Tuesday, March 24, 2015

SMCS 2015

I'm heading to Montreal tomorrow for the SCMS conference. As always, I look forward to a rewarding time catching up with colleagues and getting (however partially) about the best snapshot of the field I could imagine. 

I will be contributing to the SCMS general conference twitter feed. The idea this year it to have a feed less about live-tweeting panels and more about general observations. 

My panel will be at Saturday, at 1:00pm. I'm excited to be in great company.

Film Festivals and the ‘Creative Turn’ in Documentary

Aida Vallejo (University of the Basque Country) 
“A Niche for Creativity: Defining Documentary in the Festival Circuit”
Ezra Winton (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design)
“Documentary, Film Festivals, and Distribution of the Sensible”
Maria-Paz Peirano (University of Kent)
“Expanding Boundaries: Film Festivals and the Emergence of ‘Creative’ Documentary Filmmaking in Chile”
Chris Cagle (Temple University)
“Character as Aesthetic Problem in the Festival Documentary”

Hope to see many of you there.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Workingman's Death


Workingman's Death
dir. Michael Glawogger, 2005, Austria
available on DVD or via iTunes

This film is now a decade old and therefore less contemporary than others I am watching for this project. But it's been on my list of shame for a while and moreover, I feel it's worth adding some films more readily accessible from time to time. 

Glawogger was, before his untimely death, a prominent documentary auteur and very influential for a vein of poetic documentary popular today, at least on the festival circuit. Workingman's Death resists the kind of documentary meaning we might expect out of the difficult, challenging subject matter we see. Critic Michael Atkinson writes, "Glawogger's film may be thematically loose-jointed, but Wolfgang Thaler's cinematography is the glue." However, the film does have thematic resonances, even if the spectator has to do much of the work for them. And, thematically, too, the refusal of certain explanation is itself meaningful; Glawogger seems to suggest that globalization is important for understanding labor but does not explain everything about it, either as economic fact or human condition. 

Setting aside the big picture, though, I'd like to focus on Atkinson's second assertion, which I do agree with. Take three consecutive shots in the opening Ukraine mining sequence. The first is static but not a posed shot, the second is a reactive pan as a miner appears above the hilltop, the last is a presentational pose setting up an ironic juxtaposition with a Leninist statue.




Whereas the last kind of shot is now common, even cliché, in documentary today, the first two show a real ability to balance compositions that are unusual yet harmonious without distracting from the subject. This is true, also in interviews and interior observation shots:


Looking back from the vantage of ten years now, what's striking about Workingman's Death is not only how influential Glawogger's approach is to poetic documentary but also how it doesn't fully live up to my expectations of what an aestheticized poetic doc would look like.

For instance, even the character-driven issue film Where Heaven Meets Hell (Sasha Friedlander, 2012) films the sulphur mines of Kawah Ijen with more striking beauty, both in composition and color. Some of this may reflect the developments of digital cameras and color correcting software, as well as filmmaker/audience expectations of how either can lend production values to documentary. But that's a larger story.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Autofocus (2013)



Autofocus
dir. Boris Poljak, 2013, Croatia
genre: observational short
not currently in distribution

Autofocus is an observational documentary but with more of a candid-camera approach. Rather than having close interaction between camera and social actor, director Poljak places fixed cameras on a landmark church (St. Nicholas at Nin) and records the tourists who come to visit the sight. The tight framing and distanciation are somewhat reminiscent of Scott Stark's Posers, but rather than comment ironically on its subjects, Autofocus gives a humanizing portrait of the various anonymous visitors.

One of my ongoing polemics is that documentary critics and especially scholars misread what observational cinema does because they filter the genre through the realism debates of post-1970s film theory. This polemic will take more work to flesh out, but for now I'll point out one way contemporary observational cinema can play with narration. There's a kind of question-answer game, wherein the film will introduce an ambiguous shot that is explained by the following shot. In this case, tourists, a father and son, do strange poses that initially do not make much sense. Only in the next shot does the film reveal the mother down the hill, taking photographs. With the telephoto, we are lacking the proper angle for framing but can retroactively read the poses against the church backdrop.

This is not an earth-shattering strategy, but it is one shared with more poetic docs (Abendland comes to mind) and suggests how observational doc is not reducible to naive realism.

Friday, March 13, 2015

MLA 2016 calls for papers

The 2016 MLA Convention will take place in Austin, Texas, January 7 to 10. The deadline for submitting through pre-constituted panels is coming up, as soon as this weekend, so I wanted to highlight a number that might be of interest to film studies scholars. In culling this list I have overlooked a lot: many panels are open to both literature and film as objects of studies and other touch on new media studies. The panels below have a majority focus on film.

