B. Ruby Rich
From Film Quarterly, Winter 2022, Volume 76, Number 2
Though this editorial was written at a time of setting clocks back an hour, that is not the kind of change referenced in the title here. Rather, it has to do with changes in the world—of film, politics, nationalism, warfare, climate threats; written when the massive conscription of Russian men began in earnest, when Ukraine doubled down on defense/offense, when Putin threatened nuclear bombing, when Italy elected a fascist leader, when Bolsonaro and Lula battled it out in the Brazilian presidential election, when massive hurricanes hit the Caribbean and the Florida coast—and when Russia announced it would boycott the Oscars (that’s the film tie-in).
These are fraught days. As I have written in this space too often, it’s past time for filmmakers, curators, producers, exhibitors, distributors, and online platforms to step up to the demands of their historic moment, stop proceeding on automatic pilot, and summon the courage to offer visions of a different future. For scholars, in turn, it is time to accelerate the development of new analytic tools and rhetorical strategies to cope with unprecedented challenges.
How to initiate such a conversation? For a start, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in October to French writer Annie Ernaux, whose books have been made into films several times, most recently with Audrey Diwan’s L’événement (Happening), a powerful abortion-rights drama set in the sixties and based on Ernaux’s own abortion when she was a college student. Drawing on the working-class milieu of her youth in northeastern France, she has courageously followed her own instincts through the years. There are countless other books and authors, though, waiting to be adapted into fearless films to inspire a better society.
For just such inspiration, one could do worse than read the words of ten writers—Tetyana Ogarkova, Yuval Noah Harari, Alim Aliev, Philippe Sands, Rachel Clarke, Samar Yazbek, Volodymyr Yermolenko, Victoria Amelina, Oleksandr Mykhed, and Margaret MacMillan—gathered internationally for the Lviv BookForum (in partnership with the Hay Festival), whose thoughts on the challenges of the day were printed in The Guardian. 1 In her contribution, “Books Can Help Us Understand War,” MacMillan, a Canadian history lecturer at Oxford, wrote, in part:
War makes us confront our own mortality as well as the best and the worst in human nature. Books can help us understand. In the first world war ordinary French soldiers ordered copies of Tolstoy’s War and Peace to try to make sense of their grinding war in the trenches. Or we can escape, at least in our imaginations, our own wars. In the second world war two of the most popular books in English were Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, about lives and sorrows in a declining Welsh mining town and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, about that earlier great war. You may love or hate Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s fable The Little Prince, published in the dark days of 1943 and one of the world’s best-sellers of all time. While it ends in the death of the wandering prince it also promises that wisdom can be found and love may, in the end, triumph. Hope matters too.
For cinema today, the questions reverberate. The task of escaping is well taken care of. But to make sense of the wars of today, both military and economic? That task still awaits its champions.
Restitution, Apology, Celebration
On September 17, 2022, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures held a ceremony to apologize to Sacheen Littlefeather for her treatment at the Academy Awards ceremony of March 27, 1973, when she appeared on behalf of Marlon Brando to decline his Oscar for The Godfather. 2 It is chilling to revisit the details of that evening with what Littlefeather described as an outburst of “tomahawk chops” in the audience, and boos and denunciations, directed at her in his stead, that were far more vociferous than anything that greeted Will Smith post-punch in 2022. This ceremony was different, with a warm welcome and packed house. Tragically, Littlefeather died of breast cancer after a long period of treatment on October 2, two weeks after the in-person event. Shockingly, she was then denounced as a “Pretendian” who was not really Indigenous, with disputes over these details ongoing.
Documentary in a Moment of Definition
It was just a matter of time before the culture wars came for documentary. Many of the individual incidents have been reported in this column or in festival reports of the past year—disputes and disagreements, festival departures, organizational shake-ups, documentary dissembling, bad behavior in general— but nothing compares with the flood of emails I received from friends outside the film world, even outside the United States, when a New York Times article spread like wildfire in early autumn. 3 Bad faith had arrived squarely and loudly in the US documentary community.
The attention was puzzling. Michael Powell, an NYT writer with a background not in film but in sports, economics, and politics, had been assigned to a focus on “free speech and expression . . . and intellectual and campus debate” and busied himself reviving a fight that had already galvanized the field last winter when the premiere of Meg Smaker’s documentary Jihad Rehab at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival led to protests, explanations, apologies—including one from the film’s executive producer—and even the departure of staff from the festival itself.
