Visible Evidence Mon, 26 Nov 2012 19:51:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 documentary and political modernism Tue, 16 Aug 2011 00:25:07 +0000 Jennifer

John Mowitt displays posters from Dziga Vertov's Enthusiasm as part of the workshop "Documentary and Political Modernism." (photo: P. Sen)

Saturday’s session 8A “Documentary and Political Modernism: Histories, Geographies, Theories” was the first in a two-day diptych devoted to the relationship of documentary and the discourse of political modernism. As co-leaders of the workshop, Joshua Malitsky and Masha Salazkina introduced the purview of Saturday’s discussions and those to come in its companion panel, 11A “Case Studies in Global Documentary and Political Modernism” on Sunday. Phil Rosen and John Mowitt joined them in leading the highly engaging and stimulating workshop before a packed audience in the Michelson Theater. One could hardly think of a more fitting venue, given the site’s namesake.

Malitsky began by orienting the conversation to the stakes of the debates pursued in film theoretical writings from the 1970s and 1980s around the theme and tendency described as political modernism, a phrase used by Fredric Jameson in the seminal Verso collection Aesthetics and Politics (1977), taken up by Sylvia Harvey in film studies in her May ’68 and Film Culture (1978) and articles for Screen, and subsequently placed under scrutiny by David Rodowick in his The Crisis of Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Contemporary Film Theory (1988). The workshop emerged out of overlapping interests in how the set of problems invoked by the rubric of political modernism—most broadly, issues concerning Marxist formulations of the relationship between avant-garde/radical practice and theory, aesthetic form and political transformation, the reconsideration of the subject in modernism, the relation between and ideological effects of realism and modernism—might be re-approached and reformulated with respect to documentary in light of the complexity and expanse of reconsidered histories and geographies of cinema. Malitsky spoke of revisiting a global network of leftist artistic activities across history in scholarly work now increasingly paying attention to translations, transmissions, and migrations of makers, concepts, and interpretations.

Setting out some further points of departure, Salazkina noted that today’s broader discussion might have just have readily been scheduled to follow the next day’s panel of historical case studies. She suggested that although political modernism comes to us most saliently in film theory via Rodowick’s account of this tendency’s aim to develop a critique of illusionism in classical Hollywood cinema through meticulous textual readings, this workshop sought to expand our thinking beyond this specific object of critique and the limits of textual analysis found in Screen theory and its associated corpus of post-60s English- and French-language scholarship drawing on currents in Marxism and psychoanalytic thought. Her opening remarks set out a few more points for consideration: the privilege accorded to the visual by critics and makers in political modernism; the need for greater attention to the materialist aspects of production, distribution, and exhibition in revisiting the trajectories of political modernism from the 1920s to the 1970s; the need for reconsidering the geographies and geopolitics of knowledge production concerning political modernism by going outside the west, beyond Eurocentric (“for lack of a better word”) studies of its theoretical discourses and artistic practices, so as to reengage with Eastern European, Indian, African, and Soviet contexts; the need to take note of inclusions and exclusions of the canon, whether it be filmmakers, writers, theorists, translators, or other agents and facilitators. Does political modernism still have any robustness or efficacy for historical and theoretical thinking, she asked? Lastly, Salazkina described her current project focusing on the “network of leftist film critics” traced through institutions and discourses from the Soviet Union in the 1920s to Italy in the 1930s-50s and then to Latin America (especially Cuba, and in Argentina and Brazil, in texts on “third cinema”).