Due dates are March 15, unless otherwise noted.

  • 1968 in Global Cinema [call]
  • Adaptation in World Cinema [call]
  • Austin Plays Itself [call]
  • Cinema and Cultural Memory [call]
  • Cinema and Public Spheres in Franco's Spain [call] (Mar. 18)
  • Francophone Media/na/tions [call]
  • The Ideological Space(s) of Italian Cinema and Television [call] (Mar. 20)
  • Latin American Film and Nation in the 21st Century [call]
  • Out of the Past: An Examination of Jewish Characters in Contemporary Romanian Cinema [call]
  • Trauma in Recent Cinema [call]
  • Women and Recent Francophone/Anglophone African Cinemas [call]

Anyone can propose a paper, but one must be a MLA member to present at the convention. [FAQs]

Monday, March 09, 2015

Contemporary Documentary Project: Beep


Beep
Kim Kyung-man, 2014, South Korea
genre: experimental documentary
not in general distribution

Beep is a short experimental documentary; actually, I would probably classify it as an essay film. Beep compiles South Korean anti-communist government films from the 1960s and 70s and adds a found soundtrack of a nonfiction account of a boy martyr who purportedly because he resisted North Korean soldiers. It's easy to use such material ironically, as fodder for camp, but I am impressed by how Beep is purposive with its historical material. Rather than using the found footage to signal an "then" to contrast with "now," it wants to trace a lineage of South Korean jingoism and propaganda that, I believe the film to imply, never fully went away. I'm not always a fan of Foucauldian genealogy, but this is genealogy in the best sense.



Thursday, March 05, 2015

Actress (2014)



Actress
dir. Robert Greene, 2014, USA
genre: self-reflexive portrait documentary
available on iTunes or via Cinema Guild on-demand 
(DVD release presumably forthcoming)

I saw Actress only after reading director Robert Greene's manifesto about the "renaissance in documentary culture" which has seen "collapsing walls between fiction, nonfiction and art cinema." After his pronouncements and the many critical accolades (Bilge Ebiri calls it one of the best documentaries he's ever seen), I have to say I came to the film with higher expectations. Yes, I noticed the self-reflexive commentary on documentary performance in this portrait of Wire actress Brandy Burre; Burre is indeed a remarkably self-confident and camera-aware documentary subject. The value of Actress is that asks the spectator to evaluate the effect of this kind of self-consciousness on documentary, pitched somewhere between dramaturgy and Erving Goffman's performance-of-self. The tight framing of the climactic interviews additionally makes the emotion feel self-consicous. What I did not get an ontological unsettling of what documentary and fiction do (from Ebiri: "the entire film is dancing on this knife’s edge of real and make-believe"), or a sense of revolutionary documentary form. Other portrait docs create a "melodrama" out of real stories and problems, and others have moments of self-reflexivity. Perhaps that's just a matter of raised expectations or even of seeing on video rather than theatrically. Actress is a good documentary but not nearly one of the best I've ever seen.

One thing I did really appreciate in the film is Greene's eye both in filming and editing. There is one scene in which Burre's ex-partner, Tim, removes holiday lights after a Christmas party. It is a simple series of shots, but so simply captures the emotional tenor of their relationship through visual means. And while the slow-motion shots felt like filler to me, there are other, equally lovely video shots of the town and the landscape which give an emotional punctuation to Burre's story. As for the film's pace and structure, there is a wonderful sense of conflict that develops out of the mundanity of Burre's daily life. Greene does a good job of capturing just a sense of tedium which forms the status quo of the film's exposition, and it makes the identity and relationship crisis of the second half of the film that much more pronounced.

Finally, I valued in Actress what I might value in any character-driven documentary: the way Burre's story touches on bigger issues of work-life balance, of women's self-identity in a patriarchal culture, and of the sexism of theatrical and television casting. To take the issue of age-bound casting, this is something we all might have a knowledge of, but Actress shows the human toll on the women actors whose livelihood is made more difficult than men's. 

Monday, March 02, 2015

Men With Balls (2013)


Men With Balls
dir. Kristóf Kovács, 2013, Hungary
genre: character-driven documentary
currently not in distribution

I actually prefer the original title of this film, Besence Open, which captures the ironic juxtaposition of the conceit: a largely Roma and largely unemployed village in Southwest Hungary receives a grant to built a tennis court. A town with no tennis experience and a largely dispirited existence then must learn what is largely a rich person's sport. It's the kind of hook for either festival or television audiences, with its overlay of a Bad News Bears kind of sports drama on top of an issue documentary about social marginalization, economic development, and life in Hungary under the EU.