Why revisit this now? Over the summer, Smaker retitled her film The UnRedacted and tested the waters at the Doc Edge documentary festival in New Zealand. Not coincidentally, Powell’s bombshell of an article arrived just in time for the US election midterms. Blaming wokeness and Muslim bullies, he painted the blond all-American Smaker as the newest victim of political correctness.
This relaunch is stunning. Little had been changed except the title since the uproar in January and February, yet here was Mr. Powell suddenly waking up to the news. Seven months after very public debates, a change of leadership at Sundance, and an absence of any discernible new developments, why would the New York Times arts section plaster a huge article about a stale controversy on its front page?
I admit that at first I thought: Wow, what a publicist! But that’s the least of it. Powell’s Rip Van Winkle awakening was anything but woke: its entire raison d’être was to be antiwoke. The disgraced filmmaker had been reborn, with powerful new allies:
Smaker linked up with the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism [FAIR] to help fend off the cancellation campaign against her film. Together, Smaker and FAIR in the Arts are standing up . . . against the small group of activists trying to censor Jihad Rehab, while also showcasing the film to audiences who are eager to learn more about the important issues it touches on. 4
The FAIR announcement reveals that a new front has opened in the culture wars: an organization that is actively crafting campaigns aimed against the progressive forces that once constituted the main constituency for US independent documentary films. Founded a year ago, FAIR bills itself as “[p]romoting pro-human values and a common culture based on fairness, understanding, and humanity.” 5 Smaker is just one of its many fronts.
Such are the times. Documentary media has traded on its mantle of virtue for a very long time in the United States without having to fight actively to deserve the reputation. I think it’s time for standards to be reexamined and traditional handshake customs to be declared obsolete; the game has to be stepped up. No aspect of documentary “truth” can be taken for granted in this time of rampant disinformation. 6 An urgent moment in need of clarification and redefinition has arrived.
RIP Jean-Luc Godard (December 3, 1930–September 13, 2022)
If the sixties were a fiercely exciting decade, that is due in no small part to the arrival of one Jean-Luc Godard, all (cinematic) guns blazing. His films didn’t just change cinema; they made a generation feel fully alive and excited and ready for anything. His films of the 1960s made every molecule of the body thrill to the experience of watching them.
I saw them too young. When I saw Une femme est une femme as a teenager, I became convinced that I would never grow up to be a real woman, left depressed, and stayed so for months, sad about my lack of beauty and inadequate womanliness—that is to say, sexiness. In retrospect, I recognize that Godard mixed genres into such a potent brew that I took his invention as an instruction manual in how to live—and I’m sure I was not alone in that. He didn’t just change cinema, he changed style forever—and in so doing, changed the lives of his audiences. Luc Lagier’s documentary Godard, l’amour, la poésie (Godard, Love and Poetry, 2007) shows just how young Godard was then, too, and Anna Karina, and how they lived within and finally beyond the cinema they made together. 7
As for me, I outgrew Godard’s spell, and after Numéro deux in 1975, I was never again so smitten. Then, in 1985, I found myself in the position of defending him—and the New York Film Festival, which showed his Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary). Mail sacks full of handwritten protest letters, many penned in the pews of activist churches and sent en masse, arrived at the offices of the New York State Council on the Arts, where I was director of the film program. They were all addressed to Kitty Carlisle Hart, the council’s chairman of the board. Never did I have more fun than ghostwriting her replies, which emphasized to these letter writers their good fortune to be living in a democracy where they, the festival, and Godard himself could all exercise a right to free speech and expression. The wonderful Joanne Koch (recently departed), then head of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which ran the festival, treated me to lunch in appreciation.
The airwaves have been filled with tributes, including a lengthy obituary by FQ contributing editor James S. Williams. 8 An impressively comprehensive tribute was assembled by Sight and Sound for its November issue. There have been more Internet remembrances than you can shake a stick at. Many FQ readers and contributors, raised on the films of JLG, from the brilliant À bout de souffle (Breathless) on, will not be able to imagine film history without his presence. For me, though, once his misogyny and misanthropy and Swiss coldness took hold, his films drove me out of the theater.