Joshua Malitsky’s presentation analyzed two related examples of documentary filmmaking that “can help rewrite and challenge what has defined the ‘relentless negativity’” of political modernism in artistic production and challenge “the opposition of reflexivity and illusionism.” He spoke about Esfir Shub’s compilation filmmaking and Santiago Alvarez’s chronicle documentaries, revisiting the topics of Soviet and Cuban revolutionary cinema through two less dominant models. Both Shub and Alvarez “refus[e] to disavow the role of cultural institutions and aim to rework narratives of historical meaning and social determination” in their work. According to Malitsky, in two different contexts, Shub and Alvarez developed alternative models of historical thought in documentary form and process. Reassessing debates over factography and fact in film carried out in the 1920s by Osip Brik and Shub, among others, Malitsky characterized Shub’s approach to historical compilation as one appealing to accumulative logic and scientific thought, addressing the film viewer in a way that tempered the role of narrative momentum and thereby permitted the pursuit of new connections, arrived at inductively. In Cuba, Alvarez likewise turned to play with film duration in relation to history to transform viewing experience. Malitsky elaborated on how Santiago Alvarez’s film I Am the Son of America, a three-hour-and-fifteen-minute document of Castro’s 1971 visit to Chile, challenged even Cuban citizens in the extensive duration of its “observational sequences, framed by historical montage of collectivist history,” as part of a strategy to get viewers to grasp history and see the potential for making history anew.

John Mowitt’s deftly composed paper, “Sound Evidence for Political Modernism,” marked an important intervention in raising the issue of “the status of sound in discussion of political modernism” “as it bears on the genre of documentary.” A brisk critical genealogy of key writings on political modernism shaped the structure of his remarks, as he abided by a demand for “brevity contrary to whatever my nature might be.” Opening with a passage from David Rodowick’s “The Crisis of Political Modernism” essay, Mowitt noted that there exists a need to think about how sound has been “vouched for in the very emergence of the concept of political modernism.” Citing Sylvia Harvey’s Spring 2008 lecture “May ’68 and Film Culture Revisited,” he noted that although Harvey had initially formulated her notion of political modernism in an essay on the critical recovery of Brecht in 60s and 70s political and avant-garde filmmaking, her revisitation does not engage with Brecht and, most crucially, demonstrates no interest in Brecht on radio. Mowitt pointed out that “political modernism accepts the centrality of montage” in order to grasp “the modernity of cinema,” and that this view should perhaps be critically questioned. He referred to how Adorno, among others, had already suspected montage and its centrality. Via montage, Mowitt continued, cinema and political modernism “succumb to visualism” (citing Don Ihde on visualism). Pursuing the issue of montage, Mowitt next turned to a piece by Annette Michelson, a catalogue essay entitled “The Wings of Hypothesis: On Montage and the Theory of the Interval” from Montage and Modern Life: 1919-1942, ed. Matthew Teitelbaum (MIT Books, 1992), for it usefully gathers much of what Michelson had laid out across earlier essays on Vertov, modernism, and Eisenstein. Mowitt made several points about Michelson’s “Wings of Hypothesis” and its proposal of a “grand floating signifier, the interval” “at the core of classical montage theory” and film theory’s encounter with physics. First, the premise of the interval had included sound, as is evident in Vertov’s writings. Second, montage theory rests on “a musical logic of assemblage.” And third, montage theory stresses visualism. Mowitt quoted from Vladimir Messman’s response to the 1928 Eisenstein/Pudovkin/Aleksandrov “Statement on Sound,” and he argued that there is in this essay by Michelson a “lack of originality” in the “reassertion of visualism in her analysis.” The concept of the interval is “indelibly marked as the difference between two pitches” and the interval should only be referred to in order to grasp an event in relation to the image track. For Mowitt, Michelson emphasizes “the musicological characer of montage” and this aspect of her argument “brushes back against” the text’s appeal to physics and semiosis in an interdisciplinary manner. Mowitt characterized a “further symptom of this dilemma” in Michelson’s essay by mentioning its reference to Eisenstein’s unmade film on Marx’s Capital. As Mowitt reminded everyone, Marx wrote of the speech of the commodity (“if commodities could speak”) yet he only “spoke of the content, not the sound of this voice” of the commodity.  Summarizing, Mowitt stated that political modernism has consistently been formulated in terms that privilege the visual, so that the “dubious politics of avoiding the art of sound has been vouchsafed” and the “terms of political modernism wager on the fecundity of the image.” Furthermore, “even indexicality theorists” have ignored “the difficult question of ‘is sound recording like a language,’ asked by Alan Williams” many years ago.

