha Salti many months ago, the collection of essays looks at the history, context, and outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings across film, video, and political resistance. It assembles contributions from key scholars to bring readers up-to-date, not merely on the state of the region but on the state of cinema, streaming, video, and surveillance at a crucial moment in history.
Kay Dickinson revisits her time in the archives of Cairo, finding in those rooms and files, manifestos and images, a spirit of collective resistance that speaks to the aesthetic stratagems of the recent documentary Out on the Street and its precedents, in Palestinian works in particular. Donatella Della Rata takes up the nature of the shots rendered by camera and gun before circling back around to their merger into the viral pharmacological spawn and today’s “cum shot.” Stefan Tarnowski takes up the contexts and strategies of the archival documentary Our Memory Belongs to Us, deciphering its meanings much as its protagonists decipher its footage. Rasha Salti herself contributes an overarching analysis that traces the shifts in cinematic representations of the body in pre- and post-2011 texts, with a moving dedication to Egyptian artist Amal Kenawy.
Moving on, there are two reports from the festival front in this issue—one happily virtual, one jubilantly in person. Larissa Johnson reports on Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival’s tenth anniversary from her current home in South Africa, pointing to its importance as an event while discussing this year’s crop—with particular enthusiasm for Michèle Stephenson’s short documentary Elena. And I report on the Telluride Film Festival, my first public theatrical outing in nineteen months, with attention to the general mood as well as the films (especially those by Jane Campion and Todd Haynes) at this emblematically in-person festival.
FQ columnists rarely disappoint. They provide a periscopic vision across the field, popping up out of the depths to report on the subterranean goings-on. Manuel Betancourt brings readers up to date on a resurgence of animation in Latin America that prioritizes not entertainment but political reengagement, particularly with Indigenous stories by emergent Indigenous animators. Bilal Qureshi praises The White Lotus, HBO’s megahit, as Mike White’s most resonant work yet, even as its examination of whiteness has set off a firestorm of controversy. Caetlin Benson-Allott reflects on the history of scrolling, from TV Guide to streaming, and the overwhelming malaise it induces. Rebecca Wanzo uses the end of NBC’s Superstore series to consider how TV and film productions represent (or don’t) unions, with particular attention to ABC’s Homefront.
Finally, in the book section, Janet Staiger provides an in-depth look at the arguments advanced in The Stuff of Spectatorship: Material Cultures of Film and Television, by one Caetlin Benson-Allott. Other reviews include Samhita Sunya on Lalitha Gopalan’s Cinemas Dark and Slow in Digital India; Juana Suárez on the long-awaited anthology The Cinema of Sara Gómez: Reframing Revolution, edited by Susan Lord and María Caridad Cumaná with Víctor Fowler Calzada; Jordan Schonig on Ends of Cinema, edited by Richard Grusin and Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece; Koel Banerjee on Juan Sebastián Ospina León’s Struggles for Recognition: Melodrama and Visibility in Latin American Silent Film; and Brandy Monk-Payton on Alfred L. Martin Jr.’s The Generic Closet: Black Gayness and the Black-Cast Sitcom. All deserve your attention.
1. Personal communication via email recipient in the United States, October 2021.
2. Eric Kohn and David Ehrlich, “James Bond and Tilda Swinton Movies Renew Debate about Whether Movies Must Be Seen in Theaters,” Indiewire, October 8, 2021, http://www.indiewire.com/video/james-bond-tilda-swinton-debate-movie-theaters-screen-talk-352-1234670113/.
3. For the full history of DuArt and its devolution, see Phil Rhodes, “The End of an Era: DuArt Media Services Closes Its Doors,” RedShark, August 27, 2021, http://www.redsharknews.com/the-end-of-an-era-duart-media-services-closes-its-doors.
4. DuArt press release, August 24, 2021, reproduced in Rhodes. See also DuArt’s own website at http://www.duart.com/.
5. See the IATSE website for details: https://iatse.net/.
6. Brent Lang, “IATSE Sets Strike Date for 60,000 Film and Television Workers, Ratcheting Pressure on Studios,” Variety, October 13, 2021, https://variety.com/2021/film/news/iatse-sets-strike-date-film-and-television-workers-1235088054/.