Film scholar and former FQ contributor Judith Mayne felt differently. She was a member of the original US cinema studies generation shaped by the man and his films, so I end with her words instead:
I didn’t discover Godard until I was 22 or 23. A friend and I went to see Masculin-Féminin and I was blown away, so much so that I enrolled in a film studies course because I realized I couldn’t fully appreciate Godard’s work because I didn’t know about film. I was under his spell for years. Remember how Women and Film wrote that Godard’s work in the early to mid 60s was feminist and critical of the patriarchy? That was me, too. But mostly Godard’s work felt like the greatest teacher ever. I can’t say the sexism didn’t bother me, but it was always overshadowed by how, no matter what, Godard’s work showed over and over what the cinema could be. Male POV? Of course! But his work demonstrated just how precarious any POV is. 9
RIP Alain Tanner (December 6, 1929–September 11, 2022)
Who? It’s odd to consider the extent to which Alain Tanner and his films have been forgotten, when in the seventies he was as widely known as JLG and almost as popular. Swiss like Godard, Tanner was born one year earlier and died two days earlier. He had lived for a time in London, and thereafter frequently collaborated with the writer John Berger. And he had lived briefly in Paris, too, at the time of the nouvelle vague’s beginning, but didn’t stay. Instead he returned to Geneva, married and settled down, and made a great many films, of which the best known internationally were La salamandre (1971) and Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000 (Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, 1976), for which he and Berger were celebrated with a National Society of Film Critics award for Best Screenplay.
Alas, it didn’t pay to be less than a god. The world’s fascination with Godard continued, while Tanner, with his warmer and more traditional approach to both cinema and his characters, is barely remembered today. Perhaps now his films will be seen again.
Edinburgh International Film Festival
I am withholding an RIP for the Edinburgh International Film Festival in the hope that the festival will have been saved by the time this issue is in print, but the news in early October was dire. 10 The parent company of the Edinburgh festival had declared insolvency and announced the immediate end of the festival, its assets, and its future. My own maturity as a curator and critic depended centrally on my trips to Edinburgh in 1976 and 1979. I had never been to a European festival before, let alone one that merged film criticism and theory with new and revival screenings and debates over the history and future direction of the medium. I realize it’s a rosily nostalgic view, but that space, those people (Lynda Myles, Laura Mulvey), that wild mix of characters and offerings, shaped me for years.
At their best, that is what film festivals continue to do. Yes, today there is usually an economic barrier to participation, whether in the form of ticket prices or plane tickets, that wasn’t there to the same extent then. The parties are more exclusive than they were back then, too, when anyone could show up and become an insider. But film festivals are as crucially important as ever. And that’s true more than ever at a time when an ignorance of other peoples, tribes, ethnicities, and nation-states can produce toxic, even deadly, effects.
In This Issue
This edition of Film Quarterly reaffirms its status as a journal that offers an alternative commons, one where the best thinking about moving images and social impact can circulate and interact freed from the usual silos of professional and academic specializations and traditions.
The special dossier on the New Disability Media seeks to bring the field up to date on both practices and theoretical advances. It has been coedited with Faye Ginsburg and Lawrence Carter-Long, both longtime thinkers, writers, and advocates for new approaches to the role of disability in moving images, both their creation and reception. The dossier places an emphasis on documentary and experimental work by disabled practitioners and encompasses the widening range of scholarship that is setting new standards for thinking about the aesthetics of a disabled cinema.
When Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham) premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, won its Best Documentary award, and became one of the five Oscar nominees for Best Documentary, it publicly signaled this new moment. No longer would disabled peoples be denied agency, subjects without control. “Nothing about Us without Us,” after all, started out as a disability slogan, and lo, so has it come to pass. Whether measured by awards and festival participation, by art exhibitions and study projects, or even by the new Ford Foundation initiatives, disability media has become a central focus, not as a genre but as a landscape of empowerment.
In this section, FQ assembles a wonderful range of contributors. In the United Kingdom, Jenny Chamarette looks at the early figure of Steve Dwoskin, avant-garde filmmaker and American expat in “swinging” London, who launched a disabled film and video practice with groundbreaking work, shooting films from his wheelchair (and bed) and charting new ways of seeing in his best-known feature, Behindert (1974). Researching his archive led Chamarette to his less recognized role as an activist, from his correspondence with sites in a preramp, precaption era to his curating the early BFI series Carry On Cripple.