And I don't mean this in a disparaging way; even if European documentaries are on balance more tonally somber and contemplative than their US counterparts, there's still a lot of interesting work being done to embrace showmanship and experiment with the possibilities of the "new documentary." Formally, Men With Balls balances a playful tone (folk-ish scoring and plucked violin refrains) and well-composed shots of the village with more observational footage that gives a composite portrait of the social actors. Ultimately, the mayor emerges as the central character in the character-driven format.

I don't think it's spoiling too much to say that Men With Balls lacks a redemptive or even cathartic arc. Rather than intertwining the sports and issue subplots, the film actually thematizes how difficult it is do this kind of culture-driven economic development.

Something about it reminded me of The Overnighters. On the one hand that latter film has a richer and more extensive observational approach - and overall feels like a bleaker film. On the other hand, both films find a narrational solution to match the worldview of their main character, Biblical morality play in Overnighters, realist optimism in Men With Balls.

Monday, February 09, 2015

CFP: Television and Performance

CALL FOR PAPERS

Journal of Film & Video
Issue on Television & Performance

Deadline June 1, 2015

As television studies follows the ever-expanding implications of the 'small screen,' the place of the performer in television increasingly demands critical attention. How does performance impact--and how is it impacted by--the shifting landscape of television technology, production, and exhibition? What is the performer's agency (or authorship) in television production? How does the scale of television (both in terms of varying screen sizes and hours of content) intersect with acting? What are the implications of performance across televisual genres and taste formations, in places like 'quality' dramas, situation comedies, and reality TV? We invite articles that explore the television acting as practice, as business, and as discourse. We are especially interested in articles that address the following:

  • Acting across varying television genres and taste formations, from 'quality' programs to situation comedies and reality TV
  • Television performance within broadcast, cable, and online distribution and exhibition models
  • Acting as authorship, labor, agency within television production
  • Comparative studies of television and film performance, movement between television and film performance
  • Casting practices
  • Acting and identity/representation
  • Implications of television technology for performance
  • Historical and contemporary reception of television acting
  • Stardom, celebrity and television performance
  • Individual vs. Ensemble acting
  • Television performance and historiography
  • Television acting and performance studies
  • Medium/long form storytelling and acting
  • Television news, satire, and performance
  • Transnational labor flows of television acting

The Journal of Film & Video is a blind, peer-reviewed journal published by the University of Illinois Press. All submissions to the JFV should be typed and double-spaced. Articles should be approximately 12-35 typewritten pages in the MLA Style. For more information, visit our website at http://www.press.uillinois.edu/journals/jfv.html.

Submissions for this special issue should be sent electronically to Stephen Tropiano, editor, to: jfv.speciialissue-AT-gmail-DOT-com

Your name must not appear anywhere on your essay. When submitting your essay, please include in your e-mail the title of your essay and complete contact information (full name, mailing address, telephone number, fax number, and e-mail address). If you have any questions, feel free to email Stephen Tropiano, editor.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

CFP: Romanian New Wave edited volume

CALL FOR PAPERS
Readings of the Romanian New Wave 
(edited anthology)

Proposal Deadline: April 30, 2015


When the Cannes Film Festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or, was awarded to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days in 2007, this marked the most prominent success of the internationally acclaimed Romanian New Wave. A number of other films received recognition at international film festivals both in the first and second decade of the 2000s, among them The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (Puiu, 2005), Police, Adjective (Porumboiu, 2009), Aurora (Puiu, 2010), Child’s Pose (Netzer, 2013), and The Japanese Dog (Jurgiu, 2013). New York City’s “Making Waves”—a five day festival devoted to new Romanian films—is slated for its tenth iteration in 2015 and has been covered at length and with copious praise by The New York Times.  For a country of 21 million, this represents a surprising degree of cinematic success, attracting both critical and scholarly attention within Romania and abroad.