7. Marisa Dellatto, “Hollywood Crewmembers’ Union Vote Authorizes Biggest Industry Strike in Decades,” Forbes, October 4, 2021, http://www.forbes.com/sites/marisadellatto/2021/10/04/hollywood-crewmembers-union-vote-authorizes-biggest-industry-strike-in-decades/?sh=2e9c301da45b.
8. For details, consult IATSE’s own announcement on its website on October 4, 2021: https://iatse.net/by-a-nearly-unanimous-margin-iatse-members-in-tv-and-film-production-vote-to-authorize-a-nationwide-strike.
10. Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling, “Hollywood Crew Union Votes to Authorize Strike against Studios,” New York Times, October 4, 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/04/business/media/hollywood-union-strike.html.
11. Jazz Tangcay, “After IATSE Strike Is Averted, Hollywood Workers Are Split Over Agreement: ‘It’s Not Enough,’” Variety, October 17, 2021, https://variety.com/2021/artisans/news/iatse-hollywood-strike-averted-reactions-1235091235/.
12. Chris O’Falt, “IATSE Made a Deal with Producers. Union Members May Not Buy It,” IndieWire, October 17, 2021, http://www.indiewire.com/2021/10/iatse-strikes-deal-union-crew-may-not-ratify-1234672267/.
13. See B. Ruby Rich, “Back to the Future,” The Nation, September 27, 2011, http://www.thenation.com/article/archive/back-future/.
14. For counterprogramming on 9/11 anniversaries, I always recommend Nancy Savoca’s film of New York City comedian Reno’s extraordinary performance, Reno: Rebel without a Pause (2002).
15. Patricia Aufderheide and Melissa Wood, “The State of Journalism on the Documentary Filmmaking Scene,” cmsimpact.org/docjournalism.
16. Jane Arraf and Sangar Khaleel, “Women Enslaved by ISIS Say They Did Not Consent to a Film about Them,” New York Times, September 26, 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/26/world/middleeast/sabaya-isis.html.
17. See Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, “The Many Problems with Deana Lawson’s Photographs,” Hyperallergic, https://hyperallergic.com/679220/the-many-problems-with-deana-lawsons-photographs/?. The article appears to be in response to one by Daniella Brito published on the same site a month earlier in praise of the same exhibition.
18. See the website of the working group at http://www.docaccountability.org/values; also see the link to the October 6, 2021, IDA panel, “Documenting Survivors of Trauma: Ethics and Consent,” at http://www.documentary.org/event/documenting-survivors-trauma-ethics-and-consent.
19. All quotations and information are cited with her permission from Samantha N. Sheppard, “The Art of Feeling: The Presence and Performance of Kaycee Moore,” Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, 1983), text with DVD restoration and rerelease, (Milestone Film & Video, 2019).
20. Donald Liebenson, “L.A. Rebellion Classic ‘Bless Their Little Hearts’ Is Now on Video,” Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2019, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2019-12-28/l-a-rebellion-classic-bless-their-little-hearts-is-now-on-video.
21. Allyson Nadia Field, “The Story of a Three Day Pass: Ordinary Love,” Criterion Collection, September 28, 2021, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/7541-the-story-of-a-three-day-pass-ordinary-love.
22. See: Racquel Gates, “Subverting Hollywood From the Inside Out: Melvin Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man,” Film Quarterly (2014) Vol.68 No.1: 9–21.
23. This and all Van Peebles quotations are from an original text by Racquel Gates, personal email to Film Quarterly, October 2021.
24. See, among so many others, Erik Pedersen, “Diane Weyermann Dies: ‘Inconvenient Truth’ Producer & Longtime Chief Content Officer at Participant Was 66,” Deadline, October 14, 2021, https://deadline.com/2021/10/diane-weyermann-dead-inconvenient-truth-citizenfour-producer-participant-chief-content-officer-1234856260/.
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