With theoretical acumen, Pooja Rangan extends notions of disability envisioning and captioning through an attention to Jordan Lord’s Shared Resources (2021), hailing Lord’s use of access features as “a medium of crip creativity.” Rangan’s thinking on “the temporality of access” posits Lord’s work as key to a “countertheory of documentary,” full of inventive strategies. Marshaling works by Lord and others and mining the work of disabled scholars and makers, Rangan rethinks the parameters of documentary to conceive of a practice no longer bound by outdated, exclusionary conventions.
A totemic if troubled text for representation of disability on-screen has long been the landmark Tod Browning film Freaks (1932). Slava Greenberg here writes on the documentary it inspired, Code of the Freaks (Salome Chasnoff, 2020), which unpacks the original with the help of a wide-ranging cast of disability advocates. Extending Code’s own incisive analyses, Greenberg puts forward the notion of a Hollywood shaming genre that documentaries like Code (and Sam Feder’s Disclosure, among others) have employed to create a new space for self-representation.
Mara Mills and Neta Alexander analyze the work of Carolyn Lazard, the video/installation/performance artist whose work has made captioning into a medium of its own, with veritable “scores” that exist independent of translation. As elaborated in Lazard’s most recent work, their “Black krip ethic or methodology” continues their previously identified notion of a “hydraulic system of labor that comes from collectivity.” For Mills and Alexander, the “New Disability Arts” comprise works that are shaping a radical strand of disability minimalism.
Arseli Dokumaci’s engagement with Vision Portraits, the latest documentary by Rodney Evans, traces the importance of Evans’s emphasis on transition, analyzing his film’s progression as a “rite of passage” into blindness that is rarely explored in a world that more often assumes a binary of seeing/not-seeing. Thanks to the testimonies of the three artists whom Evans profiles, Portraits faces the “rather uncomfortable, harder-to-embrace aspects of disability” that are vital to disability justice politics.
Finally, dossier coeditor Lawrence Carter-Long surveys what he terms the “New Wave of Disability Cinema,” featuring documentaries by Nicholas Bruckman, Jason DaSilva, Julie Wyman, and this year’s much celebrated I Didn’t See You There, by Reid Davenport. Noting that “disability has almost always been a foreign country” in the world of cinema, Carter-Long imports Laura Mulvey to detect the presence of an “ableist gaze” that has denied disability filmmakers entrance into the cinema for far too long.
Two remarkable interviews enliven this issue with profiles of contemporary filmmakers doing frontline work on questions of racial justice as well as historical reclamation and restitution. Brian Hu profiles Grace Lee, who has made such signal documentaries as The Grace Lee Project and American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs but also has assumed a leadership role in the effort to reshape public television with the podcast Viewers Like Us. Michael Gillespie, in turn, profiles Jon-Sesrie Goff, who had a long history as a cinematographer prior to making his debut feature, After Sherman, about the Gullah Geechee culture of the Low Country in South Carolina. An arts administrator as well, Goff has also had a significant impact on the field. FQ is pleased to provide a broader platform for Lee’s and Goff’s thinking and influence, as traced in these two portraits.
In the festival world, Carla Marcantonio has filed a report from Bologna on its Il Cinema Ritrovato, where, as at so many festivals this year, exuberance flourished as the film world came together in community again. She cites festival director Cecilia Cenciarelli’s opening speech: “We are happy to have you, the humans, not the assets, not the contents,” back again. Noting the festival’s tributes to both Sophia Loren and Peter Lorre, Marcantonio pays special attention to one of my personal favorites, the great postwar director Kira Muratova, and two of her early films, Korotkie vstrechie (Brief Encounters, 1967) and Dolgie provody (The Long Farewell, 1971).
My own report on Telluride reflects a similar pleasure in gathering together—in that case, in the strange interregnum between the death of Mikhail Gorbachev and the death of Elizabeth II. Spending most of my days in the festival’s intimate documentary theater, I emerged just in time to witness two amazing on-screen performances by actors playing fictional creations—Cate Blanchett in Tár and Bill Nighy in Living—that drew well-deserved praise.