We are seeking original essays for an edited collection on the Romanian New Wave from a variety of perspectives. This collection should be of interest to a broad scholarly audience interested in international cinema.  Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:


  • The memory of communism in the New Wave. Analyses of films that explicitly or implicitly deal with the communist past [e.g. The Paper Will Be Blue (2006), 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), I’m an Old Communist Hag (2013)].
  • Post-communist transitions: how does the New Wave dramatize the social changes, relations, and institutions of the past twenty-five years?
  • Representations of age.  Many New Wave films feature children or elderly protagonists. Themes of generational changes, conflicts, or continuities as they dramatize larger social dynamics could be analyzed.
  •  Representations of gender and feminist readings of particular films.
  • Reception studies: responses to the films in Romania and/or abroad.
  • The rhetorical function of the “New Wave:” when did the term start circulating and how do directors, programmers, and/or critics resist or embrace this designation?
  • Comparative readings with other national cinemas.  Such essays could focus on contemporary ‘realist’ films from other countries or on the influence of other ‘New Waves’ on Romanian filmmaking.
  • Essays on the most prominent directors of the New Wave (e.g., Mungiu, Munteanu, Puiu, and Porumboiu).
  • Crucial individuals beyond directors: actors (e.g. Luminita Gheorghiu), prominent technicians (e.g. cinematographer Oleg Mutu), writers, and producers.
  • Film theoretical approaches to the New Wave. For example, Dudley Andrew’s What Cinema Is! reads 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days following Andre Bazin’s understanding of cinema.  This project that could be continued or the work of other film theorists such as Kracauer, Epstein, Balázs, or Deleuze could also be put in productive dialogue with Romanian cinema.
  • Generic analyses of films (contemporary neorealist drama, psychological thriller, family drama, crime films) and of generic trends in the New Wave.
  • Documentary films such as Children Underground (2001), Reconstruction (2001), The Second Game (2014), and The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010).
  • Analyses of short films (e.g. Cristi Puiu’s Stuff and Dough [2001] regarded as the first Romanian New Wave film). 
  • Analyses of “Making Waves” and other Romanian Film Festivals.  What is the role of international film festivals in the global success of the New Wave?
  • Romanian cinema as “art film.”
  • Single-film analyses of the most recent, very successful films, such as Beyond the Hills (2012), Child’s Pose (2013), The Japanese Dog (2013), and Closer to the Moon (2013)
  • Analysis of the stylistic characteristics of the Romanian New Wave.  Such studies could be focused on the particular use of staging, cinematography, editing or other elements.
  • The importance of digital technology to the Romanian New Wave at the level of production, distribution, and/or reception. 
  • The economic sustainability of Romanian cinema: case studies of how films are financed, produced, and distributed.

A 250-350 word proposal and brief biography are due by April 30, 2015. If you already have a completed essay, we will accept drafts provided they include a 250-350 word summary at the outset.  Completed essays are due by October 1, 2015. Queries are welcomed and encouraged.  Please email Alina Haliliuc and Jesse Schlotterbeck .   

Monday, January 19, 2015

Voices in Contemporary Documentary project

I've kept up this blog with announcements and occasional methodological reflections, but now seems like a good time to revisit the film-based research blogging I’ve done with the 1947 Project and get back to writing more regularly here. I’m not abandoning the 1947 viewing but I’m taking a break from it as I transition into a new research project on documentary. 

So I’ll be starting my Voices in Contemporary Documentary project. The idea is to feature short posts, roughly a new one each week, on a different recent documentary or nonfiction work. It may be major documentary releases, but I am hoping to highlight harder-to-see work from festivals or galleries. Some of this may not be readily available, but I will try to provide video or streaming sources where possible.

In the process, this blogging project gives me an chance to see what is going on in documentary today, without starting from an overly prescriptive aesthetic (though clearly I have certain tastes) or from either popular or academic canons. 

For more on my approach to documentary criticism, read here. There is also this earlier round up of recent European docs I like. 

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

CFP: Visible Evidence XXII

CALL FOR PAPERS

Visible Evidence XXII conference
Toronto

August 19-23, 2015
proposals due February 7 & 15

Visible Evidence, the international conference on documentary film and media, now in its 22nd year, will convene August 19-23rd, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. Hosted by the Institute of Cinema Studies, University of Toronto; the School of Image Arts, Ryerson University and the Department of Cinema and Media Arts, York University, Visible Evidence 22 will address the history, theory, and practice of documentary and non-fiction cinema, television, video, audio recording, digital media, photography, and performance, in a wide range of panels, workshops, plenary sessions, screenings, and special events.

Proposals for pre-constituted panels, individual papers, workshops, and screenings are invited according to the following guidelines.

