Wednesday, November 28, 2012

IDFA reflections

I'm not a veteran film festival goer, partly out of habit, mostly out of geography. But the opportunity arose for me to attend the IDFA documentary film festival in Amsterdam so I eagerly pounced on it. I didn't attend the whole stretch, and there were many films I didn't see, but here are some trends and motifs I noticed:

- Investigation: I had tweeted that investigation might be thought of as an ur-ideology of contemporary doc. That's a hypothesis that will need more exploration, but it was striking to me how many of the films I saw were about crime -  C.K., about a dutch embezzler, Smash and Grab, about the Pink Panther jewel thief ring - or generally took the form of an investigative structure - Men at Lunch or Seconds of Lead. Much like the chase was a winning formula for transitional narrative cinema, the investigation captures the epistemology of narrativized doc. In fact in Seconds of Lead, an Iranian documentary reflecting on the revolution, the process of tracking down a projectionist stands in thematically for the spectator's understanding of the forgotten history of Iran's past.

- Narrative: Speaking of narrative, it was interesting to see the various ways that docs drew inspiration (consciously or not) from narrative film.  The Ridge and Sofia's Last Ambulance would make a terrific double bill, not only for what they say about emergency health care but also for their divergent approach to narrative. The Ridge was an unabashed action-adventure film based on suspense, with clearly differentiated and psychologized characters, whereas Sofia's Last Ambulance was an art film, premised on key gaps of knowledge. Somewhere in between, Camp 14: Total Control Zone, alternated between the clarity of flashbacks (about life in a North Korean labor camp) and the anomie of the present (an escapee's life in Seoul today).

- Economic life of the peasantry: Remarkably, three films I saw were about the economic struggles of the peasantry under globalization. Winter Nomads and Sons of the Land provided the clearest comparison, both about European farmers. But whereas Winter Nomads was lyrical and redemptive in its humanist theme, Sons of the Land looked at the microfoundations of macro economic collapse.  In another context, Where Heaven Meets Hell traced the lives of Indonesian sulfur miners.

- Documentary ethics: The question I heard time and again was how did the director or producer find the social actor ("character"). And usually this was the questions I most wanted to hear! Mostly the documentaries relied so much on the social actor, Camp 14Sons of the Land and Where Heaven Meets Hell all relied on an intimate rapport between filmmaker and subject. Other films, however, Seconds of Lead and Story for Modlns, seemed to disregard documentary ethics so much, they were almost textbook examples. In the Dark Room, about Carlos the Jackal's wife and child, took what I'd call a postmodern ethical approach, both exploiting and being exploited by the subject in order to throw up the question of truthful representation to begin with.

In all, it was refreshing to see so many terrific new documentaries in one go. Perhaps the film festival life could become more of a habit with me.

p.s See also Julia Barbosa's report at Keyframe.

Monday, November 26, 2012

CFP: Visible Evidence XX

Visible Evidence XX 
Stockholm, Sweden
August 15-18, 2013

Call for proposals

In 1990, a group of American scholars were provoked by the marginalization of documentary in the scholarly field of film studies. Their initiative for an international conference series resulted in Visible Evidence, first organized in 1993 by Jane Gaines at Duke University. In concert with this initiative appeared a number of influential books, such as Representing Reality (Bill Nichols, 1991), Blurred Boundaries (Bill Nichols, 1994), Theorizing Documentary (Michael Renov, ed., 1993), and Claiming the Real: The Griersonian Documentary and its Legitimations (Brian Winston, 1995). Ever since, these volumes have been followed by related and complementary work in the growing academic field of documentary studies.

The annual event of Visible Evidence has infused and keeps on inspiring the cross-disciplinary research on documentary film and media. The conferences have also encouraged and provided an important dialog between scholars and filmmakers, including opportunities for practitioners to screen new films and to present work in progress.

The international importance of Visible Evidence is remarkable, as a travelling
conference that moves across the globe, this year to take place in Canberra, Australia (December 19-21, 2012), co-hosted by the Australian National University and the National Film and Sound Archive.