This issue’s columnists continue their work of spotlighting issues and trends that should not be missed. In her genre column, Rebecca Wanzo takes on none other than Taylor Sheridan, examining Yellowstone in light of the long history of the cowboy and the Western in the American imaginary, while noting the resurgence of Native American television programming at this same moment. At a time when the horror genre has turned definitively female, Manuel Betancourt looks at a trio of Latin American horror fables by women: Huesera (Michelle Garza Cervera), Clara Sola (Nathalie Álvarez Mesén) and Medusa (Anita Rocha da Silveira): “[A]s long as countries legislate against bodily autonomy, as long as organized religions circumscribe rigid gender roles, as long as nuclear family structures remain intact, women will continue to experience the world, both on-screen and off, as a never-ending hall of terrors.” For Laurie Ouellette, the appearance of the new series The Real World Homecoming along with the requisite reappearance of television’s The Real World—the series that ushered in decades of reality TV—offers the chance to think through what that was all about, while noting the less-than-innocent interest in the show by their newly conglomeratized corporate overlords. Finally, Caetlin Benson-Allott devotes her column to an analysis of the January 6 hearings of last spring and concludes that they “affirmed television’s historical functions” beyond merely delivering news or even revelations, particularly through the shrewd selection of former ABC News president James Goldston to edit the materials and produce the “shows.”
In “Page Views,” Bruno Guaraná talks with Jean Ma about her new book, At the Edges of Sleep: Moving Images and Somnolent Spectators, which he terms “breathtaking” in its sweep of ideas and zones of study. Seeking to emancipate the sleepy spectator “from a recuperative logic that insists upon critical vigilance as its highest priority,” Ma positions the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang, in particular, in terms of their incorporation of somnolence, their aesthetic strategies, and the effects on their audiences.
In the reviews section, books editor Nilo Couret has paid attention to an unusually broad spectrum of publications. Fengyun Zhang reviews Mila Zuo’s Vulgar Beauty: Acting Chinese in the Global Sensorium; Hannah Hussamy reviews Robert Burgoyne and Deniz Bayrakdar’s anthology Refugees and Migrants in Contemporary Film, Art and Media; Jessica Casey reviews The New Female Antihero: The Disruptive Women of Twenty-First-Century US Television, by Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman; Francesca Romeo reviews Selfie Aesthetics: Seeing Trans Feminist Futures in Self-Representational Art, by Nicole Erin Morse; Milena Droumeva reviews Jennifer O’Meara’s Women’s Voices in Digital Media: The Sonic Screen from Film to Memes; and Laura Imaoka reviews Yuriko Furuhata’s Climatic Media: Transpacific Experiments in Atmospheric Control. You’ll have a lot to catch up on.
- “‘Hope matters’: Ukrainian and International Authors on Why Literature Is Important in Times of Conflict,” The Guardian, October 6, 2022, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/oct/06/hope-matters-ukrainian-and-international-authors-on-why-literature-is-important-in-times-of-conflict.
- Rebecca Sun, “Inside the Academy Celebration Honoring Sacheen Littlefeather, 50 Years in the Making: ‘Tonight Is Her Vision of the Path Forward,’” Hollywood Reporter, September 19, 2022, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/sacheen-littlefeather-honored-academy-celebration-1235223226/.
- Michael Powell, “Sundance Liked Her Documentary on Terrorism, until Muslim Critics Didn’t,” New York Times, September 25/27, 2022, http://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/25/us/sundance-jihad-rehab-meg-smaker.html.
- Foundation against Intolerance and Racism, “Film Screening and Q&A with Bari Weiss and Meg Smaker,” n.d., https://fairforall.substack.com/p/fair-news-an-evening-with-bari-weiss.
- For more history and context, see the collection of articles on truth and disinformation in documentary in a Special Focus section of Film Quarterly edited by Marc Francis. See, in particular, Marc Francis, “Smoke and Mirrors: The Bio-Con Documentary in the Age of Trump,” Film Quarterly 74, no. 1 (Fall 2020): 69–74.
- Godard, l’amour, la poésie is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsQi4ouYYzI.
- James S. Williams, “Jean-Luc Godard Obituary: New Wave Film-Maker Who Changed the Course of Cinema with À Bout De Souffle,” The Guardian, September 13, 2022, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/sep/13/jean-luc-godard-obituary.
- Judith Mayne, email communication with author, October 2022.
- Andrew Pulver, “Edinburgh Film Festival Shuts Down As Organisers Call In Administrators,” The Guardian, October 6, 2022, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/oct/06/edinburgh-film-festival-shuts-down-as-organisers-call-in-administrators.
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