Mowitt returned to Messman’s position in the Soviet sound debates and asked us to recall Vertov’s “laboratory for hearing” and “white screen experiments” where Vertov labored so that “sound could be welcomed back to life.” Mowitt then displayed images of two advertising posters for Vertov’s Enthusiasm (pictured above) and explained that the designs “score visual surfaces with sonic properties,” properties of sound that may be more useful than montage as such—permeation, radiation, and delocalization. In naming the “urgent task to rework the production of knowledge about cinema, documentary or not” as well as issues of subjectivity and realism, Mowitt concluded by saying that he was repeating Rodowick’s remarks on the crisis of cinema, subject, and text from “The Crisis of Political Modernism, but that he hoped he was repeating it in a “slightly different tone.”

Phil Rosen’s presentation broached the issue of the “modern” and vexed issues of temporality in political modernism and, more broadly, how it has been taken up in discussions of cinema. Drawing on Peter Osborne, Rosen laid out that the modern is a temporal category predicated on possibility, the new, the different, and a marker of historical consciousness. Modernity taken as a periodizing category means modernity’s self-consciousness about its own historicity. Modernism accordingly refers to “the aesthetic consciousness of modernity that would reject what it identifies as its part.” Noting that Marx’s draft introduction to the Grundrisse breaks off at the subject of art and the difficult question of how Greek art still gives us aesthetic pleasure in the present despite its impossibility today, Rosen stated that political modernism could be said to involve the construction of an aesthetic past in a political present. Rosen spoke of Vertov’s Kino-Eye and Three Songs of Lenin on Lenin’s death and raised the matter of how deeply such a film can affect a viewer today, later (“a film that still today could make leftists tear up”). In looking back at this canonical moment in political modernism, Rosen suggested that we might say that “Vertov’s mourning of Lenin’s death is, in a sense, our antiquity.” Is this nostalgia, or is it a model that can in any way be taken up again, Rosen asked. Rosen cited Fredric Jameson’s discussion of Kluge’s Eisenstein film, in which Jameson speaks of a “future that demands the constitution of an antiquity appropriate to it.” Rosen put forward the idea that a desire for antiquity makes us modern and that a reexamination of political modernism must grapple with “the idea of transition” in both an aesthetic and political sense. Next, Rosen elaborated on how reconsidering the Soviet 20s as “our antiquity,” the high tide of the historical avant-gardes and popular revolution, alongside the importance of documentary in that moment is key. This would move away from Rodowick’s concerns in “The Crisis of Political Modernism,” which is “only a critique of 1970s academic discourse,” offering a “limited philosophical” rather than historical discussion, “with very little to do with films and film history” in reducing matters to realism versus modernism. With regard to the familiar opposition between Eisenstein and Vertov, Rosen pointed out that it should be understood as epistemological (a new way of knowing the world through film) and agitational (how should film be formed to address an audience and move it to action). Characterizing the 1920s moment, Rosen noted that documentary can now be seen as situated at the confluence of many issues, as there was no distinction between the avant-garde and documentary production. This meant that the modernism/realism opposition was confused in actuality, so the 1970s discussions of filmmakers and film theorists got something wrong about political modernism. Finally, Rosen called for talking about political modernism in the plural, and he directed the workshop to two other lines of writing and thinking apart from Rodowick on political modernism: first, critical theory from Adorno through Jameson that advances modernism as epistemological resistance to reification; and second, Paul Willemen’s essay “An Avant-Garde for the 90s” in Looks and Frictions (originally titled “An Avant-Garde for the 80s”) that clearly distinguishes between modernism in the arts (exemplified by Clement Greenberg’s views on specificity) and the avant-garde, which embraces impure mixtures, situational and localized action.


In the ensuing discussion, a number of interesting questions, comments, and further elaborations were heard:

Alice Lovejoy said that scholars need to think about where we locate theoretical discourse since it can reside in such locations as state institutional documents, and she also asked that shifting notions of and conflicts in Marxism be considered.