The 2013 edition of Visible Evidence – its 20th anniversary! - will convene August 15-18 in Stockholm, hosted by the Department of Media Studies, Stockholm University, and organized in collaboration with the Royal Library, Filmform The Stockholm Archive of Art Film and Video, and the Swedish Film Institute.

In line with the previous conferences, Visible Evidence XX will address the history, theory, and practice of documentary cinema, television, video, audio recording, digital media, photography, and performance.

Proposals for panels and presentations
Proposed panels and presentations may address any aspect of documentary film and documentary screen cultures, or any theoretical or historical approach to documentary. At the same time, demarcating its 20th anniversary, Visible Evidence XX will pay special attention to a set of problems that have been subject to recurrent articulation during these two decades of conferences and related scholarship. These are salient issues that call for further exploration, new theoretical and historical insights in scholarly work, and which reverberate, or are subjectto conceptual work, in film and media.

For comprehensive information on the Conference, suggested topics and how to submit proposals, find out more in the pdf document below.   Information regarding conference and submitting proposals.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

CFP: Film Criticism in the Digital Age

"Film Criticism in the Digital Age: Media, Purposes and the Status of the Critic”

Editors: Mattias Frey and Cecilia Sayad

The aims and status of arts and culture criticism, in general, and film criticism, in particular, are currently up for revision and under attack, according to a whole host of indicators. Numerous articles and academic monographs bemoan the crisis of criticism or mourn the death of the critic. Regular symposia and conferences dwell on the many, sometimes prominent film journalists made redundant at newspapers, magazines and other ‘old media’ in past years; Sean P. Means lists fifty-five American movie critics who lost their jobs between 2006 and 2009. It is clear that the reasons for the current situation include the worldwide recession, the recent drop in print advertising revenues and, more fundamentally, the declining circulations attributable to reluctant consumers of print media. These developments have brought forth ontological—if not existential—questions about the purpose and worth of criticism in the age of WordPress blogospheres and a perceived democratization of criticism.

This edited anthology seeks to understand the current state of film criticism and how it has developed. It aims to examine the challenges that the Internet offers to the evaluation, promotion, and explanation of artistic works as well as digital technology’s impact on traditional concerns about the disposability or permanence of cultural criticism. The collection will furthermore contain a historical dimension that investigate how the status of the critic has changed in the last fifty years and to what extent critics can still intervene into current popular discourse about arts and culture.

The editors invite essays that expand, recast, and critically engage with some of these discussions.

Topics may include (but are not limited to):

--case studies which deliberate on the permanence or disposability of criticism in the digital age

--historical case studies on certain critics, critical schools, publications or other developments that preview or help us understand the current developments in film criticism

--case studies of non-Anglophone critics, critical schools, newspapers, magazines or other developments

--case studies which account for the persistent gendered and/or class-based economies that inflect contemporary film criticism

--comparative case studies with other media (theatre, visual art, music, or literature) or studies of critics who have appraised film through the lenses or in parallel to other media

--case studies which acknowledge the various forms by which film criticism has been transmitted (print, radio, television, online)

--comparative case studies that show how the status of the critic has—or has not—changed with the advent of digital technologies

Although the editors welcome broader theoretical treatments of these issues, they especially encourage well-researched chapters that explore what is at stake in film criticism’s digital age via in-depth case studies.

Please send a short abstract (250-400 words) with a brief author biography to Dr. Mattias Frey ( and Dr. Cecilia Sayad ( by 1 December 2012. The editors are currently in contact with university and other major presses for this anthology, and contributors are expected to submit the completed essays by 1 September 2013.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bourdieu and Film/Media Conference

It's been a couple of days since the New Uses of Bourdieu in Film and Media Studies conference, but I'm finally catching up from travel to write up my impressions and summary. Having taken to Bourdieu's scholarship during my graduate school years and having immersed myself in his work, I was excited to see a conference devoted to his thought, and I commend the organizers in pulling together a valuable and well-run event. It was a pleasure to hear both theoretical reflections on Bourdieu's concepts (habitus, field, capital) and applications to areas I had not considered before.