Themes
While proposals may address any aspect of documentary screen cultures, histories and practices, potential presenters should be aware that the conference will highlight the following themes:

1. Documenting the North.

2. Expanded Documentary and Immersive Technologies.

3. The Charge of the Real.

4. Counter-Surveillance and Citizen Journalism.

5. Archival Activism.

6. Genocide/ Trauma/ Memory Projects.

For a fuller description of these themes and instructions for online proposal submission, see the conference website.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

CFP: Emerging Documentary Practices symposium

CALL FOR PAPERS

Emerging Documentary Practices

Symposium and Exhibition

Temple University, Philadelphia
Friday April 3, 2014

An interdisciplinary one-day symposium and exhibition about how emerging technologies are transforming nonfiction image-making practices in cinema, art and ethnography.

Deadline For Proposals: January 12, 2014.

The Department of Film and Media Arts (FMA) at Temple University is delighted to host a one-day interdisciplinary symposium on Emerging Documentary Practices. The symposium is particularly focused on documentary forms that use interactivity, locative and mobile technologies in innovative ways to transform the concepts and practices of documentary cinema and media arts.

The symposium welcomes documentary practitioners from across fields of social sciences, humanities and arts, from ethnographers to eco-poets. Interweaving choices of content and of form, a new generation of practitioners is reaching across creative and scholarly disciplines. This symposium embraces this discourse on theoretical and practical levels. The conversions are presented concurrently with an exhibition of documentary works using interactivity and other innovative practices.

Each session will be launched with a 15 minute keynote. Each panelist will have the opportunity to present an elaborated 5 minute "proposition/question/provocation" to the panel to stimulate open conversation. Proposals will be peer reviewed.

The symposium is complemented by a multi-kiosk exhibition offering speakers and others opportunities to exhibit works in the curated, peer reviewed show. The kiosks that will be available for viewing on the day and throughout the week. Longer papers supporting the discussions may also be linked, and participants may later be invited for to offer submissions for publication. The symposium is sponsored by Temple University's Department of Film and Media Arts, the Center for Humanities at Temple (CHAT) and Temple Libraries.

Primary themes include:
·       SPATIAL PRACTICES
e.g. geo-spatial mapping and storytelling; actual and augmented sites of memory; spatial poetics; infrastructure, industrialization and climate change; actual and imaginary cities.

·       SOCIAL PRACTICES
e.g. forging community; bringing diversity and indigenous voices;oral histories and imagined futures; performing and protesting through social media; user generated works.

·       EMBODIED PERFORMANCE
e.g. computer materiality and embodied actions of making, viewing; story-telling through web series, live feeds and digital happenings; practical implications of using alternative and interactive software like Korkasow, Mozilla Popcorn, Zeega, or Moviestorm upon how stories are told and image edited; the body as a source of data; disembodiment and narrative fracture.

PROPOSAL INSTRUCTIONS
Proposals for participation, short papers (5 minute "proposition/question/provocation") and the digital exhibition of works on the dedicated kiosks should consist of a proposal statement  (max 500 words), a URL if available/relevant, and brief biographic statement (max 150 words).

Submissions should be sent in electronic form to:  edocs@temple.edu

Questions can be directed to FMA Faculty Roderick Coover and LeAnn Ericksen
Conference registration will occur in February. Conference fee is $40 and includes lunch.
The fee is waived for Temple students and faculty.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Conferences Winter 2014 edition

Here is my current list of English-language conferences of interest to those in film studies (and some for TV and media studies). Upcoming conferences are listed in order by date or, for open calls, by abstract due date. Please let me know if I should add anything.  I will update this post throughout Winter 2015 and will do an update post in Spring or Summer 2015.

(updated February 7)

Closed calls:
“Film Festival Cartographies” Symposium - Modena, Italy, Nov 20-21, 2014 [website]
Visible Evidence XXI - New Delhi, Dec 11-14, 2014 [website]
MLA -  Vancouver, Jan 8-11, 2015 [website]
CAA - Chicago, Feb 12-15, 2014 [website]
SMCS - Montreal Mar 25-29, 2015  [website]
The Colour Fantastic: Chromatic Worlds of Silent Cinema - EYE/University of Amsterdam, March, 29-31 2015 [call]
Console-ing Passions - Dublin, Ireland, June 18-20, 2015 [website]
BAFTSS 2014 conference Manchester Metropolitan University, Apr 16-18 2015 [call]
PCA (Popular Culture Association) - New Orleans, April 1-4, 2015 [website]
ICA - San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 21-25, 2014 [website ]