John MacKay brought up the complexity of Vertov’s early and late work with respect to modernism and the modern, since its mix of parades, rituals, and hagiography “can seem so un-modern.” He also suggested how entangled questions of temporality become regarding the modern, as innovation always creates or imagines an antiquity, and concepts of revolution and alienation imply not only the new but also the release of latent potentials of the past.

In reply to MacKay’s question about some of the specific ways bringing sound back into the question of political modernism makes a difference, John Mowitt highlighted two dimensions of sound. The practical work of assembling in film is cast in one familiar trope in cinema as visual rhythm, and an account of sound could do another sort of work, remodeling how we think of sequencing and assembling. Mowitt suggested that there “may be something going on in enunciation” that has to do with “respecting the specifity of the encounter of sound and image.” He has recently been looking to the figures of permeation, radiation, and delocalization as touchstones for sound processes and their relation to the problem of subject positioning. Sound may suggest the idea of passing through bodies and structure rather than positioning them, and this would complicate how we think of subject positioning. Mowitt also reiterated his concern with the question of interdisciplinarity—what disciplines do when they interact—and with how the introduction of the interval could complicate interdisciplinarity.

Tom Waugh inquired into the relationship of political modernism in film to the relationship between the Old Left and the New Left.

Phil Rosen directed the group’s attention to the Lukacs/Brecht debates as a starting point for any discussion of the modernism/realism opposition in history.

Rachel Gabara asked about how postcolonial thought and politics bears on this discussion of political modernism. In response, Phil Rosen referred to broader debates on pluralizing modernity and modernisms in the humanities and pointed to the canonical centrality of Hour of the Furnaces. John Mowitt stated that it was important to ask what we mean by the postcolonial, and if it means a critique of Eurocentrism, then re-examining political modernism would involve challenging the ancient/modern distinction and what it represents for thinking about this historical distinction in Europe. Mowitt added that we should also think about how postcolonial cinemas, such as Ousmane Sembene’s work, involved articulations with the Soviet Union, and that such connections make us think about how the Soviet Union relates to empire and imperialism. Masha Salazkina mentioned that she has now been concerned with the details of the institutional and political infrastructures that made up a third-worldist network of exchanges and encounters—for instance, the Tashkent Film Festival in the Soviet Union.

Janet Walker stated that she would be interested to hear further discussion of the politics of place and geography—what about geography? In response, Salazkina said that the case studies being pursued in the current work of panelists today and tomorrow would hopefully encourage revising our views of political modernism by no longer only looking at canonical examples. This extends to written work as well—from the great collection of material, “we have astoundingly little on cinema that’s available in translation to North American scholars.” Salazkina emphasized the need to think about geographic sites and paths relationally. Mowitt, in turn, raised a point about how the visualism of standard geographic thinking implies the locus of the North and the West and an account of what should be paid attention to. For that reason, there’s a need to think about how geopolitical configurations are expressed in the privileging of certain discursive categories and their formation. According to Mowitt, an attention to sound offers a different perspective on how we live space and place, how sound opens up and confuses spaces (“delocalization”), something that geographers don’t pay attention to.

Susan Lord asked that the circulation and mobility be taken into account in the geographies of political modernism—how people move and who gets to move through which pathways thereby placing limits on and shaping certain activities and affiliations. She referred to her current work on the history of the 1968 World Cultural Congress held in Havana, Cuba.

Luca Caminati pressed the question of whether or how we can claim any exceptionality for documentary, and he noted that the role of documentary in state colonial projects and movements should not be left out in thinking about political modernism and documentary. Salazkina acknowledged this issue of the place of documentary and colonial histories. Rosen added that major intersections of documentary, liberalism, and the state are already there to be rexamined with Grierson’s re-alignment of documentary with the state, showing that documentary has to be seen as an arena of conflict and contested claims. The questions referred to by political modernism have instead often pointed to particular ways of aligning art with political transition/transformation or the imagining of such transformation in opposition to the state.