That said, the more I think about it, I do think there are a couple of areas where the conference did not go as far as I would like. For an event framed as an intervention into two disciplines, there seemed to be relatively reflection on the state of the disciplines. I know that speaks as much to my sensibility as anything, but as I saw more papers I noticed that few were humanities-oriented film studies - the majority were much more aligned with a sociologically-inflected cultural studies. In fact, I don't think I've fully appreciated before now how cultural studies functions as a discipline in the UK in a way that it just doesn't in the US.

Now, there's nothing wrong with this per se - I value cultural studies and moreover it's healthy for me to hear how other academic areas study cinema and media. However, many of the papers were ultimately reception studies - in itself not a "new use" of Bourdieu. I would have liked to hear more how Bourdieu or Bourdieu's concepts challenge or shift the field of cultural studies. As an outsider, I would guess that it's less of a stretch to do media sociology with Bourdieu than humanities film or media studies. But it's the latter challenge I'm most invested in.

Additionally, it was striking to me how "new media studies" means something rather different in the UK cultural studies context. I'm not expert enough on new media to fully articulate the difference, but what seemed to be lacking (or purposefully ignored) was any theory about what we might call the "cultural logic" or new media - its aesthetic form, its medium specificity, etc. I'm curious whether there is a more humanities inflected UK version of new media studies.

Finally, I'll note that the greatest discussion seemed to emerge over the taste categories of art cinema. I don't know if this tapped into some particularly British and Irish taste formation. I do think this discussion would productively be in dialogue with recent film theoretical and historical work challenging the art cinema/commercial cinema divide: Betz, Wilinsky, Schoonover, etc.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bourdieu conference/IDFA

I will be traveling this week, first to Newcastle University for their conference on New Uses of Bourdieu in Film and Media Studies. I'm excited for the conference, since Bourdieu's been central to my methodological thinking since graduate school. A full program is available at the conference website.

Afterward, I'll be attending the IDFA/ International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. I do believe that In Media Res will be hosting an IDFA-themed week on documentary, so keep an eye out for that.

I will try to post dispatches and summaries from each.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Documentary and Canonicity

If I can navel-gaze about my article for a minute, it occurs to me that I rely far more on a canon in my research on documentary than my research on classical Hollywood. By this I mean not only the films I selected (Helvetica might not be part of the canon but most of my other titles are in some way or another) but also the finite body of scholarship I draw on.

On one hand, I think documentary studies can do more to look beyond the canon. My own research fails to do so partly out of my limitations in time and imagination. Other scholars out there are doing a much better job of thinking outside the canon, though as I've suggested in my essay they often do so by privileging rule-breaking documentaries over ones which might be considered ordinary.

On the other hand, documentary as a field is a self-conscious tradition, so acknowledging the closed circuit of aesthetic reference and influence makes a certain sense. And many documentaries, mainstream and community-oriented alike, do not aim primarily to be consumed as aesthetic objects but as political praxis.

Friday, November 02, 2012

New article on contemporary documentary

I have an article in the newest Cinema Journal issue (Fall 2012). Titled "Postclassical Nonfiction: Narration in the Contemporary Documentary," the essay uses three documentaries, Hoop Dreams, Daughter from Danang, and Helvetica as examples of a postclassical style of documentary making that lies in between traditional docs and newer postmodern, post-Griersonian examples.

One thing that unfortunately got left out in the editing and review process was the inclusion of my acknowledgments: I really appreciate the comments and feedback from Bob Rehak, Roderick Coover, and the anonymous reviewers at Cinema Journal.

Also thanks to my classes, undergraduate and graduate, for being an audience as I tested out my ideas. I normally avoid 1st person in my writing but here decided as an experiment to start with the anecdotal. For me, the theoretical problems of documentary are connected to the pedagogical ones.

Helvetica (Gary Hustwit, 2007)