Current calls:
Due date: Nov 15, 2014 Orson Welles: A Centennial Celebration and Symposium - Indiana University, April 29-May 2, 2015 [call]
Due date: Dec 15, 2014 Film and Media in the Classroom - University of Florida, Feb 26-Mar 1, 2015 [call]
Due date: Dec 15, 2014  World Cinema and the Essay Film - University of Reading, England,  30th April – 2nd May 2015  [call]
Due date: December 17, 2014 The Annual Conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada - June 2-4, 2015 Theme: “Capital Ideas” [website]
Due date: Dec 22, 2014  Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Images (SCSMI) Jun 17-20, 2015, Birkbeck, University of London [call]
Due date: Jan 11, 2015 Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 26-28, 2015 Theme: "Screening Animals and the Inhuman" [call]
Due date: Jan 30, 2015 NECS - Łódź, Poland, June 18-20, 2015 Theme: "Archives of/for the Future" [callwebsite]
Due date; Feb 2, 2015 The Resnais Archipelago conference - Duke University, October 29-31, 2015 [call]
Due date: Feb 15 & 23, 2015 Visible Evidence XXII - Toronto, Aug 19-23, 2015 [call | website]
Due date: Feb 15 UFVA - American University, Washington, DC, Aug 4-8, 2015 [website]

Upcoming calls:

MLA - Austin, Texas, Jan 7-10, 2016
SCMS - Atlanta, Mar 30-Apr 3, 2016
Visible Evidence XXIII - Bozeman, Montana, Aug 11-14, 2016

CFP: Screen Conference 2015

CALL FOR PAPERS

25th Annual Screen Studies Conference
26-28 June 2015
University of Glasgow, Scotland

proposal due date: 11 January 2015

The theme of the forthcoming Screen Studies Conference, organised by the journal Screen and programmed by Screen editor Karen Lury, will be “Screening Animals and the Inhuman”.

Chiming with the increasing interest in the representation and agency of animals and non-human others in film, television and other audio-visual texts, we invite papers that address questions, representations and the performativity of the animal and of the ‘inhuman’ on and with screen based media.  Presentations and papers on wider aspects of film and television will also be considered. Panel submissions will be considered but not prioritised.

Confirmed keynote speakers are Michael Lawrence (University of Sussex), Susan McHugh (University of New England) and Anat Pick (Queen Mary, University of London).

This year we would also like to invite poster presentations. Selected posters will be displayed in the central reception area of the conference, with a scheduled session for delegates to discuss content and ideas with presenters. The editors will also award a small prize for the best poster of the conference, to be announced at the final plenary session. Delegates may submit proposals for a paper and a poster but the editors will select only one mode of presentation per delegate.

The deadline for submissions is midnight (GMT), Sunday, 11 January 2015.  Notifications of the outcome will be sent before end February.

To submit your proposal, please visit the conference website for further instructions:

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Joshua Malitsky Interview

I would like to thank Joshua Malitsky for agreeing to talk about his work and his book, Post-Revolution Nonfiction Film: Building the Soviet and Cuban Nations, out recently from Indiana University Press. I've found it a valuable book, not only for its examination of both canonical and non-canonical films but also for its willingness to think beyond the documentary/newsreel divide that often structures the field of documentary studies. I asked him about the book and its methodology.

Could you talk a little about the genesis of the book? How did you land on the topic and choose these national cinemas?

This book began as my dissertation project at Northwestern.  It came out of two projects on which I’d been working.  I had been looking into nonfiction films made in Ghana during the period of Kwame Nkrumah’s rule—during and immediately following independence.  I’d been in contact with a filmmaker who worked closely with Nkrumah who told me that he had stashed in London a lot of the films that were presumed to have been lost.  There was a time I thought this would be my dissertation project.

At the same time I started thinking a lot about Shub’s compilation trilogy—not just in terms of her role in film history but how her work can help us to think about the development of or transitions within avant-garde movements.  I was dissatisfied with the way the transition from the experimentalism in the 1920s to (the imposition of) Socialist Realism in the 1930s was characterized.  It didn’t seem to me that movements operate that way—that there are internal dynamics that such a story doesn’t account for, that artists often try to adjust their choices so as to align with state goals in subtle ways, and that movements often die out or transition pretty dramatically on their own accord.  I found Ian Christie’s work on the 1930s and the transition to it to be a much more convincing account and I wanted to think about how that functioned for nonfiction film.  The piece that inspired me to do so more than any other was Mikhail Iampol’ski’s short but really rich essay “Reality at Second Hand.”

I realized while working on the Ghanaian project that the questions I was asking were much more documentary and nonfiction film driven than nation or area studies-driven.  It was then that I decided to do the comparative project.  It was to be a comparative Soviet, Cuban, and Ghanaian nonfiction film project.