– Paul Fileri


]]> 0
on unsettling the audience Tue, 16 Aug 2011 00:24:31 +0000 Jennifer Words from Plenary 3:

Laura Poitras: “I’m always interested in making the audience uncomfortable and uneasy.”

James Longley: “I also want to make the audience uncomfortable…but not all the time.”

]]> 0
DATABASE DOCUMENTARY: creative paths, open questions Sun, 14 Aug 2011 13:18:32 +0000 Martin Database documentary / webdocumentary / interactive documentary / dynamic documentary / multimedia documentary /multimodal documentary

Audiences/users / viewers / participants / shooters / gamers / partners / visitors/ interactors / spect-actors

All these terms were used at today’s workshop. Database documentaries, or whatever you wish to call them, are escaping and exceeding our categories. They challenge our concepts, take us out of our comfort zones.

This morning (Saturday, August 13) at Hunter, some of these new unidentified objects were presented by their makers:

Sharon Daniels’ work with incarcerated women, questioning the industrial carceral complex :

Blood Sugar

Public Secret : an interactive interface gathering testimonies of incarcerated women

Liz Miller’s Queer is in the eye if the newcomer, an interactive oral history project about experiences of refugee youth in Montreal

Michelle Smith’s Ota Nda Yanaan, a living archive to celebrate and validate the meti culture that the Canadian State has tried to assimilate forcefully)

Florian Thalhofer is the creator of the Korsakow system, an open source software to generate non linear, semi-aleatory generated films.

The discussion that engaged right after the presentation lasted well into the lunch break. Its length and intensity shows how engaging and puzzling an age it is for documentary. Here are some of the issues hotly discussed:

- participation: participation is an integral part of the medium, but it should be thought out so that it does not become a meaningless token.

- ethics : how to ensure that the subjects are preserved when the project goes viral, or in the dynamics of participation?

- accessibility : not every audiences are Internet-savvy. How to reach out to those who are no access, or are not familiar with the web (who might well be the very subjects of the film?)

- audiences : who are the audiences of webdocs ? How they react to non-linearity, and choose certain paths, needs to be explored more.

- design : how to best design the interface of the webdocumentary? It plays a crucial role in how the individual meets the work, and engages (or not) in a community. How to design interfaces according to values themselves significant to the work?

Just as the discussion had to be cut short for lack of time, this list does not exhaust the issues at play. They will be at the heart of the documentary reflection for years to come.

—Claire Richard

]]> 0
Scenes from Saturday morning Sat, 13 Aug 2011 15:35:02 +0000 Jennifer

"The almond croissants are one of the best I have ever had... I am glad they didn't get the food from the deli across the street." --Overheard by Anuja Jain (photo: P. Sen)


Dan Streible chats with other early risers in the Reise Lounge. (photo: J. Zwarich)


A coffee meeting before the start of the day's panels. (photo: J. Zwarich)

Judith Helfand speaks about the hybrid film fund and nonprofit production company Chicken & Egg Pictures alongside filmmakers Rachel Libert and Stephanie Wang-Breal at "The Documentary Hothouse" workshop. (photo: J. Zwarich)

Shi-Yan Chao starts off the panel "Queer Politics, Camp Tactics." (photo: J. Zwarich)

Panel chair Michelle Stewart takes notes during presentations in "Displacements: Global Cities." (photo: J. Zwarich)

Timekeeping at panel 7B. (photo: P. Sen)

]]> 0
War and Audiovisual Memory Sat, 13 Aug 2011 14:33:39 +0000 Martin

Laliv Melamed, Blake Fitzpatrick and Seth Feldman on "Drum-taps: War and Audiovisual Memory" (Photo by O. Landesman)

Panel 5E, “Drum-taps: War and Audiovisual Memory” kicked off with Blake Fitzpatrick exploring image and sound juxtapositions in the work of Louie Palu, a Canadian photographer who has worked as an embedded photojournalist with Canadian, British and American troops in Afghanistan.

Seth Feldman followed up on this tension by screening “The Dachau Line”, an 18 minutes film he has been working on for the last three years, following a pathway marked by the City of Dachau between the railway station and the concentration camp. Informational voiceover emanates from the original guidebook of the city.

Finally, Laliv Melamed presented her study about the phenomenon of films produced in memory of Israeli soldiers who died as a result of violent conflicts in the region. In the films, performative modes of address such as testimony, therapeutic speech/listening and storytelling create spectatorship based on experience. The larger question that comes out of the three presentations is the way audio—war sounds, narration, or speech—works together with or in contrast to the image to portray or fight death or disappearance.

—Ohad Landesman

]]> 0
Scenes of VE at Columbia Sat, 13 Aug 2011 03:28:43 +0000 Jennifer

Jane Gaines introduces the plenary panelists. (photo: J. Zwarich)



The audience for "Documentary: The Archival Double" watches a segment of Tom Joslin's The Architecture of Mountains (2010). (photo:J. Zwarich)


Attendees chat and eat at the VE18 Columbia reception. (photo: J. Zwarich)


Under stained glass at the Columbia reception. (photo: J. Zwarich)

]]> 0
Activist Political Economies : Theory and practice in Circulation Fri, 12 Aug 2011 23:12:26 +0000 Martin … or to rephrase this rather elaborate title : how to make theory and practice meet to produce documentaries and elicit social changes ?

No, this panel did not provide univocal answers and guidelines, and you’ll need to look elsewhere for an Activist Filmmaking for Dummies.

But it did provide three examples of tactics to produce activist films, and reconcile theory and practice.

-       Making theory with the makers: listening to filmmakers

Angela J.Aguayo, from Southern Illinois University, has been conducting extensive research on how to rethink documentary theory. Herself a filmmaker, she advocates for different sources in research. Yes, theory is important, but the experience of the filmmakers should not be overlooked. She conducted interviews with over 50 filmmakers, to find out their experience of what works and what does not. Her research is ongoing.

-       Researching what activists want and need before producing media

Larry Daressa has been a member of California Newsreel, the oldest producer of activist films in the country, since its beginnings. In recent years, California Newsreel has been experimenting with a new modus operandi. They created a huge directory of their audiences: associations, teachers, policy makers, etc. They sent them questionnaires, to assess their interests, needs and priorities. Questions covered everything from the topics and style, to length and distribution. They decided to invest the (little) money in films that social change actors would actually use.

-       Bridging gaps and showing the invisible: the case of prison activists documentaries

Marty Fink, from Concordia University, has been studying the case of documentaries addressing health issues in prisons, specifically HIV AIDS. Video devices are strictly forbidden in prison, effectively depriving inmates from a way of representing their living conditions. But some films get to cross, at least a little, of that line that confines prison to invisibility. In these cases, films serve as a bridge between the inside and the outside, and resist the “silencing effect of the prison”.

—Claire Richard

]]> 1
Workshop report: ethics and social media Fri, 12 Aug 2011 12:15:39 +0000 Martin “The Ethics and Open Spaces of Human Rights Social Media: Towards Provisional Ethical Working Principles and Dialogues”

The negotiation of consent, rights, and usage between a documentarian and subject within social media has often been defined by an undergrid questions of ethical responsibility to the “person, to the story, to action.”

While these questions have largely focused of an ethics of the image, the workshop drew our attention to the need to shift from an ethics of the image to an “ethics of networks” because “material circulates, recombines and is reused in multiple relationships between people often distant from the source originators.”

—Anuja Jain

]]> 0
Plenary 4: ARCHIVAL SCREENING: Anthology Film Archives and the History of the Documentary Avant Garde Wed, 10 Aug 2011 12:05:55 +0000 Jennifer

Still from Toby and the Tall Corn

A selection of several short non-fiction masterpieces from Anthology’s collection, including the classic TOBY AND THE TALL CORN, by documentary legend Ricky Leacock (who passed away this spring); the exceedingly rare film EYES ON RUSSIA, by the photographer Margaret Bourke-White; RITUALS AND DEMONSTRATIONS, a fascinating record of Jewish religious rituals in 1970s Brooklyn by the gifted Jerry Jofen; and FILM MAGAZINE OF THE ARTS, a sponsored film by Anthology’s own co-founder Jonas Mekas. Program notes courtesy of Anthology.