The Ghana part ended up dropping out because it just became unmanageable.  It was going to require raising lots of money, spending lots of time in London working with the High Commission and coordinating that activity with the people in Accra, and working with Reuters, who had come to own many of the film rights.  It moved me too far from the critical project that really drove my interest.

How did you come to the book's organization? I found the alternating chapters on Russia and Cuba to be an effective conceit that maintains the specificity of each nation while creating the through-threads of your conceptual framework.

At various points I was contemplating a more thematic-driven structure.  But I decided on the alternating chapters for three reasons.  First, there is so much historical detail that needs to be covered in terms of artists, institutions, players, topics, etc… that I thought it would be asking too much for people to keep it all straight.  And I think that historical detail matters.  Second, I wanted people coming at the book from an area studies perspective to be able to isolate the sections that would be useful to them.  And third, I wanted to highlight the interconnectedness between newsreels and documentaries at a given moment so that they could be understood as part of project.

Some of the films you analyze will be familiar to those who know Russian or Cuban cinema. But for those who are less familiar, is there a film you'd particularly recommend that scholars or cinephiles watch? 

In terms of the Soviet example, I find A Sixth Part of the World to be a tour de force and The Eleventh Year (not a film I focus on in the book) to be provocative and innovative, a film about which there is so much more to say.

The Eleventh Year (Vertov, 1928)

In terms of the Cuban films, Alvarez exhibits such a range of styles and approaches in his films.  I find 79 Primaveras to be incredibly moving and politically astute whereas I find LBJ needs more attention.

It seems that "nonfiction" is an operative word in your title, since the book reads newsreel and documentary in relation to one another. Do you see larger implications for how documentary studies as a field treats newsreels?

It’s an interesting and important question.  Brian Winston and I had a recent exchange about this, noting that of all the nonfiction genres it’s newsreels that are never subsumed under the “documentary” tradition.  Educational films, science films, and industrial films, for example, are all at times considered subsets of the documentary tradition.  So what is it about newsreels?  Brian thinks is starts with Grierson’s dismissal of them as “just a speedy snip-snap” and a “series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show” but we both agree that he was wrong and that the traditions need consideration.

In terms of documentary studies, I believe strongly that historical, theoretical, and critical considerations of various nonfiction forms is one of the key future directions.  As you know, there’s been so much great work on nontheatrical film in the past decade.  Scholars have demonstrated how educational films, industrial films, science films and other “useful” cinemas have communicated new ideas, shaped subjectivities, and been employed by institutions for both public and private purposes.  And we know that these questions align with those that scholars have long asked in studies of documentary, a field that also takes into account a range of institutional contexts (for funding, distribution, and exhibition), purposes, production models, and audience constituencies.  But there’s still some methodological and conceptual divergences between those who see themselves as part of a community that focuses on nontheatrical films (goes to Domitor and Orphans) and those who see themselves as part of this growing field of documentary studies.  To be sure, there are many who overlap sub-fields but I do think that each area would benefit from teasing out the conceptual and historical convergences and divergences, which would help us to create a vocabulary and space for a larger umbrella.    

There's an extended and nuanced argument about documentary "objectivity" in your book, but would you mind speaking a little more to this aspect? How do we need to adjust our conception of objectivity?

This is an issue I’d been wrestling with for a while and which emanated from my thinking about Shub.  I was trying to work through what I saw as nuanced shifts in aspects of documentary production methods and aesthetics that gets privileged or celebrated within a movement or period of time.  Shub was trying to lessen her own directorial influence but not doing so with any naivete about her role.  And that involved a host of choices about materials (found), process of working with them, and formal choices (longer takes, stiller views).  It struck me that she was trying to make the films more “objective” (removing aspects of the self) than works like Vertov’s A Sixth Part of the World and Stride Soviet! while still accounting for her own role.  But the way we discussed objectivity and subjectivity in reference to documentary was by locating them as singular and pure concepts.  I wanted to highlight the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity as well as point to a more historicized and multifaceted notion of objectivity.  Historians of Science were useful in working through such thorny territory (as well as in the related topic of realism).

There's clearly a lot of research behind this book. What was involved? Did you see most of the films in archives? 

I did.  For the Soviet case I was fortunate to have obtained copies of Vertov’s kino-nedelia and kino-pravda newsreel series, his early documentaries that are available, his feature films, and Shub’s films.  I first saw the full runs at Pordenone in I think 2004 when Yuri Tsivian programmed them.  Yuri then gave me access to a number of the features and some of the newsreels for the writing of the dissertation.  I spent time researching at the Austrian Filmmuseum, which has an incredible collection of Vertov’s papers and films and Shub’s features as well, for the book research.