Margaret Bourke-White


1934, 9 minutes, 16mm, b&w.

Ricky Leacock


1953, 30 minutes, 35mm-to-video.

“Made for OMNIBUS, TOBY is a heartwarming and entertaining portrait of one of the last traveling variety shows in the U.S. Leacock captures the heat of the summer night on the faces of the appreciative audiences, the thrill of the live performances, and the challenge of the set-up. … Its candid style caught the eye of filmmaker Robert Drew [with whom Leacock would make] PRIMARY, a film that launched the American vérité movement.” –Shannon Abel, HOTDOCS

Jonas Mekas


1963, 20 minutes, 16mm.

“In Spring, 1963 SHOW MAGAZINE called me and asked that I make a film on arts in New York. I told them, why did they want me to make it – didn’t they know I was a bit unusual? … ‘We want something unusual’, they said. So I went out and made a newsreel on arts. SHOW people looked at the rough cut of the film and became very angry. ‘But there is nothing about SHOW MAGAZINE and DuPont fabrics in the movie’, they said. ‘What has that to do with the arts in New York!’ I said. The battle was short. The film was destroyed. Really, I have no idea what they did with it. This workprint of the first FILM MAGAZINE OF THE ARTS is the only print in existence, as far as I know.” –J.M.

Jerry Jofen


1977, 42 minutes, 16mm.

A record of authentic religious rituals – circumcision, upsherung (the cutting of the boy’s hair at age three), Bar mitzvah, betrothal, children learning Aleph-Beth and Chumash, young men studying Talmud, celebrations of festivals, and a farbrengen, a gathering of the Lubavitcher Rebbe addressing thousands of his disciples on Chassidic and Kabbalistic interpretations of the particular occasion.

“[The film’s] most effective scenes celebrate the collective energy of Chassidic life. There are some wonderfully observed street scenes of Purim in Williamsburg…and a particularly lovely wedding ceremony; a sequence of an elderly Torah scribe carries so great a sense of tradition and awe as to render explanation superfluous…. Jofen’s film testifies to the inexhaustible richness of his subject matter.” –J. Hoberman, VILLAGE VOICE

Total running time: ca. 105 minutes.

]]> 0
CONFERENCE PREVIEW: Women Make Movies @ VE18 Sun, 07 Aug 2011 18:58:44 +0000 Jennifer There will be several wonderful opportunities for conference-goers to consider the work of Women Make Movies (WMM) at Visible Evidence 18. Below: a preview interview with  Debra Zimmerman, the executive director of this unique nonprofit media arts organization.



“Women’s ways of seeing the world are not considered central”:

Interview with Debra Zimmerman of Women Make Movies

Women Make Movies was founded in 1972 to help women film- and videomakers gain access to training and equipment. Its goal: to increase the visibility of women on both sides of the camera. By the late 1970s WMM had also set up a distribution service, in response to the lack of opportunities for women to circulate and screen their films. Today WMM’s distribution catalog contains over 500 titles, and includes fiction, documentary and experimental works by over 400 women filmmakers from nearly 30 countries. WMM films have won all the major filmmaking awards, from Oscars, Emmys and Peabodys to prizes at top-level film festivals such as Cannes and Sundance. On the eve of Visible Evidence 18, Marcy Goldberg (University of Zurich) spoke with Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies since 1983, about the challenges currently faced by WMM and by women film- and videomakers working today.



MG: How has the function of Women Make Movies changed over time?

DZ: WMM started as a collective for independent film- and videomakers, at a time when only a few women in the U.S. had technical skills or access to equipment. With the growth of video and media art centers, the problem of access began to be solved. At the same time, WMM started getting more and more requests to rent films. This was and is a needed service and a good source of income, so our focus gradually shifted.

However, we have always maintained our commitment to training. In 1988 we established our Production Assistance Program to support women in developing independent productions. The program offers projects fiscal sponsorship. We also provide valuable information and guidance through our workshop series, including workshops on how to find funding and how to market films. Over the past 4 years the Program has helped to triple the amount of funding coming in for partipants. We currently have 200 projects in various stages of production.

MG: What kinds of films do you look for?

DZ: Our mandate is to  distribute independent films by and about women, with a special emphasis on supporting work by women of color. For the past 12 years our main focus has been on documentary. The choice was more pragmatic than philosophical. Our sales are mainly in the institutional and educational sectors –universities, libraries, youth centers, and so on – where documentary is a natural fit. A really big change is the lack of experimental film work today, compared with when we started. Feminist film theory and practice were more closely aligned then. Over the years there have been increasing cutbacks in government support for artistic filmmaking. At the same time, broadcasters and foundations are interested in social activist documentary. So that’s the context for what we’re doing. But it would be nice to see more experimental, artistically challenging films with cultural and political impact.

A still from Rough Aunties (UK/South Africa 2008) by Kim Longinotto, distributed by WMM

MG: On the international film festival scene today, it seems there are few films made by women. At the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, for instance, there were no films by women directors in competition, which led to the “You Cannes Not Be Serious” protest. Is there a backlash going on?

DZ: I don’t know if it is a backlash because I don’t know if it was ever that good! Cannes was never big on representing women. Zero films in competition was a low point, but that was down from only 2 or 3 at the most. WMM has been doing a study since 2002 on the presence of films by and about women at major festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance. We’ll be releasing the results next year, when the study reaches 10 years and we celebrate our 40th anniversary.

In general I don’t think women in the film world are slipping, but we’re certainly not growing the way we used to be growing. The industry is still holding on tightly to old-fashioned concepts of what people want to see. If you look at the programming of any major festival, you will see few films by women, and few films about women. Recently there has been a big focus on blockbuster documentaries, million-dollar films that get tremendous exposure. Animal films, war films, investigative documentaries on politics and the economy. Women are not seen as part of that universe. We are seen as a special interest group. Women and women’s ways of seeing the world are not considered central, and that’s really, really troubling.

MG: Would you say that younger audiences are less interested in feminist issues?

DZ: Every few years Time magazine likes to run a cover story on how “feminism is dead”. But we get lots of young interns, and many requests from college audiences for our films. I think there may be a lack of knowledge among younger women about what preceded them. But internationally there has been an explosion of women’s film festivals over the past few years. WMM has worked with many groups in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East to help start new festivals. Festivals are a great mechanism for getting films to audiences. And the audiences are not just women, I can tell you that.

MG: Has the internet helped you in your work? What about digital cinema or video on demand?

DZ: Looking back, we’ve had to deal with a new format every 5 years or so. We’ve moved from 16mm, 1/2-inch reel-to-reel, Beta, VHS, DVD and now digital downloads. Every time something new comes along, people think everything will change. Cable TV, documentary TV… But they still find a way to leave women in the dust. I think digital downloads are a real opportunity, but the format is still in transition. We’re just beginning to get requests from universities for digital licensing. So I’m cautiously optimistic. Filmmakers often think that theatrical release or big broadcast is the only way to go. But we create individualized strategies to suit the films, whether it’s a mainstream festival launch, a specialized event, theatrical release, educational, or now digital download. Our next step will be to technically revamp our platform and take our database to the next level. We’re working on a new project together with other distributors: California Newsreel, Bullfrog and Icarus. This will be a public-private partnership.

MG: To conclude: what advice do you have for women filmmakers? What should women be doing differently?

DZ: In documentary you don’t often find men producing films for women directors. It’s usually the other way around. I often meet women trying to do it all, while it’s rare to see a male producer-director with no other support. At Sundance a couple of years ago, most of the documentaries in competition by women were produced by teams of women. Women should reach out, claim space, get the support they need, and also get men to support them.




]]> 0