The Cuban example was, as you’d anticipate, more of a challenge.  I made multiple trips to Havana.  During that time I had access to Alvarez’ materials and documentaries at ICAIC (and conversations with his widow, those who worked with him, Cuban film scholars).  Some of those I was able to obtain copies of, some I wasn’t.  Colleagues in Havana made me copies of a number of documentaries by other Cuban directors of the 1960s—Sara Gomez, Nicolasito Guillen, Octavio Cortazar to name a few.  For the newsreels, I was able to watch about 6 per year.  They wouldn’t let me select topics.  I decided that I would watch 6 consecutive issues, figuring that would give me a sense of how they approached a news story across issues and would give me the opportunity to have a keener awareness of what might appear to be subtle changes.  I obtained copies of a handful of those but I was not always confident of the issue # they gave me.

The good news is that UNESCO announced that all existing negatives of the newsreel series would be preserved and digitized as part of its “Memory of the World” register.  Cuba and France have been working together to make this happen.  I hope and suspect that this will generate lots of great work.

One aspect of the book I really love is its ability and willingness to take seriously films that others dismiss, such as Alvarez's De America Soy Hijo. Are there general areas you feel that prior studies have overlooked? 

Conceiving of these projects as bodies of post-revolutionary nonfiction films required attending to films that don’t necessarily highlight what’s unique about an individual “auteur’s” work or about the singularity of this context formally and/or ideologically.  I understood why people chose to celebrate certain Cuban newsreels, for example, as distinct from the established newsreel tradition and as artistically valuable.  But those examples often feel cherry-picked and don’t exemplify the tradition as a whole.  So I had different criteria.  But in the process, in being open to different kinds of efforts, I hope I was able to point to works that are aesthetically and politically interesting even if they don’t appear that way at first glance.  

De America Soy Hijo (Santiago Alvarez, 1972)

You've been active as an organizer for Visible Evidence, a long-running documentary conference and scholarly community.  Speaking for yourself, what do you see as the some of the major institutional or disciplinary challenges for documentary studies?

Another great and large question.  As you know, Visible Evidence and Documentary Studies as a sub-field of Film and Media Studies are really growing.  What I really want to see (and I’m sure this will come as no surprise) is an increased attention on the study of nonfiction media from both a historical and theoretical perspective.  I would like us to draw more early cinema folks working on nonfiction film projects and grow in that direction.  At the same time, I want documentary studies to maintain its connection to artists and activists.  It’s one of the things that makes VE and working on documentary exciting and somewhat distinct in the humanities.

The other direction I see opening up for studies of documentary involves much more trans-disciplinary work.  There’s been a real growth in university (and non-university) degree programs, centers, and institutes related to documentary or “reality-based” media.  We’re hoping to do something at IU.  Along with two colleagues (a law professor and a historian), I am in the process of proposing a Center for Documentary Research and Practice (CDRP).  Our working board consists of filmmakers, historians, film archivists, anthropologists, lawyers, and hard scientists, as well as film and media scholars.  The goal of the Center is to bring together scholars and artists from across the university to explore how we express ourselves, critically and creatively, when we speak about, and with, the lived world.  And we will do so by studying how some of the most innovative historical and contemporary documentary filmmakers have approached the multiple challenges inherent in documentary work, as an art and as scholarship.  So we’ll be working closely with IU archives and IU Cinema.  We hope to have post-docs and visiting filmmakers.  It’s an exciting opportunity and I’m very hopeful we will be able to procure funding.

Are there any other scholars' work you've found particularly useful or inspirational lately - on documentary or otherwise?

Right now I’m knee-deep in Yugoslavian and Balkan history, preparing to do archival work in Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro starting in a couple of weeks.  I’m also reading some documentary (and film history) anthologies, seeing how they are organized and conceived, as Malin Wahlberg and I have agreed to co-edit a Blackwell Companion to Documentary History.

In terms of work I’ve found inspirational lately, I’d point to three examples: Devin Fore’s Realism After Modernism, in which he rethinks the politics and aesthetics of interwar realism in film, painting, and literature; Masha Salazkina’s work on transnationalism, film theory, and institutional film cultures, focusing on the Soviet Union, Italy, and Cuba; and Lee Grieveson’s work with Colin MacCabe on the Empire and Film collection as well as his own work on how states promoted liberal economic views through nonfiction film projects throughout the century.

Joshua Malitsky is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University.